“In the oldest religion, everything was alive, not supernaturally but naturally alive. There were only deeper and deeper streams of life, vibrations of life more and more vast. So rocks were alive, but a mountain had a deeper, vaster life than a rock, and it was much harder for a man to bring his spirit, or his energy, into contact with the life of a mountain, and so he drew strength from the mountain, as from a great standing well of life, than it was to come into contact with the rock. And he had to put forth a great religious effort. For the whole life-effort of man was to get his life into contact with the elemental life of the cosmos. mountain-life, cloud-life, thunder-life, air-life, earth-life, sun-life. To come into the immediate felt contact, and so derive energy, power, and a dark sort of joy. This effort into sheer naked contact, without an intermediary or mediator, is the root meaning of religion …”
— D.H. Lawrence, “New Mexico”
Many Neo-Pagans are animists. The term “animism” is used by Neo-Pagans in different ways:
- the belief that everything is alive (hylozoism or panzoism)
- the belief in a vital force which drives organic life (vitalism)
- the belief that everything is divine (pantheism)
- the belief in individual spirits embodied in natural phenomena, such as springs and trees (animism)
- the belief in the spirit (genius loci) of a place
- the belief that the material universe has some level of consciousness (panpsychism or panexperientialism)
- the belief that animate and inanimate entities of the natural world are “persons” (neo-animism)
“Neo-animism” posits that the world is full of other-than-human “persons”, including “salmon persons”, “tree person”, and even “rock persons”. The concept of personhood implies relationality and reciprocity, as well as rights. Neo-animists want to see the rights of all “persons” respected. The term “other-than-human” persons was coined in 1960 by A. Irving Hallowell to describe the understanding by the Ojibwa people he studied that many more things could be a person than Westerners realize. The phrase was later adopted by many neo-animists.
Graham Harvey, a prominent proponent of neo-animism writes, “All that exists lives” and “all that lives is worthy of respect.” When Harvey says all that exists “lives”, he means that it is “in some senses, to some degree, conscious, communicative and relational.” When we respect someone we talk about them as “persons”, not “things”. “The world is full of other-than-human persons,” writes Harvey. We also show respect by caring: by “taking care of, caring for, caring about, being careful about”. We show respect by creating relationships: “by constructing opportunities to talk, to relate, to listen, to spend time in the face-to-face presence and company of others”. We show respect “by leaving alone and by giving gifts”.
Graham Harvey describes the animist’s world as one full of persons, only some of whom are human. He goes on to define “persons” as relational beings who have varying degrees of autonomy and volition. We become animists by learning how to recognize and engage meaningfully with non-human persons. Alison Leigh Lilly explains that animists “approach the world with a certain degree of sacred curiosity, extending an invitation of respectful relationship and doing our best to remain open, listening for a response where we might least expect it.”
It is difficult for Westerners to understand the concept of “other-than-human” persons, especially when talking about (seemingly) inanimate objects like rocks. But for the animist, there is no such thing as inanimate matter. All matter is animate, and thus alive, at least in the sense that it is part of a complex self-regulating living system called “Gaia“.
David Abram explains what it means for a rock to be alive:
“People always want to draw the line somewhere. But you see, it’s drawing the line at all that’s the problem: the idea that at bottom matter is ultimately inert, or inanimate. The word ‘matter,’ if you listen with your animal ears, is basically the word ‘mater,’ or mother. It comes from the same indo-european root as the word ‘matrix,’ which is Latin for ‘womb.’
“We all carry within us an ancient, ancestral awareness of matter as the womb of all things, a sense that matter is alive through and through. But to speak of matter as inanimate is to think of mother as inanimate, to imply that the female, earthly side of things is inert, is just an object. If we want to really throw a monkeywrench into the workings of the patriarchy, then we should stop speaking as though matter is in any way, at any depth, inanimate or inert. …
“If we speak of matter as essentially inanimate, or inert, we establish the need for a graded hierarchy of beings: stones have no agency or experience whatsoever; bacteria have a minimal degree of life; plants have a bit more life, with a rudimentary degree of sensitivity; ‘lower’ animals are more sentient, yet still stuck in their instincts; ‘higher’ animals are more aware; while humans alone are really awake and intelligent. In this manner we continually isolate human awareness above, and apart from, the sensuous world. It takes us out of relationship with the things around us. If, however, we assume that matter is alive and self-organizing from the get-go, then hierarchies vanish, and we are left with a wildly differentiated field of animate beings, each of which has its gifts relative to the others. And we find ourselves not above, but in the very midst of this web, our own sentience part and parcel of the sensuous landscape.”
Neo-animism represents a challenge to Western discourse which divides the world into subject and object, culture and nature. Neo-animism breaks down the conceptual barrier between the “cultural” (i.e., human) and the “natural” (i.e., other-than-human). Thus animists are those who encounter other-than-human beings as cultural persons. Neo-animism is not about the projection of consciousness or agency onto “inanimate” objects (the concept of “projection” presumes a subject-object dualism), but about respect and reciprocity within a community that transcends the subject-object dichotomy. Alison Leigh Lilly explains, “When we stop treating the world as if it were mostly composed of dead matter and mindless meat-machines, we discover that it is not as indifferent and impersonal as we’d once assumed.”
Neo-animism has come to be associated with a related movement called “bioregionalism”. The term “bioregionalism” was invented by Allen Van Newkirk in 1975, but popularized by the beat poet turned Buddho-anarchist Gary Snyder. (During his years in Japan, Snyder was initiated into Shugendo, a form of ancient Japanese animism.) The merging of bioregionalism and animism is called “bioregional animism”.
Bioregionalists maintain that human beings are inescapably a part of nature, specifically a part of their specific place or bioregion, which is composed of a “more-than-human” community of animals, plants, soils, waters, etc. As Gary Snyder has written, “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” Bioregionalists argue that we need to become “native” to or “reinhabit” our places again, to rejoin our respective bio-communities. We need to learn about the land, its climate patterns, native flora and fauna, water systems, and soils, and let them teach us appropriate ways to live. Rather than trying to segregate areas of wilderness from the world of human culture, bioregionalism seeks to create healthy and sustainable relationships between human culture (religion, art, industry, etc.) and individual bioregions. This translates into a preference for small-scale, decentralized, and place-based lifeways. Bioregionalists also argue that political boundaries should be determined by natural boundaries.
Bioregional animism overlaps with a kind of neo-shamanism, one that must be distinguished from the “core shamanism” or New Age shamanism inspired by Michael Harner. Within the context of bioregional animism, shamanism refers to religious specialists who work on behalf of the more-than-human community to restore respectful relationships between humans and other-than-humans. Shamans may be human or other-than-human persons. In this sense, there is no shaman without a community. This kind of neo-shamanism is community-oriented, as opposed to the individual-oriented neo-shamanism adopted by the New Age and Jungian psychotherapy.
When the animals come to us,
asking for our help,
will we know what they are saying?
When the plants speak to us
in their delicate, beautiful language,
will we be able to answer them?
When the planet herself
sings to us in our dreams,
will we be able to wake ourselves,
— Gary Lawless