In Praise of Emma Restall Orr – first posted 30.12.17

In 2016 I went hunting for a decent book on Animism, and I turned up 3 on my search of Amazon’s Kindle selection. These days, because my acquired disability means my grip is poor and holding hardcopy books has turned a joy into a chore, I rely on the Kindle app on my iPad now.

I bought 2. One remains partially read. The other was Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World. I was unprepared for the journey that book would take me on. I was expecting the standard stuff, based on her background. Emma was famously a Druid. Instead, what I got was a beautifully written exploration of the Western Philosophical tradition.

My exposure to Western philosophy is fragmented. I read Russell, Kant and Kierkegaard when I was 17 as well as a potted history, then some Plato and that was it for ages. I was too busy with Buddhism and a mess of other sources of inspiration. In more recent times (the past 20 years) I have listened to philosophy programs (ABC radio) and podcasts. I am up to episode 291 of Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy podcast. Not a disciplined approach by any measure, but it gave me the confidence to tackle Emma’s book.

It was not intimidating at all. In fact, far from it. It turned out that Emma had a natural feel for Western philosophy and wrote on it with a free and fluid style. There is no getting away from the fact that it is a book that demands of the reader a certain level of work.

What do you get as a reward for the effort? You get a sound sense as to how the essential ideas of animism are alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of the celebrated thinkers of our culture. You can be an animist and a philosopher, and not be out of place in our intellectual tradition.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that if you have any desire to engage in thinking about animism from a position of intellectual discipline then The Wakeful World is something you must pass through. You cannot go around it.

I moved on to another of Emma’s books, Living with Honour. Okay, so you have your chosen philosophy, how does that play out in the world? We all know that living in our culture generates a constant stream of moral problems for us. Our values are violated on our behalf in so many ways. Some many ‘goods’ come to us with dirty strings attached, and very little gets to us without causing harm on the way. Even when we lay out our values and declare them, they are ignored for the superior benefits of lower cost or greater convenience, and we crumble. We live in a muddled and messed up ecosystem of aspirations and determinations, dominated by the crassest of them.

But we must go on. We must endure and we must hold fast to what values we can. Living with Honour does not preach. It challenges and confronts – and if you care, you will subject yourself to that.

I was ready for Kissing the Hag. I should declare that my present conception of deity is Goddess – something I see as a fundamental challenge to a male raised in a culture dominated by masculinity. You can’t ‘get’ Goddess from a male perspective without altering so much of your thought and existential reflexes. Emma is not a ‘Goddess’ person in the same way. Her conception of deity is different.

From a male perspective I found Kissing the Hag a riveting read. It took me into depths of feminine consciousness that had been previously impenetrable to me. Maybe afterwards I had a more appreciate understanding of the feminine, but maybe more important to me was that I came to better understand why I did not/could not understand women. That insight was immensely liberating.

I have had an email interchange with Emma over almost a year now. She is not a professional author whose job it is to produce books. What she writes are acts of service. This is perhaps no more evident in her writing style, which is lyrical and beautiful. It is writing from the heart. Even so, it does not diminish the high intellectual standard she also brings.

It is an exceptional thing these days to find writing that has both heart and head potency of this calibre. There are, for me, very few writers of this standard who dare permit their personal authenticity come through their writing. This is maybe because not too many such writers are around – combining personal authenticity with what is a prodigious capacity for insight and understanding.

No writer is all things to all readers. The best we can hope for, as readers seeking knowledge and insight, is to come across a writer who deeply nourishes us by their writing, who asks not that their thought be believed, but considered. Authors of that calibre are always going to demand a lot of the reader.

I am forever amused that authors of tremendous potency pass me by. It is as if the time for reading them has not yet come to me. Then one day that time comes, and I am excited and grateful. I am sure this happens to everyone; it is just that I sometimes feel I am responsible for not being aware of them. Irrational really.

