Deep Ecology, Featured, Holy Wild

Animist Blog Carnival: Wakeful World Book Club

Welcome to the May 2014 edition of the Animist Blog Carnival! For this month’s theme, the ABC hosts its first-ever virtual book club — exploring the work of renowned animist and Druid author, Emma Restall Orr.

The Wakeful World, by Emma Restall OrrLast summer when I first picked up Orr’s The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, I was anticipating a memoir-like book rich with the poetry and storytelling that has come to characterize much of her work. By its outward appearance, The Wakeful World is a slim book with a beautifully minimalist cover. I’d tossed it into my suitcase as I packed for vacation, thinking I’d squeeze in some light reading between our morning hikes and afternoons by the pool.

Boy was I wrong! I ended up reading this book out loud with my partner every evening that week — and for almost a month afterwards — during which we found ourselves constantly setting the book aside to discuss the nuances of Orr’s complex and fascinating ideas. Despite its unassuming appearance, The Wakeful World is no lightweight. It takes up tricky topics such as the nature of consciousness and mind-body dualism, and carefully examines them from every angle, drawing on the insights of some of the most influential thinkers in the history of Western philosophy.

In the year or so since I first read it, I’ve returned to this book again and again. (The pages of my copy are now worn and bent, the margins thick with notes — the highest compliment I can give to a writer!) But what I’ve enjoyed most about the book are the endless discussions it’s provoked. There is so much to chew on, and plenty to disagree with and debate. When grappling with questions about the mind, the soul and existence itself, every reader will inevitably bring their own unique perspectives and experiences to the discussion. This wonderful variety is reflected in this month’s ABC. So without further ado, let’s get to it!

Our first review comes from Brian Taylor, who welcomes Orr’s contribution to the growing plurality of ideas about modern animism. In his post “An Animist’s Bookshelf: The Wakeful World by Emma Restall Orr,” he writes:

In a talk posted on her website she tells us that she finds animism exciting and dangerous because it offers an alternative to Western consumer capitalist culture’s objectification and exploitation of many human beings, other animals, forests, and so forth. In Wakeful World she wanted to hone a definition of animism that would stand its ground against other world views, and help us deconstruct self-sabotaging assumptions in the process.

As a confirmed pluralist I welcome this book. We need a range of perspectives. I like the way in which Restall Orr develops her thesis, step by step, throughout the book. The research behind her most recent offering has clearly been a labour of love, and there’s much of interest here, not least an extended consideration of the mindedness of nature.

Brian also points to an aspect of Orr’s book that falls somewhat short, in being primarily a philosophical work less concerned about how these ideas might have personal, spiritual relevance for the individual animist. Weaving his review of the book into a reflection on the power of astrology and divination, Brian raises some important questions about the bleakness of some of Orr’s theories about purpose and beauty:

Emma Restall Orr’s ideas are certainly interesting, but, despite her assurances to the contrary she sometimes writes as though defining a singular animism, and speaking for all animists. Responding to Whitehead’s teleological God, who guides the universe towards the production of beauty, for example, she writes ‘there are no such benevolent gods in the pantheon of the animist’. Well, no single teleological god, perhaps – but no benevolent gods, guiding us towards beauty? There is a bleakness in this omission that, once again, I’m uncomfortable with. I know about ‘brutality’, but the beauty I’m surrounded by feels more fundamental and enduring. There’s bleakness too in the statement that ‘as no more than a flow of percepts, of changing contextual data, the self actually has no purpose, no meaning at all‘. If that were so, how could ‘we’ enter into long term relationships with other (meaningless) selves? Why would ‘I’ want to ‘create a sustainable and peaceful world’? Why would I find that the pattern of the planets consistently reflects the capacities, challenges, and intimate concerns of individual human, or other-than-human lives? Why would any of this matter?

In his post “The Mind of a Rock: Musings on Orr’s ‘Wakeful World’,” Jeff Lilly draws on his professional background in linguistics and computer engineering to dig into the implications of Orr’s theory of “minded nature” for a modern society where the lines between technology and biology, man and machine, are increasingly blurred:

Orr’s take [on the mind-body paradox] not only leads to the idea that rocks think, but answers why human brains think differently from rocks, and gives a new view of the place of the human experience in the ecology of mind. […]

Orr’s work leads us to a very different conception of mind: one in which humans are no longer at the top of a great chain of mental being, no longer kings of cognition, but simply possessed of a brain that is very well adapted to our needs — not too constrained, not too free, not too malleable, nor too rigid, for our ecological niche and social natures. Just as Copernicus dislodged humanity from the physical center of the universe, this reading of Orr dislodges us from our psychic pinnacle. Instead we’re part of an ecology of mind, one in which the tiny brightly lit mind of the beetle is as valuable and miraculous as the vast dark mind of Mt. Ranier.

Over on the Naturalistic Pantheist blog Nature is Sacred, Matt shares a review of The Wakeful World that explores how Orr’s animism can offer a solid foundation for theories of panpsychism and panexperientialism, two important concepts in his own philosophy. He details the overlap between these concepts in his post “Everything Experiences!“:

One of the Yule/ Christmas presents my partner gave me this year was a book called “The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature” by Emma Restall Orr. It is a fascinating book yet I have found a lot of it very difficult to understand and am still trying to get my head around the concepts explained in it. Much of the book is made up of looking at different philosophies and building a theory of metaphysics to explain the world as an Animist sees it. This post isn’t exactly a review of the book, but it will use a lot of the information from the book to explain the idea of Panexperientialism/ Panpsychism and what it offers to Naturalistic Pantheists. […]

I have come to the conclusion that an Animism based on the theories of Panpsychism/ Panexperientialism is a valid, reasonable and ethical worldview that can bring many benefits for Naturalistic Pantheists who choose to incorporate it into their life. It answers the Mind-Body problem and gives a foundation for Animistic Ethics of treating the world and all life with respect, reverence and honour.

In a beautiful embodiment of the power of animistic experience, the “Dad Who Writes” Gabriel M. Clarke shares his personal reflections on Orr’s book one cold night at yoga camp, in his post “Drenched in moonlight: accidental animism and The Wakeful World“:

You may think of silence as an absence of something but at certain times and in certain places, silence is like a full glass with the liquid swelling right on the edge of the rounded rim. I held my breath. The moonlight and starlight were bright enough to navigate the guy-ropes webbing the field. I made my way to the main path circling the tents and listened.

Part of the world, that part of it made up of people zipped up in sleeping bags in tents and caravans, was sleeping. The rest of it was awake and listening to me. I walked through it, becoming aware of the fulness of it embracing me from all directions. It’s possible I said a prayer; not to any divinity in particular, though the sacred in various forms was walking all around me at that moment, but as a part of my immersion in the infinite interpenetrating of life with life that I suddenly found myself a part of. Sleeping humans, animals, trees, grass, earth, stone, water, wind – all held me and I was happy and grateful to be held. […]

The challenge of experiences that can only be described as animist is to shift from the anthropocentric view of what it means to ‘experience’ the world, and to accept the fleeting nature of one’s own egocentric perception. At the sensory level, a tree perceives the world in an unimaginably complex and far-ranging way. Does the tree feel? Does the soil that the tree grows in?

