Unbeknownst to most Americans, the world is full of animists. According to Professor Stephen Asma of Columbia College Chicago, “Pretty much everywhere except Western Europe, the Middle East, and North America” is dominated by animistic cultures. Animism is the belief that everything has a soul or spiritual essence; not just living things, but also mountains, fire, the sky, the sea, and sometimes even words and human-made objects.
In practice, though, it’s more than just a belief. It’s a sensibility, a way of experiencing and interacting with the world. Animists relate to their surroundings with a certain intentionality, as if constantly among old friends.
To people in the developed world, such beliefs might seem primitive and superstitious. After all, who needs a world full of spirits when we have science? Science has given us explanations and inventions that have alleviated many hardships and dispelled so much fear.
But it hasn’t made us invincible or immune to fear. We’re still afraid of death, suffering, being alone, poverty, public humiliation, paper cuts, and so on. There’s little solace in science from these bugaboos.
Its other major shortcoming is that science has sucked the spirituality out of life. By reducing everything to cells and atoms, electromagnetic waves and neurotransmitters, it puts the whole phenomenal world beneath us. This promotes a certain feeling of ownership over the world – rather than a sense of belonging to it. If we put all our eggs into the science basket, life can seem random, lacking meaning and soul.
Science and Spirit aren’t mutually exclusive. But ever since early anthropologists looked down their noses at animistic cultures – seeing them as too dumb to know the difference between living and nonliving things, and giving their leaders justification to colonize and oppress them – the developed world has favored science as the ultimate authority. As we seek to right such wrongs, perhaps it’s worth considering not just what indigenous cultures lost, but what the oppressors also lost.
To an animist, the scientist is missing out on an entire plane of reality that’s beneath the surface and accessible only through an expansion of consciousness. To a scientist, the subjective reality of the animist’s consciousness is unmeasurable, untestable, unprovable, and therefore unscientific and even unreal.
What would be possible if we stopped using science to dominate or invalidate what we don’t understand? Can we concede – scientists included – that not everything is a scientific matter? This applies foremost to consciousness itself, which is entirely beyond the grasp of science, and arguably the only thing we know for certain to be real. We also know that humans yearn for a connection that’s beyond the ability of science to explain or provide.
You don’t need to be anti-science to be open to a spiritual reality. I say this as a scientist and animist.
If you’re open to it, I have a simple assignment for you to try this week. Consider this: how might your life be different if you treated your surroundings as if you were in relationship with them? Make it a lighthearted game.
What happens when you express gratitude to your bed, sheets, and pillow upon waking? What happens when you allow yourself to be in awe of the shimmering water that flows, as if by magic, from your showerhead? How does it feel to thank it for invigorating and purifying you? Does it feel any different to bless your food before eating it and thank it for giving itself to nourish you?
What is it like to thank your home for keeping you safe and comfortable? When you step outside, what happens when you experience the earth as the ever-present stability beneath your feet, supporting you and nurturing everything that grows upon it? What do you notice when you give names to the familiar trees or rocks in your neighborhood? How does it feel different to think of the sky as a beautiful, conscious dome over you versus your usual way? What changes when you think of all the animals you encounter as non-human people, each with an equally valid reason to be here as the human people you see?
And what happens when you listen and feel as if all these aspects of the world have something to communicate back to you?
When I say, “What happens?” I’m not (necessarily) asking, “Does your pillow respond, ‘Thanks for finally saying something! It was a pleasure to cradle your head all night!’?” More importantly, I’m asking, how does it make you feel to relate to the world in this way in comparison to your usual way? And if the answer is, “good” or “better” or “playful,” then keep going with it.
Dr. Peter Borten