Do you talk to your cat? Of course you do. I don’t know a single cat owner – excuse me, a person who is owned by cats – who doesn’t talk to their feline friends. I’m not a dog person, but I see much the same behavior from them. Why do we do this? Even small children realize cats can’t understand language. But our intuition tells us we can communicate with them. And so we do, even if all they hear is voice tone and body language.
Do you talk to trees? That’s not as common as talking to animals, but if you’re any sort of Nature centered Pagan, you’ve probably done it. You asked permission before taking a tree branch to make a wand or before harvesting an herb that grows in your back yard. Every so often I see an article that recommends talking to your house plants. They usually try to explain it away in materialist terms, but those of us who’ve done it regularly know there’s something more involved.
That something more is personhood. We intuitively recognize something of ourselves in cats and dogs, in plants and trees, and if we’re paying really close attention, in mountains and rivers. These aren’t things, they’re persons. They have inherent value and worth that does not depend on their usefulness or desirability to humans. Whatever animates us also animates cats and dogs, trees and rocks, rivers and storms. Whatever inherent sovereignty we possess, every other creature, ecosystem, and natural force also possesses.
This is a form of animism that is intuitive even to us here in the 21st century West.
In her book The Wakeful World, Emma Restall Orr gives a more sophisticated definition of animism that states everything has mind and that mind and matter are not separate. She says we can never see the world as it actually is, but only our idea of it – and our ideas are “data processed through the filters of perception established by beliefs based on limitations and experience.” We don’t see the personhood of cats and trees and lakes because the mainstream religion tells us we alone were made “in the image of God” – and we like being in the top position. It lets us justify exploiting other persons for our own greed.
Are all these persons (including ourselves) inhabited by spirits? Are all these persons spirits who are currently manifesting in a physical form? Or are the spirit and the form inseparable elements of one whole person? I don’t know. My intuition tells me everything is inspirited – it does not tell me the structure of the spirits involved.
If you don’t hear much about animism, it’s because early anthropologists and the school texts based from their work called it primitive. They presented a model of “progress” that went from superstition to animism to polytheism to monotheism to proper Protestant Christianity. In the last 50 years or so, that model has been extended to make atheism the pinnacle of human progress. We like to think of ourselves as “advanced” and those who came before us as “primitive” – the idea that our ancient ancestors’ thinking might be more accurate and more helpful never occurs to us.
If every other creature, ecosystem, and natural force is a person, can we communicate with them? Should we communicate with them? Yes, but…
Would you go up to a random person on the street and say “what do you have to teach me?” Of course you wouldn’t (or at least, I hope you wouldn’t). Then why would you go up to a random tree or bird and ask the same question? If you don’t think a random person on the street has some message for you, don’t assume a random bird or tree does either.
Would you go up to a Buddhist monk on the street and say “what do you have to teach me?” You might. It would be rude and presumptive, and he might teach you not to act so entitled in a way you wouldn’t particularly like, but at least there’s reason to believe a monk might actually be willing and able to teach you something useful.
Now, if you bought the monk a cup of tea and sat with him while he drank it, he might be inclined to teach you something more in line with what you had in mind. If you started attending meditation and dharma lessons at his temple, you’d probably learn a lot more. You might even develop a friendship with the monk.
We can best learn from other persons – human or other-than-human – when we’re in relationship with them. You can learn a lot from a bird or a tree, but it works best when you’re in a respectful and reciprocal relationship with them. If they’re persons – and they are – then treat them like persons, not like things.
The same intuition that tells us we can find a person in a cat or a tree or a mountain will also tell us we can find a person (or many persons) in our dreams, our devotions, our divination, and our worship. Whatever else the Gods may be, they are also persons. And just as we would not go up to a random person on the street and ask them to teach us something or give us something, neither should we approach a random deity and ask Them to fix our problems or lead us to enlightenment.
As with people, our interactions with the Gods work best in a respectful, reciprocal relationship.
Animism is not the same thing as polytheism, and it is not a necessary component of polytheism. You can affirm the religious regard for many real Gods and still think a mountain is an inanimate object and a cat is just an animal (but good luck convincing your cat of that). Likewise, polytheism is not a requirement of animism. You can recognize and interact with the persons in or of plants and rivers still think there are no Gods.
But animism is a part of my polytheism. It provides a framework for an inspirited and enchanted world, a world where everything you see and touch and feel and sense is not a thing, but a person worthy of your respect and capable of entering into a reciprocal relationship with you – if that person so chooses. Those persons include the Gods. Animism teaches that just as I don’t relate to a cat or a tree in exactly the same way as I relate to another human, I may need to relate to Gods in different ways as well.
But mainly, animism serves as a constant reminder to respect the dignity and sovereignty of all persons, whether they are human or not.