Food, Sex, and Strangers: Graham Harvey on Religion as Everyday Life.

Silbury Hill, photo: Tony Grist, Creative Commons.

Silbury Hill, photo: Tony Grist, Creative Commons.

My perspective on animism owes much to Graham Harvey’s historical overview and emphasis on the need for respectful relationship, not least between humans and other-than-human beings, but what I enjoyed most perhaps about Food, Sex, and Strangers was the light it shed on areas where his perspective differs from mine.  I should begin, therefore, by saying (again) that I’m writing this as a confirmed pluralist, in an enquiring, and sometimes puzzled, ‘tone of voice’.

This is a thought provoking book in which Harvey challenges ‘the deeply ingrained notion that religion is about belief in god’ rather than ‘the relationships that constitute, form, and enliven people in everyday activities in this material world’.  Christianity, he argues, is the only religion properly defined in terms of beliefs or believing.  Some people ‘may believe in deities, non-empirical realities, miracles, and other mysteries […] but these are facts about aspects of some religions rather than data for defining religion’.  I leave it to others to comment on Harvey’s engagement with debates in religious studies.  As a practising animist I want to respond to the materialist approach to religion that he’s been developing by looking ‘elsewhere’ -beyond mainstream Western culture where discourses forged from Christianity and modernity have long been so pervasive.  Since ‘centuries of effort and violence’ secured the dominance of the transcendental model of religion, he is clearly envisioning a major cultural transformation.  So far, so good, but there are elements in his analysis that concern me.

Pluralism and hybridity.

Harvey describes being invited to join a group of Ojibwe and Lakota people making their annual trip to pick sage which they use in prayers, for purification, and as gifts for helpful other-than-human persons.  Before entering the field everyone took out a pinch of sage from the previous year, held it to their hearts, and introduced themselves to the plants.  Everyone then asked permission, silently or vocally, to cut more sage, and put their sage on the ground.  Once these gifts were given, and an elder indicated that permission had been given, they gathered the sage, carefully avoiding taking any entire plant, and expressing gratitude after each cut.  We are then told that this was primarily a Roman Catholic Christian event.  The accomodative habit of animism, and the syncretic habit of Catholicism had seemingly fused.

Many other examples in the book reinforce the point that hybridity and fusion are common, and that people’s religious practice often fails to conform to pristine categories. This must surely apply particularly amongst animists?  In Animsim, Respecting the Living World, Harvey memorably wrote “instead of crying ‘One’ or ‘Two’, animists celebrate plurality, multiplicity, the many, and their entwined passionate engagements’, and discussed the wide variety of elusive other-than-human persons, or ‘spirits’, encountered by British pagans, by his ojibwe interlocutors, and in other indigenous tradtions.  He noted that their presence would be doubted by modern rationalists, and concluded that extraordinary encounters might be taken as validating intuitions about the nature of the world, but that animists generally privilege relationships of everyday life.  My main concern, after reading Food, Sex, and Strangers, is that his vision of animism may no longer be broad enough to welcome such visitations.

Acts of Piracy? 

Flying Spaghetti Monster and Pirate Costumes, Freemont Solstice Parade, Seattle, June 2013.  Joe Mabel, Creative Commons.

Flying Spaghetti Monster and Pirate Costumes, Freemont Solstice Parade, Seattle, June 2013. Joe Mabel, Creative Commons.

In a chapter endorsing the irreverence of Pastafarianism -a new religion invented in 2005 by scientific rationalists as a way of challenging attempts by Christian Creationists to get ‘intelligent design’ taught as science in American schools- Harvey writes ‘small and large acts of piracy, sinking the dominant Cartesianism and transcendentalism […] can, I think, only aid our ability to manouvre among the lived realities that we encounter.’  Elsewhere he fires salvo after salvo at ‘postulations about transcendent, spiritual, and otherwise alien unrealities’ and ‘the peculiar eccentricities or follies of irrational or ignorant people’, and (with the pastafarians) targets belief in ‘irrational non-scientific metaphysics’.

Although Bobby Henderson’s Flying Spaghetti Monster document is a wittily effective satire on evangelical protestant Christianity, much of the subsequent avalanche of online material uses sarcastic humour as a crude weapon against all forms of (marginalised) non-rational knowledge.  As an astrologer, with an interest in divination, I’m uncomfortable, to say the least, with Harvey’s uncritical response to this, especially since he doesn’t seem to distinguish between the irrational and the non-rational.  Given that both Christian fundamentalists and scientific sceptics both vilify astrology, I remain to be convinced that these jolly pirates are suitable allies for an animist.  Are they not, actually, part of the ‘normative fleet’, the very scientific rationalists that Edward Tylor hoped would eventually banish animism (as belief in souls, an afterlife, and so forth)?

