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Embracing the Aliveness of Nature without Spirits


[A slightly modified version of this article is also available on the author’s Sam Woolfe: Freelance Writer, Blogger & Journalist blog.]

Soft animism is a term I use to refer to an acceptance of the animistic ethic, sensibility, and mode of perception but a rejection of the belief in spirits that reside in nature. Alternative terms for this position could include weak animism and naturalized animism (the latter emphasizing that this is a form of animism that is meant to fit into a naturalistic framework: the belief that only natural/physical entities, dimensions, forces, laws, and principles exist).

Animism, briefly, is traditionally conceived as a belief that natural phenomena—objects, places, creatures—possess a distinct spiritual essence, or soul, and all such phenomena are perceived as animated and alive. I believe that this latter aspect of animism, as a mode of perception, can exist without the former supernatural beliefs. Moreover, the animistic ethic of respecting natural elements in the world can remain even if such elements aren’t seen to be inhabited by anthropomorphic spirits.

I don’t doubt the idea of organisms and natural features possessing souls can easily or strongly lead to a strong sense of responsibility to respect and protect nature, but this doesn’t mean that rejecting this position makes such an ethic inconsistent or indefensible. In fact, perceiving and embracing the aliveness of nature is connected to attitudes and values like biophilia (fondness for nature).

Animism is Ancient, Ubiquitous, and Rooted in Evolution

Animism is widely considered to be the oldest form of religion, and it is ubiquitous—common to many indigenous groups all over the world. We can also say that humans have a natural propensity towards belief in animism. This is owing to our evolutionary history. Firstly, agent detection is common in the animal kingdom. This refers to the tendency that animals, including humans, have to presume the action of a sentient or intelligent agent in situations that may not involve one. In addition, the psychologist Justin Barrett coined the term Hyperactive Agency Detection Device (HADD), which specifically refers to the human hypersensitivity to detect intentional agents at a perceptual level, when the information presented to us is ambiguous, such as when we hear the sound of a branch breaking in a dark forest.

This hypersensitivity exists because failing to detect these agents may potentially be more harmful (and life-threatening) than incorrectly assuming that these agents are absent. The cost of regular false alarms (i.e. detecting agents when there aren’t, in fact, any) is lower than the cost of a single false negative (i.e. failing to detect an agent), as the potential agent could be a predator or a human enemy. A strongly biased system like HADD, therefore, entails greater biological fitness than weakly biased ones.

Many scholars within the field of the cognitive science of religion, including Barrett, have proposed that belief in supernatural agents may be undergirded by evolved cognitive biases, one of these being the HADD. Belief in supernatural entities and forces, such as souls in nature, is seen to be a byproduct of these adaptive biases, although it is also possible that supernatural beliefs are not a functionless spillover from the HADD but are evolved mechanisms that had adaptive functions for ancestral humans.

The anthropologist Stewart Guthrie has suggested an anthropomorphism account of religion. Essentially, due to the central importance of humans in our lives, we easily incorrectly infer the presence of humanness (i.e. humans, human minds, and human language) in our perceptions, such as, for example, in weather events like thunder, which historically have been attributed to thunder gods like Wodan, Zeus, Indra, and Perun. Another cognitive capacity we have is known as theory of mind (ToM), which is the human capacity to ascribe mental states to others. This evolved because it is highly important to know what other members of our group—as well as members of any out-group—are thinking and intending to do. But ToM can extend beyond the human realm. This cognitive mechanism can allow us to attribute beliefs, desires, emotions, and intents to agents perceived in nature.

The HADD, ToM, and anthropomorphism account of religion, taken together, can help to explain the widespread human tendency to adopt an animistic belief system—that is, the perception of beings—with human-like cognitive, social, and emotional traits—in the natural world. The anthropologist Michael Winkelman, in a paper on the evolved mechanisms underlying psychedelic experiences, states that “agency detection” and “theory of mind/mind reading” are innate modules—with adaptive functions—activated by psychedelics. So taking psychedelics may lead to enhanced animistic perception and the acceptance of animism. Indeed, a 2022 study found that a single belief-changing psychedelic experience is associated with increased attribution of consciousness to living and nonliving entities. This would certainly help to explain why many psychedelic-using indigenous groups are deeply animistic in their worldview.

