Animism Baptism

Several factors have come together in my life recently that focus on the subject of animism.  I have spent time reading The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abrams, playing The Fifth World–a role playing game that takes place in the new world after the collapse of civilization and global warming have changed the face of the plant.  And I listened to a CD that I received from Urban Scout entitled “Grief and Praise”–a lecture of sorts by an animist shaman named Martín Prechtel.  These sources swirled in my soul, opening up my eyes and my other senses and my mind and changing the way I experience the world.

I suppose it might prove rather difficult, or at least cumbersome, for me to continue this post without giving you some concept of the nature of animism.  Most people who come from a Judeo-christian background, as I did, have little to no concept of what the term means.  At best we might understand it as the religion of native peoples in wild places like the jungles of Africa or South America.  We might even have categorized it as a type of pantheism that worships different gods in every component of nature.  At worst we might dismiss it as some sort of “primitive” (and therefore, unadvanced and worthless) religion that tries to explain perfectly rational things with ridiculous stories that can’t compare to the answers that modern science gives us about the world at large.

Ask a meteorologist why rain falls from the sky, and he will likely give you an analysis of the meteorological conditions that present themselves–this cold front meeting that mass of warm air, pushing the warm, moist air up into the higher elevations of the atmosphere where it cools down and condenses around particulates in the air which, when they have collected enough condensed water droplets, become heavy and precipitate down though the atmosphere, falling as rain.

Ask an animist the same question and she may tell you a story about the Cloud Spirits weeping or about mythological figures like Rain Old Man and Wind Baby or about the People of the Soil crying out to the People of the Sky to pour them some water from the clouds which serve as the skin bags of water that the People of the Sky carry with them when they make a long journey.  You may even hear about Coyote accidentally creating the Columbia River because he wanted some rain to cool himself off.

The former sounds concrete, scientific, realistic, measurable. The latter sounds fanciful, unscientific, childish even–like the kinds of stories kids make up.  I find that our scientific worldview alienates us from the rest of the world.  In trying to establish the relationships of causes to their resulting effects, our civilized minds fail to see our full relationship to those things, and so we end up as alien observers (at best) or thoughtless destroyers (at worst) because we can’t feel any connection to the rest of the world besides seeing it as a resource to analyze or plunder.

Children, however, tend to see things differently–until we teach them to think like civilized people.  To them, a rock can act as friendly as the kid next door.  A leaf can go on an adventure in the wind or in a stream.  Plants and animals can talk.

Evolutionary psychiatrist Bruce Charlton writes about this alienation from the rest of the world we experience as adults and how the “facts” differ greatly for children:

It is one of the distinctive features of Western contemporary life that, while pleasures are widely available (albeit at a price), there is almost universally a sense of alienation. Alienation is the feeling that life is ‘meaningless’, that we do not belong in the world.

But alienation is not an inevitable part of the human condition: some people feel at one with the world. This perspective is a consequence of the animistic way of thinking which is shared by children and hunter-gatherers. Animism considers all significant entities to have ‘minds’, to be ‘alive’, to be sentient agents. The animistic thinker inhabits a unified world populated by personal powers including not just other human beings, but also important animals and plants, and significant aspects of physical landscape. Humans belong in this world because it is a web of social relationships.

We were all animistic children once, and for most of human evolutionary history would have grown into animistic adults. Animism is therefore spontaneous, the ‘natural’ way of thinking for humans, and it requires sustained, prolonged and pervasive socialization to ‘overwrite’ animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world. It is learned objectivity that creates alienation – humans are no longer embedded in a world of social relations but become estranged, adrift in a world of indifferent things.

Bruce Charlton
Alienation, Neo-shamanism and Recovered Animism

Daniel Quinn refers to animism as the default religion of the human species.  Wherever you find indigenous peoples who have not swallowed (under force) the bitter pill of civilization, you find animism.

…there once was a religion that could plausibly be called the religion of humanity. It was humanity’s first religion and its only universal religion, found wherever humans were found, in place for tens of thousands of years. Christian missionaries encountered it wherever they went, and piously set about destroying it. By now it has been all but stamped out either by missionary efforts or more simply by exterminating its adherents. I certainly take no pride in its discovery, since it’s been in plain sight to us for hundreds of years.

Of course it isn’t accounted a “real” religion, since it isn’t one of ours. It’s just a sort of half-baked “pre-religion.” How could it be anything else, since it emerged long before God decided humans were worth talking to? It wasn’t revealed by any accredited prophet, has no dogma, no evident theology or doctrine, no liturgy, and produces no interesting heresies or schisms. Worst of all, as far as I know, no one has ever killed for it or died for it–and what sort of religion is that? Considering all this, it’s actually quite remarkable that we even have a name for it.

The religion I’m talking about is, of course, animism.

Daniel Quinn
Our Religions: Are they the Religions of Humanity Itself?

To the civilized mind, with its presumed sense of rationality, animism comes across as a very base form of spirituality.  Animists seem to worship trees and rocks and animals and the weather–behaviors that look ridiculous and unscientific to those of us whom civilization has fostered.  Moreover, animists seem to have no sense of one of the core tenets of Judeo-christian mythology: original sin.

Animism does not concern itself with trying to counteract the evil done by a supposed first ancestor that ushered a future of damnation to every child born on the planet.  In fact, missionaries that come into virgin animist cultures often have the difficult task before them of explaining the concept of “sin” to the aboriginals before they can go on to explain why the sinners would need someone like Jesus to come along and counteract that sin.

