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As we face mounting natural disasters, is believing in many gods really so radical?

Autumn tastes bitter this year. Another summer of hurricanes, heat waves, and floods that were “once in a lifetime.” In reality, this was another summer of climate change. Many of us feel helpless in the face of these complex ecological problems. Natural disasters are frightening because they exist beyond our control and, often, common understanding. But an animist, neo pagan mindset helps me make sense of these events and find purpose.

I have a friend who was raised Muslim. As a teenager he followed an agnosticism that eventually led to a pessimistic, atheist worldview. He sees religion as violent at worst and a psychological c I have a friend who was raised in a Muslim household, but as a teenager soon rebelled. He followed an inclination for agnosticism that eventually led him to a pessimistic, atheist worldview. Now, he sees religion as violent at worst and a psychological crutch at best. To him, religion is a way to make sense of things; a way to feel like existence isn’t meaningless; a method to create social cohesion; a tool with which to coerce. My pagan-ness humors him, though. To be a druid in the 21st century is “woo woo.” It’s “crazy.” And that’s that.

Some people may find it hard to maintain a friendship with someone who sees their spiritual practice as a fantasy world, but I think most neo pagans are accustomed to this. Neo paganism is stigmatized such that we must tolerate judgment, however casual, in most social spaces. You may be asked something like:

“But you don’t honestly think they’re real, right?’

“So, how do you decide which gods are real and aren’t?”

“Do you, like, pray to them? Do they talk to you?”

“Just don’t do any witchcraft on me,” they’ll add with an uncomfortable laugh.

Yet, it isn’t particularly strange to believe in the sublime animation of all nature. It isn’t uncommon to see or believe in the souls of nonhuman species, whether as an extrasensory knowing or from looking deeply into the eyes of a horse. I couldn’t even begin to count how many conversations I’ve had that went something like this:

“I just have to believe my dog has a soul,” they’ll say after the passing of a beloved pet.

“Of course they do,” I’ll say. Just like every whale, bear, or tree, I’ll add quietly in my mind.

Perhaps they’ll agree with this sentiment, too.

Even so, when neo pagans share with others that they actively acknowledge (not even necessarily worship!) the existence of personified souls in nature, people are confused. They may be humored like my friend by such a magical view of the world. Indeed, my pagan practice has become a running joke among us and some of our mutual friends.

There is a disconnect between belief in the “soul” or “spirit” of nonhuman nature and belief in nature religion. I think that it makes most people uncomfortable to confront this hypocrisy, probably because it comes with some responsibility to acknowledge one’s own soul in a profoundly different way than our culture presently allows for. Acknowledgement of this hypocrisy also asks a person to answer the question of what does and doesn’t constitute a “soul.” If one can believe in the soul of their family dog, can they acknowledge, too, the soul of the old oak on their property? The granite mountains on the edge of town? The winds that come in from the harbor?

Wind and clouds, tree frog and fern, soil and stone – I have no doubt that these are conscious or, indeed, spirited beings. To live an authentically animist worldview, though, has preoccupied my mind with the inhumanity of our modern systems of being. No matter how we pick apart human existence at this moment in time, capitalism is the chief transgressor. Capitalism is the clear cancer on which natural disasters are reacting. But this post isn’t about capitalism – it’s about living with its effects as an animist pagan.

When I consider Hurricane Ida as an expression of rage from Thor or Set, the message from nature is clear: our behavior is angering the gods. Our behavior, our pollution and consumerism, is damaging the natural world. Rising sea levels feel like an echo of the Great Flood Myth found in numerous cultures, another clear warning that we may lose our civilization to deluge. Florida may yet be a new Atlantis (minus the incredible technological advancements, of course).

An animist worldview demands that we change our economic habits immediately to be more ethical and conscious of our shared environment. Personification of nature helps me personally be more accountable to the changes I want to see. Because the ocean is a god, I deeper spiritual level of commitment has arisen to my low-plastic pledge. Because the apple tree in my yard is sacred to Pomona, I feel commitment to caring for and harvesting its fruits well.

Notions of deep ecology aren’t particularly unwelcome from everyday people. Indeed, most people find them quaint, idyllic, maybe primitive. But when these very spirits of sacred nature – rivers, storms – are personified into deities, conversation changes.

I don’t choose to believe in many gods out of a desire to make my experience of life more magical or fantastic. There are people who do, and I don’t want to discount that desire as invalid – it is! – but my unshakeable pagan animism comes from a more desperate need: survival.

For me, it is as primal as it is intellectual, as spiritual as it is practical. And I don’t think neo paganism is as radical or “crazy” as the public makes it out to be.

So, what can you do?

  1. Define your animism.
    Examine your immediate environment – home, neighborhood, town, and bioregion. What does and doesn’t feel as though it has a soul? It’s easy to react to musings on this question with rationality, logic, or modern science. Put that aside for now – this is a question of what feels, to you as an animal in the environment yourself, is alive with consciousness.
  2. How do you interact with these beings?
    In what ways are you interacting with the environment and, thus, the conscious beings within them? Do you greet the wildlife and trees in your area, and honor their right to b present.
  3. Could you personify these beings?
    Experiment with understanding something like the sky itself as a personified sky spirit. This may take the form of a sky deity like Hathor or something else.
  4. What changes can you make to your lifestyle?
    These changes may be more in line with your beliefs in a sustainable, ethical world. They may be spiritual in nature. In the same way that I have committed to a low-plastic lifestyle because of my personification/understanding of the ocean as a god, what commitments could you make?

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