Mark Green's Atheopaganism Blog

Living an Earth-Honoring Path Rooted in Science

Naturalistic Animism

“Animism” has meant a lot of things over time. It was a racist slur against indigenous people; it has been claimed by panpsychists (who believe everything has consciousness).

Robin Wall Kimmerer describes in her brilliant book Braiding Sweetgrass that the core of the indigenous relationship to the natural world* is not about thinking rocks have souls or consciousness. It is about reciprocity: about approaching the creatures and features of the world as worthy of respect and deference rather than as inanimate materials which can be consumed at will.

There have been discussions about this on the Atheopaganism Facebook group and I thought I would offer some thoughts of my own. I should say: these generally aren’t original ideas to me; the writer Graham Harvey has expressed something very close to what I describe here and others in the Atheopagan community have, as well.

I don’t believe in “animism” the way Western anthropologists have smugly characterized it: as a primitive, superstitious belief that everything is inhabited by a “spirit”. That’s a very Western, dualistic way of understanding things, featuring at its core the precept that living beings are material that is “animated” by a non-material spirit or soul.

Nope. Don’t believe that at all. There’s no evidence for it.

But I DO believe in the deep necessity for humans to return to a relationship of reciprocity with the Earth and the creatures and phenomena of Nature.

That doesn’t mean we can’t harvest or eat things–we just have to be responsible and respectful about it. Leave some to grow back. Restore the land after digging a hole. Acknowledge the gift received. Graze sustainably. Restore the soil.

In other word, we must treat the various features of the natural world–creatures, rocks, rivers, topsoil, mountains–as persons. Persons worthy of respect and with whom we share reciprocal relationships.

Not just inanimate stuff we can exploit as we please.

Not just things.

To me, that is naturalistic animism. It is the recognition of the Sacredness inherent in the fabric of reality, and of our responsibilities as participants in that fabric. It posits nothing supernatural, merely a covenant of reciprocity.

Naturalistic animism is a value, not a factual claim. It’s not woo-woo beliefs about spirits or souls. It’s just about respect, and humility. About understanding that we are not the “pinnacle of evolution”; we’re just critters, like everything else. And we owe consideration to the fellow persons–be they alive, or inanimate–of this blessed Planet Earth.

*She is both a PhD botanist and a registered member of the Citizen Potawotami indigenous tribe.


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