Shooting Theist Ducks

While I have sometimes been critical of Jerry Coyne and his fellow New Atheists, it’s not because I think they are generally wrong. In fact, I can’t recall reading much in Jerry’s blog, Why Evolution Is True, with which I have disagreed. Coyne thinks clearly, writes well, and argues persuasively. Despite all this, I stopped reading his blog years ago, at about the time I stopped reading all the New Atheist stuff. It had, at least for me, gotten redundant, boring, and shrill.

When the New Atheists engage with the masses who believe in an anthropomorphic or loving-angry God, it is like shooting ducks in a barrel. When the ducks shoot back, as they frequently do, the deafening and often delusional din is just too much. When the New Atheists engage with theologians, which is a Coyne specialty, the ducks are at least on the wing before being shot. It is certainly more sporting, but still unsatisfying.

Why is this? It’s because, I suspect, the New Atheists are engaged in what amount to Christian debates. These debates have two poles, or at least polarities. There are the easy to dismiss ideologues (i.e, fundamentalists and creationists) and the not as easy to dismiss intellectuals (i.e., theologians and apologists). But regardless of which pole is being addressed, or metaphorically shot, the debate still occurs within the theistic confines of a mostly Christian box. By equal opportunist extension, Muslims and Hindus become occasional targets because they too believe in anthropomorphic gods. But for New Atheists the primary audience is English speaking and this means Christian.

The problem with all this (aside from New Atheist overconfidence about what is actually known) is that it artificially confines our debates and investigations. They become culturally parochial and historically provincial. In Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, John Gray touches on the issue:

Unbelief is a move in a game whose rules are set by believers. To deny the existence of God is to accept the categories of monotheism. As these categories fall into disuse, unbelief becomes uninteresting, and soon it will be meaningless. Atheists say they want a secular world, but a world defined by the absence of the Christians’ god is still a Christian world….Atheism is a late bloom of a Christian passion for Truth. (126-27)

As much as I would like to agree, the dialectical categories of theist-belief and atheist-unbelief are not falling into disuse. They are, in fact, ascendant. This explains why New Atheists (and their duck counterparts) sell so many books.

Despite all this, I can still appreciate it when Coyne lambastes theologians as he does here in the New Republic. As I’ve said before, this is dirty work but someone has to dive into in the gutter and do it. Those who do so will become sullied by binary association. They also run the risk of falling into the categorical-conceptual traps laid by theism.

One such trap is to think that theistic religions are simply modern growths or progressive offshoots of earlier traditions or other worldviews, particularly those of hunter-gatherers. I have seen a few New Atheists dismiss these as forms of “primitive” superstition even more vulgar than modern theisms. This is a category mistake that New Atheists can’t perceive because they are locked in theist debates and concepts. Animist worldviews are not “religions.” They are not simply the byproducts of ordinary, but faulty, cognition. They are not simply the products of hyperactive “agent perception” or “theory of mind” modules.

Animist worldviews are, in toto, the adaptive products or outcomes of hominin cognitive, social, and linguistic evolution. Those who take animist worldviews seriously, as all evolutionary scholars should, will eventually escape the suffocating confines of the theist box.


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19 thoughts on “Shooting Theist Ducks

  1. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    I’m not quite sure I would go as far as the implied distinction between theism and animism. I think that they both are essentially worldviews – except modern theism uses exegetic and hermeneutic tools that make it look like somehow parasitic on the ascendant rationalist materialism. I spend a lot of time watching Christian TV (when I’m around TVs with reception) and what I see there is a very complete and homogeneous universe. I’ve also started watching some biblical lectures on iTunes U which I found very illuminating. Theism is a worldview with some real power (both political, financial and rhetorical) which is why it’s worth challenging but it doesn’t strike me as particularly irrational once we accept the axiomatic parameters of faith (belief in God, supernatural beings, etc.) Within those, there are theists who don’t make sense and those that do, in the same way that scifi or fantasy fiction can still be realistic or unrealistic once we accept the premise of a world where, e.g. vampires or stardrives exist.

