Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Do animists believe in gods?

Good question. My answer is: yes . . . and no, not necessarily. Animism is not a religion, per se, but a belief that underlies most religions, that is, the belief that at least some material being is permeated with spirit. People who identify as animists, however, both historically and today, believe that spirit permeates all beings, not just certain kinds of beings like humans and their gods and pets.

But this belief in spirit does not define what kinds of god-beings exist and animistic thinking runs the gamut on the matter. One may be animist and believe in a monogod, in many gods, or in greater-than-humans but not gods.

Indigenous or tribal Animists have historically focused on local deities and the life-force of their home-place, as well as nature spirits, ancestral beings, totems and nonhuman guides. Our animists ancestors had the good sense to leave whatever lay beyond their sensory experience alone. They were not abstract thinkers, and their animist beliefs were not theoretical. If they believed in talking trees, it is because the trees spoke to them. If they believed in intelligent animals, it is because animals taught them medicine or showed them the way to good water and nourishing food. And if they believed in a god or spirit, it is because that god or spirit affected their lives in concrete ways. As for that which is beyond our ken, if they considered it at all, they considered it Mystery and left it well enough alone.

Monotheistic big “G” Gods were not part of any traditional animist cultures of which I am aware. The so-called “Great Spirit” of the North American Indians, so quickly embraced by the invading Europeans as corresponding to their own monogod, was a creator or father-sky god. He was more like the Creator of my pantheon than the one-and-only monogod of the Christians.* Some folks believe that the Indian Great Spirit corresponds to an abstract life force, or the Spirit-That-Animates-All-Things of which today’s agnostics are so fond, but I would suggest that the animating spirit was so fundamental to American Indian thinking as to be taken for granted. The concept would not need articulation in the form of a god. Animism was apparent to American Indians in the same way that the linear progression of time is apparent in our culture today.

Monotheism, although a choice for today’s animist, is an unlikely choice. Belief in the spirit and intelligence of all being makes possible the existence of intelligent beings at all levels, both lesser and greater than human. If a rock is alive, how great must the mountain be! How great the galaxy! If one may talk to bear or deer, it’s just as likely to talk with Sun or Moon, or with some greater-than-human being like my Charlie or the Place Beings of the Australian indigenous folks or the Athena of the Greeks. The animists of my acquaintance are polytheists of one kind or another, believing in small “g” gods, but not in a one-and-only big “G” God. Or they are not “theists” at all, but see and communicate with other kinds of greater-than-human beings.

I don't think one can be animist and humanist at the same time, without a belief in any gods or intelligent nonhumans. How could the universe be pulsing with life and still find itself intelligence-impoverished, with puny humanity as its highest and most sublime expression? Besides, when you are open to the voices of the nonhumans, the greater-than-humans will speak to you. This leaves humanists who say they have an animist vision in an uncomfortable and untenable position. Either the humanism will have to go, or the voices will have to go, leaving them in a quietly lonely world.
Best wishes,

* My opinion here. I have no references for you.


susan said...

if the rock is alive, why is it that mountain must be greater? Why add to the notion that bigger is better or more is better? I think my rocks could be insulted. I am not kidding.

puny human said...

Thanks for your comment, Susan. I've struggled with that word "greater" because it is a matter of semantics. I don't mean to say that your rock is not as valuable or wonderful as the mountain, or that I am "better" than a blade of grass. Or, to take this in another direction, that my Creator is no "better" than I am . . . and yet, he is greater than I am because he made me. The sun is greater than I am because he lives for billions of years and gives life to countless earthlings.

How can I express this? I stumble over the words. Is the Creator greater than I am because he is bigger? More complex? Is it our creative ability that makes one as greater or lesser than another? Our longevity? Or, perhaps some combination of these things?

Is the mountain greater because it is made of many rocks? Is the earth greater because it is all of the rocks?

One thing I know for sure: Some beings are greater than others and I am willing to accept my place as a puny human in a magnificent universe. Sure, I have value, I'm beautiful, but I'm just a gnarley speck of dust! I am greater than some beings, less than others.

Any help you would like to offer in sorting out this issue is welcome.

Sophia said...

Bacteria are tiny and might be quite great indeed because they have been around for untold millenia and are so perfectly simple. They can survive when animals cannot. Cockroaches, too. Throwing evolution out the window might also mean throwing hierarchies of any kind out the window and turning to networks instead. Or complex connectivities, in which Charlie may be your god and the bacteria are his god. Just stirring up trouble! :)

Anyway, what is up with the humanists, anyway? What does that term mean to you? I could look it up on Wikipedia or something, but I thought it might be good to have it on this blog, so I am asking you instead.

puny human said...

Yes, Sophie! Well said. Perhaps the bacteria are Charlie's gods. And I like the idea of complex connectivities. After all, don't all possibilities exist at once? Maybe I am Charlie's god-friend! Maybe Susan's rock is greater than the mountain after all! There is an Asian folk tale of the poor stonecutter who turns out to be greater than the sun and the mountain . . . And the story told by Lao Tzu that little drips of water are greater than rock (witness the Enfield gorge!)

Hey, on the other hand, I still say that I'm a puny l'il human compared to my gods!

More on Humanism in the next post.

Heronmist said...

Your comments seem pretty much spot on to me. I think there can be a pantheist animism or a polytheist animism but a monotheist animism, while it is not as you say impossible, seems unlikely if only because monotheist religions seem not to be able to do without a single focused consciousness in the their idea of the godhead. Otherwise, who is going to tell them how to behave?

Look forward to yr comments on humanism - a term full of ambiguity.

Joey said...

I realize this is an old article, but I just wanted to chime in briefly to say that my rabbi has some interesting things to say about monotheism and animism. King David the Psalmist wrote a lot about the hills and trees and rocks praising God, and my rabbi says that he was very much an animist -- it was not metaphor to him. The rocks *themselves* had a God-consciousness and sent their praises out to the universe. This is a pretty good example of Hebraic thinking, which is very sideways compared to Western dualistic, this-or-that thinking. I've only begun to scratch the surface of what this means for my Jewish practice, but it rings absolutely true with me. Just thought I'd pipe up briefly. Love the blog. :)

puny human said...

Wow, Joey, took me a while to find this post! Thanks for your comments. You may see that my own Jewish upbringing has influenced me greatly. Open-mindedness is only one of many strengths that Jewish practice brought to my life . . . you'll see others reflected in the blog. Best wishes, Puny

Mx. Nathan Tamar said...

I think that if we broaden the meaning of humanism, and allow that other beings, natural or divine, either do or might exist, and have value along with humans, then a humanist can be an animist. For me, humanism is a source of ethics. We can respect all of nature and see it as alive, but, in practice, most of us, when push comes to shove, will choose human well-being over the well-being of non-humans. For example, we will choose the health of a child even if it means killing a bacteria. Or we may practice pest control in our homes and yards. If an animal attacks a human, sometimes that animal has to be killed, because we value human life more than that of an animal. And if a god tells us to do harm to an innocent human (or other) being, hopefully we do not listen, because we value life above the voice of a god.

puny human said...

Thanks for your perceptive comment Nathan! It rings true.
Best wishes,