I think the tree and the soil do. Not as a human feels but if human feelings are made up of chemical trails, sensory inputs and neural connections, then a tree’s are hardly less valid and a good deal more durable. Perception, accepting the breadth of possibilities that perception stands for, is the important thing. Zen, yoga, various Christian traditions of quietism and the Sufis all look to a the idea of mindfulness, of letting oneself be situated in the world. In so doing we experience what it is to be a minded being, to be purely perceiving the world. It seems to me that Orr argues that the very stuff of nature is minded – that nature is mindedness and that this mindedness enables the network of perceptions that, at various levels of intensity and complexity, forms communities, tribes and, ultimately, individuals.

Anyway, I’m putting it all very badly so you should just read [Orr’s] book.

In the introduction to The Wakeful World, Emma Restall Orr notes that the book can be considered a prequel to Living with Honour: A Pagan Ethics, developing some of the philosophical ideas that were first proposed in her earlier work. While most of our ABC bloggers this month focused on Orr’s more recent text, Chas Clifton shared a review of Living with Honour he wrote in 2009 that can give some context to the on-going development of Orr’s ideas:

She wants to locate her ethics in nature. This “nature” is primarily planetary as opposed to cosmic—and she makes an argument about hurricanes and tsunamis that I would agree with completely: “The *Pagan acceptance of nature’s destructive power is not about resignation, but reverence.” You can have a relationship with planetary nature, but it is not all about you.

Yet she almost completely ignores centuries of Pagan thought on ethics and philosophy from the Greco-Roman tradition! […] The ancient philosophers ranged from the hardest of “hard polytheists” to skeptical materialists like Epicurus to the “honor the gods and do your duty” attitude of the Roman Stoics. And they had a great deal to say about living ethically in friendship, in marriage, and in civic life–even when (as under the worst emperors) one was caught up in a corrupt governmental system. Why leave them out in favor of Schopenhauer, Martin Buber, or A.J. Ayer?

[…] Thus, while I find much to like in Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics–I do enjoy seeing intelligent writers wrestle with the issue of just what “nature religion” is–I cannot help but see it as crippled by its rejection of still-relevent Pagan ethical traditions.

For readers like Chas, The Wakeful World will answer a good number of these criticisms, though not all of them. Orr continues to develop her conception of nature as grounded in the “planetary” even as her discussion reaches beyond this understanding of the natural world to include the “cosmic” and ontological. But as a modern animist grappling with the legacy of such eminent and influential thinkers as Kant and Whitehead, Orr’s approach to Pagan and animistic thought remains thoroughly rooted in more recent developments of the Western philosophical tradition, taking ancient Greek and Roman thinkers as a foundation but not limiting her discussion to them.

Finally, for my own contribution to the ABC, I offer a recklessly ambitious, two-for-the-price-of-one review of The Wakeful World by bringing it into conversation with Louis Liebenberg’s The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science to place Emma Restall Orr’s work in a broader cultural context. In my post “The Hunt for a Wakeful World: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity (Part 2)“, I continue my on-going exploration of anthropocentrism in Pagan theology and ritual by considering how Orr’s systematic and speculative approaches to animistic philosophy are rooted in the evolutionary insights of our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors:

Orr sets herself no easy task when she endeavors to articulate a philosophy of modern animism that can hold its own among the heavyweights of the Western philosophical tradition. […] Within Western philosophy, the theory of animism has long been disparaged and dismissed as fundamentally irrational, immature, even primitive and “backwards.” A modern Druidic writer and priest, Orr has encountered this attitude personally through her work at interfaith events, and she describes one experience in particular that left such a lasting sting that, even years later, it remained part of the impetus behind her decision to write The Wakeful World.

Another inspiration in the writing of this book, however, was Orr’s deep desire to respond to the call of the natural world itself. In The Wakeful World, she hopes to rise to the challenge of presenting a compelling and intellectually rigorous case for nature’s inherent value apart from our human judgements about its use or beauty. There is a certain poetry, then, in thinking of The Wakeful World as a kind of metaphysical hunt for a more robust animistic worldview than the incomplete, cursory treatment it’s received from scholars in the past. If the Western world has long since dismissed animism as a child’s fantasy, as easily debunked as the mythical unicorn, then you might say The Wakeful World is a hunt for the mud-and-blood reality behind such myths.

There is so much more to say about The Wakeful World, and I have no doubt it will become a cornerstone of modern animist thought, provoking discussion and debate for many years to come. Thank you to all who participated in this month’s Animist Blog Carnival!

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild

The Hunt for a Wakeful World: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity

In the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, a young man of the !Xõ people bends towards the earth, examining in detail an impression in the sand the shape of an upside-down heart. Nearby, his fellow hunters make their way quietly through the underbrush, moving with caution so that they might not come upon their prey too suddenly and startle it. The gemsbok is quick; they must be quicker.


One of the hunters, an older man with years of experience and many successful kills to his name, gestures to the others, indicating a bit of scat drying in the midday sun — a sign that the beast has passed this way hours ago, likely on its way to a popular watering hole over the next ridge. They should move on. With speed and stealth, they should be able to overtake the animal and bring the hunt to an end by evening. One of the other men challenges him, and a whispered debate ensues — is this scat from the same animal? how long ago was it left? Wind direction and temperature are considered. The interpretation of scat is a tricky and inexact business. In the end, though, the older hunter’s interpretation prevails and the group agrees to move on.

Yet the boy lingers by the heart-shaped impression in the dirt. Is it a hoofprint? If it is, it’s facing the wrong direction, leading back along the trail they’ve been following all morning. In the shifting sand, the impression is vague and already partly obscured by the breeze. It could be almost anything. But something about it calls to the young hunter, arresting his attention. As he considers it, strange physical sensations arise in his body — a weight on his shoulders, a palpitation in his chest, a feeling like warm, wet blood trickling down his back. On the very edge of his perception, it’s as if he can feel the lingering presence of the gemsbok in this place, its fawn-gray flanks quivering in the slight breeze as it raises its majestically-horned head, the grasses rustling around its legs — a rustling he feels now, too, around his own bare calves. In that moment, he is the animal, tasting the breeze for predators, looping back on his own trail seeking a protected place downwind to settle for an afternoon rest.

The young man turns to the other hunters in his group and, nervously, makes his case. The older men are skeptical. This youth has very little experience to go on, and he is far from a charismatic or convincing speaker. But something in his eyes, his conviction, sways them to trust his instincts. The group loops back, following a trail now entirely held within the mind and imagination of the boy as he feels his way through the brush with a body not quite his own. Before long, his vision is rewarded: among the underbrush, they spot the form of the animal half-asleep in the shade.

The Evolution of Reason

What does this story of the young hunter have to do with philosophy?

According to anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, Louis Liebenberg: a great deal. In his book, The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science, Liebenberg takes a close look at the indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples of southern Africa in order to explore what he believes to be the origins of homo sapien’s capacity for scientific reasoning. Tracing the evolution of hunting and tracking throughout human prehistory — from the simple to the systematic to the speculative — he argues that tracking represents science in its most basic form.

Like modern scientists, early hunter-gatherers developed detailed knowledge of the world around them based on careful observation of their environment. Possessing an accurate understanding of animal behavior was a matter of life and death, as they navigated an ecosystem full of elusive prey and potentially deadly predators (who were also competitors for food resources). In some places, a wide variety of environmental conditions challenged early humans to develop increasingly sophisticated tracking techniques. Simple tracking in snow and desert sand was relatively easy, though it required good eyesight, physical prowess, stealth and speed. But in areas of rocky ground or thick underbrush where footprints might be scarce or completely absent, a more systematic approach to tracking required not only greater skill but also a keener intelligence as hunters relied on a broad understanding of ecological relationships in order to piece together the subtler signs of an animal’s presence. With the advent of systematic tracking, Liebenberg argues, human beings first developed the capacity for inductive-deductive reasoning: gathering data from direct observation in order to formulate generalizations about the world, and then reasoning from the general to the specific based on the empirical evidence at hand.

