Becoming An Animist

animism1As I’m away for the next two weeks, I’m posting this months contribution for the animist blog carnival today. The topic for July is “Becoming An Animist” and this month it is being hosted at Paganaidd’s blog. You can also find further information on Heather’s page at Post Pagan. Please contact Heather if you want to take part too.

My journey to Animism began three years ago when I left my previous Christian faith and began to explore other spiritualities. I have been especially attracted to nature spirituality and Pantheism because of its connection to scientific enquiry. Along my journey I came across Druidry and found it to be a nature spirituality I could really identify with. One of the key beliefs in Druidry is in nature spirits and the spirits of the land. Learning about this was the first time I became aware of the animist view of the world. I struggle to believe in any supernatural spirits but interpreting “nature spirits” as all the animals, plants, birds, micro-organisms e.t.c around me suffices.

The second influence came when I explored Neo-Animism, which removes the need for a belief in supernatural spirits and focuses instead on relationships and seeing other animals and plants as “persons.” The idea is that the world is full of “persons,” only some of whom are human e.g. oak tree persons, cloud persons, hedgehog persons e.t.c and that we are in relationship with them so should treat them with respect. This is something I could identify with.

A third influence was researching Shintoism, specifically I came across the idea of the Kami. While they are interpreted as spirits, their actual name means “outstanding” and could refer to any natural feature in the world that was particularly awe-inspiring. Being in awe of a big mountain or a waterfall or a beautiful forest or a wonderful sunset – these things have a spiritual sense about them and could rightly be called Kami without any need for saying there is a spiritual being behind them.

A fourth influence was ancestor veneration. The past three years have seen two people close to me die, one tragically in an accident which led me away from Christianity in the first place. I think this is what led me to such an interest in ancestor veneration which is also a big part of Animism. Seeing that one could respect and remember ancestors without having to believe they literally survived death or could hear you was important to me taking up the practice.

A fifth influence was the book “The Wakeful World” by Emma Restall Orr. She is one of the best pagan writers I have come across and her book explained Animism and nature spirits in a very rational way. The ideas of Panpsychism and Panexperientialism and the idea that some form of “experiencing” must be true all the way down – from the smallest electron to the largest universe, makes a lot of sense to me and helps overcome major problems in the Mind-Body debate.

The sixth influence was Pantheism. As I became a Pantheist and I began to see the world as sacred, I realised I had to live out my values and that led me to become a vegetarian and ultimately a vegan. Although I wasn’t animist at that point, I was not eating other animals because I thought they deserved respect and we should look after all life.

The seventh influence was Albert Schweitzer. His philosophy of Reverence for Life as the highest ethic has been a defining philosophical influence on my life since I left Christianity. He argued that everything wants to live, survive and flourish. Therefore all things value life. Humans want to live, survive and flourish so humans evidently put a value on life….in fact we put the highest value on life. Philosophical inquiry about this fact will inevitably lead one to realise that all life should be valued and respected and that will ultimately lead one to seeing reverence for life as a key moral value.

The eighth influence was deep ecology. This is a philosophical idea that says that humans are not superior, we are not here to “take dominion” or use the world in any way we wish. Animals, plants and other life forms are not ours to use and exploit, and they are not “resources.” Rather, we are simply one species among many, all have inherent value in themselves regardless of their usefulness to us, and therefore we should respect them and seek to live in harmony.

Finally was the influence of science. Science clearly teaches us through evolution that we are one part of a whole web of life, we are all interconnected, we are all kin with every living thing – that makes us family (I have always held the belief that eating family is wrong). Seeing everything as family changes our attitudes towards things – to an attitude of respect for each part of the world, and that is Animism. Not only that, but the humbling insights of science – that we are one small world, going round one unimportant star, one of hundreds of millions of stars on the outer edge of one galaxy among a hundred billion, definitely puts into perspective any self-importance we still hold about ourselves. When we come to a realisation of that, we can no longer see ourselves as more important than the world around us, we can no longer believe things are here just for us and our attitudes towards other life and the world must change to become more animistic.

