Animism for the Religious Naturalist (Updated)

“We are not—even they are not—primarily rational, logical, or ‘scientific’ beings. Our human relationship to the rest of nature is not akin to the analysis of bacteria in a petri dish; it is more like the complex, love-hate relationship we might have with lovers or parents or siblings. It is who we are, unspoken and felt and frustrating and inspiring and vital and impossible to peer-review. You can reach part of it with the analytical mind, but the rest will remain buried in the ancient woodland floor of human evolution and in the depths of our old ape brains, which see in pictures and think in stories. Civilization has always been a project of control, but you can’t win a war against the wild within yourself.”

— Paul Kingsnorth, “Dark Ecology”

Every year, my Unitarian church holds a water communion ceremony at the beginning of autumn. We bring water which we have collected from special places and pour it into a communal bowl. To it we combine a small amount of water that was saved from previous years. It’s a simple and yet powerful ritual for me and for many of us. 

While we were social distancing during the worst of the COVID pandemic, we held services online, and so our annual water communion had to be altered to fit a virtual format. Instead of each of us pouring water into a communal bowl, the service leader poured water into a bowl by himself, while we watched on our screens. It was the best we could do under the circumstances.

But something was lost. I think something essential. Something about being physically present, being with other bodies, carrying the water, feeling it pour out into the bowl, seeing the movement of the water in the flesh, and that feeling that you can almost smell or taste the water. All of these sensations add to the feeling of being connected physically to a larger world, to a specific place and time, and to a wider community of beings.

This pouring of water or pouring libations is a part of my own personal spiritual practice as well. I pour libations on special occasions, like the solstices and equinoxes, including the autumn equinox which was a few days ago. I will go outside to a special place that I’ve set aside in my yard. I will carry a vessel of liquid. I will recite a poem or ancient religious text which has resonated with me and fits the season in some way. And I will pour the water slowly on the ground.

Pouring libations 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, olive oil, or honey. To the ancients, these were offering to the gods, done in exchange for blessings or to show care and honor. But this practice serves a somewhat different purpose for me. 

I am an atheist and a religious naturalist, like many of you, which means I don’t look for supernatural explanations of natural events. But I do use other words to describe my spirituality. Animist is one of those words. Animism is the experience of being enmeshed in a more-than-human world of living beings. My atheism doesn’t help me explain what is missing from our virtual water ceremony. Animism helps me explain what is lost when our spirituality goes virtual.

Animism is not a belief system. It’s an experience. I want to offer you four concepts which help explain the experience of animism. And then I want to offer four practices which might help you have these experiences for yourself more often.

Interconnectedness

The first concept is interconnectedness. Unitarians are familiar with the concept of interconnectedness from our 7th principle. But interconnectedness 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 beings, inside and out, many of whom we are in a symbiotic relationship with. And these are just the most immediate ways that we are connected to the world.

We are enmeshed in an interconnected web of reciprocal relationships with a more-than-human world.

Participation

The second concept is called “participation” from the philosopher Owen Barfield’s term “original participation”.

In antiquity, human beings experienced the world as alive and they felt themselves to be a part of it, rather than mere observers of it. Over time, we gradually lost that original sense of participation in the world. 

In order to better understand the world, we developed 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 is 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. To understand what is missing, it’s useful to understand the distinction between conceptual knowledge and participative knowledge. Conceptual knowledge is like a tool and participative knowledge is like sustenance or food. The tool can help us get the food, but it’s not a substitute for the food. We have a tendency in our modern culture to overvalue the tool and undervalue the food. I think we Unitarians are especially prone to this sometimes. In doing so, we deprive ourselves of participative knowledge which alone can sustain us spiritually. 

Rewilding

The third concept is rewilding. 

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 to some extent. There is no place where human power is absolute, even your own backyard. 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 and bears, where they were previously exterminated. 

But there is also a rewilding which can happen to us human beings. We human beings have become “domesticated” by our own civilization and technology, by our attempts to completely control our environment. But at our core, like all living things, we remain wild animals. 

We can experience a rewilding of ourselves by spending time in wilder places. But even in more domesticated places, we can experience a rewilding of ourselves by cultivating our senses and seeking out intentional relationships with other-than-human beings who fill our world.

Reenchantment

The fourth concept is 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 subjective and 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. 

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.  

Libations

So what am I doing when I pour a libation onto the earth? I’m not making an offering to the gods. Nor am I making an offering 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 of restoring my experience of interconnectedness and original participation. They are a way of rewilding my senses and re-enchanting my world.

As I pour out the water, wine, honey, vinegar, 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 vessel 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 causes me to 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 participative, from my mind to my flesh and bones.

Now, in the time that remains, I want to offer three more practices that might help you to experience these concepts of interconnectedness, participation, rewilding, and re-enchantment. The first was pouring libations, which I’ve already talked about.

Enchanting the Everyday

The second practice is called “enchanting the everyday”.

Enchanting the everyday means creating space where beings in the world around us, even seemingly mundane, inanimate “objects”, 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 an American Indian and a professor of environmental science. Kimmerer 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, depending on where 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 indigenous ancestors. Kimmerer’s ancestors did express their thanks to nature with offerings, as probably all of our pagan ancestors did. 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 explains, “That is the power of ceremony. It marries the mundane to the sacred: It turns coffee into a prayer.”

You can do this with any mundane action, like 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 simple action 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 third practice is called “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. Experiencing this requires the tricky step of overcoming the subject-object distinction, which is our default way of relating to the world.

The Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber talks about the distinction between the “I-it” relationship and the “I-Thou” relationship. He uses a tree as an 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 mythological dryad or an Ent (if you’re a Tolkien fan). It also does not mean anthropomorphizing the tree, in the sense of projecting 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 too.

The ecologist David Abram, author of Spell of the Sensuous, explains this is actually that our most natural and direct way of experiencing the world. Our objectification of other beings, he says, which turns them from “Thou’s” into “it’s”, is actually artificial. Seeing another being as a thou may be our natural way of being in the world, but 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

The fourth practice is “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”. 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 by creating new pronouns for other-than-human beings.

Kimmerer advocates for 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 means 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 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 into practice. Go outside and find some “thing”—a tree or a bird or even a stone—and talk to it. Address the other being as “you” or “thou.” 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.

The point is not to communicate with the plant or animal or mineral (which obviously does not understand your human language), but to change how you relate to them. 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 speaking to nature. Each of these practices has helped me to experience the interconnectedness of life, my participation with it, the rewilding of myself, and the re-enchantment 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 beings in constant communion with each other and with us.

If all else fails, you can take a cup of water outside as the sun rises in the east, breath in and breath out, and pour the water slowly onto the earth.


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.

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