Yet the most successful hunters not only possessed a vast knowledge of their surroundings, but an intuitive connection with the animals they hunted. At some point in the prehistory of our species, the homo sapien mind made the revolutionary step from systematic tracking to speculative tracking — from inductive-deductive reasoning, to what Liebenberg calls hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Speculative tacking required creative thinking and imagination, a willingness to listen to intuition as well as utilizing careful reasoning based on direct observation. The speculative tracker did not just follow the evidence before him — he learned to anticipate an animal’s behavior based on a sympathetic understanding of the creature’s own desires, motivations and unique personality. He imagined the world from the animal’s perspective, opening himself to experiences and sensations that did not always draw from direct observation but could nevertheless lead him to correct conclusions. Forming a predictive hypothesis about an animal’s likely movements, the speculative tracker tested and refined his theories through the “experiment” of the hunt itself, in cooperation with fellow hunters who offered feedback, critique and alternative explanations. Whereas systematic tracking once restricted hunters to the slow, detailed process of collecting and interpreting only the empirical evidence immediately at hand, speculative tracking now allowed them to anticipate patterns and look for further evidence where they expected to find it, revising their theories as they went and responding more effectively to new or unexpected information in difficult terrain.

Grottes de Lascaux II, by David Martin

Both of these types of reasoning are still evident in the sciences today — in fact, like the most successful trackers, scientists usually employ a combination of the two, for both have their advantages and disadvantages. A systematic approach to the scientific method utilizes trial-and-error and detailed observation to collect vast amounts of data, allowing patterns to naturally emerge from a careful analysis of the evidence. A good example of this technique can be found in how citizen science is being used today to measure the impact of global warming around the world: ordinary people contribute their observations of local phenological phenomena (like the timing of bird migrations or the budding and flowering of plants) to a global database, allowing scientists to develop statistical models that illustrate the wide-scale effects that changes in temperature and weather patterns have on these species. The method requires the patience and precision to collect large amounts of reliable data in a number of different locations over several years, but almost anyone can contribute to the work without needing in-depth knowledge of the theories behind the research or creative insights into what that research means.

On the other hand, some of the greatest scientific minds in history have used speculative reasoning to formulate new hypotheses about the world and to create experiments with which to test them. Albert Einstein is probably the best known example of a scientist using such an approach: his famous thought-experiment, in which he imagined what it would be like to chase a beam of light, played an important role in developing his theory of special relativity. Today, most work in theoretical physics relies heavily on speculative reasoning, as scientists propose theories that cannot yet be tested by physical experiment or confirmed by direct observation. While systematic science values patience and precision, speculative science celebrates intuition, imagination and the courage to take bold risks for the sake of discovering new frontiers of knowledge.

Both systematic and speculative reasoning play a vital role in philosophy as well (as I’ll explore more later in this post). Philosophers routinely grapple with questions about the nature of existence, the self and the soul that are grounded in and influenced by observations of the world around us, and yet can reach far beyond what we might directly observe in our everyday lives. We can see both kinds of reasoning in the earliest writings of the ancient Greeks, but as Liebenberg points out, these traditions of philosophical thought stretch back much farther into prehistory, preserved in the mythologies and religions of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

The Reasoning Animist

The Wakeful World, by Emma Restall OrrIt might seem odd to preface a review of Emma Restall Orr’s book, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature in such a roundabout way. But Liebenberg’s insights into the intelligence and capacity for both systematic and speculative reasoning in our earliest prehistoric ancestors holds special relevance when considering the question of whether or not animism can be considered a viable philosophical position today.

Orr sets herself no easy task when she endeavors to articulate a philosophy of modern animism that can hold its own among the heavyweights of the Western philosophical tradition. She acknowledges this difficulty with admirable forthrightness, saying:

To someone looking at animist ideas from outside, such beliefs may seem close to the immature response of a little child still wondering how the world around him might respond. […] It is religious metaphysics drawn with fat, colorful crayons.

Within Western philosophy, the theory of animism has long been disparaged and dismissed as fundamentally irrational, immature, even primitive and “backwards.” Many Western philosophers and scientists alike attribute animistic belief to the superstitious anthropomorphization of non-human entities and objects, attributing them human-like feelings and characteristics (this is known in some philosophical circles as the “pathetic fallacy,” a term that comes from the Greek pathos meaning “emotion, feeling,” but which also expresses a clear tone of disdain for such a worldview). A modern Druidic writer and priest, Orr has encountered this attitude personally through her work at interfaith events, and she describes one experience in particular that left such a lasting sting that, even years later, it remained part of the impetus behind her decision to write The Wakeful World.

Another inspiration in the writing of this book, however, was Orr’s deep desire to respond to the call of the natural world itself. In The Wakeful World, she hopes to rise to the challenge of presenting a compelling and intellectually rigorous case for nature’s inherent value apart from our human judgements about its use or beauty. There is a certain poetry, then, in thinking of The Wakeful World as a kind of metaphysical hunt for a more robust animistic worldview than the incomplete, cursory treatment it’s received from scholars in the past. If the Western world has long since dismissed animism as a child’s fantasy, as easily debunked as the mythical unicorn, then you might say The Wakeful World is a hunt for the mud-and-blood reality behind such myths — the vibrant, minded presence of beings like the gemsbok (and its relative, the Arabian oryx), whose spiraling, rapier-like horns originally gave rise to ancient tales of unicorns in the first place.

In this hunt for the modern animist’s worldview, Liebenberg could prove a valuable ally. Unlike previous anthropologists such as Edward Tylor, who have generally viewed animism as merely a primitive precursor to more civilized and respectable philosophies such as monotheism and materialism, Liebenberg portrays the animistic imagination and active intuition of our hunter-gatherer ancestors as a positive development in the evolution of human reason. Rather than presenting the indigenous animistic worldview as childish or underdeveloped, he places it on par with modern scientific and philosophical thought:

The modern scientist may know much more than the tracker, but he/she does not necessarily understand nature any better than the intelligent hunter­-gatherer. What the expert tracker lacks in quantity of knowledge (compared to the modern scientist), he/she may well make up for in subtlety and re­finement. The intelligent hunter-gatherer may be just as rational in his/her understanding of nature as the intelligent modern scientist. [emphasis added]

But if The Wakeful World is a hunt for the modern animistic worldview, what kind of “tracking” — that is, what kind of reasoning, systematic or speculative — does Orr employ? To answer that question, it’s helpful to look at how systematic and speculative reasoning have played a role in the Western philosophical tradition, and to locate Orr’s arguments within that contemporary context.

Speculation in the Age of Reason

Since the 19th and 20th centuries, Western philosophy has seen a split between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy that roughly echoes many of the differences between systematic and speculative reasoning. Seeing themselves as allied more closely with the natural sciences, analytic philosophers emphasize empiricism, objectivity, thoroughness, precision and attention to detail each within their own specialized fields of study, seeing their work as contributing to the cummulative knowledge of the larger community. On the other hand, continental philosophers see themselves as taking up the project of formulating broad worldviews which can be applied to a wide range of related fields — from aesthetics to ethics to politics — while emphasizing the contextual and ultimately subjective nature of all knowledge. Unlike analytic philosophers, continental philosophers do not necessarily see knowledge as cummulative, but instead as progressing in leaps and bounds thanks to bold new insights by key figures.