What Emma writes is nourishment to head and heart. It adds an essential missing dimension to how we understand animism – as something implicit in the canon of Western philosophy. We would then understand that such a something would be ignored or diminished by the religious and the atheistic thinkers. Who wants to upset the dogmatic applecart trundling toward an anticipated destiny that fulfills the expectations of its narrow devotees? Even at the highest levels of apparent cultural appreciation there is repression and misdirection.

Animism has been asserted to be the mentality of the primitive. It is, in fact, the mentality of a human whose consciousness is not clouded by the fog of culture and its norms and dogmas. Philosophy is the love of wisdom – the desire for a mentality not fogged by norms and dogmas. Let us translate our culturally aggressive notion of the ‘primitive’ into ‘pristine’ (as yet free of foggery).

Emma demonstrates that (some) philosophers of our tradition applied deep reason to confirm the essential beliefs of our ancestors were genuine insights and not naïve thinking. Animism is a rightful heritage for us. It does not have to be rethought, but reclaimed and rearticulated.

You can do this with an eager desire for sentiment that drives a shallow, but essential, shift in cultural values. Or you can be part of the deep change that embeds reclaimed and rearticulated thought in our intellectual culture.

Start off with The Wakeful World. Take your time and do the work it demands of you. But let me be clear here. It is not a dauntingly difficult book. I am simply aware that there are so many undemanding books that make reading ‘fun’ it can be challenging to encounter a book that expects you to think, rather than be impressed and agree. Learning and thinking well take effort. Please don’t imagine they does not.

An Early Morning Reflection at the End of 2021


I am parked down by a local park. It’s not quite 07:00. The sun is behind me, and I am intrigued by the way tree shadows trace linkages across the ground. We draw lines to link things – and now before me a transient line challenges me to see what has been linked. Two almost parallel shadow lines make a pathway from my car to a picnic table – an invitation to get out of my comfort zone?

Trying to Make Sense

COVID has become a huge thing in our lives. It has redrawn the contours of our conduct. It connects and separates us. What started off in one city in China has gone global. A virus which dwelt within a community of critters in the wild world was drawn out through trauma and has rampaged – seeking to return to an equilibrium – around the globe. 

Humans do not do well with novel micro-organisms out of context of their natural home. That was catastrophically true when Europeans arrived in the Americas, and elsewhere as well. 

But unlike earlier times, before travel became easy, our non-local interconnectedness is now addictive. We love to be other than where we are. We have eschewed the intimacy of the familiar for the sensation of the new. 

Over 1996 – 1997 I spent 13 months in Dover, UK. I had planned to move to the UK from Australia permanently, but that wasn’t to be. I was there to get an education, and nothing more. Not that I knew it at the time. 

I travelled, taking short trips to Paris, Edinburgh, London, Oxford, Dublin, Belfast and others. But I explored Dover too. 

I lived near a pub, The Orange Tree. It became my go to place. Like so many local pubs, it was a community centre – a communal lounge. Many there had not left Dover for years. There was a chef who worked in Canterbury, a truck driver who drove across Europe – and that was it. There was a guy whose parents fled from Brisbane back to Dover so he wouldn’t be exposed to the risk of conscription and have to serve in Vietnam. Well, that’s the story he was told. Apart from that, nobody seemed to have been out of Dover too far or with any frequency. The landlady told me she had been on holidays one time – about 20 miles distant. 

Being in Dover was a lesson in Community for me. This lesson was to be extended later in 1997 when I worked as Community Recovery Coordinator on the Tasman Peninsula, just a year after the Port Arthur shootings. Here the contrast between the old families and the new families was sharp. 

Intimate familiarity versus novel exploration are two poles of what drive us. Without the former we have no foundation, and the latter is no remedy. 

Animism and materialism reflect a similar polarity. The former is born of intimate familiarity. The latter spurred by the lust for the novel. It’s one thing to travel in search of a new foundation of intimate familiarity; and quite another to seek sensation, or to exploit, away from our familiar. 

COVID has disrupted our norms and thrown social and economic behaviour into chaos. The intimacy of strangers was to be avoided. Travel for non-critical reasons had been denied. 

