Animist Blog Carnival – Animist Ethics

This post is part of the Animism Blog Carnival for February 2014. The topic is Animist Ethics. You can read more on this subject on 1st February at Animist Jottings.

I’ve written before in several posts about Ethics but here I am trying to bring a lot of my previous thoughts together. So lets begin….

Animism is about relationship. Animism is about person-hood. Animism is about respect. Animism is about community. Animism is about interdependence. Animism is about harmony.

Lets start this discussion of Animism and Ethics with a look at the foundations for ethics. Where can we find these as Animists? Animism begins with the hypothesis that all things experience, all things have consciousness, all things are persons. By acknowledging this person-hood inherent within all things, rather than following a materialist assumption that things can be split into animate or inanimate, the way we relate to the world changes. If everything around us has inherent value because it has person-hood, then our primary setting towards the world around us must naturally be one of Respect. We realise that it is not us against the world, it is us as one part of a vast, interconnected web of life. We are not some superior species that can treat the world as we wish, but rather one part among many, in relationship to all others. And here we find the second animist ethic – Humility. Humbly we accept our place in the universe, in the grand scheme of life playing out on this remarkable yet lonely planet in the vastness of space. We are not chosen by god, we are not made in his image, we are simply a part of nature, a member of the community we call Earthlings.

The ancient Stoics talked about people have a “primary impulse” of self-preservation or self love, while Albert Schweitzer talked of the “will to survive” inherent in all living things. These great thinkers pointed out that everything wants to live, to survive, to avoid suffering and therefore everything puts a value on this thing we call “life.” Nature has given us not just this impulse, but also our ability to reason and to be empathetic. By observation and reason, we can reason that all life wishes to live and by empathy we can sympathise with other life forms because we realise they share a similar basic nature and desire to ourselves. If we value the preservation of our own lives, naturally we should value the preservation of their lives too. This is called Reverence for Life. Darwin taught us that through evolution, we all share a common ancestor – all life is family, all life is kin, the earth is our mother. Albert Einstein talked of the need to widen “our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Aldo Leopold said “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Science teaches us through evolution teaches us that, contrary to the popular notion of “survival of the fittest”, in reality it is those who adapt to and live most in harmony with their environment who survive. Science teaches us through ecology that we are all interdependent and interconnected – that everything we do, every action we take or word we say, has consequences. No one is an island. Whether you call this Karma, Wyrd or simple cause and effect – everything we do affects everything else…and ultimately creates the world we live in. Taking this notion a step further, one realises that there is no need for some divine agency to punish or reward us when we choose to do good or bad things – we punish or reward ourselves because everything we do has an effect on the world around us. All these truths point to the next Animist ethic – Harmony. If we want to live our lives without bad things happening to us, if we want to survive, if we don’t want to face negative consequences from our actions, then we must seek to live in harmony, in peace, with all those who live around us – not just human, but more than human too. Peace with ourselves, peace with other people, peace with plants and animals, peace with Mother Nature. Seeking to live as peacefully as possible is a central goal for Animists. Now this doesn’t mean we are all pacifist hippies. Nor does it mean we all believe we live in a world of fluffy bunnies where everyone and everything loves us. The fact is that the universe is pretty much indifferent to our lives. What matters ultimately is the whole, and we are just one small part. Nature can be violent, bloodthirsty and is rarely just. But it is also the source for our ethical principles as animists. While we may not all agree on the exact ways to apply those principles, our common foundation – nature and the acknowledgement of person-hood in all, leads us to these common principles.

Now that we have looked at the foundations, lets move into more specific applications of these ideas. If respect towards all things is a foundational value, how do we practice it? How about being polite and courteous? How about acknowledging the value of others by really taking time to listen to them, not to treat them as things valuable only because of their use to us?

If humility is a foundational value, how do we practice it? How about acknowledging our debts to previous generations, to our family and the earth by honouring our ancestors, obeying our parents and looking after them in old age, or by not doing things to destroy the earth? How about being non-judgmental, tolerant, open to new ideas, grateful and always willing to follow the evidence no matter where it might take us?

If reverence for life is a foundational value, how do we practice it? How about giving thanks to the earth and the plants or animals in our food before we eat? How about eating as low on the food chain as possible so we do the minimum damage or suffering we can? How about not purchasing products that destroy habitat or how about getting involved in conservation efforts – whether through giving or volunteering? How about supporting animal rights and the welfare of all living things?

If harmony is a foundational value, how do we practice it? How about practicing Ahimsa – non violence? How about doing something kind for others every day? How about forgiving rather than getting angry? How about being truthful so people can trust you? How about being patient when things annoy you and realising that we are all ultimately alike? How about being compassionate, merciful, forgiving, hospitable and generous to those who have less than us?

There are many ways to live a life inspired by animist ethics, a life in relationship, respect and harmony with everything around us. Today I have suggested a few applications but there are many more. What are the sources of your ethics? How do you define the good life? What makes you act in the way that you do?

To finish, lets remember the 10 Commandments of Mother Earth –

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.

How can we be an Animist in an age of Science?

What is Animism? Is it simply the primitive superstitious belief of early humanity? Does it still have a place in a modern technological and scientifically advanced world

To me Animism is about one simple word – respect. It is about how we treat the world around us. It is about accepting that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human. It is about connecting to everything in a harmonious and reverential way. It’s about acknowledging the inherent worth of everything. It is about our attitude and the way we approach life. And science is at its heart.

English: Atom - the symbol of nature incredibi...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A hundred years ago one could be forgiven for considering science and animism to be complete opposites but I put forward the observation that the scientific discoveries of the past century are vital to supporting and understanding the animist world-view. And what’s more, animism is vital to guiding our scientific endeavours too.

Why do I say this? Think about the science of biology, palaeontology and evolution or the science of genetics. The discoveries in these fields show us that we are kin, we are family, with all life. Everyone shares a common ancestor. Think about the science of astronomy which destroys our self importance and shows us our true and humble place in the universe – we are one species among many and we don’t have a god given right to dominate the earth and trash it. Think about the science of climatology which is teaching us about the effect we are having on the environment through climate change and how we are destroying our own world. Think about the science of ecology and the Gaia Hypothesis which teaches us that we are part of interconnected systems and that everything we do has an effect on everything else because we are all connected. Think about the science of psychology which is finding evidence to suggest we need to spend time in nature for our own mental health – that it is good for us to connect with the natural world. And we could go on…

Science is all about investigation, its all about finding out what we can about the world around us, what lives there and how it all works. Surely the basis of Animism requires knowledge and investigation of the world around us too. How can we treat something respectfully if we know nothing about it? How can we know how to connect with plants, animals, trees or rivers if we don’t understand them and their “needs.” That is why it is so vital for animists to spend time in nature, to learn about the world around them (especially their local area) and to study science.

And just as Science is vital to Animism, Animism is vital to Science. Why? It acts as an ethical guide. Technology can be both good or bad. It can help or it can destroy. Having an animist world-view can help guide us when deciding what science investigates and how. It can provide moral guidance on issues like animal testing, genetically modified crops, nuclear and chemical weapons, exploitation of the natural world and much more. The world-view of Animism can be a moral guide that guides science and the methods it uses.

I believe animism and science mutually support each other and that as more discoveries are made in science, we will develop further towards an animist world-view. It is for this reason that I am an Animist. 

The Soft Fascination of Nature

A Short but Lovely Urban Nature Walk

(Photo credit: Madison Guy)

Hey everyone, I came across this really interesting article in the Ecologist about the benefits of Nature for humans. Here is an excerpt…

A walk in the park can calm and restore you. This is something we take for granted in parks and recreation, because we have known it to be true ever since we started spending time in nature. But new research reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine now provides scientific proof that walking in nature and spending time under leafy shade trees causes electro-chemical changes in the brain that can lead people to enter a highly beneficial state of “effortless attention.”

It’s very interesting and well worth a read. You can find the article here.

E is for Ecology

English: A collage of organisms.

English: A collage of organisms. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ecology is the “scientific study of the relationships that living organisms have with each other and with their abiotic environment.” (Wiki Definition) We all live in ecosystems, in communities of living beings who have co-evolved to live together in a particular climate and who rely on each other for the balance. If we destroy that ecosystem, ultimately we destroy ourselves, and that is exactly what we are currently doing with our planet. But it goes further – our bodies themselves are an ecosystem with many cells, organs, tissues, enzymes, bacteria and more, all working together…but when we do not look after the ecosystem of our bodies we end up destroying ourselves. Everything in life is interconnected and everything we do has an effect.

There is a term in ecology – “homoeostasis” which is about how a system self regulates to maintain a stable, relatively constant condition of properties. The scientist James Lovelock put forward a similar concept called Gaia Theory that suggests the entire planet earth is a self regulating system and as Naturalistic Pantheists, we find a lot of merit in this theory and referring to the earth as Gaia, the ancient Greek mother earth deity.

The study of ecology is very important for Naturalistic Pantheists because it is one of the most important ways in which we come to understand how the “divine” works, the laws of nature and the universe. It teaches us many lessons we can apply to our own lives in order to live in harmony with the world. Studying ecology is a spiritual practice, especially our local ecologies and so we should include time each week to study aspects of it and expand our awareness of the beauty and intricacies of nature.

To learn more about ecology check out this site – Science Aid

The Earth seen from Apollo 17.