As American philosopher Graham Harman quipped during a recent lecture:

People talk as though the difference between these two kinds of philosophy is scandalous. Two kinds of philosophy! Even though there are 24,500 species of fish, somehow having two kinds of philosophy is supposed to be this horrible intellectual scandal that we need to eliminate immediately.

Harman’s solution is not to seek to bring these two kinds of philosophy together but instead to revel in their differences, exploring and even intentionally heightening the tension between the two. If Liebenberg is correct in his theory of how the human mind evolved the capacity for complex reasoning through evolutionary pressures to improve tracking and hunting techniques, then we can safely assume that not only have these different kinds of philosophy existed almost as long as our species itself has roamed the planet, but that these approaches to reasoning — the systematic and the speculative — are each both useful and necessary in their own ways. Liebenberg notes, for instance, that while systematic reasoning is a better approach for gradually accumulating and retaining knowledge, speculative reasoning is more adept at recovering lost knowledge, discovering new knowledge and adapting to change.

Given these differences in application, we might expect Orr to rely primarily on speculative reasoning in The Wakeful World, as she sets out to tackle the twofold task of reclaiming an indigenous animistic worldview drawn from her ancestors (recovering lost knowledge) while challenging rationalist and materialist assumptions embedded deep in the contemporary Western philosophical tradition (discovering new knowledge). In her previous books, Orr has become well-known for her incorporation of poetic language and stories of personal experience to illustrate her ideas, inviting readers to step into a creative exploration of alternative human and non-human perspectives that she evokes through her prose. Such writing can be understood as a kind of speculative reasoning, embracing intuition and imagination alongside logical argument and careful observation, offering bold theories that push at the boundaries of currently accepted knowledge and which must be tested against each reader’s own experiences of the world, to be confirmed or refuted through practice and experimentation.

At first glance, this speculative approach seems to be at the heart of The Wakeful World as well. Framing her project in “Chapter One: The Enquiry,” Orr begins by building on the philosophical work of Immanuel Kant, progenitor and arguably still one of the most influential voices of continental philosophy over the past two centuries. In particular, Kant’s insights into the inherent subjectivity of human perception and knowledge is one of the defining features of continental philosophy in contrast to analytic philosophy’s emphasis on objectivity and empiricism, and it provides a rational foundation for valuing and interpreting subjective experience in the context of modern society’s growing scientific understanding of the natural world.

Never Say Kant

And yet, in the end, The Wakeful World seems to be a departure from much of Orr’s earlier work — in style, if not always in substance. Her analysis of concepts such as the self, matter, spirit and mind are much more cautious and systematic than bold and speculative. She spends a great deal of time carefully recounting the endless debates that have grown up around these terms, even when those debates are only tangentially related to her own ideas. In the meantime, readers must wait nearly 200 pages before Orr offers even a basic description of the animistic worldview in any detail. In the hunt for modern animism, readers might feel that they are forever losing ground to the elusive beast as Orr stops to examine every bent blade of grass and loosened pebble along the trail.

Ancient Rock Painting, by Carol Mitchell

The result is a text that is dense with ideas and can at times feel sluggish. Orr comes across as somewhat embarrassed by her occasional departures from the more familiar ground of Western philosophical tradition, rather than embracing such risks boldly as she has done in previous books. When she does allow her language to return to the speculative and the poetic (especially in later chapters), her words still shine with evocative power…. And yet her turn towards “the poetry of animism” occasionally seems almost apologetic, and her bracketing of these passages seems to imply that the imaginative writing of such moments should be considered a departure from the process of careful reasoning, rather than as an essential and natural aspect of it.

Part of Orr’s choice to take a more systematic approach no doubt stems from her desire to present her ideas in a way that will be convincing to skeptics and detractors of animism, or at least to speak in a language that can dismantle unfair assumptions and penetrate potential bias. It is impressive to see a writer with the flexibility to use both systematic and speculative writing as different circumstances warrant, and Orr puts to rest any doubt that she can hold her own against academics who have felt the need in the past to “mansplain” away the real importance of her ideas. For those who have found it difficult to keep up with some of her more provocative work, The Wakeful World slows the conversation to a more ruminative — if sometimes ponderous — pace.

Unfortunately, some readers may feel Orr cedes far too much to her critics in her decision to take a more systematic tack, missing a valuable opportunity in the process. Rather than rising to a vigorous defense of the “fat, colorful” worldview of modern animism in a way that rejects the notion that such ideas are automatically superstitious or immature, she seems to agree with that assessment and to feel a pressure to reimagine modern animism as simply a variation on Kantian idealism (or Whitehead’s process philosophy, minus the math). This is particularly frustrating for readers who are already familiar enough with Kantian philosophy to know that much of his work is built on anthropocentric assumptions that may ultimately undermine an animistic worldview that values the intersubjectivity of a minded, more-than-human world. Although Orr does her best to reason her way out of this pitfall, personally I found myself constantly anticipating a more direct rejection of Kant’s anthropocentrism that never quite came.

Ultimately, I believe Orr does move beyond the anthropocentric foundations of much of continental philosophy. But she does so in such an indirect and protracted way that readers spend much of the book feeling as if they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Meanwhile, inexperienced “trackers” less familiar with the terrain of Western philosophy might entirely miss some of the more subtle footprints left behind by this metaphorical shoe that Orr’s animism seems to be dragging behind it for much of the text.

Back to the Future

But at the risk of losing the trail on our hunt for a more wakeful world, let’s return to the young man at the beginning of our story.

It’s easy to see this boy as a paragon of the animistic worldview, embracing a creative relationship that values the more-than-human world as a community of richly-minded beings, each in their own right capable of reaching out to the human through moments of intuition and connection. But this is not to say that animism is a worldview concerned primarily with the sentimentality or romanticism of the merely personal, imaginative experience. As Liebenberg points out, our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not merely accept such experiences at face value: they were keenly aware of the distinction between direct observations and creative or intuitive insights, constantly testing their intuitions against the facts of the real world. Where they accepted the reality of non-human intelligences, consciousness and subjectivity in other beings, these beliefs were confirmed by on-going experiences and practical demonstrations of the explanatory power of such theories. Indeed, it is this very willingness to entertain a skeptical viewpoint and to continually refine one’s theories through attentive observation that is the hallmark of the speculative approach.

Oryx running, by Benjamin Hollis

It is this same skepticism that now challenges us to question some of the lingering biases that we have inherited from the Western philosophical tradition. Liebenberg expands on his initial observations about the intelligence of hunter-gatherers by adding:

Conversely, the intelligent modern scientist may be just as irrational as the intelligent hunter­-gatherer. One of the paradoxes of progress is that, contrary to expectation, the growth of our knowledge about nature has not made it easier to reach rational decisions. [emphasis added]

The future of modern animism depends upon this insight: that the prevalence of anthropocentrism in modern science and philosophy is not necessarily an indication of its correctness. One reason Liebenberg suggests that indigenous hunter-gatherers may possess a knowledge of the natural world that is more subtle, refined and responsive than that of the modern scientist is precisely because the modern scientist’s access to huge quantities of data threatens to mire him in dogmatism:

While the scientist may have access to a large amount of information, accepting the validity of the information requires to a certain degree an act of faith in others. This has the inherent danger that well-established knowledge may become dogmatic, which may result in irrational beliefs becoming entrenched in science. […] The tracker, by contrast, is in direct contact with nature. Ideas and interpretations are continuously tested in nature itself.