And thrown back upon intimate familiarity we discover it is wanting. While it is intimate and familiar, it is not known. We can tolerate an intimate familiarity that is unpleasant so long as we can escape to something that offers respite and the chance to imagine an alternative. 

A Need to Rethink

There is no doubt that COVID will become a background disease like the flu. It will become a hazard to be navigated. But we must see it as more than a public health crisis and acknowledge that it is the product of who we are. 

In the US, Trump is still directing his supporters gaze to China as the source. It may be true that cultural and commercial practices in China released the virus from its natural domain. But it’s spread around the world was entirely down to us and our way of living. It has exposed crucial elements of the system of living we have created; and given us a chance to reimagine them. 

The natural thing to do is to desire a ‘return to normal’ – if that normal was agreeable. But we might pause to consider whether than normal was even remotely agreeable to the planetary life. Clearly our economy has been designed to cater to normal, and to exploit opportunity to gratify our desires. 

We in the west have long seen ourselves as a thing apart. This started with the Biblical creation of humanity as apart from all other creatures and then it was to humanity whom God gave dominion over all others – made apart and given to rule, to dominate. 

For a long time that narrative served the interests of generations. Its crudity was swallowed up in the Earth’s capacity to soak up punishment, but only up to a point – and now we can see that point on the horizons of our informed imagination. 

Now we have no recourse to imagining that the virus is a mere evil disputing our rightful dominion. The myths of millennia past do not protect us from intentional ignorance. Gone from the religious narrative is the notion of Divine punishment. That is visited only upon enemies and apostates. Our misfortune is an act of evil. The faithful are blameless.

The climate change discourse is the closest we have to a notion of divine punishment. That in which we live and move and have our physical being is kicking back. And yet, how strange it must seem that some of the most vociferous denials of climate change are those who profess the strongest religious ardour. They see it as a conspiracy of evil. 

It is not paradoxical that science has become the moral voice. Religion was always an existential response to problem of action and consequence as it played out in the real and unreal worlds – the physical and the metaphysical. Science has eschewed the metaphysical for dogmatic reasons; but is being drawn ineluctably back into balance. In the meantime, religion has abandoned the metaphysical for the purely psychological. It has become materialistic also. It still employs the language and trappings of the metaphysical – but there is scant spirit in it. 

This should not be a mystery. Religion is about succeeding in physical life – at least that’s the foundation of the Judaic strand of Christianity. As physical life became easier the need for metaphysical intervention has diminished. The moral dimension of material success was not something religion has been good at addressing – and, really, what else was there – beyond personal morality. A religion predicated on an intervening God really had no place to go. 

Nietzsche’s famous declaration “God is dead” is better understood as ‘our conception of God is dead’. Materialism has essentially cleared the body away, but contemporary Christianity has set it up as an idol. 

It’s All Part of One System

Stephen J. Gould has asserted that science and religion are two non-overlapping magisteria. He, like so many scientists, has misunderstood what religion is. They do not just overlap, they interweave. To grasp this, we must understand what religion is, and what it is not. It’s not as defined – the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods (Oxford Dictionary). That’s one aspect of what it is, not all it is. Our ancestors were animists. Their senses were profoundly attuned to the physical and metaphysical aspects of their reality. Their being in the world was precarious. Their way of knowing was framed in terms of agency, not mechanism. The luxury of the polarised thought that materialism has given us is novel; and was not available to our distant ancestors.

Religion is not about belief in, and worship of, gods. It’s about engaging with being in the world at a physical and metaphysical level – a way of knowing. We have replaced acute physical senses with technological ones, and we have replaced metaphysical senses with forms of psychology and arts in a materialistic framework. Absent is a deeper sense of the extent of the metaphysical aspect of our reality.

We are awash with self-interest. We struggle, as a culture, with notions of sustainability, peace, civility. This is, I think, part of evolution of individuality – still in its early phases. 

As we rediscover a holistic way of knowing – seeing that complex systems are the foundation of our reality – we will struggle to reframe our moral vision and discourse. Indeed, globally, ‘progressives’ struggle to articulate a sophisticated ‘secular’ morality. In some cases, this is a reluctance to follow the evidence away from a self-centred ethos toward something that looks too much like the old values championed by religious hypocrites.