    I too find the New Atheist arguments largely convincing (and have the same objections) but that leaves me if anything suspicious. They maybe keeping at bay the forces of incipient theocracy in the US but are not proposing anything of interest epistemologically, and I’m no more keen to live in a world governed by people with pretenses to absolute rationality.

  2. Sabio Lantz

    I was following you, and agreeing, right up to the end then you said:

    “ Animist worldviews are not “religions.” They are not simply the byproducts of ordinary, but faulty, cognition. They are not simply the products of hyperactive “agent perception” or “theory of mind” modules.

    Animist worldviews are, in toto, the adaptive products or outcomes of hominin cognitive, social, and linguistic evolution.”

    All modern humans, who are susceptible to ordinary and faulty cognition, use that cognition to form their worldviews. And I think most modern religions have a variety of adaptive values that help shape them.

    But you sound like you are again idealizing animists:

    (a) animists have no faulty cognitive functions informing their world views

    (b) animist worldviews are adaptive with no maladaption

    I can’t imagine you believe that, but those are the implications I heard right at the end, after an otherwise superbly stated points. So, I am awaiting your correction.

    BTW, we are still waiting for that post which you promised in reply to the comment that accused you of idealizing animists. Maybe that forthcoming post will clarify all this.

  3. Michael

    Thank you for writing this thoughtful perspective on New Atheist discourse. You “suspect” correctly! It’s clear that most contemporary atheistic ideologies are constructed on a unacknowledged or denied foundation of theistic thought. It is, like you say, ultimately a “Chrisitian debate.” It’s clear that without substantial and meaningful experience grounded in another “pole”, even the best of thinkers is unable to escape the box.

  4. Sabio Lantz

    @ Dominik,
    Do you have a link to a post where you propose and interesting epistemology superior to any atheists?

    Some atheists are self-confessed hyper-rationalists, but most on-line and those non-blogging ones I meet are far from that.

    Just trying to avoid strawman arguments against atheists.

    What sort of things would qualify for “ another ‘pole’ ” that New Atheists are lacking?

    BTW, to all, anytime someone uses the phrase “New Atheists”, I know there are major assumptions in the background because of the very nature of that phrase.

  5. Cris Post author

    I appreciate your worry about idealizing animist worldviews; I don’t idealize or romanticize them. It’s just that they are not “religions” — they are totalized ways of being in (i.e., ontology), perceiving (i.e., epistemology), socializing (i.e., ethics), and cosmologizing (i.e., metaphysics) human experience of the world. They also have an aesthetic aspect that makes them complete philosophies. Those philosophies or ways of being and perceiving are not “religions.”

    It’s quite hard for us to grasp just how different these worldviews are, and what they entail, but they are not mere precursors to the derived and dessicated formations that we call “religions.” Sure, they have their “religious” aspects (i.e., ideas about invisible agents and forces) and ritualized actions, but these are not in the service of the “supernatural” or “spirits” or “gods” and certainly not “morals.”

    I don’t claim they are any better or worse than modern “religions.” I do claim they are utterly distinct and not the same as “religions,” and that understanding this distinction is key to understanding what actually evolved.

    To say that modern religions evolved from animist worldviews is no more than to say that scientific paradigms evolved from animist worldviews. In other words, everything evolved from those and so it behooves us to take them seriously and understand them.

    As for the adaptiveness of animist worldviews and all the other issues, this is in fact the subject of a promised forthcoming post. I’ve been working on it but it takes some time. Plus, I can’t give away my entire thesis on the blog because it’s the key chapter or contribution in my book.

  6. Cris Post author

    It’s a sad and tragic picture that I thought twice about using. It’s a Mongolian woman who was condemned to death by being locked in a box. I don’t know the details but they are available on line. Just Google the German photographer’s name at the bottom and share her pain.