This places Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World in a slightly different light: as a challenge to the anthropocentrism of Western philosophy which, although perhaps it never quite succeeds in catching up to the unicorn, contributes meaningfully to the modern animist community in ways that continue to encourage skepticism and critical reasoning skills. In the end, animism is a worldview that must be grounded in and responsive to individual experience even as it seeks to reach beyond it. In the same way that a !Xõ tracker cannot simply be told how to hunt but must learn for himself — cultivating a creative way of thinking that allows him to “continually acquire new knowledge and solve unique problems in a never-ending process of discovery” — the animist who expects to learn everything from her elders will have “a head that is only half full.”

For this reason alone, aside from its other merits, Orr’s book is well worth reading, and re-reading: for it introduces the thoughtful animist to a challenging intellectual terrain against which to hone her skills.

Coming soon: Even more thoughts on anthropocentrism and subjectivity…

This post is part of the Animistic Blog Carnival, hosted this month right here on Holy Wild. For details on how to join, click here.

Photo Credits:

• “Gemsbok or Gemsbuck (Oryx gazella),” by Yathin (CC) [source]
• “Grottes de Lascaux II,” by David Martin (CC) [source]
• “Ancient Rock Paintings,” by Carol Mitchell (CC) [source]
• “Oryx running,” by Benjamin Hollis (CC) [source]

A More Wakeful World - Animist Blog Carnival Book Club
Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, News & Announcements

A More Wakeful World: Animist Book Club Call for Submissions

A More Wakeful World - Animist Blog Carnival Book Club

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #038c4a;”]T[/dropcap]his May, the “ABC” in Animist Blog Carnival will also stand for the Animist Book Club!

Here on Holy Wild, I’ll be hosting this monthly gathering of bloggers and writers exploring the evolving role of animism in modern Pagan and earth-centered spiritual traditions. Most months, the ABC host chooses a theme for all participating writers to explore (past themes have included Becoming an Animist, Bioregionalism, Trees, Animist Ethics, and Dreams). This time, I wanted to try something a little different. And so, the ABC theme for May is:

A More Wakeful World: Reviews and Responses
to the Writing of Emma Restall Orr

Emma Restall Orr is one of the most prominent and well-respected Druids today. For more than two decades, she has been sharing her vision of creative, embodied living in relationship with the natural world in her books and other writing, as well as through her advocacy work in the UK. Her recent book, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, is one of the few resources out there that explores a thoroughly modern approach to animistic spirituality grounded in both a solid grasp of western philosophy and the poetic insight that has come to characterize her work.

One of the biggest obstacles for people who want to learn more about modern animism is that there are so very few resources available. My hope is that highlighting writers like Emma Restall Orr can bring greater visibility to the resources we have, and spark some great conversations about how animism has influenced so many of the Pagan traditions that are thriving today.

How Do I Participate in the ABC?

You don’t have to identify as an animist to join in the ABC! Anyone can participate by writing on the chosen theme and exploring how animistic practices and beliefs have influenced their own spiritual lives and communities. To contribute to the Animist Blog Carnival-slash-Book Club, there are just a few simple steps to follow:

1. During the month of April, write about the upcoming theme on your own blog or website. Your contribution might be an essay, article or book review, or it could be a creative piece like a poem, short story or memoir. For this month’s theme, I especially encourage you to read and write a response or review of The Wakeful World — but reflections on any of Orr’s other work are also welcome! (You can find a list of her published writing on her website). You can also contribute old or previously published posts.

2. Make sure to include in your post a link back to this blog (, as well as a link to the Animist Blog Carnival HQ at (where you can also find more detailed writer’s guidelines and links to all of the past ABC themes).

3. Send me a link to your blog post or essay via my contact page or by emailing me at: ali [at] Make sure you send me your submissions by Sunday, April 27, 2014.

4. Sit back and enjoy! I’ll be sharing the links from all contributors and participants in a big ABC Animist Book Club round-up on Thursday, May 1st!

This is the first time the ABC has experimented with using a “book club” approach to the monthly theme. If all goes well and we get lots of folks involved, I hope we’ll be able to feature more awesome animistic writers on a regular basis! Thanks for joining, and I look forward to reading your thoughts and reflections!

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

Anthropocentrism and Animal Instinct

The first howl stopped us in our tracks. Beyond the edge of the wide gravel path, the forest was thick with undergrowth and tangled tree limbs spilling away into a darkness even the light of the full moon couldn’t penetrate. My cousin flicked his flashlight across the treeline. The sudden wash of brightness transformed the ridge above us into a writhing mass of disorienting shadows. Was there something moving there? The night was silent. We waited, listening.


Another distant howl whined just on the edge of hearing, this time from the north. Then another, louder than before. The calls lingered on the warm summer air, meandering and dissipating so that it was impossible to be sure when exactly they lapsed again into silence. Four of us stood still in the middle of the trail that ran along the bottom of the ravine, edged on either side by rising forested slopes. We’d walked it dozens of times in daylight. Now it seemed unfamiliar, altered by the moon and the invisible presences stalking among the trees. Coming closer. I watched the dark intently. Another howl echoed from ridge to ridge. The forest breathed with the rough breath of a predator. As if in sympathy, my own breath quickened, a chill moving across my skin.

Another howl. My father and my aunt exchanged glances, and in a moment the decision was made to turn back. They were all low nervous laughter and chatting now, reasserting the murmured noise of human presence against the encroaching dark, eager to put off the sneaking fear with jokes and teasing. The beams of their flashlights danced and jolted over the path ahead that led back towards the parking lot.

I lagged behind. Still watching the dark, willing my eyes to adjust to the intricate depths of the woods that shifted with each turn of the moonlit breeze. The fear followed, a silent tread obscured by the scuffling of our boots. Only once, I glanced behind us, and seemed to see — there, paused in mid-stride across the open space of the trail where we had stopped — a low, dark being with animal eyes watching us depart.

I Do Not Think That Means What You Think It Means

Where does our anthropocentrism come from? Some would elide anthropocentrism with arrogance and selfishness, confusing things still further by equating these with the instinct for self-preservation and the evolutionary imperative to pass on genes.

This is the argument that John Beckett puts forward in his post, “Interdependence and the Weakness of Evolution,” where he writes:

The idea that it’s all about us is the result of our evolutionary heritage. […] Along the way we picked up some habits that were helpful for the continuation of our species. Look out for yourself – or at least, try not to get yourself killed before you can reproduce. Learn to see things as black or white, because nuanced knowledge isn’t nearly as important as quickly figuring out whether you can eat something or whether it will eat you. Favor your blood relatives – they share most of your genes and so their success is almost as good as your own success. Given these evolutionary pressures, it was inevitable that our religions would be anthropocentric. [emphasis added]

Yet there are fundamental problems with the claim that anthropocentrism is the inevitable consequence of human instinct.

