“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 [person] to bring [their] spirit, or [their] energy, into contact with the life of a mountain, and so [they] drew strength from the mountain, as from a great standing well of life, than it was to come into contact with the rock. And [they] had to put forth a great religious effort. For the whole life-effort of [humankind] was to get [their] 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” (1928)
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 that drives all organic life (vitalism)
- the belief that everything is divine (pantheism)
- the belief in individual spirits embodied in natural phenomena, such as springs and trees (classical animism)
- the belief in the spirit of a place (genius loci)
- 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 persons,” 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 phrase, “other-than-human persons,” was coined in 1960 by A. Irving Hallowell to describe the understanding of the Ojibwa people that the world is full of persons who are not human. The phrase was later adopted by many Neo-Animists.
Graham Harvey, a prominent proponent of neo-animism, summarizes this in his “Animist Manifesto”: “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 sense, to some degree, conscious, communicative and relational.” When we respect someone, we talk about them as “persons,” not “things.” 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 also 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. Animist and poet, 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 we are talking about (seemingly) inanimate “objects” like rocks. (Note how our language affects our ability to perceive the world.) 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,’ that 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 that divides the world into subjects and objects, human and animal, 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, and popularized by the beat poet and 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 local 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 contend that we need to become “native” to or “reinhabit” our places again, to rejoin our local 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 (including religion, art, industry, commerce, etc.) and specific bioregions. This translates into a preference for small-scale, decentralized, and place-based lifeways. Bioregionalists also contend 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, a “Shaman” refers to a religious specialist who works 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 New Age practitioners and Jungian psychotherapists.