I can personally attest to this connection. I have found that my perception of the natural world can shift after a profound psychedelic experience, with natural elements (trees in particular) appearing alive and animated, imbued with energy and personality, and gesturing in all sorts of ways. Nature appears sentient, communicative, and capable of expressing moods. But I wouldn’t say this has made me adopt the supernatural beliefs central to animism. However, as we will now see, not all scholars accept that such beliefs are necessary or universal among animistic cultures.

The Plurality of Animistic Beliefs

Graham Harvey, a religious studies scholar, points out in his book Animism: Respecting the Living World (2005) that animist cultures differ in their beliefs; they differ in terms of whether particular entities are seen as persons or inanimate objects, as well as whether disembodied persons exist. For this reason, he uses the term “animisms” to properly reflect the plurality of animistic beliefs. Moreover, animism need not assume, taken for granted as truth, the existence of supernatural spirits. Harvey states: “Animists may acknowledge the existence and even presence of deities or discarnate persons (if that is what ‘spirit’ means), but their personhood is a more general fact” (Harvey, 2005, p. xviii). He also underlines:

[A]nimists’ resistance to the notion of ‘the supernatural’, a domain that appears to transcend everyday reality and hereby dialectically to form another domain called ‘nature’. Neither ‘nature’ nor ‘supernature’ are necessary in the thinking of animists who understand that many and various persons co-exist and are jointly responsible for the ways the world will evolve next. (2005, p. 185)

A belief in spirits or souls in nature may not, therefore, be necessary to adopt an animistic worldview. However, I would go a step further and argue that the animistic idea of ‘persons’ and ‘other-than-human persons’ existing in natural features like plants, rivers, rocks, and mountains is also not required to be an animist. This is because of certain arguments that there are criteria an entity should meet to qualify as possessing ‘personhood’—real qualities like consciousness, sentience, intelligence, intentionality, agency, desires, beliefs, values, and personality. One may want to argue that many nonanimal entities possess such qualities, but that would require a lengthier discussion (I analyzed the idea of plant consciousness, for example, in a previous article). The salient point here is that one can make a case for appreciating the animistic ethic, sensibility, and way of seeing the world without invoking belief in literal persons all natural phenomena.

The Case for Soft Animism

The Australian philosopher Val Plumwood stresses in her essay “Nature in the Active Voice” that she is “not talking about inventing fairies at the bottom of the garden. It’s a matter of being open to experiences of nature as powerful, agentic and creative, making space in our culture for an animating sensibility and vocabulary” (2009, p. 124). And in her book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reasons, Plumwood invites us to consider what our attitude to nature should be: “is it to be a posture of openness, of welcoming, of invitation, towards earth others, or is it to be a stance of prejudged superiority, of deafness, of closure?” (2002, pp. 175-176)

Others have likewise doubted that such an ethic requires belief in the supernatural. For instance, the anthropologist Richard Nelson opines in The Island Within (1989):

Living with the Koyukon people, I was constantly struck by the wisdom and sensibility of their ways, and I tried — within the limits of my knowledge — to follow their teachings. Of course, their culture is not my own, nor is their way of seeing nature a part of my inheritance. I will never know if animals and plants have spirits, if the tree I stand beside is aware of my presence, if respectful gestures bring hunting luck and protect my well-being. But I am absolutely certain it is wise and responsible to behave as if these things were true. (Nelson, 1997, p. 286)

We can interpret this, then, as a pragmatic approach to animism: thinking and acting as if nature contained spirits because of the relationship to nature this encourages, yet not being strongly committed to such a belief. This can be considered a kind of soft animism because it makes no metaphysical commitment but it respects that there is a mode of perception that lends itself to an enhanced connection to nature and appreciation and respect for it.

I do not genuinely believe animals and plants have spirits or that trees are aware of my presence, yet this can still be a phenomenological reality: trees can appear this way from my subjective, first-person point of view. As the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro contends, “body and soul, just like nature and culture, do not correspond to substantives, self-subsistent entities or ontological provinces, but rather to pronouns or phenomenological perspectives” (1998, p. 481). This I believe gets to the heart of soft animism. This form of animism does not seek to create a distinct ontological category of ‘supernatural’ which is distinct from nature, or material reality, but rather is interested in a distinct form of relation.