The first is that anthropocentrism is a specific ethical and philosophical perspective, a particular constellation of values grounded not simply in the desire for human survival but in the assumption of human supremacy. There is clear evidence that human beings do not universally share these values as Beckett asserts. Indigenous and non-Western cultures throughout history have had worldviews that do not include the belief that human beings are inherently separate from or superior to the rest of the natural world. Among the North American Cree, for example, hunting rituals are organized around a deep respect and reverence for the animals that humans kill, viewing these creatures as benevolent caretakers who give their lives willingly out of concern for the welfare of humans. To the Cree, humans are not superior to other animals but dependent on their generosity and self-giving, the way children are dependent on their relatives and their tribe for food, shelter and protection. The Cree clearly value their own survival, but this instinct for self-preservation does not automatically mean that they reject the inherent or intrinsic value of other non-human beings.

This view of human-animal kinship is in distinct contrast to anthropocentric views such as the one presented in Genesis (and Judeo-Christian tradition more generally), which asserts the human right to kill and eat animals as an expression of our natural “dominion” over non-human beings due to our divinely-granted power and superiority. For the Cree, as with many indigenous cultures, the killing of a non-human animal represents an ethical dilemma that must be addressed through rituals of reciprocity, propitiation, gratitude and forgiveness — acts which recognize the value and agency of non-human beings and seek to negotiate or compromise with them in ways that allow for the continued survival of the human and non-human alike.


But in an anthropocentric worldview — in which animals are seen as material resources rather than as beings with intrinsic value in their own right — the source of ethical concern is shifted from the non-human to the human. In Judaism, for instance, ancient dietary laws regulating animal slaughter and consumption focus not on the agency or intrinsic value of non-human beings, but on issues of purity and dirt (or “matter out of place“). Rituals regulating the care, slaughter and preparation of livestock center on the question of whether the animal is clean or unclean, ensuring that certain foods are avoided if they would pollute the human body or soul.1 In other words, the ethical dilemma of human-animal relationship in Judeo-Christian tradition centers on the necessity of maintaining the symbolic or spiritual separation between humans and animals even when we are physically dependent upon them.

Asserting this distinction between humans and non-human animals in the face of our potential entanglement is a preoccupation that we also find throughout Beckett’s post, and it is the most obvious indication that he has not been as successful in rejecting anthropocentrism as he hopes. He continually insists that in order to be ethical, humans must reject, remove or transcend evolutionary programming in favor of a “better” way. Consider, for instance, when he writes:

The shortcoming of evolution is that it favors what works, not what’s best. And it favors what works now, not what will work in the long run. That’s one of the reasons I have to laugh at the idea of intelligent design – our design isn’t very intelligent. But it’s been good enough to take us from the trees to the caves to the skyscrapers.

The implications of Beckett’s words here are clear: humans represent the pinnacle of evolution, the last best effort of an ultimately flawed process; and while evolution might have been good enough for millions of years, it isn’t sustainable “in the long run” without human insight and power to guide it according to “what’s best.” This statement fits neatly into the definition of anthropocentrism as the view that human beings are categorically different from their surroundings due to their intelligence, religion, socio-political life, etc. Remember, a worldview can still be anthropocentric even if it agrees that humans are “a part of nature.” Although there is no doubt that he believes humans and the rest of the natural world are interdependent, this interdependence poses a serious ethical dilemma for Beckett, who fears that “evolution” threatens to mire humans in the selfishness of “natural” instincts that will lead to our destruction.

An Aside on Bad Science

To emphasize his point, Beckett directs our attention to two examples of non-human animals whose instincts have led to what are (in his opinion) dangerous, out-of-control behaviors: the rabbit, and the wolf. That he chooses these specific animals is itself worth noting — for even if unintended, it’s unlikely to be a coincidence. The rabbit (as prey) and the wolf (as predator) have played opposing symbolic roles that are relatively consistent throughout Western culture. The rabbit has strong symbolic ties to fertility and fecundity, sometimes being portrayed as a trickster figure or “mad hare” who is ruled by lust to such an extreme that he willingly violates social taboos in order to satisfy his desires. The wolf, on the other hand, has often symbolized the dangers of unchecked gluttony and violence, similarly transgressing social boundaries by attacking livestock — usually sheep, although for some reason Beckett uses an “endangered” cow in his example.2 Whether with sheep or cows, however, this portrayal of the wolf almost always relies on an implied contrast between the instinctive (and therefore dangerous) appetites of the wild animal and the benevolent, protective influence of the human beings who “know better” and ensure the survival of domesticated livestock.

Together, the rabbit and the wolf have often been used to symbolize the dangerous extremes of animal instinct freed from the moderation of human moral conscience or reason. They represent, respectively, mindless (re)production and mindless consumption. Furthermore, they are considered harmful, dangerous or unpredictable precisely when they violate the boundaries between human and non-human communities — for instance, when trespassing into human-controlled spaces to steal livestock or destroy gardens. Beckett would like us to believe that these “rabbits who have eaten all the grass” and the wolf who “doesn’t care if the cow he eats is the last of its kind” represent the inevitable results of flawed evolutionary processes that fail to create “ideal” adaptations and can at best aspire to for merely “adequate” ones. Far from an accurate — let alone comprehensive — portrayal of these animals, however, his examples are one-sided stereotypes drawn from the very anthropocentric worldview that he claims to be rejecting.


The actual ecological study of these iconic animals in their natural habitats gives us a very different understanding of their behaviors, as well as the contextual value of evolutionary adaptation. For instance, far from being an insatiable killer that jeopardizes the survival of endangered species, the gray wolf is a keystone species in North America. In areas where it has been driven almost to extinction by human hostility and encroachment, its absence can lead directly and indirectly to cascading environmental damage such as deforestation, plummeting biodiversity, and disease. On the other hand, when allowed to reclaim its native habitats, the presence of the gray wolf actually increases biodiversity and enhances the health and stability of the ecosystem as a whole. The stereotype of the rabbit as a mindless producer/consumer is similarly distorted by human biases. Rabbits are just one of more than a hundred mammalian species (including also bears, mice, weasels, badgers, otters, seals and roe deer) that undergo delayed implantation, ensuring that fertilized eggs do not develop into viable fetuses unless the mother has access to sufficient resources (food, shelter, etc.) to support both herself and her offspring. This biological adaptation, which some studies suggest may be latent in all mammals, helps to keep populations in check when resources are scarce. Where rabbit populations have gotten out of hand, the problem is not a lack of resources but an abundance: the rabbit is an invasive species introduced by human beings into an ecosystem where it has no natural predators or competition. To use either of these animals as examples of how evolutionary processes are unsuccessful and ultimately flawed is akin to leaving a man in the middle of the ocean to drown, and then blaming “nature” because he didn’t instantly develop gills.

In an earlier draft of this post, I spent a great deal of time teasing apart exactly how Beckett’s view of evolution in general — like his portrayal of these two animals in particular — is fundamentally biased by ideological and anthropocentric assumptions. Beckett himself has written about how “bad science makes bad religion.” Unfortunately, he seems unaware that he has built much of his own argument on the crumbling cliffside of the now-outdated “selfish gene” theory. The application of evolutionary game theory and behavioral models have demonstrated the evolutionary advantages of altruism and community-oriented selflessness, and advances in the study of multilevel natural selection by scientists like E.O. Wilson (who has long been a critic of the “selfish gene” theory) have fairly definitively shown that these simplistic interpretations of evolutionary pressures as inherently “selfish” are flawed. It’s well known by current evolutionary biologists that gene expression is influenced by environmental conditions, and that evolutionary processes do not “program” certain traits or behaviors (let alone entire belief systems) so much as encode certain inclinations or in potentia responses to different contexts and conditions which allow organisms the flexibility to adapt to changing environments over time. Natural selection can just as easily favor cooperative and altruistic behaviors as selfish behaviors, and it functions not only at the genetic and individual levels but also in social groups that extend beyond kin relations. In addition, Richard Dawkins, the most vocal advocate for the “selfish gene” theory and the only scientist Beckett himself cites, has come under increasing criticism from the wider scientific community for allowing political ideology to bias his research. A more wide-ranging examination of current evolutionary science only proves to undermine almost every aspect of Beckett’s argument and overturn his simplistic interpretation of “instinct” as “selfishness.” Rather than spend any more time on this particular topic, I’ll leave it to curious readers to follow the various links and references in this section and explore for themselves the on-going development of modern evolutionary biology.