Animism for me comes from a variety of influences, it guides my ethics and life choices and it teaches me of my place in the world. I do not believe in literal supernatural spirits, but I do believe in respecting every person, whether human or not. I do hold reverence for life as the highest ethical principle and I do accept the philosophical premise that everything experiences in some way. I see the world as sacred and divine, I seek to honour my ancestors and I seek to connect with and learn about the natural world around me. For me, these things make me an animist and while I can’t point to one key moment when I became an animist, the journey I have been on over the past three years has inevitably led me to this position – that Animism and Pantheism go together.

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11 thoughts on “Becoming An Animist

  1. Reblogged this on Edge of the Forest and commented:
    Over the years I have gradually adopted an outlook or philosophy which mirrors that of the native Americans with a great reverence for nature in all her wildness and beauty. When I read this blog post today from Naturalistic Pantheistic Musings, I found that it struck a chord within me and I am sharing.

  2. I like how you have identified all of the different influences on your path. My own list of influences would probably be similar, especially science, Druidry, and paganism. You also have some interesting ideas in here that I will have to explore further, especially the idea of the Kami and the philosophy of Albert Schweitzer. That book by Emma Restall Orr also sounds good.

    To me, there is no “supernatural”, only natural. Nature is the universe, and the universe (by definition) is everything that exists. The spirits I interact with are those of the plants, animals, rivers, mountains, and other beings who share the land with me.

    Like you, I can’t say when I “became” an animist. I think that it has been more of a gradual recognition that this is what I have always been.

  3. What a brilliantly clear explanation! I especially like the interpretation of ‘nature spirits’ as the various creatures we share our world with rather than anything ‘supernatural’. Oh, and the line ‘eating family is wrong’ made me laugh!

  4. This really well written and quite amazing. Thank you.
    I have a question about animism and veganism. If everyone is alive and family, isn’t killing and eating veggies also killing and eating family? I just ask because for20 years I struggled with being a vego or vegan and realized that unless I thought animals were better because they were more like humans, it wasn’t any different, Science proved plants feel pain. They are more evolved than animals, with three DNA, not just two, and are conscious without a central nervous system. I realized that the Buddhist inherited ideas i had about “sentient beings” being the ones like humans (animals, ghosts, demons) and plants were not included much less water were not animist beliefs. I had to decide if I would starve to death or rethink all food. As vegan food can be monocrop with pesticides killing many animals and poisoning the land and water and killing bees and then manufactured in a plant that uses mountaintop removal fuel or nuke power which kills animals(and everyone else) and wrapped in plastic then shipped with oil for thousands of miles, I had a total nervous breakdown: It is not just about factory farming of animals.
    I am always interested with how people of conscience handle the fact that for us to live, someone must die? It’s one that as animist who must eat many someones and is being eaten by someones and will one day be totally eaten by someones I constantly meditate upon.

    • Yes, according to Graham Harvey, the task of shamans is often to mediate between hunters and the animals they hunt, to ensure hunting is done respectfully, and to mediate with animal ‘spirits’ in various ways. Following on from Heather’s observations, I suspect that even veganism necessitates the death of many animals; those who would otherwise eat our crops or use the land we need to grow them on? These are complicated issues, without morally pristine solutions. Good mediation is vital!

      You say that new animism appeals to you because it removes the need to ‘believe in supernatural spirits’. I come to this from a different direction, so would want to change the Christian influenced language, in order to protect and understand my experiences of (not belief in) ‘spirits’, i.e. ancestral, animal, plant, land, or other presences, that somehow ‘come through’ from normally unseen dimensions of this-world (reality/Nature). That’s why, personally, I’m very alert to the dangers of scientism, or to a too narrowly naturalistic new animism, that exclude the possibility of what, for me, are pivotal experiences.

    • Yeah, eating plants is the same as eating family but in the end the aim is to cause the least suffering possible while still surviving (which requires eating at least something). I haven’t seen any research suggesting plants can feel pain. And yes, there are of course all the issues of pesticides, long distance travel e.t.c. I would say the most ethical solution would be to eat as much local, vegan, organic food as possible and that would do the least damage/ cause the least suffering. There are a lot of plants you can eat without killing the plant or where its designed to lose something e.g. fruit….this further reduces suffering (although i’m not sure a fruitarian diet is healthy). From a point of view of respecting all life, eating as low on the food chain as possible and seeking to cause the least suffering possible is the best we can hope for. It is necessary to eat plants to survive and be healthy – eating meat is no longer necessary, but a choice and thats one I have personally chosen not to make anymore.

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