We can avoid ‘morality’ as a word, because of its hypocritical taint, and replace it with ‘values’. But the challenge is the same – we must rethink our values at quite a deep level and bring them into conformity with the insights that greater awareness of complexity (at all levels) is producing.

We have some work to do – individually and collectively.

The Relaunch Post

The Original Blog

My first post was on 30 December 2017 – a piece called Gnostic Illusion. I am starting to draft this on 28 December 2021 with the goal of relaunching on 30.12.21 (That does not happen). At the moment, Gnosticism is a focus of interest for me. I am reading Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels. This book came out in 1979; and was not one I had encountered on the theme since then, despite having an interest and reading works by other authors. I’d read several of Pagels’ books, and I bought this one a few years. It’s been sleeping in my Kindle collection until just recently.

This was interesting because of two things. It would have been a waste for me to have read it between 1979 and 2019. And it is now clear that if the authors of the other books on Gnosticism I read had read Pagel’s book, they didn’t understand it.

What I wrote in 2017 didn’t have the assistance of Pagels’ subtle mind. It was shallow on key points, and a little off the mark. Still, the point I was making still holds, in my mind. I am still deciding whether to repost it.

I posted 2 other essays that day – In praise of Emma Restall Orr and Conspiracies and Confusions

Emma wrote some wonderful books that inspired me deeply. They are way under-appreciated as serious sources of deep insight. Emma was a leading light in the contemporary Druidic movement in the UK, and then she walked away. After reading the original essay I googled her in the hope she was still active. She has replied, and we shall see what transpires. I will repost the in praise of Emma essay. 

An Age of Conspiracy?

I have moved a long way from what I wrote in Conspiracies and Confusions. I wanted to distinguish between conspiracy theories, real conspiracies and those that are somewhere in between.

I thought it necessary to do this because of the problematic situation that arises from theories about human origins and history. Conspiracy theories are part of our culture now. They tend to be manifestly idiotic -on sensible investigation. I wrote 3 blog posts that resulted from exploring some conspiratorial activity. I will repost them, because I think it is important to appreciate that we need disciplined inquiry of even things we are disposed to find appealing.

But there are also conspiracies that are just that – attempts to distort and deny truth. These can also be harnessed to the conspiracy theory culture as well.

Conspiracy is routine. Governments are into it as a part of core business – intentionally lying to conceal motives and actions that do not serve the common good. They will argue their motives and actions serve the common good – but never truthfully argue that case. It’s a messy business. There always seems to be a background interest and influence – and maybe it has ever been thus.

Then there are existential conspiracies where facts are hidden, or denied, to protect a discourse for motives that are never made clear. The truth about UFOs and ET is perhaps the most flagrant. Here the official stance of government is at odds with the publicly available evidence.

The other classic existential conspiracy is the claim that the Great Pyramid is a tomb. There is no real evidence to affirm this. It is a claim that has become woven into the Egypt story by ignoring the demands for evidence. It’s a case of ‘must have been’ – the art of dismissing disagreeable evidence and concluding that a thing ‘must have been’ as asserted because no other explanation is possible (read acceptable).

Now it may turn out that pyramids were built and used as tombs. The point is that no actual evidence that this was their primary function has ever been provided. It has been a case of extrapolating from scant and suspect ‘evidence’ and building an impenetrable fortress of dogma. This has led to wild, and sober, counter theories. These are necessary because it is intolerable to remain inert in the face of such flagrant manipulation of the interpretation of this precious legacy in the stages of human attainment.

The Need for Doubt

There are many things that have become woven into our cultural narrative using this tactic. It does not help when conspiracy theorists make doubt no longer respectable. Those who declare themselves arbiters of the good and the true and the real must always have their motives subjected to very close sceptical scrutiny.

The word sceptical has been debased from being the foundation of disciplined doubt to being camouflage for straight out dogma denial. Doubt has become political rather than intellectual. It is easy to take apart a proposition using purely ‘rational’ methods. But that’s how we destroy truth as well. Truth is not always robust and self-evident to rational inquiry. Sometimes (often in fact) it is shy and delicate and must be nurtured into expression.

There was a time when a common outlook had to be enforced. This was a time when a culture or community was vulnerable to harm if points of view became fragmented. These days, our complex pluralistic cultures can endure a lot of diverse opinion – but only up to a point. There still must be common agreement on crucial issues – and we have to agree what those are.

This is the foundation of what we now understand, in a limited way, as religion. Shared beliefs and values were necessary for survival – and flourishing. What we believe matters, still.

There are real conspiracies that interfere with the freedom to imagine who and what we are. This has been so ever since the Christian Church determined what ‘good’ people could believe and think. Where this differs from the critical existential imperatives of tribes is in the fact that none of the dogma is demonstrably essential to survival. Humans did perfectly well under paganism, and atheism hasn’t done irreparable harm.

The Limits to Virtue – As We Imagine It

What has done harm to the human condition is materialism – but not in the short term. The harm has proven to be systemic in the sense that the very foundation of human material wellbeing and existence is being attacked while most of us think we are enjoying benefits. This is no longer a matter of rational dispute. The evidence of harm is persistent and widespread. Opposition is organised and determined. It is fair to call it a conspiracy; because it denies, rather than refutes, the evidence that contradicts. Also, it is fair to assert it favours wrong-doing, for the benefit of a few.

W.B Yates’ poem, The Second Coming’ was written in 1919. I commend the whole poem, but I want focus on 2 compelling lines:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

That is bleak assessment of ‘the best’. Let’s allow a poet’s licence and say it’s not a case of lacking ‘all conviction’ but of expressing it poorly. The image of the ‘best’ – those who assert moral and intellectual superiority – tend to be nothing of the sort. On the extreme ends of the spectrum of moral and intellectual conceit there is woeful ignorance and adherence to dogma. 

The ‘worst’ see what they have to lose; and are motivated to become organised in its defence. The ‘best’ have a lesser sense of urgency, though what can be lost is nevertheless fundamental to human wellbeing. The ‘worst’ will impose their beliefs and values upon others. The ‘best’ will not, rightly so. So, the best have only the examples of their own conduct – which can be riddled with pride, arrogance, intellectual laziness and hypocrisy.

In this sense Yate’s is right. That lack of conviction comes from an inner sense of personal pride. It lacks the conviction of authentic insight, which taps humility. Yates is no mere poet. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was a deep thinker with a powerful spiritual dimension to his life.

It’s something David Brooks has been looking at in The Road Character. It’s the dilemma of our age – how to be good with depth and grace without recourse to dogma and the arrogance of certainty. I am not saying I know what the answer is. I simply acknowledge the problem.

The coming year, 2022, will be a year of testing values and putting the ‘good’ under a challenge to articulate high values in an inclusive way. By that I mean speaking to what is noble and compassionate in everyone without straying into any ideological domain and thereby excluding those whose habits of mind forbid them from following. 

This is, I think, the challenge of the truly secular – a contemporary version of the catholic (universal) but without the dictates of creedal obedience. It’s hard ask; but I don’t know what the alternative is.

It’s not possible for ‘good’ to be ‘full of passionate intensity’. That doesn’t work. It becomes a mask for the ‘worst’ and it fools the many. The alternative can only be a matter for personal judgement and commitment.


What’s ahead of us is a time of challenge – to reframe our knowledge and values. Science is moving into quantum thinking, which is fatally wounding the materialist paradigm. Climate change is obliging us to rethink, reframe and re-imagine our being in the world. Social media is challenging us to reimagine civility and truth.

Indeed, we are living in cusp times in some many areas of being human. And off-stage, waiting in the wings, may be others from distant elsewheres. If their presence becomes widely undeniable, we will reach a tipping point for which we are not prepared.

I have no fixed opinions on ET, beyond thinking that the evidence is beyond hasty denial. The 25 June 2021 report from the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence – Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena – was widely dismissed as disappointing. But writ large between the lines was an entirely different message.