  7. Sabio Lantz

    I have no problem not calling animists views “religions”. But then, I think “religion” is a slippery word to begin with.

    And I have no investment in thinking present religions “evolved” from animist ideas.

    But then to switch from “religion” to “worldview” as if it is a more meaningful category rings alarms for me.

    I look at worldviews and religions as being multitude of components and don’t judge them as a whole but in terms of functions. So speaking of animist worldview as “totalized ways of being” seems very idolizing. To clarify, do you view any non-animist as have “totalized ways of being”? Seriously, that phrase is a startling claim. Not sure how you’d substantiate it, especially in contrast to others.

    You can animist world views “complete philosophy”. Or did you make it a complete philosophy and then be the question? Did you so admire something about them, that you decided they were complete and all the rest of us are incomplete — having the hole in our hearts (as Christians would view nonbelievers). Ironic, no? In light of this post.

    Do you see me confusion?

    So I’d imagine you feel I don’t have enough learning to understand, or even more, that without EXPERIENCING the animist perfectly complete, totalized way of being, I will never understand.

    You say they are not better or worse than modern religions, but “complete” and “totalized” are not words I’d expect from someone who really feels that. Your words belie this claim in my opinion. And not only those words but things on other posts. And thus other readers besides me have wondered about idealization.

    I guess I will have to wait for your book. Or even it may not suffice, for I’d have to live like an animist to see become complete and totalized.

  8. Cris Post author

    I’ll put it this way before I post on the subject: animist worldviews are what evolved. They encompass everything that humans thought and did over the past 60,000 years or so. Those worldviews evolved in hunting and gathering environments and are intimately linked with that lifestyle. They began evolving millions of years earlier in the same kinds of ecologic, economic, and social environments.

    Things have obviously changed (in those societies that adopted food production), and we now have lots of very derived and esoteric kinds of worldviews, including “religions.”

    But almost no modern worldviews — most of which are atomized according to western/eastern constructs and categories — can really capture an animist worldview (of which there are many). What we take to be basic, biological, universal, cognitive, hard-wired and universal aspects of mind (i.e., time, space, causation) turn out not to be.

    Despite what Kant claimed, and what WEIRD western science seemingly validates (on the basis of studies performed on western university undergraduates), these purported attributes of mind are not universal. They are not hard wired.

    There are fundamentally different ways of parsing, perceiving, being, cogitating, and taxonomizing human experience. This is the fundamental distinction given to us by hunter-gatherers and animist worldviews.

    I’m not claiming it is any great or esoteric mystery. I’m telling you it is profoundly different and it takes work (none of which requires experience or esotoricism or mysticism) to understand it.

  9. Sabio Lantz

    So you feel all modern worldviews are atomized — so that means animists become atomized by doing something, right? Food production?

    You claim no “Western” constructs can capture animists constructs. Was that a slip? Could “Eastern” constructs do it?

    Can Western understand Eastern? And animists understand Modern?

    It strikes me as trivial that we can not understand each other if we are from radically different worlds.

    I agree, that what many people take to be universal and hard-wired may not be true. But it certainly that does not make our views atomized, incomplete etc…

    I’m OK with the non-universal stuff. But I still feel you are valorizing their way of parsing, perceiving, being etc.

    Just because animist stuff “works” also does not make it desirable. It hasn’t worked out well enough to survive. Of course, we may wipe ourselves out and it may resurface as the dominate perspective — one of many that humans can form.

    I would disagree with your last statement. I actually think that profoundly different worldview need to be embodied (more than mentally considered) to be really understood. But that is another conversation.

    The question is: If the animists are so whole, complete, and such — shouldn’t we all be running off to learn from them? Should we all switch? Will it save humanity? Those questions will always be in the background of your readers, as will your choice of words which appear to idealize animist. I suggest you address it up front. Not by claiming that they are not a religion, that they are not the ancestors of religions or that they aren’t what everybody thinks. But why the heck you think they are total and complete while the rest of us aren’t and probably never will be unless we become animists.

