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RELN2010: Religion and Environment

Major Essay: Modern animism and Personhood: caring through ‘giving, morality, and
relations’

Word Length:2000

Due Date: 02/06/2008

Lecturer: Dr. Sylvie Shaw

Raymond Lam
INTRODUCTION

The ‘personhood’ of non-human entities is a concept common to many traditions of

animism. A common theme emerges when applied to the context of modern

environmental earth care. This essay will put forward an approach that abandons the

commonplace anthropocentric worldview,1 and re-engage with the Earth and its beings in

three different aspects of being: giving, moral, and relational. What is offered is not a

mere bastardization of animist values, which in itself offers nothing truly innovative or

daring, but a re-imagining of the personhood of non-human subjects (I intentionally do

not use the word ‘object’), which not only brings neglected animist ideas back to the

forefront, but has the potential to even transcend cultural boundaries. The understanding

of all beings on Earth as ‘persons’ is not limited to one people; it belongs to all. For lack

of a better word, humans (people) and non-humans (animals and other non-human

subjects) are all ‘persons’ in the truest sense of the word: worthy of care and protection.

Through a new understanding of this ‘personhood’2, the animism of the future becomes

an ethical contribution that awakens us to our oneness with Earth and non-human

subjects. Human beings have potential to care for non-human subjects by generously

giving to them, encompassing them within the moral sphere, and establishing relations

with them like the animist of old. This essay attempts to demonstrate the validity of

‘personhood-based’ animism as a modern environmental approach, and then build on the

1
The anthropocentric worldview is most dominant in Western consciousness. However, this is by and large
a historical and cultural development, and hence can be modified or even abandoned to a certain extent.
2
‘Personalism’ is a near-synonym of animism. Theresa Smith notes that Hallowell described the Ojibwe
worldview as ‘personalistic’. Smith (1995) pg. 49
three animist concepts (giving, morality and relations) to present a modern ethic of care

through which people can put into practice.

ANIMISM

In the next century, the sixth mass extinction is foretold to be a human-caused

catastrophe.3 However, the endeavour to preserve the world so that humans can continue

to benefit from it or be ‘spared nature’s wrath’ remains trapped in anthropocentrism. A

higher, deeper end to this cause is required. But ignorant of this reality, modern discourse

has continued to exclude animals4 from the domains of self-awareness, intention and

communication, which have been held to be the exclusive attributes of the human race.

This denial not only cuts away at little remaining time humanity holds, but continues to

foster indifference and ignorance to the plight of the Earth. This is almost an unnecessary

problem, because even now archaeologists and palaeontologists can only make their

judgments about what constitutes a ‘human specimen’ within the limits of material

evidence.5 Thanks to new evidence, the line between humans and ‘primates’ is thinner

than ever.6 There is no clear-cut line between humanity and animals – in fact, there is

none. Without the scientific justification to claim human difference and superiority over

animals, some have appealed to emotions and prejudices by appealing to our self-

awareness, intention, and self-reflexiveness, which are traits apparently exclusive to

humans.

3
Bleakly (2000) pg. 51 – 52
4
If even animals are denied their personhood, what chance does a tree or the Earth have?
5
Trompf (1990) pg. 112
6
ibid. pg. 113
However, in current scientific studies much of the results are indicating that this

convenient illusion can no longer be upheld. Such research has shown that different

animals possess different unique qualities that are ‘human’: self-motivation,

communality, and degrees of individuality and solitude.7 The British philosopher

Anthony Grayling gives a powerful example of apes: ‘dehumanized’ in literature and

media as ferocious or stupid, apes are in fact ‘inquisitive, affectionate and sociable, with

capacities for suffering and grief that match our own.’8 Animists observe that animals are

not simply ‘living beasts’ but persons because they relate, communicate and perform

actions that are directed toward humans.9 Animals exercise choice, intention, and

purpose, towards each other and towards humans. Seen this way, it becomes

unreasonable not to treat an animal as a ‘person’ with ‘personhood’.

Accepting animals’ essential ‘personhood’ also helps us to understand animism (at least,

the animism which is potentially relevant to a modern ethic of Earth care). Derived from

the Latin anima, or literally, ‘breath’ and later some form of soul, animism sees the spirit

or soul as a personal entity, which is ascribed to humans, other animals, and objects

alike.10 It must be clarified that animism does not draw a distinction between animate or

inanimate objects.11 This personal soul, which ‘animates’ any physical entity, possesses

human characteristics of perception, feeling, and thought, and is also capable of

7
Harvey (2006) pg. 100
8
Grayling (2002) pg. 84
9
Harvey (2006) pg. 101
10
Dunlap (1946) pg. 51
11
Clodd (1905) pg. 42
producing influences or effects in the physical world.12 Having replaced the lifeless

