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2 March 2007

Why ‘Opposition is True Friendship’

Graham Harvey discusses the relationships that animate animists

By Graham Harvey

In my previous blogs I’ve introduced animism by talking about hedgehogs, computers and cannibals — a fairly unique introduction to a religion I think you’ll agree! I’ve suggested that most people are animists to some degree, just as most of us are humanists to some degree.

Many of us are fairly happy to be called spiritual too (though we might not want to be called “religious”). I suspect that there’ll be stuff in all the New Statesman Faith Column blogs that you’ll agree with as well as stuff that you’ll disagree with. It’s important that we find things to celebrate about each other as well as being clear where we differ.

In his Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), William Blake says that “Opposition is true Friendship” and insists that attempts to reconcile difference are likely to “destroy existence”. The diversity of life is diminished when one person tries to convert another to their truth. Whole ways of life disappear when one group imposes their system on others. What Blake sees is that difference is good. He’d have felt at home among the many Native Americans who insist that difference is an invitation rather than a barrier to relationship. René Descartes asserted: “I think therefore I am.” Animists insist: “We greet therefore we are.”

But I want to do more than offer this sermon on diversity! I want to indicate some of the relationships that animate animists while noting ways in which we differ from other people. Quite a few of the blogs on this site pay a lot of attention to a deity or deities. Some don’t seem to be able to define religion without reference to God or similar beings. It is true that many animists are happy to acknowledge the existence of many deities. In fact we might agree that all deities ever venerated might exist in reality (not just as projections of some daft human). Whether you would trust these deities or invite them to your party is an entirely different matter. There are deities who, instead of inviting people to enjoy the world, seem to encourage self-destructive behaviours followed by terrible assaults on others.

Animists aren’t likely to venerate deities who dislike the world or require devotion to the exclusion of all others. They are likely to acknowledge the possible existence of deities in the same way that they acknowledge the existence of many hedgehogs. We aren’t necessarily interested in all hedgehogs, but relate well with this one or this group. (Sorry, do feel free to think about wombats or oaks or eagles or some other being whose presence delights you). Deities greeted regularly by animists are likely to be ones who are willing to give and receive gifts, and to engage with the messy realities of this gloriously physical world. They are part of this world, not above it. But it is possible to be an animist and never knowingly deal with deities.

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Next, animists are likely to be concerned about their ancestors and to hope that their ancestors look kindly on them. Ancestors aren’t just dead people, they are our relations who continue to engage with us even after death. It is difficult for Westerners to think properly about ancestors. This is partly because we think death is “the end”. Even when we remain emotionally tied to recently dead relatives, we usually expect them to be removed to heaven or the grave (depending on our ideas about what makes up a human being). Animists are among those currently insisting that it is disrespectful to dig up the dead and treat their remains as inert resources for scientific tests. It is not appropriate to meet the ancestors without greeting them and making gifts to them. Like rocks and wombats, they have their own desires that ought to be heeded.

Animists are likely to avow that humans also share the world with some beings who others have relegated to the pages of mythology or fantasy fiction. Those who think the world is a tame and romantic place may mistakenly think that faeries are cute creatures. Older traditions offer reminders that they are not necessarily nice. Like lions, they may be beautiful to observe from a safe place, but they remain wild creatures who view humans in quite unflattering ways. Who’s to say whose vision is realistic here?

Animism is a religion of embodied beings in a gloriously physical world of profligate diversity. It encourages the careful and cautious building of respectful relationships with our neighbours, human and other-than-human. It encourages local and sensual engagements in life while seeking to honour the larger, global or cosmic, consequences of all actions. Each one of us, in relationship with others, is busy making the world what it is becoming. It is now time to celebrate and enhance the diversity of life.

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