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A New Theory of Religion

has brought Hallowell’s discussion into relation with wider consideration of the
relational constitution of persons and with her own
research among the Nayaka of south India. Her exploration of this hunter-gatherer epistemology exemplifies the
possibilities raised by the new use of the term animism as a
challenge to previous approaches. Her work is parallel to
that of Ken Morrison (1992) and other scholars of Native
American religious traditions who point out that the
privileging of spirit over matter, or supernatural over
natural, has misdirected attention from the irrelevance of
such dichotomies to those who engage religiously with
this world. An even stronger critique is raised by Eduardo
Viveiros de Castro who contrasts the Western notion that
there is a singular nature and multiple cultures (hence
multiculturalism) with Amazonian indigenous perspectives that there is a singular culture and multiple natures
and therefore “multinaturalism.” While he sees “animism”
as “the extension of [human] qualities to beings of other
species” (i.e., a term compromised by its role in Tylor’s
theory), his own discussion clearly dovetails with those
cited above. It further contributes the important invitation
to consider that “culture” is not the preserve of humans,
but is evident (when seen as these indigenous peoples
see things) among other-than-human persons too. In this
light, Western discourses about religions, especially
shamanisms, in which “spirits” and “spirituality” are
privileged, might be corrected from the animist perspective that everything that lives (and this is a wider category
than is typically assumed in the West) is involved in
In addition to anthropological research that discovers
or theorizes animisms (in various ways) and categorizations of the world’s religions that include “animists,” it is
instructive to consider animism in imaginative literatures.
Three examples might suffice. In Alice Walker’s The Color
the heroine, Celie, finally stands up to her
main abuser and finds that the elements are with her.
Her statement, “I am here” can be read as foundational
for Walker’s later autobiographical accounts of her own
spiritual quest in which it is good to be “here.” In a very
different style, Daniel Quinn’s didactic novels (beginning
with Iprovoke a consideration that the
majority of human cultures are preferable to that of the
West. These “leaver” societies assaulted by “taker” culture
and its “totalitarian agriculture” demonstrate alternative
ways to be human and encourage efforts to create better
alternatives for the future. His animism is a principled
evocation of the possibility that humanity might live as
others live: leaving what is not needed now for others or
ourselves to share in the future, going beyond the discourse of sustainability to the celebration of diverse modes
of engaging with the world. Central to these novels, once
again, is a debate about the commonalities and diversities
of culture(s) and nature(s). Finally, in this brief introduction to recent literatures of animism, much Fantasy Fiction
suggests that the world is inhabited by a wide range of
autonomous living beings with their own interests and
concerns. Whether these be speaking trees or elusive elves,
it seems that life (including communication, intelligence,
suffering, joy and so on) is to be found everywhere in this
and any possible otherworlds. These literatures not only
explore but encourage imaginative engagements with the
world that can be labeled “animist.”