  10. Cris Post author

    Before you responded, I answered your initial questions with some revisions. It’s simply a fact that we “moderns” atomize our worldviews. We don’t have a choice. We distinguish between things, such as nature/culture and natural/supernatural, that have no place in animist worldviews. These categories are neither recognized nor conceptualized among animists.

    In a strictly materialist worldview, this is wrong (or easily falsifiable). But under another worldview, it’s not. I’m guessing that this animist worldview would lead to much higher survival and reproduction rates in ancestral settings.

    Being an “objective” or “empirical” or “rational” person in such a setting is probably a liability. Should we discount these six million years of settings? Or see them for something different and appropriate to their settings?

    Animist worldviews obviously worked in the settings in which they evolved. How could 6 million years of hominin evolution be wrong? How could the complete colonization of the world, over the past 60,000 years, be wrong?

    It surely is not because it did not work (indeed, it may have worked to well); therefore, it must have been adaptive. Or at least this should be our default position for hypotheses and testing.

    We can never go back to animist worldviews because they are so tightly linked to ways of making a living. This explains why modern “animists” don’t excite. Animist worldviews cannot really be recovered (though vestiges still exist). They are not an answer and we are fucked.

    Just kidding, but I have to go walk my dogs in the forest.

  11. Joe Miller

    I’d like to recommend this article by Istvan Praet. He argues that “the modern notion of wildlife cannot be applied to animism” because “the monkeys, deer, whales, tigers, and elephants that indigenous hunters and shamans deal with must be understood as “wild-dead” rather than as wildlife”. The “wild-dead” in turn “are palpable representatives of an expanded realm of death which—I suggest—is characteristic of all forms of animism”.

  12. Cris Post author

    Thanks for this link Joe. The article looks fascinating. It appears to be a phenomenological assessment, akin perhaps to lines of analysis being done by people like Rane Willerslev. Is this correct? I know that Dominik is not particularly fond of these. Perhaps he can explain why.

    Just reading the abstract gives us some sense for how strange these worldviews can be, at least to our minds or ears. After I download this article, I’ll send it along to Sabio with some additional articles that may be similar.

  13. Sabio Lantz

    @ Joe & Cris,
    I look forward to receiving the article from Cris. In the abstract it says, “a basic sketch of the remarkable consistency of animism across the world”.

    I liked how Glainey, in “Triumph of the Nomads”, points out emphatically that Nomad worldviews have never been stagnant but evolve and also vary from group to group.

    Part of the idealism I am concerned about would not want to see that but see animism or HG as some homogenous thing to contrast to Modern fragmentation. For example, Cris, when you wrote to me above saying ” How could 6 million years of hominin evolution be wrong?” Are you assuming that one view, one approach, one model was what made those 6 million years of survival happen? I would think not, but it seems to imply that to my anthropologically uneducated mind.

    I’m starting to wonder if this is an economic agenda (conscious or not) — Marxist means of production stuff. Anyway, I am sure my doubts will be shared by many of Cris’ future readers so I thought I’d say them so that he has a chance to address them head-on.

    PS – I get comments in e-mail, so I will never re-read the ‘touch ups you write’. I suggest that instead of touching up a comment, you just post another or it will make a conversation look odd. likewise, if touching up a post (I don’t re-read looking for touch ups), make notes in the comments of exactly what you touched up. Just a thought.

  14. Cris Post author

    As I’ve written in several posts, there is no singular or essentialist worldview — there are many animist worldviews, though most have some things in common. Many of them orient being (or ontology) through space rather than time; this is radically different from our own perception and orientation.

    When I said earlier they are what scholars call “totalized cosmologies,” this means in part there is no parceling of the world according to categories we consider “natural” or “given” as a neurobiological matter. Many binaries or dichotomies familiar to us (and which we take for granted as being “natural”) are collapsed in those worldviews. So while animists might variously conceive of the earth, heavens, and underworlds, they are all directly connected with one another in ways that we find foreign or insensible.

