Animism has a radically different relationship with deities than most religions.
Many of the living animistic traditions include tales of Gods and Goddesses, and other non-human deities that can be honoured, worked with or relied up by the practitioner.
Ancient records of animist practice show a deep reverence for a variety of spiritual beings from animals to volcanoes, ancestral humans to creator beings. And many modern Western animists now consider themselves pagan, centring their practice around ancestral deities from the Celtic and Norse pantheons.
But animism doesn’t require the belief in or worship of a deity; there are no rules about what or how to worship, or even that worship must be performed. There are vast numbers of animists that work with no supreme being or deity, but rather consider the spirits of the land to be equal to humans, or simply different.
The Western idea of theism and worship is deeply informed by our religious heritage, which frames all spiritual or non-human beings as ‘Gods’ (competing the with ‘one true God’ of the monotheistic faith) or their servants.
It is a strictly hierarchical view of the spiritual realm, with humans at the bottom in terms of power, value and wisdom. Worship is something that is demanded or required, and the relationship is usually formal, un-equal and placative.
But in animism, this conception of deities and worship becomes untenable; the Gods of a land or a people may or may not be pertinent to a particular animist. The deities are often approachable, fallible, flawed or uninterested. They can be equals to us, and we can relate with them as kin rather than authoritative or punitive figures.
This is a completely different view of theism, one that is more spacious and that rapidly dissolves into something incomparable to theism.
Once we apply the practical, experiential values of animism, it’s relationship to the Gods becomes even more distinct from the theistic traditions. Animists aren’t required to believe, but rather to explore; through the various tools and principles of animism, we can develop our own, uniquely individual, experiences of the spiritual world – including the deities we want to work with.
These experiences bring the deities out of the realms of story and myth, and into our lives in a concrete, helpful ways. It is in these experiences that animism is most closely aligned with the mystical traditions various religions.
While many modern people want to engage with maps of their world from a new perspective, the requirement to believe in a deity can be an enourmous hurdle for people raised in our secular, rational society.
Animism provides an approach to the spiritual and the mystical that we can engage with completely free from theistic dogma, and completely free of Gods if we want. While the Gods are the heart and fuel of theistic religions, animism values our relationships with our ancestors, land and community.
Our relationships to these sources is what creates the path and effectiveness of animist methods, leaving us free to engage with deities, or not, as we see fit.
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.