You are here: Wild Ideas > Forest > Library >
The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality
Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. See contents
page for full permissions.
10: The cultural and historical
specificity of disbelief
it is difficult for most modern people to place themselves in the position
of their animistic forebears. The idea of experiencing the world as
alive, sensate, imbued with divinity, may be challenging for many of
us now, but I think it is a mistake to assume that it is impossible.
No matter how immersed we may be now in Eliade's desacralized cosmos,
we need to keep in perspective that we have not been that way for all
It should be said at
once that the completely profane world, the wholly desacralized
cosmos, is recent discovery in the history of the human spirit. Desacralization
pervades the entire experience of the nonreligious man of modern societies
and in consequence, he finds it increasingly difficult to rediscover
the existential dimensions of religious man in the archaic societies.
(Italics in the original)
It is important also to realize that denial of spiritual experience
is a culturally as well as historically specific phenomenon. Starhawk
once recounted in an interview the experience of speaking about her
experience as a Wiccan priestess to a small gathering of women from
various Afro-Caribbean magico-religious traditions such as Santeria
and Voudoun. When she had finished, one woman asked
"Do you have trouble being accepted by white people?" Starhawk
was startled; she had never before considered how culturally bound the
rejection of the sort of spirituality she practiced was.
And I recall an incident earlier this year where, in a class at York,
we were discussing a reading which dealt with the phenomenon of spirit
possession among Malaysian female factory workers. Both the reading
and the class discussion centred on how this might be an unconscious
form of resistance to the incursions of industrial capitalism upon traditional
lifestyles, but never once referred to the possession phenomenon as
anything other than a delusion or hallucination on the part of the workers.
The one non-Western student present looked more and more uncomfortable
as the discussion progressed, and finally timidly raised her hand to
ask if anyone had considered that perhaps the women really were
An awkward silence followed the question, and deepened when the student
added that she herself had had supernatural experiences, having once
been haunted by a ghost that had to be exorcised by a Buddhist priest.
Most people did not appear to have considered that in another cultural
context, it might not be so readily taken for granted that spiritual
phenomena were delusional. Personally, I had great admiration for her
courage, because I had been thinking the same thing, but had not considered
actually mentioning it, fearing that I would be sabotaging my academic
reputation beyond repair if I did.
But there does seem to be a small movement afoot, even among academics,
towards viewing beliefs about spiritual or "supernatural"
phenomena without our culture's usual rationalistic blinders. At
the 1991 Fife Conference on Folklore at Utah State University, many
presentations dealt with questions of belief and experience, and confronted
the fact that what we are accustomed to terming supernatural experiences
may be considered commonplace within other cultures, and that to automatically
assume that our own culture's view of such experiences as delusional
is correct is indicative of an ethnocentric bias, as well as the anthropocentric
one I believe it to be.
In her introduction to the book that grew out of the conference proceedings,
conference coordinator Barbara Walker writes:
In a way, believing in the supernatural
is conceding and submitting to a universe that extend further than human
understanding or control or empirical observation, and such belief imbues
that universe with possibilities that surpass ordinary human devices.
Yet when supernatural powers are tapped or extraordinary events occur,
we in some respects are empowered , because then the limitations of
any sphere repudiating the magical or the miraculous are outdistanced.
We successfully broaden and deepen our world and
perhaps open ourselves to a greater reality. In this regard, and in
the best senses of the words, belief in the supernatural is primal,
is uncontrollable, is subversive.
All content copyright 1999-2006 by the
individual authors, where cited, or by
where not specifically credited.
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs
Site design: Spider Silk Design - Toronto web designers
This page last modified: January 29, 2006