The Atlantic Wire and The Daily Dish both point to an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Stephen Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, that criticizes the rhetoric of the “New Atheists” (Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris) while making the case for the preservation of “wacky” belief systems like animism (“the Rodney Dangerfield of religions”).
The belief that nature is loaded with invisible spirits that live in local flora, fauna, and environmental landmarks is generally characterized by Westerners as “primitive” and highly irrational. Even religious devotees of monotheism in the developed West look down their noses at animism. Animism is the Rodney Dangerfield of religions. But most of the world is made up of animists. The West is naïve when it imagines that the major options are monotheistic. In actual numbers and geographic spread, belief in nature spirits trounces the One-Godders. Almost all of Africa, Southeast Asia, rural China, Tibet, Japan, rural Central and South America, indigenous Pacific Islands—pretty much everywhere except Western Europe, the Middle East, and North America—is dominated by animistic beliefs.
But unlike Western fundamentalism, animism is not locked in a zero-sum battle with science (nor, for that matter, are moderate Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Instead of being exclusionary, animism is highly syncretic, adopting any and all spiritual beliefs and practices as complementary rather than competing options. The more the merrier is how we might characterize animism’s promiscuous attitude toward beliefs and rituals. There’s not much concern for, or history of, orthodoxy in animism, a trait that can potentially render it liberal and tolerant toward alternatives, including science.
Those are just a couple key paragraphs, but really, I would simply reprint the entire essay if I could. While the thrust of Asma’s article is to call for moderation for any atheist-inspired public policy agenda, and to point out the “provincialism” of many fashionable atheist arguments, it also easily doubles as a spirited defense of animism, and by extension, polytheism. In his closing, Asma argues religions “that humanize, console, and inspire should be fostered,” and he clearly includes animism/polytheism in this mix.
Naturally, several atheists (and some offended Christians) are having a field day ripping Asma’s essay apart in the comments, complete with some ignorant stereotypes of polytheistic and indigenous faiths usually trotted out by the conservative Christians they claim to have no truck with. Still, this essay is a welcome and friendly reminder that religion isn’t a simple matter, and that polytheism (ie animism) is worthy of respect, consideration, and preservation.