What is anthropocentrism?
Turns out, there is no single, simple answer to this question even among people best known for “liberally strewing” it. (Just among the nearly fifty books on environmental ethics and deep ecology that I have, only one actually offers a definition of the term, despite almost all of them referring to it in their discussions. As with many words, its meaning often has to be teased out and inferred from context.) In my earlier post I hinted at the beginnings of a definition when I referred to an approach to ritual that “takes for granted a worldview in which humans are the only measure of what is real.” The question of how our idea of “the real” and our practical responses to it (for instance, through ritual activity) influence our underlying values and where we locate (or create) meaning is a complex conversation in its own right, and it is in this particular theological meadow that I’ll do much of my lingering and bee-gazing in the following posts. But for now, it’s probably more helpful to sketch out a basic definition, one we can use as a kind of measure against which we can hold up more complex, fidgety ideas later in the conversation. So, here we go.
Anthropocentrism is the philosophical view that human beings are separate from and superior to the rest of the natural world, possessing intrinsic value that other beings and entities (such as plants and non-human animals) lack. In an article on environmental ethics, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy makes the distinction between “strong” and “weak” anthropocentrism this way:
Many traditional western ethical perspectives, however, are anthropocentric or human-centered in that either they assign intrinsic value to human beings alone (i.e., what we might call anthropocentric in a strong sense) or they assign a significantly greater amount of intrinsic value to human beings than to any nonhuman things such that the protection or promotion of human interests or well-being at the expense of nonhuman things turns out to be nearly always justified (i.e., what we might call anthropocentric in a weak sense). [emphasis added]
In other words, anthropocentrism concerns the way that we assign value and meaning to the world around us — it sets the intrinsic value of human beings in contrast to the merely instrumental or utilitarian value of the non-human — and so in this way it has an implicit connection to the question of ethics.
In the introduction to Deep Ecology and World Religions, editors Barnhill and Gottlieb elaborate further that anthropocentrism is the view that “human beings are (because of intelligence, technology, science, political life, language, the soul, etc.) categorically different from their surroundings.” Barnhill and Gottlieb point out that when deep ecologists make the claim that “to be human is to be part of nature,” they are explicitly opposing anthropocentrism. This is an important point to understand, because there are also philosophical views that see humans as “a part of nature” (ie. fundamentally material, physical beings in relationship with natural systems, without reference to a spiritual, supernatural or non-material reality) but which still do not reject basic anthropocentric assumptions about value. In other words, merely saying “human beings are a part of nature” is not in itself a rejection of anthropocentrism.
One example of a naturalistic but still anthropocentric philosophy in environmental ethics is what’s known as “enlightened, or prudential, anthropocentrism” — the view that our responsibility to care for the earth and its ecosystems stems from our ethical obligation to other human beings, who depend on those systems. (This is the stance that Richard Watson adopts, for instance, in his critique of anti-anthropocentric biocentrism, pointing out some important inconsistencies in the views of deep ecology.) This philosophy is similar in some ways to the Christian concept of “dominion” or “stewardship,” the belief that humans have a responsibility to care for the earth because God created the earth specifically as a home for humans. In both cases, humans have intrinsic value, while the rest of the natural world has merely instrumental or derivative value — that is, it only has value insofar as it relates to or serves human beings.
This is one reason why the founders of deep ecology chose to call their philosophy “deep,” calling attention to the fact that there are other philosophical views founded on ecological principles that are “shallow” — views that take for granted certain assumptions about the supremacy or centrality of humanity and its interests, or fail to offer an adequate challenge to those assumptions. For deep ecologists and many modern animists, it’s not only turtles all the way down, but hedgehogs all the way round.
Given the legacy of anthropocentrism in religious and philosophical traditions in Western culture, it would be surprising if modern Paganism were completely free of its influence. And we can find examples of it in both naturalistic philosophies and spiritual/religious theologies which draw on anthropocentric views in various subtle ways.
For instance, John Halstead (a naturalistic Pagan) recently explored the possibility of a tropical rainforest ontology — a philosophy which, despite being naturalistic and non-reductionist, asserts that humanity occupies a level of “essential ontological distinctiveness” that is separate from and more highly complex than the lower levels occupied by non-human animals, plants, rocks, chemical compounds, etc. Implicit in his argument that “a hierarchy of complexity is built into the universe” is the assertion that human beings occupy a place of supremacy in this hierarchy and represent the most highly evolved life forms on earth, possessing emergent properties of mind and culture that are lacking in the lower levels.