Anthropocentrism in Pagan Clothing?

So the question remains: if anthropocentrism isn’t instinctual, then where and how did it develop? Scholars continue to debate this point and, contrary to Beckett’s assertion, there is no straightforward or definitive answer. It’s true that some scientists cite evolutionary pressures as one possible influence among many. On the other hand, some scientists point to instinctual cognitive processes to explain just the opposite: an “Agency Detection Device” that inclines us to view human beings as embedded in a world full of many other agentive, conscious beings. If anything, certain interpretations of evolutionary psychology suggest that the anthropocentric worldview that sees humans as the only beings of intrinsic value is actually a rejection of human instinct, not its inevitable consequence.

Among sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers there is also much debate about the source and cause of anthropocentrism. The first writers to use the term did so in order to draw attention to differences they saw between Western and Eastern cultural attitudes towards the non-human, and to call out Western-centric and Eurocentric prejudices which tended to dismiss non-anthropocentric cultures as “primitive” and “backwards.” Scholars such as historian Lynn Townsend White, Jr. and ecologist David Suzuki see anthropocentrism as particularly prevalent within Western culture, tracing contemporary anthropocentric views back to roots in Judeo-Christian religious tradition — pointing to the very same passages in Genesis that Beckett takes as evidence that anthropocentrism must be universal. Many scholars in environmental ethics have noted that this view of human superiority was more formally codified and exacerbated in European culture by liberalism, capitalist philosophy, imperialist colonialism and the Industrial Revolution. Others have noted that anthropocentrism has played a prominent role in Western philosophy, from its earliest foundations in the writings of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, to the more recent work of Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Scheler, Heidegger and Sartre. This is another fundamental problem with Beckett’s claim: he takes characteristics specific to Western culture (including its legacy of anthropocentrism and dualism) and treats them as inherent and universal to the human species as a whole, while ignoring counterexamples from non-Western cultures.

This is one reason I agree with Traci Laird’s dead-on assessment that anthropocentrism in modern Paganism “plays out in subtle and tricky ways.” Beckett clearly believes that anthropocentrism is harmful and undesirable, and he spends a lot of time trying to argue against it. He acknowledges that anthropocentric attitudes have shaped modern society in ways that have led to widespread (and possibly irrevocable) environmental damage. That he fails to extract himself from basic anthropocentric assumptions is all the more surprising because he professes “a reverence for Nature based on the recognition of the interrelatedness of all life and the inherent worth and dignity – and agency – of all life.”


The problem is that he does not take this reverence seriously enough to apply it consistently in his thinking or integrate it into his worldview. For instance, he explains that we should adopt an attitude of religious reverence towards nature because “reason has been shown to be a notoriously ineffective method of persuading anyone to change their behavior.” It seems Beckett is just not comfortable with the idea that non-human beings deserve reverence in their own right, and so he tries to bolster this view by arguing for its instrumental value. We need reverence because reason alone isn’t enough to change our behavior, and we need to change our behavior because, according to Beckett, “moderating our behavior is in our own self-interest and it is especially in the self-interest of our species.”

Sensing the uncertain ground beneath him, he denies that this is an anthropocentric view — but here he is simply, well, wrong. This reasoning is known by its proponents as enlightened anthropocentrism, and it asserts that we should advocate for environmentally sustainable ways of living because of the intrumental value of the ecosystems on which we depend, rather than on the intrinsic value of those ecosystems and their inhabitants. The SEP notes:

[A]nthropocentrism often recognizes some non-intrinsic wrongness of anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) environmental devastation. Such destruction might damage the well-being of human beings now and in the future, since our well-being is essentially dependent on a sustainable environment. […] [S]ome theorists working in the field see no need to develop new, non-anthropocentric theories. Instead, they advocate what may be called enlightened anthropocentrism (or, perhaps more appropriately called, prudential anthropocentrism). Briefly, this is the view that all the moral duties we have towards the environment are derived from our direct duties to its human inhabitants.

And this is where Beckett, despite his best intentions, slips back into the trap of anthropocentrism: for him, the solution to preventing environmental damage rests on the necessity of asserting an essential separation between humans and non-human beings even though we are physically dependent upon them. He attributes human weakness (selfishness, arrogance, ignorance) to “evolution” and insists that these are the only things we can learn from other animals. He contrasts this with human power (intelligence, self-moderation, spiritual insight), which he attributes to the civilizing influences of religion and culture. He embraces the anthropocentric dualism that asserts human culture and civilization are not only separate from but superior to a limited, flawed (not to say “primitive” or “backwards”) natural world. Why shouldn’t we behave the way other animals do, or trust our own natural instincts? To Beckett, only a lazy, ignorant person would ask such a question — and the answer is so obvious to him that he doesn’t even feel the need to give one. But the implication is obvious: because humans are different, we should be better than that; because we have more power and more intelligence; because being like other animals is dangerous, unethical and self-destructive.

Beckett is fully aware that we are stuck in the hole of anthropocentrism, but the only possible solution he can see is to keep on digging. To a man with a shovel, it can be hard to imagine any other solution, and Western society has spent a long time convincing us that the shovel is the only effective tool we have. And so it seems unthinkable to Beckett to take seriously questions about how non-human beings offer insights into ethical relationships that extend beyond human-specific concerns. It never occurs to him that it is possible to see human beings as descendants of and apprentices to non-human animals, plants and other beings who have guidance to offer (or demands to make) about how to live in harmony with the natural world.

This bias is pervasive, reaching even beyond the claim that human instinct is anthropocentric. It has roots in the philosophical concept of human subjectivity, and its relationship to epistemology and ontology. These topics are what I’ll be exploring in my next post.

[1] We can see an echo of this concern in secular Western society today, when dietary choices made to help humans lose weight or reap certain health benefits are far more popular and provoke less criticism than choices (such as veganism) that are founded on a concern for the welfare of the animals themselves.

[2] This example of a wolf killing an “endangered” cow is an especially odd one to use, considering that every year in the United States alone, human beings slaughter an average of 35 million cows for food consumption — that is, more than the human population of the 20 largest cities in the U.S. combined, or the entire human population of Canada. That’s every year. In contrast, wolves are responsible for only 0.2% of unintended cattle deaths in the United States, lagging far behind causes like weather (12%) and poor living conditions (49%) that lead to disease or injury. The very notion of a wolf being responsible for killing the last of an “endangered” cow species is so bizarre it borders on the nonsensical.

Next: What the Robin Saw: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity (Part 1)

This post is part of the Animistic Blog Carnival, hosted this month by Brian Taylor on his blog, animist jottings. For details on how to join, click here.

Photo Credits:
• “Wolf Moon – Full Moon,” by Bill Dickinson (CC) [source]
• “Untitled,” by Valerie (CC) [source]
• “In this weather?” by Porsupah Ree (CC) [source]
• “Loba,” by Lulu Lovering (CC) [source]

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Theology

Defining Anthropocentrism


[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #038c4a;”]W[/dropcap]hat 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.

faceinbark_ blondie478Given 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.

