Thursday, November 3, 2011

Born animist

I sometimes read atheist commentators arguing that all infants are born atheist, and that religious belief exists only because parents socialise or brainwash children into religiosity. In this view religion is artificial, atheism the natural default.

Yet I noticed that I was responding strangely whenever when my computer misbehaved. Misbehaved? I mean, when it malfunctioned for some reason, slowed down or crashed. I became angry and admonished the unthinking machine with foul language. On particularly bad days I would resist throwing it at the wall and sit seething instead, muttering: WHY WON'T YOU FUCKING WORK?

With less sophisticated tools I did the same thing, becoming briefly enraged at a woodcarving gouge if it slipped and scarred the wood. How strange to spit curses at the innocent metal gouge, projecting blame onto the tools. I was responding to inert physical objects as though they were people.

I thought further back, then, to my early childhood when I treated some of my toys as almost sentient individuals. There was an ambiguity about this, since we did have 'teddy fights' in which my brothers and I bombarded one another with teddy bears, but, still, I religiously tucked my favourites in at night! These bears had characteristics in my mind, and there was a right and wrong way of treating them. Again I was casting human traits onto non-human objects.

Was I alone? I didn't think so. Ancient mythologies of several countries describe people interacting with non-living objects as though they had sentience. Joseph Kitagawa's Kitagawa’s On Understanding Japanese Religion quotes the beautiful 8th century AD Japanese poetry collection Man'yōshū, with this section of poetry by a man mourning his dead wife:
Now I know not what to do or say,
Vainly I seek soothing words
From trees and stones...

Over Mount Onu the fog is rising;
Driven by my sighs of grief,
The fog is rising.
Kitagawa argues that this talk of seeking solace from trees and stones is not artistic symbolism, but rather a sign that the poet believed that the trees and stones were kami - Shinto gods. Another ancient Japanese text, the Kojiki, actually says that trees and stones could converse in primitive times before a kami silenced them.

If I, as a young child, seemed to easily see human behavioural traits in objects, and I as an irritated adult threaten unthinking objects with curses, and ancient Japanese thought that the stones and trees were alive and speaking, might the real default setting for humans be a kind of anthropomorphism?

If so, I can imagine that early animist tribes would have explained most or all natural phenomena by reference to the emotions of nature's spirits. The loving sun being friendly on a cold day, the furious tempest taking revenge on disrespectful sailors and so on. Interaction with such natural phenomena might have included sacrifices in a bid to win good terms, or charms to scare and defy them.

Mulling these thoughts, I was surprised to discover that psychology has indeed a concept developed by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget saying that children understand the world in animist terms. From GW Oesterdiekhoff in the Croatian Journal of Ethnography and Folklore:
How can we explain the ubiquity of magical-animistic thinking in pre-modern societies and the evolution of mechanical philosophy in the early modern times in Europe? The prevalence of magical-animistic thinking in pre-modern societies is not a result of a lack of knowledge but of prevailing elemental cognitive processes....

Empirical surveys in developing regions have found out that not only children but even illiterate adults remain bound to magical-animistic representations and do not master the transformation to the mechanical-causal understanding of the world and to concomitant formal operations. Throughout their entire life-time they continue to believe that sun, moon, clouds, mountains, woods, and rivers are animate and conscious...

Children in pre-modern and modern societies answer in the same way as illiterate adults in pre-modern societies. This fact gives evidence to the basic idea of developmental psychology that animism is not a result of socialising processes but a part of lower stages of cognition.
I do not know how contentious this concept is in psychology. I have emailed a couple of psychologists for their opinions and I will post any answers I get in due course. In the meantime it seems tempting to conclude that people are born neither atheist nor monotheist, but animist, living as though in a complex community of thinking anthropomorphic spirits, rather than a mindless mechanism.


  1. Nice blog. My wife is in childcare and they teach Piaget post high school so that teachers can understand how the child looks at things. It's a fantastic theory that as people normally get older, a taught reality sets in.

    So to be indigenous is a great way of life because they are taught to embrace that animistic nature. I believe it helps us live a peaceful life in touch with nature.

    George T. Maxwell


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