Animism for the Religious Naturalist

I am an atheist and a religious naturalist, which means that I don’t look for supernatural explanations of natural events. But I use other words to describe my spirituality: “pagan” or “animist.” While there are pagans who believe in the supernatural, there are others like me who try to bring together an atheist rationality with a pagan sensitivity.

One part of my personal spiritual practice involves pouring libations. This is an ancient spiritual practice which involved pouring some kind of liquid onto the earth or onto a stone. The liquid might be water, or wine, or olive oil. To the ancients, this was an offering to the gods, made in exchange for blessings. Because since I am an atheist, the libations serve another purpose.

I pour libations on special occasions, like the solstices and equinoxes, including the autumn equinox which is in a couple days. I will go outside to a special place that I’ve set aside in my yard for this kind of thing. I will carry a vessel of water (or maybe vinegar). I will recite a poem from ancient Sumer about the lamentation of the goddess Inanna for her dead lover. And I will pour the water slowly on the ground.

Someone watching this might well wonder what is going on here? Am I just watering my yard in very inefficient way? Do I just have an overdeveloped sense of the dramatic? Why would an atheist do this?


To answer that question, I watch to talk about three experiential concepts:

  1. interconnectedness,
  2. rewilding
  3. and reenchantment.

I call them experiential, because they are not just in the head; they are whole body experiences-really three ways of talking about the same kind of experience. And after I explain these three experiential concepts, I want to offer three practices which might help you experience this for yourself.

Interconnectedness

The first experiential concept is interconnectedness. Unitarians will be familiar with the concept from our 7th principal, which was added, due to the influence of pagan and other earth-centered spiritualities within the Unitarian Universalist Association. But interconnectness can seem like an abstract concept until we root it in our bodies and the immediate physical world around us.

Conscious breathing is one of easiest ways to feel our interconnectedness. As we inhale, we are literally bringing the world into us. As we exhale, we are offering ourselves to the world. It’s easy to forget about the existence of air. We treat it like it literally nothing. Any yet it is a tactile presence, in which we are immersed, just as a fish is immersed in water. And this air isn’t empty. It is full of matter. And even small living beings-some of the innocuous, others harmful to human beings (as we are acutely aware of now).

It’s not just our breath either. Our skin isn’t a solid barrier. It breathes too. And it absorbs some of what it touches. In addition, our bodies are literally crawling with microscopic life forms, inside and out, many of whom we are in a symbiotic relationship with. And these are just the most immediate ways that interconnectedness can be experienced.

We are enmeshed in an interconnected web of reciprocal relationships with a more-than-human world. The ecologist David Abram reminds us that even the act of perception is an intimate exchange between two beings:

“There is an intimate reciprocity to the senses: as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in turn.”

– David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous

Rewilding

Aldous Huxley, who you may know as the author of Brave New World, wrote in an essay, titled “One and Many”, that we moderns are alienated from the instinctive, passionate side of our being, and we overemphasize instead our intellective, rational side. I think Unitarian Universalists may be especially prone to this. As a result, we value abstract, conceptual knowledge over direct, participative knowledge. Huxley compares conceptual knowledge to a tool and participative knowledge to food. The tool can help us get the food, but it’s not a substitute for the food.

We have a tendency in our culture to overvalue the tool and undervalue the food. We see the world as an object, and abstract ourselves out of it, as a way of gaining “objectivity”. This can be a very useful and powerful way of seeing the world. It enables us to have considerable control over our environment. But, when this becomes our everyday reality, then we deprive ourselves of participative experience which alone can sustain us spiritually. Thus, the more controlled our environment is, the less spiritual nourishment we get from it. This is part of the reason why virtual worship services can sometimes feel so unfulfilling.

And this is why being in nature, especially wild nature, can feel so fulfilling. In nature, we experience a world that is not merely a tool for our use, but which is to some extent beyond our power to control it. Because of this, out intellective self can take a back seat and participative self can come to the forefront.