If Harvey has hardened his materialist position, this would seem inconsistent with his enthusiasm for the work of Patrick Curry, who, as both an astrologer and advocate of animist divination, would be likely to attract pastafarian ire.  I found myself wondering whether Graham Harvey now wants to marginalise, or even exclude, extra-ordinary experiences and phenomena from ‘new’ animism?  And how all of this might relate to contemporary animists from a neo-platonic background.  Are they to be ex-communicated?

Grave Stone, Whitby, North Yorkshire.

Grave Stone, Whitby, North Yorkshire.

Graham Harvey has done much important groundwork opening up a series of dialogues with people from indigenous traditions, but here again, I find myself wondering whether his reading of their lifeways has been selective. I’ve previously worried that (on his website) Harvey had used Te Pak Tawhai’s statement that the purpose of religion is ‘to seek to enter the domain of the superbeing and do violence with impunity’, without giving sufficient context – i.e. that chopping down trees or harvesting sweet potatoes are unavoidable acts of intimate violence.  Here again he foregrounds the provocative phrase as an exemplary statement of the view that religious performance is a relational act in a messy and difficult material world.

Having come, not long ago, from a PhD amongst social work academics specialising in child protection, and violence and gender relations, however, I’m troubled by his failure to relate this valid discussion of ecological realities, for example, to ongoing debates about the everyday violences of men in late modern patriarchal cultures.  The awful statistic that two women in Britain are killed by their male partners every week loses none of its horror with repetition.  Given the need to ground ‘religion’ in respectful relationship, I’m not sure that Tawhai’s phrase translates well beyond its intended context?

Returning to the question of animism as belief in an ensouled world (‘old’ animism), I was interested to see that, in the article that Harvey reccomends, Te Pak Tawhai also talks about the Maori conception that ‘humans consist of a tangible and an intangible part’, the intangible part being wairi (soul).  At the end of life the physical part of the dead return to the bosom of an ancestress whose name can be rendered as ‘Grand Lady of the Night’, and are given travelling directions along with farewells. It also seems to me that Irving Hallowell’s influential Ojibwe Ontology, Behaviour, and World View article includes much that would be recognised by Western spiritualists.  There may have been problems with translation -the terms ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ may have been used misleadingly, or I may have misread the sources- but the above seems clear enough to me, so is it not possible that Graham Harvey is reading the same accounts through his materialist lens and overlooking important aspects of traditional ‘belief’?

Golden Eagle, Aquila Aquila chrysaetos.  Photo Richard Bartz, Munich, Creative Commons.

Golden Eagle, Aquila Aquila chrysaetos. Photo: Richard Bartz, Munich, Creative Commons.

Another episode that Harvey returns to periodically, is an incident in which a Golden Eagle came and flew in a perfect circle over the central drumming group, during the final honour song of the first traditional non-competitive pow-wow held at the Mi’kmaq town of Miawpukek in 1996, before flying back to its eyrie across the river. Cries of “Kitpu” (Eagle) greeted the bird, expressing pleasure at its beauty and presence, and declaring that its arrival signified approval for the event.  Eagles and bears had always maintained traditional ways, but that Eagle’s precisely timed flight was taken as encouragement for the community to continue regaining confidence in traditional knowledge.  ‘The eagle participated in the pow-wow because humans were participating in local culture again’.  Harvey describes the moment as animistic, with hints of totemism.  It involved expressions of respect and gratitude, reciprocal relations between species, and the honouring of powerful persons -including drums and the eagle.  He argues that ‘nothing dramatically transcendent or supernatural was involved, and no-one suggested that the eagle was a symbol, a metaphor, a spirit, a message, or anything other than an eagle communicating approval. That may well be the case, but I worry at the constriction of possibilities here.