We can connect the soft animistic way of relating to nature with philosopher Martin Buber’s idea of ‘I-You’ relations. These are forms of relations where we treat the other we are encountering as a You; in other words, we approach them with our whole, unique presence and see them in just the same way. This is a form of meeting, dialogue, and association based on mutuality and reciprocity, which is precisely the kind of relationship that animists seek to have with nature (Buber himself maintained that we can have I-You relations not just with other humans and God, but also with the natural world). In contrast to I-You relations are ‘I-It’ relations, which Buber thought were devoid of meaning. Based on this latter mode of relating, we treat others as objects to be experienced, judged, used, and manipulated for our own benefit. We can call this an anti-animistic way of relating to the world, and a soft animist would reject it.

I have previously explored animistic perception in my review of philosopher David Abram’s excellent book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (1996). Abram draws on the work of phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty (whose ideas I also described here) and the beliefs of oral indigenous cultures. In both types of worldview, we can find a similar conclusion, as I highlight in my review: “[T]he landscape is a sensuous field, and we are but one point of view or way of being which reciprocates, and expressively communicates, with other points of view or ways of being in the ever-shifting landscape” (Woolfe, 2016). These common beliefs are based on “attending to direct, immediate, pre-conceptual experience. By giving primacy to perception—which Abram argues, is prior to and the ground of all knowing—we can see the natural world, not as inert and passive, but as dynamic and participatory. The winds, rivers and birds speak in their own way (if we listen)” (Woolfe, 2016).

Soft animism is the position that such a view of nature can be held without committing to supernaturalism. I can consider myself as but one being, intertwined with other entities and ‘presences,’ without believing that the dynamic, participatory, and reciprocal relationship I have with the natural world is based on, or necessitates, the perception of and belief in souls. I’m attracted to the animistic view, or similar views such as hylozoism (the doctrine that all matter is alive), because such a way of seeing can be highly aesthetic, poetic, sensuous, attentional, engaged, appreciative, and respectful. It is conducive to mindfulness, nature-relatedness (the subjective sense of connection to nature), biophilia, my sense of being a part of a greater whole, spending more time in nature, and pro-environmental beliefs and behavior. These effects also carry psychological benefits.

I think this phenomenological reality can be consistent with naturalism. And I don’t see evolutionary explanations of animism as somehow depleting this subjectively lived reality of awe. Knowing how a piano works does not make music any less awe-inspiring, nor does understanding the neurobiological basis of love or spiritual experiences need to have such an effect (as I have argued here).

Of course, it’s possible that strong animism, or hard animism—which postulates the existence of supernatural forces, laws, and beings—can enhance feelings of awe towards nature. Similarly, nonmaterial interpretations of love and mystical experiences may have the same effect. But this may not be necessary, applying in all cases and for all people. Furthermore, it’s possible that scientific perspectives on valuable experiences can lead to equally, if not more, intense feelings of awe. Yet even if hard animism does inspire more awe than soft animism, adopting the former might in some cases be only for psychological reasons—namely, our desire for enchantment. Personally, I’m grateful if evolutionary factors and neurobiology make the animistic way of seeing the world possible.

Finally, I would add that soft animism can avoid certain issues with naturalism by being aligned with nonreductive physicalism, rather than reductive physicalism. The latter supposes that all mental phenomena can be reduced to, and are fully determined by, physical interactions. Mental states are considered nothing over and above physical states under this view. Nonreductive physicalism, however, states that physical matter and processes are causal factors involved in our experiences, but rejects the notion that the mind is reducible to the brain. Mental phenomena depend on physical phenomena, but they can only be fully explained by reference to mental processes. I don’t see science as fully explaining soft animism, for instance, because this worldview depends on so much more than evolution and brain activity; my own personality, attitudes, values, past experiences, and consciously chosen and developed responses to nature matter, too.

