I am an animist. This is not an uncommon statement in modern paganism (including reconstructionism) but like so many other things it is far more complex than it may appear. What I mean when I say animist, and how that worldview shapes my life, may be very different indeed from what others mean when they use the term, because in modern pagan usage it is a somewhat nebulous and often poorly implemented idea. Part of this, I think, is rooted in a poor understanding of the original term, and part in people trying to graft what can be a very foreign idea onto the worldview they were raised with.
So what is animism? Well, to start the term itself originated in anthropology in the 19th century as a way to categorize the beliefs of indigenous peoples. It is based in the Latin word "anima" which means spirit or soul. In effect animism is the belief that animals (including people), plants, natural objects and phenomena, and sometimes man-made objects have a spirit. An animistic world view can be found in all cultures at varying points and psychologist Jean Paiget theorized that animism is the natural state of belief in children. Unlike pantheism, which sees all existence as having a unified spirit, animism sees each spirit as unique; my soul is not the same soul as yours, nor is one oak the same spirit as another oak. Another thing that makes animism different from some other viewpoints is that to an animist all spirits are generally equal in significance (not, however, in Power) so that a human spirit is no more or less important in the universe than a Maple, or a squirrel, or a river. Animism does not see humans as superior or inherently more worthy than anything else. This does not mean that to an individual human or group of humans that their lives mean less but rather that they do not interact with the world with the idea that they are privileged, rather the spirits around them must be treated with respect in order for the humans themselves to succeed.
When I say I am an animist I mean that I perceive the world as being populated by spirits, in the sense described above. Material existence cannot be separated from spirit, because spirit is an integral part of all things and is manifest in the individual spirits that inhabit the world. My cats have spirits, just as I and my family do. The oaks, maples, aspen, and cedars in my yard have souls, as does the swamp behind my house. I also believe my car has a spirit as well, so I suppose I am a modern animist. Animism also shapes my belief that spirits are eternal, and so just because something has died doesn't mean it's spirit is destroyed (and Irish paganism shapes my belief in reincarnation, or "spirit recycling"). I believe it is important to live in right relation with the spirits we share the world with, just as much as we should live in right relation with our human neighbors and coworkers (and for much the same reason). This can be done by showing respect and gratitude, taking only what we need, and using everything we take. It also means that I look at the world around me as full of living spirits that are just as important as I am. I have a certain horror at the wanton, purposeless, destruction and death that is so common in a world that will clear an area of land to sell and then let it all sit and rot waiting for a non-existent buyer, or pollute and poison an area for expediency.
Now to be a bit critical. When I hear other neopagans talking about being animists I tend to see some common flaws in the way it is being approached. Some people who use the term animist actually mean pantheist, that is they believe that there is one, unified, spirit in all things not individual spirits in all things. There is nothing wrong with pantheism, and in fact you can be both a pantheist and an animist, but confusing the two terms shows a basic lack of understanding of what animism is. Other people take animism to a personalized extreme, where instead of understanding that humans are no better or worse than other spirits they elevate all spirits to the privileged status humans tend to accord themselves in non-animist views. Not only is this perspective difficult to really apply to everything but it also makes life a guilt ridden experience, when you are seeing every rock, tree, and animal as having the right to life, liberty, and happiness that you see for yourself. Animism respects all spirits, but also contains the inherent understanding that all spirits have a place in the natural order which means some are used as firewood, building materials, or food - with appreciation for the use they offer to support other life. It is offensive to waste and to take for granted what others give for us to live, but the use itself is not offensive. Life is predicated on death, in a perpetual cycle; an animist understands and honors this, and our own place within it. In contrast others take what I might call a selective animism approach where they say they are animists but only credit certain things with spirits, generally based on their own fondness for the animal/plant/object in question or desire to avoid guilt about using others. And of course, as with all things, there are those who give the idea lip service and nothing more.
I think neopaganism - indeed all religions - would benefit greatly from an animistic viewpoint. Animism in many ways gives us the best understanding of the true beauty and value of life - all life - and teaches us to honor what we need to live. It takes nothing for granted, but appreciates the cooperation needed between all things for life to continue. Animism avoids the dichotomous thinking that says a thing is either good or bad, or the view that all is good; it teaches us that there are good spirits and bad spirits, yes, but also that most spirits are simply spirits that will respond based on how they are treated. And most importantly animism disabuses us of the idea that we are privileged or special; whether we like it or not we are as valuable as everything else in the grand scheme of life.