Religion and spirituality on the one hand, science and rationality on the other.
For a long time, these two facets of human experience have been on opposing sides, clashing over everything from big, universal questions – why are we here? – to intimate, personal ones – is my sexuality ok?
Animism might seem to conflict with science too, at first glance. But animism isn’t a religion, nor a New Age spiritual movement, and it’s relationship with science can be surprising.
Animism is about relationships; how we work with those relationships in practical ways to create change, grow and enjoy our lives to the fullest. In animism, everything in existence is part of this web of relationship, from our bodies to our cars to our ancestors, and this includes science itself.
Animism allows us to fine-tune all these relationships to our advantage, and it’s focus on practical, real world solutions means it embraces whatever works in the situation. A perfect example is medicine; if a practitioner of animism is ill, they go to the doctor and use whatever treatment will be most effective for their problem. They don’t refuse medicine in favor of prayer or ‘miracle cures’; there is a deeply earthy demand for us to deal with what’s in front of us, not allowing our ideological quirks to get in the way of the most effective path.
Of course, that isn’t to say that animism practice doesn’t have a place in healing and the treatment of ill health, but simply that animism can encompass Western medicine when that medicine is the solution we need. We can combine treatments with animistic methods that also help, either to reduce stress, improve healing or encourage healthier behaviour, but the animistic methods and the treatment aren’t at odds, they’re working together.
While religions are almost universally about what’s true, animism is more about what do I need. It can certainly lead to deep understanding of the truths of existence, but not through teaching them to us – we discover for ourselves how the world works. And this is what makes animism closer to science than religion.
Science is a vast, interhuman process of discovery. Through it we have mapped many areas of our world more effectively than ever before, and subsequently changed our world radically. It’s focus is largely external, however, while the focus of animism is personal and internal, bringing highly effective methods and principles to the deeply potent experiences of our lives.
While science looks to understand the world from an object perspective, animism gives us tools to understand and work with our subjective experiences. The directions in which they move us are different, but not inherently in conflict; when we know that animism is working at a personal, subjective level and science is working at an objective, rational level, we can use both without problem.
Sometimes, this combination of animism and science can appear paradoxical. As an animist, I work with spirits and deities, speak with my ancestors and use energy medicine to enhance my health. At the same time, I welcome modern medicine, technology and rational thinking, because I know that they are the most effective tools for treating illness, communicating around the world and assessing information in my day to day life.
For me, there’s no conflict between these two perspectives. Animism doesn’t insist that it’s ‘the truth’ and that we have to put it above all other approaches. And science has limits to it’s usefulness in certain areas of my life, like creativity, personal relationships and understanding the internal shape of my experiences. While a religion might demand that I choose between it’s rules and the scientific evidence, I can combine animism with rationality in my life without losing the benefits of either.
And because animism allows me to shift my relationships as I need, if I find that my experiences are in conflict with scientific thinking I can work with that conflict as part of my relationship with science, and with animism itself. There is a flexiblity to the animistic worldview that creates space for conflict solving, and an openness within animism that allows us to tolerate paradox without being threatened by it.
Another example of how animism and science can be remarkably effective together is in the area of climate change and environmental protection. Science has been telling us that the way we treat our planet is a huge problem for a long time, and they’re right. But an emotional and personal experience of the natural world and our relationship to it is so much more compelling than a graph or statistic; when you can experience how interdependent you are with your land and natural world, the concerns about sustainability become unforced; not just intellectual exercises.
In a world where we have access to vast information, personal knowledge and experience becomes crucial. Without internal, personal, intimate, paradoxical relationships, information becomes overwhelming and barren. With animism, we can relate directly with our information and what it’s telling us, and then use tools to help us find the right solutions for each unique situation.