Pagan or polytheist practice that emphasizes cultus presupposes a definite being with volition and consciousness on the other end of the interaction. [...] To imagine that nature simply as itself (with no theological beliefs attached) should be worshipped for its own sake today is equally not viable or sensible. [original emphasis]
Lupus, like Halstead, believes that there is a categorical difference between the rest of the natural world (which in his view is ontologically inanimate and indifferent) and human beings (who, like gods and spirits, are capable of relationship and response in a way that “nature” is not). As with Halstead’s philosophy, we see that according to this view humans possess unique qualities — consciousness, volition, religion, spiritual awareness, etc. — that set us apart from the rest of the natural world (and, in this case, make us more like gods). While Halstead refers to a naturalistic hierarchy, Lupus relies much more heavily on dualism, a fundamental distinction between spirit and matter. While dualism isn’t necessarily anthropocentric in theory, in application it almost always assigns humans the special role of arbiter or bridge between these two modes of being, placing them “closer” to the gods or the spiritual realm than other physical beings. We can see this tendency expressed in Lupus’s view when he argues that we cannot engage with the sun itself but only with “the Spirit of the Sun” that exists within it; and yet, he clearly does not extend this same reasoning to humans in a way that claims we cannot talk to Bob or Sally directly, only to “the Spirit of Bob” or “the Spirit of Sally.” Thus, for Lupus, the natural world has no value in itself or “for its own sake” (ie. no intrinsic value), although humans can still appreciate it (aesthetic value), try to live in harmony with it (instrumental value) and even include it in our cultus if we direct our attention to the spirits “within” it (practical value). These are all still clear examples of assigning instrumental or derivative value to nature, rather than acknowledging its intrinsic value apart from human use, pleasure or survival.
I chose these two examples to highlight the influence of anthropocentrism in modern Paganism precisely because Lupus and Halstead are usually assumed to be on opposite ends of the theological spectrum. And yet, even when Halstead disagrees with Lupus about his claim that Pagans cannot worship nature “for its own sake,” he does not challenge the basic assumption that humans are fundamentally different from the rest of the natural world, that we are receptive and conscious whereas “nature” is unconscious, inanimate and incapable of receptivity or response:
[I]n point of fact, I do worship natural phenomena for “its own sake” … or more precisely “for my own sake.” Lupus’ analysis seems to assume that worship needs a receptive party on the other end that appreciates the worship. And if you start with that assumption, then it would seem absurd to worship inanimate or unconscious nature. But for me, worship is a natural human response to the wonder which nature evokes. [emphasis added]
Here, Halstead seems to define worship as more like an aesthetic response, rather than as a relationship with another volitional, conscious being. But approaching worship in this way still anchors it in the centrality of human experience — as Halstead himself points out when he correctly notes that this practice is for his own sake, not necessarily nature’s.
There are arguments you could make that my calling the perspectives of these two Pagans “anthropocentric” is not entirely accurate. For instance, Halstead could argue that simply because humans are categorically different in kind from the rest of the natural world (that they exist at the top of an ontological hierarchy) doesn’t mean they are intrinsically more valuable than other beings. Or he could argue (pretty convincingly, I think) that organizing the practice of worship around the aesthetic response of wonder and awe in the human person doesn’t negate the intrinsic value of the natural object that provoked this response in the first place. Likewise, Lupus could point out that when he discusses the value of nature “for its own sake,” it is only in the specific context of ritual worship, and not meant to be taken as a statement about nature’s intrinsic value outside of ritual practice. He could also claim that, unlike most instances of dualism in Western thought, his particular dualistic worldview is radically egalitarian because it asserts that all beings — not just humans — have spirits “within” them (although that would hardly address the question of whether matter, as opposed to spirit, has any intrinsic value in his view).
This is where it can be useful to remember the distinction between “strong anthropocentrism” and “weak anthropocentrism.” Even worldviews that do not make strong ontological claims about the supremacy or centrality of human beings can have the practical effect of directing our attention, interest and concern primarily or exclusively towards the human being as a locus of meaning and context, at the expense of a more-than-human natural world that is assumed to exist in a state of deaf-dumb indifference. There is room for debate about the details of worldviews like Halstead’s or Lupus’s, but in the end, I’m not convinced either of them adequately challenge the deeply ingrained assumptions of Western culture’s anthropocentric legacy.
Obviously, these are complex — not to mention subtle and tricky! — topics to grapple with, and we’re already at risk of stumbling into a kind of ontological fog. So I’d like to continue this exploration of anthropocentrism in Pagan theology and ritual by looking at what I think anthropocentrism is not.
More specifically, I’d like to address three straw men raised in recent discussions, and explore why I believe they are not actually examples of anthropocentrism. Those straw men are:
- Human instinct is inherently anthropocentric.
- Human subjectivity makes anthropocentrism inevitable.
- Anthropocentrism is a matter of belief, not practice.
The first two of these three points speak to the more general objection that a non-anthropocentric approach to ethics, ritual or theology is simply not possible. This objection is not unique to the Pagan community, either, but has been raised again and again over the past several decades in the many discussions of what exactly anthropocentrism is and how it manifests in everything from environmentalism to religion to philosophy to politics to science. It’s my personal belief that it is most definitely possible to approach ritual and theology from a non-anthropocentric worldview, and that the very act of continually striving to “de-center” ourselves through the process of philosophical discourse is perhaps more important than attaining to some ultimately and conclusively “correct” view. It is also my belief that the work of “de-centering” the human being from our worldview is not only a matter of reasoning and/or religious belief, but also inherently bound up with the various ways we act with(in) the physical, natural world — that is, that you cannot have a non-anthropocentric theology if your rituals are grounded in anthropocentric assumptions. Or in other words, inclusivity is action as well as attitude. I’ll explore this idea more when I address the third of these three points.