Perhaps this was an event that fitted Harvey’s criteria for animism?  Other possibilities, evidenced at other times, in other places, should not be excluded surely?  Birds of prey will come over and investigate unusual human activity within their territory, typically by circling overhead to get a good look.  A pastafarian commentator may complain that the eagle’s appearance was less about the content of the human ceremony than the noise it was making.  With another hat on I’ve gathered much first and second hand testimony confirming that birds do have a tendency to appear at intensely meaningful human moments, as if engaging in cross species dialogue.  This becomes especially clear when such occurances are repeated over time, or between different observers.  So I’m inclined to accept the local account, conveyed by Harvey. Its just that I think that some such occurances show the world to be more complex and mysterious than this account permits.

I certainly wouldn’t want to rule out symbolism, metaphor, ‘spirit’, or messages from other-than-eagle persons.  Astrology, for example, is almost entirely an art of analogy, with considerable practical potential.  Many people, from widely differing backgrounds, regard some dreams as messages.  I’m increasingly coming to feel that how we live and what we do matters more than our shifting understandings of a complex and difficult world.  Much more could be said, of course.  Did I say this was a thought provoking book?

B.T 19/9/14.

Graham Harvey, Food Sex and Strangers; Understanding Religion as Everyday Life, Acumen, 2013. Tawhai, T.P. 1988/2002 Maori Religion, in Graham Harvey ed. Readings in Indigenous Religion, Continuum.


5 thoughts on “Food, Sex, and Strangers: Graham Harvey on Religion as Everyday Life.

  1. Hi Brian,

    firstly that Silbury Hill is an impressive mound! I would like to sit on that mound.

    Regarding the eagle, it could be argued that everything we see, feel, hear, etc is symbolic. Symbolic in the sense that past experience (influences from cultural, education, society, family, religion, spiritual, philosophical, etc etc) are intimately bound into the seeing.
    That without the background ‘knowledge’ (whatever influences that may be for an individual) we wouldn’t know that we were seeing ‘eagle’, ‘grasshopper’ or ‘train’ anyway.
    There would just be ‘seeing’ without a ‘see-er’.

    If an individual, or group, believed the eagle just represented an eagle approving, fair enough.
    But equally, if another individual, or group believed the eagle represented something else entirely, fair enough also.

    Kind wishes, J

  2. I did get up on to the top of Silbury Hill once, and yes, its a very beautiful structure (as are the nearby West Kennet Long Barrow, Avenue, and Stone Circle, all at Avebury). I believe its fenced off these days for preservation purposes.

  3. Thanks for your review and engagement with the issues raised. Whilst I find some of Graham Harvey’s ideas sound and illuminating- respect for other-than-human persons and gratitude to WHO we eat rather than (soley) associated gods, I personally find his commitment to a materialism that rules out the ‘old’ animistic belief in spirits so completely alienating, and against my experiences I can’t bring myself to read anymore of his work, knowing I’ll get too riled. So thanks again for doing it and sharing your comments!

  4. I’m still not quite sure where he’s coming from, or going to, but, for instance, in the Handbook of Contemporary Animism, he refers to ‘putative “beliefs in spirits”, and to “non-empirical” postulations’, and so forth -so that’s fairly clear.

    I can see that ‘spirits’ can be problematic in relation to indigenous concepts, and that an emphasis on altered states (as opposed to his Altered Styles of Communication) might encourage indulgent introspection – but some of us need to retreat from an unsafe world from time to time, and I think inner work of various kinds is actually quite important

    I felt as though he wanted to set out a party line (that I was uncomfortable with), – but still find much to agree with him about, and want to carry on reading and discussing what he has to say, – so you can always read my reviews instead of G.H. 🙂

  5. Lorna, I’ve had another look at G.H’s other writings, and perhaps should have said that in ‘Animism’ his ‘turtles all the way down’ refers to the possibility that matter is conscious. So his materialism is informed by this. Likewise, when introducing the Handbook of Contemporary Animism he writes ‘perhaps all living species share a thoroughly material consciousness rooted in brains and bodies but arising out of the inherently aware matter of the universe’. He then goes on to also note that “animism” can ‘point to putatively interior components of living beings, or to cognitive mechanisms arising in the deep evolutionary past but continuing to affect contemporary behaviours. In such cases, the term resonates with its etymological predecessor, anima, to suggest some enlivening aspect (soul or spirit) within persons’. The terms he uses here -‘components’ and ‘mechanisms’- and the location of this ‘enlivening aspect’ within the psychic interior of persons, sound fundamentally different to most descrptions of soul or spirit I’ve seen, though. I’m currently re-reading some neo-Platonic accounts with this in mind.

if you would like to respond

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s