Instead, animism concerns itself with keeping a good relationship between the spirit world and the human world.  Shamans serve as the gatekeepers of that relationship.  As the Mayan shaman Martín Prechtel explains:

Shamans are sometimes considered healers or doctors, but really they are people who deal with the tears and holes we create in the net of life, the damage that we all cause in our search for survival. In a sense, all of us — even the most untechnological, spiritual, and benign peoples — are constantly wrecking the world. The question is: how do we respond to that destruction? If we respond as we do in modern culture, by ignoring the spiritual debt that we create just by living, then that debt will come back to bite us, hard. But there are other ways to respond. One is to try to repay that debt by giving gifts of beauty and praise to the sacred, to the invisible world that gives us life. Shamans deal with the problems that arise when we forget the relationship that exists between us and the other world that feeds us, or when, for whatever reason, we don’t feed the other world in return.

Martin Prechtel in
Saving the Indigenous Soul: An Interview With Martin Prechtel
by Derrick Jensen, Published in The Sun, April, 2001

Life has a cost, and we must keep those costs in balance.  Daniel Quinn calls that balance the Law of Life–a law which every other species on the planet understands but that civilization has blinded its inhabitants to.  As I mentioned in The Inhumanity of Animals, no harm comes from the coyote eating the rabbit.  Coyotes eat rabbits for a living–literally.  That stands as part of the law of each of those species’ lives.  But coyotes would never act like civilized humans in trying to horde rabbits against a rabbit famine or by trying to kill off every other species that also eats rabbits.  Such behavior runs contrary to the Law of Life and would ultimately lead to problems for the coyote because it would cause imbalances in his world.  The coyote exists in the middle of an intricate web in which each species takes from and contributes to the whole.

Animism concerns itself with that web–which encompasses not only all of the species on the planet, but all things on earth.  Every rock and tree and tick and eagle and salmon and mouse and dandelion and stream and shore and cloud and meadow and moose and catfish and sparrow and cockroach and maypop and ant and grain of sand and all the oceans–they all have a place in the web.  They all live in the web, and each contributes to and receives from the web.  Moreover they each have a spirit.  The Mayans call these spirits “the owners”.

We don’t have that word [god], but we call them The Owners.  Not our owners.  They don’t own us.  But each one takes care of a little thing.  And they all work together like a symbiosis–an ecology of spirit.  And your spirit is there too.

Martín Prechtel
Grief and Praise

I wept when I first heard those words spoken by Martín Prechtel.  The truth of it resonated so fiercely through my heart.  Everything I had digested over the past year or more has built up to that idea–that everything connects to everything else and that they all need each other.  We merely fit in as part of that web–not even at the center.  We exist as but a strand of the whole, but we spend our lives devouring all the strands into ourselves with a reckless abandon.

~I wrote this blog in e-prime~
~You should only find the verb “to be” admid the quotes I have cited~

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11 responses to this post.

  1. This is great. Willem just sent me a link that kind of brings together both of our last blogs:
    http://www.newstatesman.com/200703010007

    Reply

  2. Posted by Rix on 06/09/2007 at 9:45 pm

    wow, thanks for the link, scout (and willem, via scout). i like this guy’s approach, i think i need to read more of his stuff.

    Reply

  3. I liked “Spell of the Sensuous.”

    I think all children are animists until they get talked out of it. I think to some degree I have always been one, but its somthing I am trying to open myself up to more.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Rix on 06/11/2007 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks for dropping by, Ted.

    to some degree I have always been one, but its somthing I am trying to open myself up to more.

    I think we’re in the same boat.

    Reply

  5. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Within our (non-animist) cultural perspective, I agree that the scientist’s description of the world seems cold and even unspiritual–but I think this is a function of culture, and not science itself.

    Within an animist perspective, science does not use deities and mystical figures to describe the physical world, but it resonates with parts of the web that we are all a part of. Integrated interdisciplinary science is especially useful (at least for me) in returning to an animist’s view of the world.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Rix on 06/13/2007 at 1:10 pm

    Jacob,

    You bring up an excellent point. In fact, my animist perspective has always been fed by my scientific perspective. Certainly a meteorologist could be an animist and view the entire water cycle as an entity itself. I find no problem with science–or any technology for that matter.

    I do, however, find a problem with scientific perspectives that focus on the minute in spite of the whole. As you say, this stems from a cultural issue and does not reside with science itself, per se. I wish more scientific disciplines would move toward interdiscipline. Unfortunately, the scientific community (as a product of non-animist culture) tends not to work in terms of the whole but to specialize in ways that exclude the whole.

    Reply

  7. I completely agree. This is one of the reasons why I choose the field of astrobiology. This field studies life in the context of the universe, as so by definition it necessitates interdisciplinary work between astronomy, geology, chemistry, biology, meteorology, oceanography, and a host of other fields. But as you say, many scientific disciplines work opposite to this, becoming narrower and narrower in focus.

    I enjoy what you’re doing on your blog. I’ve added a link on my own blog. Keep it up!

    Reply

  8. Posted by Rix on 06/13/2007 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks for the comments and the press, Jacob. I have added you to my Feral Friends. I have never heard of astrobiology before. It makes me glad to hear that the sciences are melding in that sort of way.

    Reply

  9. “The Land Owns Us”
    Having written recently about ownership in animist thought and about animism in general, I thought this video would make a nice compliment to those thoughts.  My thanks to both Willem and Jason for previously sharing this.
     

    Reply

  10. interesting post…
    check out bioregional animism…
    http://tribes.tribe.net/bioregionalanimism

    Reply

  11. Hello,

    The commuinity revolves around the Axis. The people occupy positions and shift from one political position to another. We are all fighting for resources.

    Have your needs and wants been fulfilled?

    Exist does God.

    Andy

    Reply

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