Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

April 9, 2013

Animist on Atheism

Animism is the belief that the world is full of spirits. Atheism is the rejection of belief in gods. These beliefs are not opposed according to their bare definitions, but I know of no atheists who really get excited about the spirit world.

Atheism in the West is heavily shaped by Christianity, or more precisely, by rejecting Christianity. An ultra-brief history of Christian thought could begin with the Gnostics, part of the cultish religious soup in and around the ancient Holy Land, who saw their world as a miserable material prison to be escaped through ecstatic travels. The medieval Church kept the idea of this world as a material prison, but dropped the possibility of escaping through ecstasy. It urged followers to believe in a spirit world that could not be seen, except by the dead and resurrected or a few chosen prophets. People had to listen to their priest and trust in received wisdom, or actually risk being tortured and burned as a heretic. Early moves towards skepticism included demanding to be allowed to read the Bible for oneself, cutting out a major priestly privilege!

Atheists (and Deists, their close intellectual cousins) said: “Enough of this crap! We won’t believe in the Invisible Man in the Sky who watches us all the time anymore! It’s very manipulative and we call ‘shenanigans’ upon thee!” So, freethinkers shifted their attention to the world of things they could find out for themselves — reason, history, and especially science. Any hint of the spirit world was regarded as the same sort of superstition as Churchly lies. The spiritual practices of “savages” were beneath contempt, of more interest to edgy bohemians than serious scientists or philosophers, and were not seriously looked at in the West for a few hundred more years.

So, in animism, the spirit world is present right here in nature. In mainstream Christianity, the spirit world has been ripped away from the present world and hidden behind a veil, as for the priests to communicate to the helpless peasants. And in atheism, the spirit world has been denied existence entirely.

The atheist denial of natural spirits is based on an error, the belief that the spirit world is basically a lie communicated to the people by priests. For most people over most of human time, the spirit world was much more directly accessible.

On an everyday level, people were trained to rely on their instinct or “see with the heart.” Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, describes it thus: “I spent much of my childhood in a third-world, rural environment where we had to be in tune with Mother Nature for our very survival… To be instinctual means to be clearheaded, open, and aware of the signals we are getting from other people, animals, and our environment all the time. It means understanding our natural selves and the natural world, and acknowledging our interdependence with that world.” (from “Be the Pack Leader.”)

To a little child, the world is a colorful place imbued with meaning. This tree is sinister, that one is welcoming, still another is powerful and proud. I believe that these impressions are devalued by the education process, until the student a) comes to see trees as collections of cells and organs described by a Latin binomial, of interest as a sort of ongoing biochemical reaction or b) loses interest and stays inside watching football. The animist myths of trees as plant teachers and homes for forest spirits express the more important truths. Ignoring the truth about trees causes us to build ugly places — perhaps best embodied by Tolkein’s Mordor. (By the way — plenty of atheists appreciate and protect the trees, and plenty of ugly-minded deforesters call themselves Christian.) I happen to believe that the most powerful human-tree bond is on a level we truly experience as magical — an exchange of ill-defined “energy.” On what evidence should anyone reject that magical level of bonding? To what end?

 

A giant tree surrounded by fences.

Really ancient trees still inspire reverence from people of all beliefs. Mary and Angus Hogg [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A stubbly, muddy field stretches everywhere in sight.

Do the opencast miners need a more advanced science to explain to them where they went wrong? by Texas Radio and The Big Beat [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Opening up our senses to the magical seems like a wise move, if Sauron is not to win.

Since the middle of last century, the West has exploded with information about ecstatic technologies that permit direct experience of the spiritual world, often in full Technicolor. Albert Hoffman discovered LSD-25 in 1938, and it was soon being used in psychiatry to accelerate insight, healing and development in therapeutic clients. This very nearly coincided with Richard Shultes’ first trips to Mexico to identify the shamans’ magical plants and fungi (psilocybe mushrooms, morning glories and solanaceous trumpet flowers.) Shultes sent Hofmann morning glory samples for analysis, and Hofmann discovered LSD analogs in the seeds. They realized that indigenous shamanism had a lot in common with the cutting edge of psychiatric practice. Psychedelic drugs are not for everyone, and they are the subject of a mostly secular but authoritarian backlash, but they are not the only technology of ecstasy. Mind science imported from Buddhist and yogic traditions was popularized throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Music took on longer forms to allow the listeners to “get into it,” and incorporated trippy light shows. You don’t have to listen to your priest interpret Ezekiel’s vision of a wheel for you any longer: people can experience the other world for themselves, the paths are known.

In rejecting a phony or insanely corrupted spiritual tradition, many freethinkers found themselves cast to philosophies like materialism and positivism. Many Christians box up their religion except for Sundays and live in the same soulectomied world. These philosophies are insufficient — they do not feed the instinctual side of human nature. We find ourselves a bunch of neurotics living in ugly places. But there was never any reason to stop developing knowledge of the magical worlds of our childhood. Use your reasoning capacity, but remember where we all started from.

 

Advertisements

6 Comments »

  1. “The atheist denial of natural spirits is based on an error, the belief that the spirit world is basically a lie communicated to the people by priests. ”

    I can’t speak for other atheists, but this is not true for me.

    My denial of natural spirits is based on the lack of good evidence.

    Comment by NotAScientist — April 9, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

    • I would concur. I think our belief in any “spirit world” is likely a product of our overactive pattern and agency detectors, coupled with confirmation bias. The priests just used this natural human tendency for their own advantage.

      Given good evidence, I would revise this opinion. But I have seen no solid evidence so far to indicate the existence of any natural spirits.

      Comment by ubi dubium — April 9, 2013 @ 7:59 pm

    • IMH(?)O, the lack of evidence is based on a lack of exploration. There is no good evidence for anything you don’t look for, and our society’s been actively trying to keep a lid down on this thing since early Christian days. It’s easy to reject the notion that Jupiter has moons in a society that has banned the telescope. If you really know about what you speak, if you’ve actually studied the technology of seeing into other worlds with a preliterate witch doctor and you’re still telling me that there is no evidence for natural spirits, that would mean something, but if you haven’t learned the tech… that’s a bit like someone with an am/fm radio denying the existence of weather band.
      THANK YOU ALL for reading my shit!

      Comment by paragardener — April 14, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

      • and in other words: just go look and be empirical. anything else would be unreasonable.

        Comment by paragardener — April 14, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

      • “IMH(?)O, the lack of evidence is based on a lack of exploration. ”

        You’d be wrong.

        Comment by NotAScientist — April 15, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

  2. I wrote a lengthy comment here, but I did something or other that erased it. I’m hoping to write my own blog post on this topic, which I’m pretty sure was at least partly inspired by our dialogue on FB the other day.
    (and here is the post).

    Comment by estraven — April 11, 2013 @ 1:52 am


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.