|Mongolian Shaman, 1909|
Animism is humanity’s oldest system of belief and it’s still the most elegant and successful of our attempts to understand what is real. Based on sensory experience, animism describes a reality which is both wholly material and wholly spiritual. All of material creation is intelligent and ensouled. All spirit is embodied.
Anthropologist Edward B. Tyler first defined animism in this particular way 1871, and said that all the religions of the world arose out of this fundamental belief in the spiritual nature of material being. Tyler was a cultural evolutionist, however, so he was convinced that animism existed along a progressive continuum: from the most primitive, focusing on “inanimate” objects, through classical polytheism to the “advanced” abstract monotheism of his day. I disagree with him on this point. Our spiritual development as a species has taken place in fits and starts. We still have a whole lot to learn, and how many gods we follow is not an indication of our level of spiritual maturity.
Spiritual maturity? What a laugh! Look around you and tell me—with a straight face—that humans are spiritually mature! The fruits of the ripening spirit are sweet and nourishing, but we seem to have grown some sour grapes, like anger and hate. Humans have stunningly sophisticated technologies. We are now the most powerful creatures on earth and we have an overflowing storehouse of factual information, yet the species is spiritually weaker than we were in our kinship days, and we’re pitifully vulnerable to the forces of cruelty and greed. We'd do well to be open to an animist alternative.
Traditional animists held to their spiritually advanced worldview in the face of vigorous evangelizing by Christians and Capitalists, but they're being overwhelmed and may soon die out. Their systems of belief encompassed the whole of what is real, rather than being set apart as an institutionalized religion within a larger reality. Like contemporary science, traditional animism simply describes what is. This animist reality is not experienced as supernatural or ritualistic, or as a substitute for real (scientific) understanding. It is real understanding. This is also true of contemporary animism. It’s not a religion, per se. It’s a cultural reality.
|Polytheistic Animism is a contemporary expression|
of the ancient animist cultural reality.
Traditional animism still lives on in isolated pockets, and indigenous cultures in developed nations, like those of the American Indians, also keep the flame of traditional animism alive. This traditional animism, however, belongs to other times and peoples, not to me. I practice a new animism, one that arises out of the direct, personal experiences of contemporary animists.
The new animist is a 21st century person who believes that all that exists is both material and nonmaterial (or spiritual), fully integrated and inseparable. All material being is conscious, intelligent and ensouled, each existent thing in its own way. Contemporary animists are not looking to fit into a traditional animist schema. We belong to the contemporary world. The animal totems and three-tiered worlds of traditional animism are not relevant to us. We live in a world of plastic food and digital devices, and since animism is always realistic and experiential, animist mythologies will change as material realities change.
An authentic animism is one that reflects the reality of ensouled matter in the here and now.
We are surrounded by manufactured objects and live in a manufactured world, so our animism includes these things. We may have intimate relationships with trees, rocks, animals and other natural beings, but also with manufactured objects like cars and computers. Polytheistic Animists, like the folks in the Sacred Green Church, also have relationships with greater-than-human beings, commonly called angels or gods. We are contemporary animists who believe in the Gods of Love.