‘object’ with a relational ‘subject’ for everything on Earth, the understandings of ‘spirit’

or ‘soul’ suddenly becomes more diverse. The spirit can be understood as an additional

component apart from the material composition which enlivens, individuates and

socializes them, or as varieties of elusive persons who could have no material form, or

shift between apparent physical manifestations.13 Or, in the Ojibwa worldview, there is an

idea of metamorphosis, where both living and dead humans can assume the bodies of

animals. This indicates that as far as appearance is concerned, there is no hard line

between animals and humans.14 These diverse opinions are all in agreement with the

current discourse on non-humans’ personhood because there is now awareness of the

acute degree of ignorance with which we have treated the ‘unaware’ subjects of the

world. Therefore, with an understanding of ‘personhood’ and a humbled approach to the

problems Earth faces, the animism of old becomes an aspect of ‘sacred science’.15 A

sacred science is different from common perceptions of science because it entails

morality and action; something that conventional science looks to the moral philosophers

for advice. But to a ‘sacred scientist’, nature becomes a ‘cosmic book’,16 where a person’s

very actions within the natural immediate world speak of her morality. With a foundation

in animism, a human’s ethic of ‘personhood’ becomes a science wed to sancitity. Now it

remains to apply this ethic of care to a wounded world.

12
Dunlap (1946) pg. 51
13
Harvey (2006) pg. 121
14
A. Irving Hallowell, ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View’ pg. 141 – 178
15
Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1993) pg. 45
16
ibid. pg. 122
SAVING THE EARTH IN THE MODERN ANIMIST CONTEXT

The first step in humanity’s plan of action is the generous act of giving. Often this giving

is a countergift, a return for favour already bestowed. For example, plants, like humans

and animals, give parts of themselves to other creatures. They contribute to the Earth,

whether through wood or tobacco.17 Animism does not simply demand a reciprocal

obligation to animals, but to all non-human subjects. Yet the respectful and gentle

communion with plants such as trees is ridiculed in superficial circles of society because

the conventional treatment of trees is to cut them down to use as timber, not to tend to

them or to raise them. It is a similar reason as to why it is seen as ludicrous to commune

with cows; because the common interaction with such creatures is to milk or kill them for

their nourishment. Therefore ‘giving back’ to the Earth that has sacrificed so much for

our existence is a spiritual imperative. The reflective animist understands that the trees

and the cows have given her life and health, and it is her turn to return a part of herself as

an offer of reconciliation. It is through gift and countergift that relations of friendship are

established and maintained, whether among men or between man and god.18 To re-

establish our friendship with Earth and Earth’s beings, then, a modern animist also must

give freely to the natural world in whatever way she can.

Another powerful manner of ‘giving’ is verbal in nature and a common study in academic

research of animism: the shifting of language use. As demonstrated earlier, it becomes

important to speak of all beings as ‘persons’, of all non-human things as subjects as

17
Harvey (2006) pg. 105
18
Burkert (1996) pg. 130
opposed to objects, and give equal consideration to both animal and human as persons

with capacities for suffering. Mutual obligation is present in much of animist thought,

including the Ojibwa. As hunter-gatherers, humans depend on beings who are under the

control of ‘masters’ or ‘owners’ who, as other-than-human persons, must be treated with

respect, and ensure that there is no unnecessary cruelty involved.19 The change in

language use is not big, but it is a modern foundation of applying, in principle, what

‘giving’ can constitute in animism, because animists offer gifts to subjects. They give

away to those who will receive gifts within a relationship. Furthermore, gift-giving

creates order and stabilizes these honour-bound relationships.20 From an objective

perspective, the Earth nourishes humans and has done so for thousands of years. For one

to ‘offer’ oneself in return (every gift implies an expectation, or even obligation, of a

countergift21) is to fundamentally re-establish order between the spirits of Earth and

humanity. Order is an idea that so many humans outwardly value, but possess little

awareness of. Giving is very practical activity that can lead to a deeper understanding of

how we should tend to the Earth.

Aside from the order that is re-established through generous giving, humanity must

engage in an ‘expansion of the moral sphere’. Grayling is correct when he remarks that

we would be horrified to eat our own pets, non-human creatures whom we accept into the

familiar domain of our own family, as quasi-citizens of the human world.22 The

relationship between a householder and a pet is, in fact, a relationship between two

19
A. Irving Hallowell, ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View’ pg. 141 – 178
20
Burkert (1996) pg. 130 – 131
21
ibid.
22
Grayling (2002) pg. 85
persons because human treatment of pets is premised on the same manner of concern for

other humans.23 Logically, it is not only pets who deserve attention, affection and care,

though the concern for pets (who are almost certainly close members of the family) may

be understandably more immediate. Many moral philosophers talk of extending care

beyond one’s familiar sphere to encompass all humanity, and this has practical

consequences. For example, humans share half their genetic makeup with worms and

fruit-flies.24 To extend our sphere of to these non-humans would entail that the reflective

person eventually decides to abstain from fishing practices that require her to spear said

worms on fish-hooks. This brief instance undercuts the idea that once the moral sphere is

enlarged, there is no rational reason to stop it from expanding. It makes no sense to stop

the ethical expansion in relation to pets and animals in general. All peoples can cultivate

this conscious aesthetic, because it is intellectually understood that the world is an

intimate family, both for scientists and for animists. Scientists become engaged in a

‘sacred science’ once they adopt animist principles of treating everything on Earth and

the Earth itself as ‘persons’, capable of love, sacrifice, and suffering.

