March 18

Animism and Mind

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland flag icon
Reading time 8 min.

When the question of the greatest Druids of our era comes up, I’m going to have to start including Emma Restall Orr in the discussion. She began her Druid work in OBOD, was co-chief of the British Druid Order for nine years, then founded The Druid Network, which gained notoriety in 2010 when it became the first Druid group to be recognized as a charity in the UK (which is a much bigger deal than filing for 501©(3) status in the United States). She’s written eight books and co-written three others.

I just finished her most recent book The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature. I discovered it earlier this year when Patheos Pagan Managing Editor Christine Kraemer posted a list of recommended resources for Pagan Theology. Christine said The Wakeful World “is one of several recent sophisticated books on ‘the new animism’” and that “it is also less textbook-like” than similar books. Christine said The Wakeful World has a reading level of “General audience / Undergraduate.” I think that’s a fair assessment. My exposure to philosophy consists of two sophomore level classes 25 years ago, and while I’ve done extensive reading and writing in religion and theology in recent years, I’ve done very little in philosophy. I had no trouble reading The Wakeful World. Emma Restall Orr does a good job of explaining both working terms and competing ideas. You won’t be lost just because you don’t have an extensive background in philosophical history, thought and process. You will, however, need to be able to think outside the scientistic materialism that dominates contemporary Western culture. I am not qualified to critique the philosophical theories presented in The Wakeful World. Instead, I want to talk about what I took away from reading the book and how it relates to my beliefs and practices as a Pagan and as a Druid.

A working definition of animism

I’ve always thought of animism as the belief that whatever gods or spirits or forces animate (“to give life to”) humans also animate other animals, plants, the land, the sky and the sea. That’s not wrong, but there are some foundational principles that support the idea. Emma Restall Orr says Animism is a monist metaphysical stance, based upon the idea that mind and matter are not distinct and separate substances but an integrated reality, rooted in nature. Perhaps more importantly, there are some strong implications that come out of this idea, implications that speak to our common ancestry and our shared destiny. Nature’s worth does not accrue from how useful it is proved to be to humankind. Nor is it sentiment, aesthetics or some other human judgment that confers value on nature. As a whole and in every part, as every creature and every fragment, nature has inherent value. Albeit simplistically put, that is the basis of animism. This is the foundation of my identity as a Nature-centered Pagan. It’s the foundations of Dark Green Religion as articulated by Bron Taylor in his book of the same name. It’s the foundation of Bolivia’s law outlining the rights of Mother Earth. We were not placed on the Earth, we grew out of the Earth. We do not have dominion over the Earth, we are a part of the Earth – and a part of the larger Universe. Our mission, then, is not to conquer and subdue Nature, but to live in harmony with Nature as part of Nature.

Animism begins with humility and with the acceptance of our limitations as humans

Animism makes some claims that are counterintuitive, at least to 21st century Westerners. We like to think we know almost everything, and what we don’t know requires only the proper amount of diligent scientific research before it too is measured and catalogued. While science and my own profession of engineering have worked wonders, we don’t actually know as much as we like to think we do. For starters The way we see the world is not actually the world in itself. What we see is our idea of it. No mind can perceive nature’s actuality. What is perceived is nature’s raw data processed through the filters of perception established by beliefs based on limitations and experience. There may be such a thing as Objective Truth (I think there is), but if there is we can never be sure we’re seeing it. Even the question of reality has to be addressed provisionally – my mythical knowledge and mystical experiences are every bit as real as my scientific knowledge and my ordinary experiences. Emma Restall Orr gives a very simple definition: What is real is that which we need to believe exists in order that we might function. In recent years I’ve taken the term “the real world” out of my vocabulary. Other worlds are just as real as the material world, and the term implies we know reality with a greater certainty than we actually do.

Arguments with atheists

The Wakeful World is easy to read because Emma Restall Orr doesn’t assume you’re aware of the philosophical underpinnings of the modern West. She explains what needs to be explained, including competing theories. Though it might seem that fundamentalist Christians would be the natural opponents of animism, most of their arguments were dismissed by philosophers (and mainstream Christian theologians) a long time ago. The most common arguments against animism come not from Christians but from atheists – both the aggressive atheists who claim “religion poisons everything” and the more subtle atheists who simply assume that if something can’t be explained and quantified then it can’t possibly exist. Most of the arguments of The Wakeful World are directed at materialists. To Daniel Dennett, though, the concept of qualia, the what it feels like to be something, is simply incoherent. He perceives its inescapable subjectivity as a perpetual stream of inconsistencies, concluding that the idea of consciousness is thus inherently flawed, and as such not sufficiently robust to post any threat to comprehensive materialism. Whether it is possible to be anything but subjective is a problem that many materialists would prefer to disregard. The world that can be observed and measured and catalogued is beautiful and awe-inspiring. If that was all there is, life would still be worthwhile. But both experience and reason tell us there is more.

