– by B. T. Newberg
Most naturalists would probably agree that however much you may love the universe, it can’t love you back. And yet, much of our language about it – and perhaps our feelings for it too – are built on an analogy to social relationships.
For example, we might speak of relating to the universe as to a friend, or symbolize the universe as a cosmic mother. Since it is generally only humans with which we engage in such relationships, this is a form of anthropomorphism.*
Do you do this? Is it an intentional part of your practice?
A Pagan characteristic?
I would wager that the vast majority of Pagan forms of naturalism anthropomorphize to some extent. The language of deities, spirits, and ancestors is a prime example. Gaianism is clear anthropomorphism as well.** Among published authors, Glenys Livingstone relates to Cosmic Creativity as a triple goddess, and Brendan Myers writes of humanizing the landscape as a confrontation with existential loneliness.
The language of magical energies might defy the pattern, since it sounds like a metaphor to the physical world, but arguably any talk of purely mental effects could be construed as anthropomorphic in some sense (see Richard Carrier’s views on the “supernatural”). Perhaps the only Naturalistic Pagans free of anthropomorphism are those who carefully couch their language only in terms directly appropriate to nature, and respond with feelings of awe and wonder but not love. For example, an article by Jonathan Blake carefully distinguishes between gratitude to the universe and gratitude for it. Rua Lupa also takes great care to avoid anthropomorphic language.
So, is anthropomorphism essential to specifically Pagan forms of naturalism? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t want to spark a fruitless who’s-Pagan-and-who’s-not debate here. Since I think the term “Pagan” is a not a star but a constellation, it’s a matter of perspective. All I want to suggest is that anthropomorphism might be particularly germaine to our community, and we should pay attention to it.
Neither do I wish to suggest that anthropomorphism is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I suspect it might be essential to most forms of Naturalistic Paganism, at least in a limited form. To some extent, it may even be unavoidable in human cognition.
A matter of feeling?
Whether or not you anthropomorphize might come down to the feelings you treasure most in a spiritual practice. Some speak of awe and wonder, others love and a sense of belonging. The former feelings, compounded apparently from a mix of fear of curiosity, can be appropriately experienced in relation to nearly anything dangerous and grand, from a tiger to a pulsar. The latter, on the other hand, are specifically social feelings, and depend on a certain degree of anthropomorphism.
The validation of feelings is particularly delicate in spirituality. When theists vociferously assert the reality of their gods, I suspect what they’re really asserting is the validity of their social feelings toward them. Our society has not yet reached a point where we can feel at ease relating socially to an entity we know is not actually social in nature. It feels too much like an imaginary friend. So people swear their gods are real to avoid the sense that they’re feelings are invalid.
Is anthropomorphism appropriate?
On the one hand, if we could learn to validate our feelings some other way instead – perhaps by accepting our anthropomorphism of the universe the way we accept the anthropomorphism of pets – we might be better off.
On the other hand, perhaps any anthropomorphism of the universe is too much. If it obscures clear perception of the universe, or leads us into errors of thinking that take us down the wrong path, the harm might outweigh the good.
What do you think?
*Of course, it is also possible to have social relationships with animals, such as pets. That might open up the possibility of zoomorphism. On the other hand, even relationships with animals probably draw on cognitive modules evolved for human social interactions, so it might still be appropriate to speak of anthropomorphism.
**At least in its common spiritualized form. The original Gaia Hypothesis proposed by Lovelock and Margulis only likens the planet to a self-regulating organism, without any stipulation of consciousness or the capacity for relationship. It is, at most, a kind of biomorphism.
Discover an ancient meditation that’s surprisingly modern.
The View from Above: A Stoic meditative practice, by Donald Robertson
Appearing Sunday, June 9th, 2013