Some Thoughts on Science and Animism

Recently, over at A Sense of Natural Wonder, Lupa came out with a blog entitled “Dear Pagans: Please Stop Abusing Science.” Overall, I thought it was a great read, and made many important points, and I think some of those deserve a little more exploration here.

I would like to start off with a quote from Lupa;

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be some sort of STEM major, whether it was veterinarian or biologist. Unfortunately, my terrible math skills barred me from anything but the humanities. Even my psychology degree is more geared towards counseling practice than scientific research; in grad school, my research methods and statistics classes were specifically for not-math people, just enough to be able to understand the latest studies in counseling-related psychology. “

My story is a very similar one. I have wanted to be a scientist of some kind for a long kind. Some of my earliest memories on a child are reading The World Book Encyclopedia; you know the twenty some volume hardcovers that weigh a over a hundred pounds. I devoured things like astronomy, biology, ecology, and pretty much every other -ology you can imagine.

Then the reality of my struggles with higher math caught up with me. Don’t get me wrong, I am “not” bad at math as a whole, as math is something I do for a living. It just that I wasn’t “good” enough” to go into a STEM field, which among my first choices was ecology or forestry.

I ended up in social science, more specifically with a BA in Anthropology/Archaeology. But before I digress too much, the point is this. I consider myself among the scientifically literate.

I do write science fiction in my free time. Which implies that I have to at least know a little bit about science as a prerequisite. In fact, I have a great love of science, which is after all a method of knowing, an epistemology of a sort. It is, at it’s core, a method and technique of knowing and understanding the world. And on this point, I think it is a sad fact that Lupa points out;

But it was enough. Many of us in the United States get a cursory look at the scientific method in public school, but most of us forget it after we’re done “

I think scientific literacy is something that is sorely lacking in the US. Honestly, we have climate change and scientific “skeptics” and deniers running the damn country. You add in the endless cutting of research and university budgets, you get a poor outlook for scientific literacy. Lupa is right on point here;

Two words: scientific literacy. American culture in particular is woefully prone to pseudoscience and science denialism already, and our clinging to bad science doesn’t help. When we replace scientific literacy with non-scientific explanations for things in this world, we are making it easier for people to spread and utilize misinformation. We also make it harder to disprove their claims and to get people to stop supporting them. We increase the societal view that scientific literacy isn’t important for anyone except scientists. And that leads to some really bad things.

And as such, I think she is correct in calling out some of the misuses of things like quantum mechanics, piezoelectric, or one I could fill volumes about; pseudoarchaeology. Seriously folks, don’t even get me started about Ancient Aliens and that crackpot that runs it. Not to mention some of the claims I hear come from some pagans. I am not even going to go there.

Generally as I said I think this is a great article, but it was this section that gave me a little bit of pause;

It also helped me shake off the last vestiges of “woo” in my spirituality. I’m theologically an I-don’t-care-ist; I don’t especially care whether the spirits and such exist outside of my own psyche or not. What’s important to me is that my spiritual path is both personally fulfilling, AND encourages me to give back to the world that I am a part of through service and love. When I can find wonder in the process of photosynthesis, or the delicate trail of a doe through the tall grass, or the perfect spiral of a lancetooth’s empty shell, what need have I of anything beyond that? The stars are themselves fonts of the numinous, without having to be gods on top of it. “

If that works for Lupa, that is fantastic. What works for one person may not work for another, and that is perfectly okay. I am also in agreement with the naturalism in Lupa’s comment. The stars are beautiful things, as well as the tracks of does. Certainly, the physical world is a source of great awe and beauty for me as well, and this all leads to a certain amount of naturalistic leanings. Forests really are amazing things, as is that fusion furnace that rises and sets each day, painting the sky in a plethora of colors.

That is an amazing thing, and truly one part of the reason I consider my self a pagan (as in nature based). Still, all that considered, I often find that the concept of “woo” is used in an unflattering light when referring to things that are “unscientific”. Don’t get me wrong, there is such a thing as a badly thought out idea or belief. There is such a thing as the misapplication of a concept. There is such a thing as being in error, and their is certainly such a thing as calling something science that plain and simply is not.

The whole of it all (cosmos, universe, whatever) is incredibly complex. Science is a wonderful, fantastic, self correcting method that should be encouraged. But at the end of the day, it is only one method of knowing. It is suitable for answering certain questions, such as why the sun is so damn bright (something about fusion and photons). However, I am an animist as well…

Biology tells us that a tree is a living thing.

Ecology tells us that the tree is part of a greater ecology, that includes non-living things.

Animism tells me that the trees are people, and that our relation to them is important.

While it may not be scientific to think so, I find the additional layer of meaning works for me. I don’t necessarily need animism to understand why respecting nature is important, but it gives me another way of knowing that respecting nature is important. Not only are we destroying habitats and killing of species, but we are killing off (non-human) people too. It may not be scientific to think non-human persons (living or dead) can be communicated with, but it is another way of understanding the world. It helps reinforce my connections to the natural world, as well as to my ancestry.

I find that animism and science can be complementary, as long as we realize that there are real limits to both. There is some overlap, Venn diagram style, but also science and animism inhabit their own realms. Science is not equipped methodologically to handle animistic questions, as animism is not really equipped to handle scientific questions. Both are different ways of understanding the world, but this does not mean they are 100% compatible. It is important to understand the boundaries of each.

Which is the take away from all of this I think. While “woo” might not necessarily be a bad thing, we need to be really careful (if not outright avoid) trying to use science to justify it. There is a difference between science and belief. A point I think Lupa hammers home nicely;

“Whether you’re a polytheist or a humanist or a duotheist or an animist, I encourage you to (re)familiarize yourself with the scientific method and with the basics of research design and statistics. I encourage you to look at the ways in which sloppy, bad science has affected everything from the environment to human rights, historically and now in the 21st century. I encourage you to look at ways in which good science can support our spirituality–how spirituality can lead to a healthier, more positive outlook on life, for example. And I encourage you to consider being both a spiritual person, and a scientist (even if you’re a citizen scientist like me, rather than a full-time professional scientist!) In doing these things, we can set a good example by being a spiritual community with a firm grasp on the differing bailiwicks of science and spirit.”

Or, if I may quote from my favorite archaeologist *cough*;

“Archaeology (science) is the search for fact, not truth. If you want truth, Philosophy is down the hall.” Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr. (Paraphrased)

Thanks for reading!


“Dear Pagans” By Lupa

About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

3 responses to “Some Thoughts on Science and Animism

  • Lupa Greenwolf

    Great thoughts! I can only imagine how irritating the Ancient Aliens thing must be for you 😀

    With regards to animism, I like that you use it as a layers of personalization with the rest of nature. That’s the big missing part of our culture’s approach. I do think one can also have that personalization without the idea of literal spirits, but certainly those who do believe in spirits can utilize their relationships with them to be better caretakers in this world.

    • Nicholas Haney

      Not just Ancient Aliens, but pseudo-science in general, which is why I wrote this response.
      And I am in complete agreement! That is why I read your work as well as others, even if we don’t agree on all points. I think what is probably more important is if it works, and helps us create a meaningful life.

      As a side note, I have another post scheduled for Wednesday that concerns totemism. I know you are busy, but I would love your feedback on that!

      Thank you!

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