    Most animists also think that humans and animals are contiguous, if not identical (having only superficial or outward “skin” differences), and that one can become another through transformation. This “mimesis” is something that Rane Willerslev writes about in his fantastic book, which I recommend, Soul Hunters: Hunting, Animism, and Personhood Among the Siberian Yukaghirs.

    When approaching this entire subject, I recommend reading Tim Ingold’s work or learning it (use my search box to find references to it).

    I don’t see any economic agenda; it just happens to be the factual case that animist worldviews evolved among hunter-gatherers and are found among hunter-gatherers. That’s all.

  15. Bob Cranmer

    Hi Cris,
    I read about half way through the New Republic article before losing interest., Just more of the same old same emotional ramblings of a frustrated guy who is upset that others don’t see the world as clearly as he does. Shooting ducks makes me smile, for its the same way I’ve always viewed talking to those overly impressed with their own sophisticated views. They say that they have “no religion” when this claim “is” their religion.


  16. Joe Miller

    Yes, he builds on the work of Willerslev and Viveiros Castro. However, he extensively revises the conventional understanding of animism by asserting that “any two entities possessing different perspectives (sensu Viveiros de Castro) at a given point in time are always fundamentally incommensurable and have absolutely nothing in common (neither soul, nor humanity, nor even life)”. The vast differences between the two perspectives is what allows for the metamorphosis between species that Praet analyzes.