Nature is minded

The key point of animism is that nature is minded – nature, in whole and in all its parts, has mind. This is a more sophisticated, more naturalistic expression of my primitive thoughts of animating spirits. This idea is counterintuitive – maybe a cat has mind, but a tree? A rock? Emma Restall Orr explains it like this: A tree perceives the world around it. It is aware of gravity, light and temperature, the resources within the soil into which it roots, the availability of water. By the way in which it adapts in order to make the most of its environment, we might say that the tree senses the changes of the seasons, for its perception is visceral sensation, and there is nothing in those words that definitively limits their use to human experience. We humans have as strong desire to see ourselves as special, as “made in the likeness of God.” It’s frequently said that if we aren’t qualitatively better than other animals then our behavior will be selfish and violent. I’m not sure those who make that claim have ever bothered to watch actual human behavior. In any case, our supposed unique differences are rarely used to call us to better ways of living and far more frequently are used to justify exploiting supposedly-lesser creatures and ecosystems. The fact that the mind of a tree differs greatly from the mind of a human is a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. Indeed, how far can we simplify the parameters in order to use the term mind and succeed in drawing a justifiable dividing line? The answer given by the animist is to decline the invitation to draw that line at all.

Spirits, souls and gods

Animism is a naturalistic philosophy – it says everything is part of nature and there is nothing that is supernatural. But the animist’s definition of natural is far more open than the materialist’s. The Wakeful World looks at spirits, souls, and gods. Each moment of interaction within the darkness of nature creates a pattern, a spirit fleetingly finding form, flashing momentarily into being before dissolving back into the whole – except where interactions repeat, allowing a pattern to persist, the spirit lingering in its ethereal form. This reminds me of some definitions of ghosts – persistent patterns that remain after the person who originated them is gone. It goes far beyond that, though – think of the spirit of a place, the spirit of an event, or the spirit of a movement. These spirits are real and they can persist, but they are fleeting. If mind and matter are not distinct, then the soul is not something that can preserve an individual’s consciousness beyond physical death. A soul is not a defined individual: it is the wholeness of a being … a soul is the presence of its complete past. As someone who has had past life memories, who has experienced the presence of the beloved dead, and who finds the argument for reincarnation to be strong, I find this definition of a soul to be troubling. It is, however, consistent with the animistic worldview, and integrity demands that I give it honest consideration, even if I don’t like it, and even if I ultimately reject it. As for the gods: The numerous gods of the polytheistic animist … are the most powerful spirits or patterns of nature’s configurations of interaction, persistent forms, beyond our human ability to comprehend … some gods may also be souls, holding histories, traditions, mythologies through relationships over eons. Amidst the many gods within nature, there are gods with whom the animist forges personal relationships. This definition explains why some people insist that the beings I’ve experienced couldn’t possibly be the gods of Ireland or of Greece, because those gods are part of those lands and cannot exist in other parts of the world. My direct experience of the gods is too strong to agree with that idea. Emma Restall Orr’s statement that the gods are “beyond our human ability to comprehend” leaves open the door that the hard polytheistic conception of them as individual beings may be more right than wrong.

A Druid approach

Druidry is a holistic spirituality. It embraces the physical and the spiritual, science and religion, logos and mythos. As I read The Wakeful World, I kept seeing not just the approach of a philosopher, but the approach of a Druid. Emma Restall Orr’s Druidry shows in her insistence that mind and matter are an integrated realty: The physical world is not at the dirty bottom of some scala naturae, nor is it an illusion to be shrugged off with enlightenment: it is as much what we are as the subtler patterns of mind. It shows in her recognition of the importance and clarity of the unconscious mind: For every one million bits of information processed in the mind as a whole, just one is touched by conscious awareness … Proportionally, the unilluminated mind is almost all there is. Unfettered by the thinking consideration of lit consciousness, the darker mind may well be perceiving a world closer to nature’s actuality. And it shows in her observation that while animism is a reasoned philosophy, it is not developed solely with reason: The animistic thesis is then not just based upon rational arguments against idealism and in favor of an integrated metaphysics, but is informed too by the profound and visceral experience of integration which, being so central to his worldview, is a focus of the animist’s philosophical, ethical and spiritual practice of life. As for this Druid, I found The Wakeful World to be an excellent exploration of animistic philosophy. I now have more support for much of my model of the universe, support based in both reason and in the experience of life. Where my model has been challenged I have prompting to dig deeper, but I also have the freedom to use all the tools at my disposal and not just those that are capable of quantifying and cataloguing. The Wakeful World would make a good addition to any Pagan’s reading list.

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