Unspoken Assumptions - Orders of Life

This is the first post in what I hope will be a semi-regular series. Our practices are often predicated on things that we never question. One of the things that I think is important for the Queer Witch, is the notion that everything can, and perhaps should, be questioned. I'm hoping to use this series to draw attention to assumptions that often go unquestioned.

The first assumption I'd like to tackle, is one that bothers me a great deal. It is the assumption that some forms of life are more important, or of a higher order, than others.

It's an easy assumption to make. It is natural for us to value ourselves. It is natural for us to empathize with those creatures like us, and therefore to value them more than creatures unlike us. It is obvious to us that we have consciousness, culture, society, community, language, and a dozen other things that make our species special. And all those things are true.

But if we step away from our human perspective, none of those things set us far enough apart from the other organisms to justify our assumption that we're better than them, or more important than them, or more complex than them.

This assumption is obvious when we look at practices of all varieties. It is common for newbie witches to be taught that they have to protect the other beings of the earth. While that could be a good place to start (since humans are among the greatest threats to the other beings of the earth), it places those witches in a position of authority and responsibility for all the lesser creatures they need to protect. That sense of responsibility and duty is a human creation. It doesn't make us more worthy than any other organism.

In fact, the inability of humanity to reach a homeostatic relationship with the rest of the biosphere could easily be used as justification to pronounce our species one of the least advanced of the mammals.

There are other practices and assumptions as well. How many witches and occultists have worked with animal spirits that act as guides, guardians, or helpers? How many have even thought that perhaps wolves and deer and house-cats and monkeys might have human spirits which serve as guides and guardians and helpers? How many have been willing to act as a human spirit guide for an animal in turn?

I'm not proposing that wolves have human spirit guides. I don't know that they do. I also don't know that they don't. But our assumption that we are somehow separate from nature blinds us to the possibility. Even if you assume that humanity is stupid, and that is why we need animal helpers, the assumption is still that humanity is somehow in a separate class from all of these other beings and lives with which we share the world.

And that's a problem. Believing ourselves to be separate from the world around us, whether we see ourselves as above it or below it, is an underlying assumption that impedes our ability to really live and work in the world.

And it leads us to other foolish assumptions. Like the idea that the dam a beaver creates is part of nature, but a dam that man creates is not. Holding ourselves apart from the world alienates us from our relationship to it. It causes us to question our place and value in the world and to ignore the possibility that we can do good in this world through direct action, rather than through avoidance of harmful action.

This superiority complex is also at the root of what I think of as "partial animism." Humanity loves the idea that we have a soul. That we have spirits which are enfleshed. Though we pretend it isn't, that belief is fundamentally animistic. It is the idea that the divine is not something wholly separate from us, but something that exists within living beings.

But a great number of people, including witches, believe that animism stops at the limit of humanity. Again, it's a self-important assumption that only we are special enough to have souls. When people do believe that animals have souls, it's super-common to extend that belief only to animals they consider to have personalities. We don't phrase it that way, but most people that believe their cat or dog has a spirit don't consider that perhaps cows and chickens and giraffes might also have spirit.

And among those who do beleive that all animals have spirit, there are many who draw the line at insects. And still others who draw the line at plants.

While these lines get drawn for a variety of reasons, they are all predicated on the same belief that humans are special. The belief is that there has to be a line somewhere which separates ensouled life from not-ensouled life. And of course, anything on the other side of that line, doesn't really count as life and doesn't need your consideration or thought.

I think that the assumption is false. I'm skeptical of anything that supports an unobservable human conclusion that favors humanity. Beyond my skepticism though, I don't believe the universe is so tidy. I think that if spirit exists within me, it probably exists in everything. I think that it might be hard to see spirit in a single blade of grass or in a bacterial culture. But our inability to wrap our minds around it doesn't mean it's not there.

I think we have trouble seeing it, but it's there. I think spirit is immanent. I think it is present in every atom and molecule of matter and every expression of energy.

I think that choosing to deny its presence in some while accepting its presence in others is self-serving and delusional. I believe that that choice is the same choice that leads to race bias, to gender essentialism, to misogyny, and a whole host of other prejudicial behaviors.

Humans really love to other the things they can't relate to. So Queer Witchcraft embraces kinship with the other. It embraces the understanding that we are in relationship and in community with the spirits of all things whether we can understand and commune with their spirits or not.