Anthropocentrism can also be found in the writings of P. Sufenas Virius Lupus (a devotional polytheist), when he rejects the concept of “nature worship” as a legitimate form of Paganism:

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.

Next: Anthropocentrism and Animal Instinct

This post is part of the Animistic Blog Carnival, hosted this month by Brian Taylor on his blog, animist jottings. For details on how to join, click here.

Photo Credits:
• “Faces of Stone,” by Christopher (CC) [source]
• “face in the bark,” by Mary W. (CC) [source]

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild

Talking about Anthropocentrism in Modern Paganism

It’s been a mind-churning couple of weeks, friends, and this Gemini girl has been reveling in it and doing her best to keep up.

Book Crazy

It so happened that the same day I published “Gods Like Mountains, Gods Like Mists,” Irish animist Traci Laird also shared a piece in which she confronted the issue of anthropocentrism in modern Western Paganism more directly. She points out, very rightly I think, that “the belief that human-persons are the most significant species on the planet, plays out within paganism in subtle and tricky ways.” The response to our two posts has been incredibly varied, with writers across the Pagan blogosphere grappling with notions of anthropocentrism that range so widely at times it seems they’re hardly talking about the same thing at all.

One blogger notes that “the word anthropocentricism has been liberally strewn about,” and these are “topics that do in fact need to be discussed, but I so would have loved it if the authors decided to, oh, I don’t know, discuss them.”

That’s definitely a fair criticism of my own post! (And it’s one that others brought up in the comment thread, where we dug a little deeper into what exactly I’d meant and where I could have been clearer.) The more responses and reactions I read over the past couple weeks, the more I realized that the issue of anthropocentrism in Paganism is incredibly complex and at times very confusing. Subtle and tricky ain’t the half of it! And so I wanted to spend some time teasing apart the various straw men that have been propped up throughout this conversation and give a little more context to my original post and the problems, as I see them, of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism in Pagan ritual and theology.

Another reason to spend a little more time on this topic is that Morpheus Ravenna has since followed up on her post about ritual with a clarification of her own theology, pointing out that my labeling her a “hard polytheist” wasn’t really accurate. Her post on polytheist theology based on an ecological paradigm resonates with me personally in many ways, especially when she writes:

The ecological paradigm informs pretty much all of my thinking about spiritual realities and theology. And coming from that perspective, the whole question of hard versus soft polytheism keeps looking to me like a false dichotomy. Because ecological thinking is all about relationships, and which relationships you see or don’t see depends on what scale you’re looking at. And if the Gods are in any way real, then They are necessarily part of nature (just as we are), and we can use the same lens to look at them.

Ravenna discusses this idea at length, echoing thoughts similar to those I shared on No Unsacred Place back in 2012 in my exploration of human and deity identity, where I wrote:

The multiplicity of human identity is not just a spiritual principle, it’s a biological fact — a basic ecological reality. The cells that make up your body are dying off all the time, replaced by new cells born of the food you eat and the water you drink. We shed skin cells more quickly than it takes for our fingernails to grow out, and we replace the cells of our stomach lining sometimes as quickly as every meal. Even with all this, only 10% of the cells in your body belong to you. The rest are the cells of bacteria and microorganisms that call your body home, and without these symbionts living on and within your physical self, you would be unable to digest and process the nutrients necessary to keep you alive. Your physical body is teeming with a microscopic diversity of life that rivals a rainforest. The insight of the Gaia Theory — that “the Earth system behaves as a single self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components” — is as much a statement about our own physical bodies as it is about the planet. If we imagine the Earth as the body of a goddess, we can also imagine our own bodies as a sacred home to an ecologically complex and diverse array of microscopic life.

These are the first glimmerings of an earth-centered theology of polytheism. If human identity is complex, both personal and social, physical and psychological, spiritual and ecological — why should we expect deity identity to be any simpler? If our sense of self-identity is fluid and changeable, interconnected, responsive to the teeming, dancing life that permeates and surrounds us — why should we expect the gods to be objective, discrete and separate beings? The experience of spiritual practice and the biology of physical life teach us otherwise — showing us both the astounding unity and the sacred, interconnected multiplicity of being.

But Ravenna’s post also gives me a better understanding of where exactly our views differ, and why I came to some wrong conclusions at first. I’ll talk about that more later, but first it’s really important that you go and read her post, where she explains her theology and its connection to her approach to ritual in her own words.

Finally, by happy coincidence, the theme of this month’s Animist Blog Carnival is Animist Ethics, so this seems like a great opportunity to talk about the important tensions between anthropocentrism and the ecocentric values that inform the animistic aspects of my spiritual path. Naturally, in the process of digging deeper I’m going to be using my own shovel and some elbow grease, so I want to share the usual caveat that while these kinds of questions and concerns are vitally important to me and my practice, I don’t profess to have any Right Answers or Ultimate Truths. Your own experiences and perspectives may differ, and probably (hopefully!) they will.


So I’m going to walk very gently and slowly through these ideas for a little while — you might even call it lingering. I know that means that I risk losing some of you: not only those who think I’m making distinctions too fine to be meaningful, but also those of you who are more inclined to skip lightly through the meadows of theology and philosophy on your joyful wild hunt towards deeper relationship with the gods and the world. Theology is not a place where everyone lingers, and I totally understand that. But set me down in a field and I am just as likely to spend hours watching the methodical process of a bee exploring every crevice of a clover as I am to make daisy chains or do cartwheels. That’s just the kind of girl I am. So I ask you to bear with me — and for those of you eagerly calling me to set aside definitions and difficult questions lest I linger too long in the open and get eaten by the Ur Doing It Wrong Wolves (or worse, become one!)… don’t worry! I’m staying alert.

Save a place for me in the drum circle under the darker canopies of mystery, beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing.

I will meet you there.

Next: Defining Anthropocentrism

Holy Wild, News & Announcements

Signal Boost: Be Part of the Animist Blog Carnival!

ancestorsofthenorth_SusanBouletEvery month, the Animist Blog Carnival (organized by the devoted Heather Awen) gathers together essays and blog posts on a particular theme from writers all over the world who are exploring animism as an aspect of their spiritual lives. If you consider yourself an animist, you can join in! It’s super-easy: just share your reflections, thoughts and experiences on the month’s chosen theme on your own blog or website, and then email a link to your post to Heather (or that month’s ABC host).

And now’s a great time to get involved. The theme for this month’s ABC is Animism and Religion, and Heather shares a list of thought-provoking prompts over on her blog to get you started, including:

  • How do you mix animism with the religious tradition you belong to?
  • Have you ever left a religion because it was not compatible with animism?
  • Share a personal animistic experience that you had during a religious ritual or ceremony.
  • Imagine a future animistic religion (50, 300, 1000, 5000 years from now): What are they doing and why? How did it happen? How are radioactive waste sites, GMO fields, poisonous rivers, and Climate Chaos handled? What about technology? (Sci-fi fantasy writers and poets, go for it!)

These are just a few, so if you’re stumped, head on over to Heather’s blog for more. The deadline to submit your writing is November 28, 2013. You can find out more about the Animist Blog Carnival and how to participate, look at future themes and read past contributions by clicking here.

Photo Credit: “Ancestors of the North,” © Susan Seddon-Boulet [source]