Through examining the spiritual significance of Nature itself25, the modern animist also

discovers an opportunity for ‘relational re-enactment’. Superficially speaking, it is

applying animist principles from animist belief to one’s treatment of the natural world,

but the relational aspect entails a much deeper engagement. An animist is not simple a

moral philosopher who rationalizes forth a universal love for all sentients, but is personal

23
ibid.
24
ibid. pg. 83
25
Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1993), Chapter 8. pg. 119 – 125
in her approach. For example, in the analysis by Tawhai26 about Maori religion, spiritual

activity is closely tied to the violence and conflict-resolution between humans and non-

human neighbours.27 The idea of genealogy, or ancient ancestry, connects us all and it

manifests in kinship, guesthood and even relations between enemies which, for Maori

belief, is expression of mana or tabu, which can be compared to electrical forces or souls

in operation. These forces, quite literally, form us – from immanent persons to ancestral

persons and future progeny whom we wish to populate the Earth with. We are formed

also by the interplay of seasons, climates, places, and many other conditions.28 Although

this is a gateway to understanding Maori life in a relational universe, a more general,

starker reality is revealed: an animist is not simply ‘broadly’ compassionate towards the

entire Earth, although that certainly constitutes part of her approach. A more detailed and

sustainable ethic is through the relations between oneself the individual human subject

and the Other non-human subject. Re-enactment of these complex yet essential

relationships helps us to come to terms with the problem that to live is to take life. This

forms much of the impetus to animist activity.29 Relational re-enactment is directly

related to the practice of ‘giving’ and the extension of the moral sphere because Maori do

not predicate the right to use Earth’s natural resources on claims of difference or

superiority, and emphasize greatly the etiquette of relationships. Offerings are made, gifts

are given, and excess profits are returned. This is the correct way to treat life-givers.30

Of course, the practice of this principle may be different between a Maori and a modern
26
Tawhai (1988)
27
Harvey (2006) pg. 51
28
ibid.
29
ibid. pg. 63
30
ibid.
Westerner (the Maori will, with appropriate invocations, placating and requesting of

permission, take wood from trees to craft into a culturally recognised and celebrated

treasure). The modern citizen living in an urban apartment in a bustling metropolis will,

by necessity, will approach giving, morality, and relating in different ways. She will have

to be creative in imagining methods to ‘give back’ to the Earth, especially in a city that

has taken much from the Earth. But it is a progressive step when one ‘asks for

permission’ from the Earth, the sea, or the forests. When the transformation from tree-

things to tree-persons is complete, the unfolding of further events is within the

relationship of the human and the tree-person. Animism is concered with the unfolding of

potential in relationships.31 New relationships entail new personhood rather than the mere

discovery of life in certain non-human subjects. The respectful treatment of nature,

whether in a ‘benign’ or ‘hostile’ relationship, can now unfold.

CONCLUSION

The approach of an animist towards other persons, not just people, is through an ethic of

relation, empathy, and oneness. This is the foundation for genuine ecological awareness

and action. Understanding the severity of humanity’s impact on the world is one

important perspective of the current crisis. But another important perspective is from the

non-human world: that is, the suffering of animal and plant persons; along with the

person of the Earth itself. Giving back to the Earth oneself as a ‘gift’, extending one’s

moral reach to non-humans, and ‘relational re-enactments’ are three ways to remedy their

suffering. This model of care will not only bring the animist spirit into a light relevant to
31
ibid. pg. 64
the modern world, but provide some frameworks in which for human beings to enact

change. Although the movement back to peaceful coexistence is an urgent one, seen

positively, there has also never existed a better time to re-establish harmony. The time to

give, extend one’s hand, and enter into relationship is now.


References

Bleakly, Alan (2000) The Animalizing Imagination: Totemism, Textuality and


Ecocriticism. Great Britain, United Sates, Macmillian Press Ltd.

Burkert, Walter (1996) Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions.
Cambrdige, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press

Clodd, Edward (1905) Animism: The Seed of Religion. London: Archibald Constable &
Co. Ltd.

Dunlap, Knight (1946) Religion: Its Functions in Human Life: A Study of Religion from
the Point of View of Psychology. New York, London: McGraw-Hill Book
Company, Inc.

Grayling, A.C. (2002) The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life. London:
Phoenix

Harvey, Graham (2006) Animism: Respecting the Living World. New York: columbia
University Press

Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1993) The Need for a Sacred Science. United Kingdom: Curzon
Press Ltd.

Smith, Theresa S. (1995) The Island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and Water
Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World. Moscow: University of Idaho
Press

Tawhai, Te Pakaka (1988) ‘Maori Religion’ in Stewart Sutherland and Peter Clarke (eds)
The Study of Religion, Traditional and New Religion. London: Routledge, pg. 96
– 105. Reprinted in Graham Harvey (ed.) (2002) pg. 237 – 249

A. Irving Hallowell, ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View’ in Tedlock, Dennis
and Barbara (1975) Teachings from the American Earth: Indian Religion and
Philosophy. New York: Liveright, pg. 141 – 178

Trompf, Garry (1990) In Search of Origins. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Ltd.