Wednesday, November 4, 2009

From animism to neo-animism

Animism, using the term in a broad rather than technical anthropological sense, is the natural hypothesis that, since we move because we are alive, and animals move because they are alive, that things in nature (such as wind, clouds, lightning, moon, sun) move because they are animated by living presences. That is, that everything which moves exists on the same metaphysical continuum. It is hardly surprising that animism seems to be the normal first stage of religious perspective, given the first human societies lived so embedded in nature.

With the growth of farming and herding, societies which managed nature to a greater or less extent, more separatist conceptions of divine and of the human began to emerge. It has been argued, quite reasonably, that Catholicism’s very non-animistic notion of an ordered universe in which God and humans were deeply metaphysically distinct from the natural world we live in, helped the birth of science by fostering the notion of the universe as being law-governed, with discoverable natural laws.

Since modern science tends to undermine the view that we are metaphysically distinct from other animals, and the world around us, it is not surprising that neo-animism (in the form of environmentalism and neo-paganism) is on the rise. As Etienne Gilson noted:
A world which has lost the Christian God cannot but resemble a world which has not yet found him.
But environmentalism is a hard religion:
I find I'm often chastised for not taking global warming seriously enough by people who in their own lives produce far more carbon dioxide than I do.
It does, however, have its own vindicating and apocalyptic future. Not merely global warming, but also the faith that Malthus will come true one day (in the sense of some disastrous “Malthusian” population crash even though that is not really what Malthus said). The huge increase in population and average standard of living and all the other difficulties since Malthus originally published his Essay on Population (and Malthus’s own back-pedalling in later editions) notwithstanding. One just re-interprets sacred doctrine.
And it also has virulent denunciation of heretics and infidels. We really do seem to be the religious animal. Science may be good at answering “how?” questions, but we persist in being concerned with “why?” ones and if previous answers to those questions lose force, we shift to new ones.

Not that I think environmentalism as such represents any sort of moral advance. One of the arguments against claims that the loss of religious belief is some looming moral disaster, a drastic run-down of our sustaining cultural capital, is that human societies are showing a broad, sustained tendency to lower levels of violence and cruelty. I would argue that a widening sense of moral reciprocity is an important part of this (a common thread in Steven Pinker’s suggested explanations of better government, increasing length and felicity of life, increasing mutual gain possibilities and expanding range of empathy).

God, after all, has often been used to deny moral reciprocity, to deny empathy—and notoriously still is among the Abrahamic religions to homosexuals: gay pride in Jerusalem managed to unify Orthodox Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Israel/Palestine in their common hatred for a small minority (though they seem to have lost that argument). It is not surprising that the Abrahamic religion that is least based on reciprocity is also the most violence-positive in its basic doctrines (Islam) and has notably violent inter- and intra-state politics, though a large part of that may be the resource-politics effect, both for increased violent conflict and more autocratic politics and intolerant religiosity.

So, the religiosity of environmentalism is far from being an inherent moral positive. But the moral problem I see with environmentalism is that it puts non-human considerations before people. This is not a good place to base one’s moral judgements from. It is certainly not a good basis for public policy. For its discounting of the costs imposed on people—and its discounting of the standing of what people want—makes it that much easier to justify controlling, or otherwise restricting, more and more of people’s lives.* And restricting freedom is noxious in itself and generally not a successful long-term policy.

Moving away from animism was generally a moral advance: moving towards neo-animism is likely to be very much not a moral advance.

* That is, after all, precisely how anti-homosexuality arguments operate: discounting both what they want and the costs imposed on them.


  1. Neo-animism is basically the same as animism, but backed up by the modern scientific theories of evolution and ecology based on Darwin's principle of natural selection. Along with a trove of very convincing evidence, of course. Moving towards neo-animism is most definitely a moral advance because, in essence, it is backed by the whole modern academy of science (which simultaneously destroys the basis of monotheistic religions).

    Why would you limit such basic earthly concepts like spirituality and freedom to humans and not to all living beings? (You talk of "restricting freedom" while the great excess of human power currently restricts the freedom of the vast majority of living beings on the planet). Clearly, you are not an animist or a neo-animist.

    I applaud you for this thought-provoking blogpost. But remember that history is not linear, its circular. A neo-animist knows this.

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