This is why wild places are so important. When we say something is “wild”, we mean it is, to some extent, beyond human control. We are experiencing the rapid disappearance of places we call wild or “wilderness”, but at the same time we are also realizing that, in a very real sense, there is no place that isn’t wild. There is no place where human power is absolute. Climate change, for example, is just one reminder that our control over nature is always incomplete at best.

The term “rewilding” refers to restoration of wilderness areas and reintroducing apex predators and keystone species, like wolves, where they were previously exterminated. But there is also a rewilding which can happen to human beings. Human beings have become “domesticated” by our own civilization and technology. We can experience a rewilding of ourselves as we develop our senses and our non-intellective faculties and seek out intentional relationships with other-than-human beings who fill our world.

Re-Enchantment

The line between our ordinary civilized world and the sensory-rich world of wild nature can be a very subjective one. To one person, farmland might seem wild in comparison with the urban setting they are more familiar with. To another person, a state park is more of a human environment than a natural one. The difference between these two worlds is a matter of degree.

Because of this, we don’t have to go to a national park to find wildness. It is possible to find it in unlikely places. We might, for example, discover something wild in an office park retention pond or in the cracks in the asphalt of a parking lot. But this requires “unfamiliarizing” ourselves with the world around us. There is so much that we take for granted, that our gaze passes over casually, as we rush past. We must look at the world afresh, with the eyes of an artist or a child.

This is what is meant by the re-enchantment of the world. Our ordinary world is very much disenchanted. As Morris Berman explains in his book, The Reenchantment of the World, in antiquity, human beings experienced the world as alive and they felt themselves to be a part of it, rather than alienated observers. What we call “progress” is a story of our progressive disenchantment or alienation from the world.

In order to better understand the world, we learned a method of separating ourselves from nature, of conceptually stepping “outside” of nature to become its observers, to see the world as an object. This was a powerful conceptual tool. But it became not just a scientific method; it became our ordinary, everyday way of relating to the world. This is why modern life has a way of cutting us off from everything, from the natural world, from other people, and even from our own bodies. The result is individual alienation, social disconnection, and environmental devastation. And it also leaves us vulnerable to the pseudo-enchantments of capitalist consumption, addiction, and absorption in virtual technology.

Yet we still have a nagging feeling that we’re missing something, something essential. The re-enchantment of the world is a return to the sense of essential participation in the living world and a sense of kinship with the other-than-human beings with whom we share the world.

Animists and other pagans seek to re-enchant the world through ritual and other religious practices, especially those practices which connect us with each other, with our physical environment, and especially with our bodies. It is in our bodies that the self and the world, the subjective and the objective, blend imperceptibly together. Our bodies are the door which leads out of our minds and opens into the world.


So what am I doing when I pour a libation onto the earth? I’m not making an offering to the gods, who I wouldn’t imagine would need it even if they did exist. Nor am I making an offerings to the earth or to nature, which would inevitably receive the matter I am offering in some other way. Instead, these libations are a way restoring my experience of connection with the world, of remembering a reciprocity which is always already present, but which we human beings have the ability to (intentionally and unintentionally) make ourselves blind to.

As I pour out the water, wine, honey, or olive oil on the earth, I create, in the form of the stream of liquid, a living connection between myself and the earth. It is a visual and visceral representation of that connection. In so doing, I experience both an “emptying” and also simultaneously a “filling”, as if am both the cup that pours and the earth which receives-emptying, because I am giving up substance which I might take into my body as sustenance, and filling, because my body is already connected with the earth so intimately that I cannot give to the earth without sustaining myself.

I don’t just think it; the ritual helps me feel it. As I pour the libation and watch the stream of water flowing onto the earth and being absorbed by the soil, this connection moves from the conceptual to the visceral, from my mind to my flesh and bones.


