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27 February 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:32am

Animism and hedgehogs

Deep down we may all be animists

By Graham Harvey

What religion do hedgehogs practice? Like questions about life after death, it is impossible to be absolutely certain. As far as I know, hedgehogs don’t say grace before or after eating slugs. They don’t appear to offer prayers or sacrifices in the hope of receiving aid in crossing roads. Nor do they seem to erect memorials to kin lost on those roads. Perhaps the whole question seems ridiculous. I ask it not because animists like myself claim to know about hedgehog religions, but because we seek to live respectfully with all living beings. Asking what hedgehogs, wombats, salmon, eagles, flints or oaks care about helps us to shift our centre of attention away from humanity and onto the wider community of life. It aids us in thinking about how we live in this beautiful, fragile planet alongside myriad others.

In his recent blogs about humanism, Andrew Copson suggested that “for as long as there have been humans, there have probably been ideas that we would today call humanist”. Similarly, many people are now discovering that there is a word for the way in which they experience the world. It not only describes something at the heart of a view of the world but offers a hint towards some ways of acting towards other beings. That word is animism. Dictionaries tend to offer unfortunate definitions, saying something like “animism is the belief that everything, animate and inanimate, is alive or has a soul”. I’m not sure what “soul” means, but if something is alive it cannot be “inanimate”. These dictionaries are asserting that animists are wrong or foolish. My definition of animism is that it is a way of living that treats the world as a community of living beings, persons, most of whom are other-than-human. Animists are people who seek appropriate ways of showing respect to others. This is an animate, living, world and to live is to enliven the possibilities and well-being of oneself and others.

In some respects animism is an expanded, more inclusive, version of humanism. If humanists are people who seek to live responsibly among other humans, contributing to the happiness and welfare of themselves and others, so too are animists. But we insist that humans are members of a larger community whose well-being must also be valued. This doesn’t mean that animists spend all their days hugging trees or talking to rocks. After all, humanists can show respect to others without having to shake hands with everyone they meet in their local High Street. Instead, they might show that they are humanists by not insisting that the whole pavement is theirs, by not standing in the way of others, or by holding a door open for another to use. Just so, animists seek to live in ways that do not insist on the priority or dominance of humans. If they have a garden they are unlikely to use pesticides or weed-killers. Indeed, the idea that there are “pests” or “weeds” is a profoundly human-centred one that denies the right of other living beings to exist, let alone to compete with humanity.

None of this means that animists cannot take lives. Before anyone mistakes this for fluffy romanticism, in a later blog I’ll return to the question of eating and being eaten. I’ll also outline some of the other ways in which animists see the world differently from humanists, just so that I’m not misunderstood as simply promulgating a more explicitly environmentalist version of humanism. What it comes down to is that, as animists see and treat the world, there is no separation between humans and other living beings, no gap between culture and nature, no realm that is an “environment” that is not part of the community of persons. We are members of a community and neither do nor can exist alone. We have never been disconnected, so the solution to the world’s problems is not that we need to reconnect. What we do is already part of all that happens in the world. We are already intimately related. It is therefore necessary that we start acting on our membership of the community of life in respectful, life-affirming, diversity-celebrating ways.

There are animists everywhere. Not only, if animists are correct, have most living beings (hedgehogs, sparrows, trout, flu viruses, snowdrops, and possibly even volcanoes and storm clouds) never stopped living as members of a diverse community. There are also many animists among indigenous peoples. Indeed, animism is a core element of the language of the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe) nation and of many other Native American communities. Animism is also a greater or lesser element in the lives of many Pagans and of all of you who talk to your computers, name your cars, or do what your cat tells you.

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