However, nonreductive physicalism does not avoid the hard problem of consciousness, which is the difficulty (and perhaps impossibility) in explaining how physical states can translate into mental states, or why brain activity should be correlated with qualitative experiences (with the “what it’s like” aspect of our lived experiences). Delving into this critique of physicalism would require a separate discussion, but we can nonetheless take it on board as a legitimate reason to reject or doubt physicalism while retaining a weak form of animism.

For instance, if we agree with panpsychism instead (the idea that everything possesses some degree of consciousness), as a way to avoid the hard problem, this still doesn’t mean we’re committed to the view that all natural phenomena possess souls or personhood (despite having some degree of consciousness). On the other hand, philosopher Galen Strawson has argued that physicalism is compatible with panpsychism (by considering consciousness to be purely physical), which means naturalized animism may still be a suitable synonym for soft animism with such a framework in mind.

There are different ways to defend soft animism, then, from the perspective of metaphysics and philosophy of mind. We can consider this type of animism as a middle-ground position. It avoids both the difficulties in accepting the existence of spirits and the bleak reductive materialist outlook that denies, minimizes, and trivializes our phenomenological experiences of nature.


Barrett, Justin. (2023, May 25). “The Origin of Belief in Supernatural Agents: Is Belief Natural?Medium. <https://medium.com/@mindandculture/the-origin-of-belief-in-supernatural-agents-f999bfd44c1e>.

Harvey, Graham. (2005). Animism: Respecting the Living World. London, UK: Hurst & Co.

Nayak, Sandeep M. and Roland R. Griffiths. (2022). “A Single Belief-Changing Psychedelic Experience is Associated with Increased Attribution of Consciousness to Living and Non-Living Entities.” Frontiers in Psychology Vol. 13, Article 852248 (March): 1-8.

Nelson, Richard. (1989). The Island Within. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press.

Nelson, Richard. (1997). Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America. New York, NY: Vintage.

Plumwood, Val. (2009). “Nature in the Active Voice.” Australian Humanities Review Issue 46 (May): 111-128.

Plumwood, Val. (2002). Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reasons. New York, NY: Routledge.

Strawson, Galen. (2021, May 9). “How a Materialist Philosopher Argued His Way to Panpsychism.” Mind Matters. <https://mindmatters.ai/2021/05/how-a-materialist-philosopher-argued-his-way-to-panpsychism/>.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. (1998). “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. 4, No. 3: 469-488.

Winkleman, Michael. (2017). “The Mechanisms of Psychedelic Visionary Experiences: Hypotheses from Evolutionary Psychology.” Frontiers in Neuroscience Vol. 11, Article 539 (September): 1-17.

Woolfe, Sam. (2023a, July 10). “Rational Explanations of Ecstatic Experiences Can Still be Awe-Inspiring.” Sam Woolfe: Freelance Writer, Blogger & Journalist blog. <https://www.samwoolfe.com/2023/07/are-rational-explanations-of-ecstatic-experiences-less-awe-inspiring.html>

Woolfe, Sam. (2023b, April 21). “The Connection Between Psychedelics and Pro-Environmental Behavior.” Psychedelic Support. <https://psychedelic.support/resources/connection-between-psychedelics-pro-environmental-behavior/>.

Woolfe, Sam. (2022a, February 28). “Analysing the Idea of Plant Consciousness.” Sam Woolfe: Freelance Writer, Blogger & Journalist blog. <https://www.samwoolfe.com/2022/02/plant-consciousness.html>

Woolfe, Sam. (2022b, January 17). “Book Review: I and Thou by Martin Buber.” Sam Woolfe: Freelance Writer, Blogger & Journalist blog. <https://www.samwoolfe.com/2022/01/book-review-i-and-thou-martin-buber.html>

Woolfe, Sam. (2019, July 1). “The Intertwining of the Self and the World: A Phenomenological Approach.” Sam Woolfe: Freelance Writer, Blogger & Journalist blog. <https://www.samwoolfe.com/2019/07/the-curious-relationship-between-the-self-and-the-world.html>

Woolfe, Sam. (2016, June 14). “Book Review: The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.” Sam Woolfe: Freelance Writer, Blogger & Journalist blog. <https://www.samwoolfe.com/2016/06/book-review-spell-of-the-sensuous-by-david-abram.html>

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