    Praet explains this dynamic in the following passage (I’ll quote it in full for the benefit of those who can’t breach the paywall). It describes how the Chachi of Ecuador perceive the monkeys they hunt: “In Chachi animism, hunting is one of the most valued activities. “Hispanics raise chickens, Chachi hunt” is an often heard catchphrase, highlighting the contrast between Amerindian and non-Amerindian inhabitants of the River Cayapas area in NW Ecuador (Praet 2009). A principal reason why the Chachi have built their villages near the headwaters of rivers, and only very rarely at the coastline, is their wish to have good hunting grounds in all directions. I here focus on contemporary hunting practices in one village near the Cotacachi-Cayapas thought of as “other living beings” rather than as non-living beings). nature reserve. Early one morning in 2004, the senior hunter Alfonso Añapa and I set out to hunt monkeys. We paddled upstream and left our canoe at the bank of a streamlet. Once we had entered the forest, my companion regularly stopped and watched carefully. He paid particular attention to certain trees, especially those whose fruit is eaten by howler monkeys. Each time we reached a hilltop he imitated their very loud and distinctive call. After many failed attempts, we finally managed to track down a small group. Most of them remained out of reach as they were sitting very high in the canopy, but Alfonso did manage to shoot two.
    Afterwards, he asked me whether I had noticed something. Puzzled, I told him I had not.
    “Didn’t you see how the monkeys on the higher branches furiously jumped up and down?” Of course I did, but that had not struck me as exceptional, for I assumed that it was the normal behavior of monkeys in a situation of great distress. Alfonso, however, did not doubt that there was more to it than simply panic: “They were shaking the tree,” he stated, “because they were attempting to let us fall.” Later, he explained that the howler monkeys perceived themselves as Chachi walking on the ground, while they viewed us as monkeys sitting in a tree. In other words, they were trying to hunt us, as much as we were trying to hunt them. What is more, Chachi hunters sometimes describe monkeys as a particular incarnation of ghosts (ujmu) and thus relate them to the realm of death, even before they are shot. But from the viewpoint of the monkeys, humans are ghosts and hence palpable incarnations of death (a common observation in Amazonian anthropology; cf. Viveiros de Castro 1992, p. 211). Or, in an alternative formulation: while the predator is alive, whoever occupies the position of prey is always dead.
    In this context, predator and prey are positional qualities rather than fixed identities. Both positions may be equivalent in so far that hunter and howler monkey are equally animate and equally tangible. But they are at the same time wholly incommensurable in the sense that they are not just a little bit different but very different. Between hunter and howler monkey, there is no common ground whatsoever; there is no shared condition of life. If the former are alive, the latter must be dead. That is, howler monkeys are not conceived of as “other living beings” but as non-living beings. To envisage them as “wildlife” is actually misleading; instead they must be grasped as “wild-dead.”1 That is why monkeys have such a radically different perspective: just like the deceased, their point of view is the inverse of that of ordinary Chachi. It is not bychance that similar instances of perspectivism occur at funerals (cf. Praet 2005). Just before the corpse is buried, mourners laugh, banter, and play all sorts of games; it is said they temporarily die during the funeral, to keep the deceased company. That is why they perceive an occasion of great grief as one of tremendous joy. What happens during hunting and at funerals, then, is not fundamentally different. Both are ways of dealing with an expanded domain of death that includes not only howler monkeys but all inhabitants of the deep forest. As I have explained elsewhere (Praet in press), Chachi animism is characterized by a restricted sphere of life limited to people, their pets, and the familiar world around the house and the river. In this framework monkeys are palpable representatives of death, at least from a human perspective. Humans, on the other hand, are palpable representatives of death from a monkey perspective. In short, life and death are not inherent properties but positional qualities.
    My central argument is that this total incommensurability between predator and prey is an extremely stable feature that recurs in many (if not all) forms of animism. I suggest it is perhaps the single most important key to understand human–animal relationships in so-called indigenous societies. The originality of animism is that differences are always conceived of as total. By contrast, differences are partial according to the modern, Western cosmology (e.g., monkeys Metamorphosis is impossible in the modern framework: at most, it is the stuff of legends. But incommensurability
    opens the possibility of metamorphosis. It should not surprise us, then, that stories such as this one abound in Chachi animism (Praet 2006, p. 48):
    A woman from Tutsá, the ancient village of the Chachi, encountered a man in the
    forest. She fell in love and married him. The husband took her to his house, a
    huge mascarey tree they climbed by means of a liana, but to them it appeared
    like a house they entered on a ladder. What the woman did not realize was that
    her husband was actually a spider monkey. The husband’s family treated her well
    and fed her cooked maize. At least, that was how she perceived it, for it really was
    just a piece of tree fruit. They had a child together, and occasionally went to visit
    the woman’s parents. At one point, she brought a basket full of “nappies” and
    “clothes” for the baby but when her mother had a closer look these turned out
    to be merely skins of snakes, felines and deer—from a spider monkey’s perspective
    these were proper clothes. Here, the woman’s parents realized that their
    daughter had married a monkey. Exposed, the son-in-law but also his wife and
    baby instantly shifted into their monkey shape and dashed off. The mother of the
    woman tried to follow them, but when they climbed the mascarey tree she could
    not follow. For her, the liana was no ladder.
    The example illustrates that seduction is quite comparable to predation. In fact, Chachi
    hunters who use techniques of imitation envisage their undertaking as much as an act of seduction as one of predation. Just like prey and predator, seducer and seduced must be understood as positional rather than inherent qualities. This also elucidates the toucan myth mentioned in the introduction. When a Chachi hunter seduces a toucan by imitating their distinctive call, he adopts a different perspective—he metamorphoses. Just like monkeys, toucans are palpable representatives of death—they are not “other living beings” but non-living beings. In Chachi animism, hunting always entails a voyage into the domain of death.”

  17. Joe Miller

    It seems that Robin Ridington’s work with Dane-zaa is also best interpreted in this light. The material presented in the article titled “‘You Think It’s a Stump but That’s My Grandfather’: Narratives of Transformation in Northern North America” strongly suggests that that is the case.

  18. Larry Stout

    I wouldn’t think of being shrill here, Cris. But I hope you won’t mind my being wry in letting H.L. Mencken speak wryly for me:

    “It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by a board of gods. If such a board actually exists it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money.”

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