I want to suggest three practice that might help you to experience these concepts of interconnectedness, rewilding, and reechantment.The three practices are:

  1. enchanting the everyday,
  2. seeing another being as a “Thou”,
  3. and speaking to nature.

Enchanting the Everyday

Enchanting the everyday means creating space for world around us, even seemingly mundane, inanimate “objects”, to manifest as living presences with which we are in intimate relationship. Ritualizing ordinary acts can help enchant the everyday.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. She is a Native American and a professor of environmental science, and she blends the wisdom of her indigenous heritage (which she has been rediscovering as an adult) with her scientific training.

Kimmerer writes about the summers her family spent camping in the Adirondacks and how a seemingly mundane act became a sacred ritual for her family. In the mornings, when they were fixing breakfast, her father would take the steaming coffee pot to the edge of the camp, face the rising sun, and pour a little out onto the ground, speaking the words, “Here is to the gods of the mountain”, or the river or the forest, wherever they were. The children learned instinctually that this was a sacred moment during which they should be reverent.

Kimmerer explains that this ritual taught her that the world was bigger than human beings, that it was home to other-than-human beings who are worthy of our respect and our thanks. Now you might think that Kimmerer’s father learned this from his native ancestors. Their ancestors did express their thanks to nature with offerings, as probably all of our pagan ancestors. But Kimmerer’s family no longer knew those ancient ways. They’d been taken from her people by White boarding schools and other forms of cultural imperialism. But still her family found their own way to offer thanks to the more-than-human world. The words were different, the gestures not quite the same, but the spirit was identical.

Years later, Kimmerer asked her father where the coffee ceremony came from. He said that it started in a very mundane way, as just clearing the coffee grounds from the spout, but it became something more, something sacred. He said, eventually, “It was just what we did. It seemed right.” Kimmerer says,

“That is the power of ceremony. It marries the mundane to the sacred: It turns coffee into a prayer.”

– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

You can do this with any mundane action taking your first conscious breath when you wake, noticing the sun in the morning, holding your hands under the flowing water from your faucet or shower head, your first bite of food, or just bending down to touch the earth when you step outside. Any of these can be transformed from a mundane action into a way of enchanting the everyday, an opportunity for communion with the world around us.

Seeing another being as a “Thou”

The mountain Kimmerer’s father poured the coffee to was not aware of him or his actions, at least not in the same way that humans are aware. But nevertheless there was and always is interaction going on between us and the more-than-human world. Seeing this requires the tricky step of overcoming the subject-object distinction, which is our default way of relating to the world.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber talks about the distinction between the “I-it” relationship and the “I-Thou” relationship. He uses a tree as an a example. Encountering a tree as a “Thou” or “you” (or a subject) is different from encountering the tree as an “it” (or as an object). This does not mean, he says, looking beyond or within the tree for something like a soul (or a dryad or an Ent). It also does not mean anthropomorphizing the tree, in the sense of ascribing human consciousness to it. It means awaking our sensual selves to the reciprocal relationship which exists in every encounter.

Even the something as seemingly one-sided as looking at another being is actually an interaction. We when see the tree, we are not doing so in a vacuum. We share the air with the tree. We share the sunlight with the tree. We interact with the tree through these mediums, using all of our senses, and the tree interacts with us.

David Abram explains this is actually that our most natural and direct way of experiencing the world. It’s our objectification of other beings, he says, which turns them from “Thou’s” into “it’s”, which is actually artificial. And while it is our natural way of being in the world, it is not our habitual way of being anymore. We have become habituated to seeing the world as populated with inanimate objects, rather than animate subjects. Seeing and hearing and smelling and touching the world in this way is not easy for us any longer. When we look at a tree, our default way of seeing is not seeing at all. We don’t see the tree, but our idea of a tree, which we project onto the world. We unconsciously fill in the gaps with our ideas of what a tree should look like.

