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 –
I came across this post by one of my favourite bloggers, John Beckett, today discussing things we value. He has recently been writing posts about developing a sacred relationship with nature and writes the following:
“There are practical reasons why we should live sustainably and respect other species and ecosystems, but no intellectual argument is strong enough to override the basic evolutionary instinct to do what’s easiest and most satisfying for me and mine, here and now. Overriding that instinct requires valuing what we preserve more than what we exploit, and developing that requires a relationship with what we would value.
This is not an intellectual matter, it is a religious matter. Only by developing a sacred relationship with Nature will we find the inspiration to change the way we live and build a society that is both compassionate for the present and sustainable for the future.”
I think he speaks a lot of truth. If we are going to really live in harmony with the world around us then it requires deep and major change in our lifestyles. Most people will do small things to help the environment, but few will make the necessary sacrifices just because they are told they need to. If there’s one thing the last decade of religious fundamentalism has taught us, its how vital it is to win the hearts and minds of people. Intellect is not enough – the heart must be involved too. And that’s what religion does. When we truly see Nature as something sacred, deep within our very being, only then will we truly be able to override the instinct for ease and make the sacrifices necessary for a life in harmony with the earth. Religion doesn’t have to mean a belief in god, but it does have to mean that we see some things as more important, more sacred, than ourselves and our own self interest. When we develop a sacred relationship with Nature, then we will have the motivation, the inspiration that will save our land. When everyone has it, we will save the earth!
There is a new series on BBC Two in the UK called Wonders of Life by Professor Brian Cox. He is a brilliant science presenter and I highly recommend it. Below is the trailer and you can watch it on BBC iPlayer.
It’s almost Samhain so lets remember where we came from, our ancestors right back to the big bang…
Every culture has a Creation Myth e.g. the biblical 6 day creation story. Myths are very important for humans – they help us to orientate ourselves in the bigger picture, they give our lives meaning, they show us who we are, where we came from and where we are going. They act as a grand narrative, an overarching story to explain life. Without them we wander aimlessly and without identity.
Today our world is going through a radical change as various disciplines of science undermine and destroy creation myths that humanity has believed for thousands of years….But something equally exciting is happening – a new Creation Myth is being created – a new story is being discovered, one based on facts and one that is even more inspiring and amazing as those that we are losing – I am referring of course to the Epic of Evolution. Also known as Big History, the Great Story, the Universe Story or Cosmic Evolution, it explains the story of the universe from the Big Bang through the creation of stars and galaxies to the creation of earth, life and evolution and finally to humanity and our cultural evolution. It is the common and true “Creation Myth” of the whole of humanity and forms the basis of the Naturalistic Pantheist worldview.
Below is a video explaining the story –
For more information about the Epic of Evolution please visit the following –
I wanted to do a post on ethics and morality. Many people say that if you don’t believe in God, you must not have any ethics or principles and must be a very nasty person. But that really is not true. There are many places a non-theist can find their morality, but for the purposes of this discussion I would like to point out one place a Pantheist may choose to find morality.
As Pantheists, we consider the universe to be ultimate and divine. Nature is worthy of reverence. We can best find out about the world through science.
On of the most important scientific theories regarding biology is the theory of Evolution. Contrary to many of the arguments religious people make or the distortions about it being survival of the fittest, evolution can provide a foundation stone for building a morality upon. Consider that it teaches us that we all, whether human, animal or plant, descend from a common ancestor and are therefore related and family. It teaches that we are all interconnected. It teaches that its not the strongest or most intelligent that survive but the best adapted to their environment.
However it also teaches something else – it teaches that we all want to survive. Recently i’ve been studying Stoicism and came across the idea of the “primary impulse.” The Stoics claimed that every person and thing has a primary impulse of self preservation, of self love. In other words, we all want to live and survive, but not only that, we also pursue pleasure and try to avoid pain. In other words we all want to live and live well. Stoicism goes on to build a morality from this point, however I now want to bring in philosopher Albert Schweitzer instead. He came to a similar conclusion in saying that all things have a “will to live” and argued that this led to a morality based on a “reverence for life.”
So lets work this through. If we accept evolution is correct, then we can see that there is within us a “will to live”, a primary impulse for self preservation. And this instinctive impulse is not only in us but in all life, all other life forms have similar inherent tendencies to survive. Because we want to survive, and this is the most important thing to us, then it follows that we place a value on “life.” Evolution has also given us capacity for reason and when we use this, we realise that all life wants to live and that if we value our life, then “life” as an abstract is also to be valued and reverenced. We also realise that other life is similar to our own. Using our empathetic nature (also from our evolutionary heritage) gives us a sympathy towards other life forms because they are similar to us. This leads us to approach other life, whether human or not, with the same reverence we feel for our own life. And this leads to the principle of reverence for life as the highest moral law.
Peter Mayer sings a lot of songs that have a Pantheistic theme. Here’s a collection…
One More Circle
Some more Symphony of Science videos about our ancestors and the dinosaurs…
Children of Africa
The World of the Dinosaurs
Part of Pantheism means remembering and honouring our ancestors and the processes of evolution that led to our existence. I think it is important to also realise that stars are our ancestors, that we all have a common ancestor and that all the animals and plants that lead back from us to that first living organism are also our ancestors that we should honour and remember.