Let’s make a better animism

Let's Make a Better Animism | Otherwise

I started identifying as an animist when I was probably about 10 or 11. I was spiritually inclined, but Christianity wasn’t doing it for me, and I said as much to my dad. My dad opined that we (modern Western society) were evolving away from monotheistic scripture-based religions and toward something more animistic. What is animism? I asked. He explained, very anthropologically and agnostically as is his wont, that it is the belief that everything is alive and aware. Well that sounded like something I already knew to be true, truer at least than scripture. I mean, when I was a kid I would agonize about walking on grass, and hug and thank my pillows and towels for being so nice and soft, and empathize with Christmas trees. Don’t even get me started on toy stuffed animals.

It looks like his prediction may be coming true, as I’m seeing more and more talk of animism among internet occultists. (Here’s an example, here’s another, here’s another.)

But as I complained in my last post about Gnosticism, we are in desperate need of a better animism, especially if we want it to get a seat at the philosophical and academic Big Table. It is not enough to say that everything has a spirit or soul or sentience. (And I do mean “we” here because I am as guilty as anyone else of using the term without sufficient reflection or explication.)

First of all, the term was coined by anthropologists as a way of distinguishing the so-called animistic (primitive, brown) cultures from their own scientistic-materialist belief that most things in the universe are inanimate and sentient. So the term is etic and generalist, and when you ask for the emic perspectives of the “animists,” you’ll find a lot of diversity. I don’t think being etic or general (even reductionist) necessarily invalidates the term, but from the perspective of those sitting at the Big Table, we will have to bring something more rigorous and well-argued. But more importantly, perhaps, do it for yourself. I think it will only benefit us to do this kind of reflection, and indeed, we can only do it for ourselves because as I said, there are many, many animisms. Trying to do this has been revelatory for me anyway.

Second, beyond merely articulating our worldviews, what are the implications of pan-animacy? Technically animism means that everything is ensouled/inspirited (i.e., has anima), but I get the impression that most of the time, what we mean is that everything is conscious and has agency. Which is perhaps not quite the same thing. How does animism differ from other philosophical/religious models of conscious-everything or ensouled-everything, from panpsychism to pantheism to panentheism? You could probably spend a lifetime just exploring the Indian philosophical takes on this question.

If we are talking about everything being conscious and/or ensouled, what do we mean by “everything”? Are we talking about a single monolithic everything, all-that-is, a Universe or Monad, whose consciousness pervades all? Are we talking about multitudinous independent consciousnesses? Perhaps some combination of both, like mini-souls within a greater soul? Do we view the other beings in an animist universe as bounded, autonomous individuals, or something more blurry? What are the relationships among us? Where are the nexus points where they touch and communicate and how does that happen? What is the place of humans and spirits within this ontology, what are our moral and ethical obligations, what epistemologies does this make possible or foreclose? What is the relationship between consciousness, sentience, anima, soul, and/or spirit to matter? For example, does consciousness arise from matter, or vice versa, or does matter even exist and if so how?

Quoth Gordon:

“Animism needs to get itself a Richard Dawkins and a seat at this Big Table because, of all the options, it better models psi effects, NDEs, spirit communication, unexplained biological effects like morphic fields… as well as UFOs and conspiratainment theories… as well as providing as good an explanation as any of the others (better than Materialism’s) for the creation and purpose of the universe.”

Jeez, I hope animism gets better than a Dawkins. (I know what Gordon means here, a popular proselytizer, but Dawkins is shit at what he actually claims to be, a scientist, and we all deserve better.) I think animism could become a better model for all these things than anything we’ve got currently, but at things stand I don’t think it is. At present I think it’s a catch-all for a bunch of different more-or-less-spiritist ontologies. And diversity of opinion is not a bad thing but it still wants deeper exploration. As it currently stands, animism is just a description, not an explanation. For example, I don’t see how animism necessarily provides any explanation for the creation and purpose of the universe, let alone a better one. If we’re talking about any one specific animist cosmogony, then chances are good I will find it much more appealing than the reductionist-materialist one, but that is a very low bar to jump, and (much as I may wish otherwise) my personal aesthetics aren’t widely recognized as a metric for accuracy.

None of this is to say there aren’t people working to articulate a better animism. I can’t claim to have read all the recent works of/about animism, though I’m working on it. (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall-Kimmerer is highly recommended as a series of personal reflections born of a deeply held animistic worldview which give a sense of the potential moral obligations that entails. Meanwhile in my opinion Tim Ingold is one of the best anthropologist-philosophers of animism, among other things, though he’s not usually considered a philosopher. His work is also a good source for learning about specific permutations of animism. And here is a useful post articulating what the term “bioregional animism” was, and wasn’t, meant to describe.) My point here is not to say that no one is thinking about this, but that we should be too. We, as esotericists, occultists, armchair philosophers, and assorted magical folk, need to engage with this more fully and explicitly. We owe it to ourselves to define animism(s) that are more than just a reactionary stance against materialism, especially if we want them to be explanatory.

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t attempt to articulate my own beliefs more clearly, so in the next post I shall do so.

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