It takes an artist’s eyes-or a lover’s-to really see. It takes a willingness to get our hands dirty, to get up close and personal with nature, and to use all of our senses, our eyes, ears, noses, skin, even our tongues. But most of all, it requires a willingness to be open-to receiving, as well as perceiving-an openness to being seen, when we see, to be heard when we hear, and to be touched back when we touch another being.

Speaking to Nature

Language doesn’t just reflect our experience, it shapes our experience, including our experience of nature. To a certain extent, our experience is limited by what we can say about it. For example, lacking words for certain colors may limit our ability to see them.

Another example is peculiar to the English language. Although many other languages use gendered pronouns for non-human objects, English only has the gender-neutral “it.” But “it” is not a neutral word. Referring to a human being as an “it,” for example, is insulting. Calling someone “it” is a refusal to recognize the subjectivity (or personhood) of the person, and reducing them to an object (a thing).

What does this mean for how we relate to nature? When we speak of a tree or other living being, we habitually refer to them as “it” (or sometimes “that”). We even refer to animals as “it” when we do not know their sex, and sometimes when we do. Because of this, we tend to relate to these other-than-human beings as things, instead of persons, as objects, rather than subjects. And because of this, we feel free to use them, without care or respect, without any sense of community or reciprocity.

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about this as well. She suggests changing our language as a way of changing our relationship to nature. Specifically, she urges us to adopt a new pronoun as a way of shifting our worldview.

There is a long, hard to pronounce Anishinaabe word for living beings (human and other-than-human). The last syllable is “ki” and Kimmerer suggests adopting “ki”, to replace “it,” and using “kin” to replace “they” when we speak of the animate world. So we say of a tree, “ Ki is growing beautifully.” And of a grove of trees, “ Kin are growing beautifully”. Coincidentally, “ki” resembles the words for “who” in Spanish and in French. The word “kin” invokes our relationship of kin ship with the natural world.

Kimmerer describes this as a language of reciprocity, one which recognizes that we human beings are not the only persons on the planet. Kimmerer is a scientist, and she acknowledges that there is a taboo among rational people against “anthropomorphizing” the natural world. But, she says, personifying is not the same thing as anthropomorphizing. Anthropomorphizing is ascribing human qualities to something an other-than-human person. Personifying, on the other hand, means recognizing the personhood of a being-and humans are not the only kind of persons. Kimmerer explains that just as it is incorrect to put plants in the same conceptual category with humans, it is incorrect to put them in the same category as paperclips and bulldozers, as if they have no awareness and no value independent of their usefulness to us.

Kimmerer even extends personhood to rocks. This makes sense to me when I think about rocks as part of that complex, self-regulating, living system we call “Gaia.” Though the pace of the life of the rock is so much slower than ours, both we and the rock are intertwined with a larger life which includes flow of air and water, the growth of plants, and the interaction with humans and other animals.

Now, here’s how you can put this idea into practice. Go outside and find some “thing”-a tree or a bird or even a stone-and try describing ki using the pronouns “ki” and “kin” instead of “it” and “they.” Speak out loud when you do this. It will probably feel awkward at first, but push through that. Pay attention to how you feel, especially how you feel about the plant or animal or mineral that is the subject of your attention.

Now, try talking to ki, rather than just talking about ki. Address ki as “you” or “thou.” The point is not to communicate with the plant or animal or mineral (which obviously does not understand your language), but to change how you relate to our kin. Remember not just to talk, but to ask questions and to listen, just like you would in a conversation. This will help put you in a receptive state of being. Remember, talking to a tree it isn’t about communicating with the tree using human language. It’s about experiencing the communion that is already happening.

That is the goal of all of these practices: enchanting the everyday, seeing another being as a Thou, and talking to nature. Each of these practices has helped me to experience the interconnectedness of life, the rewilding of myself, and the reenchantment of the world. These practices require no belief in the supernatural, only a willingness to be open to a world that is so much larger than us, a more-than-human world full of animate being in constant communion with each other and with us.


Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

– David Whyte, “Everything is Waiting for You”

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: