Animism is not a religion.
Encompassing everything from communing with spirits to Oprah’s message of self-deification, animism is an understanding of what the world is.
People influenced by animism do not usually self-identify as animists. If asked what religion they practice, they are likely to pick the predominant one in their region—Christianity, Islam, Judaism—especially if the animists are integrated with non-animists or if not aligning with the dominant religion brings unpleasant political or social ramifications. Animistic peoples may ascribe to a religion, focusing on a principal spirit or a pantheon. Many of the world’s main religions, when they were introduced in prevalently animistic lands, morphed into folk versions—animism with a Roman Catholic face, an Islamic flavor, or evangelical drapery.
Animists share certain general beliefs about the world. The particularities of animistic worldviews and practices, however, are as diverse as people can be.
The Spiritual World of Animists
Animists believe all life is spirit, as opposed to matter. Humans have souls, as do animals, insects, plants, bodies of water, rocks, mountains, weather systems, and so on. All are both somewhat good and somewhat evil, but the relevant characteristic is power, not morality.
Souls—also referred to as spirits—are living beings with volition, moods, and the capacity to help or wreak havoc as they are wooed or offended. Spirits that do not inhabit a living being may exist in the form of a god, a personal force, or a ghost.
Animists believe earthly events have spiritual causes. Spirits influence the success or disaster of embodied human beings. Many spirits are easily offended and vindictive. Others feel threatened and defend themselves by harming humans. Upset spirits knock life off balance, causing trouble ranging from headaches to hurricanes.
For this reason, humans show respect to the spirits through ritual, custom, and offerings. Placating spirits restores balance and yields blessing. If cultivated, spirits can be powerful allies against malevolent beings.
To animists, the tribal community consists not only of people with heartbeats but also deceased family members, the unborn, and often a totem—usually an animal or plant that derives from the same life-source as the humans in the community and shares a special relationship with them. Conception and death do not delineate the animate state of a person; rather they are different stages of a perpetual existence.
The Antiquity of Animism
Animism is older than its name. Many scholars consider animism to be the basis of all religion. Anthropologists of the nineteenth century, starting with E. B. Tylor, ascribed the label “animism” to the belief systems of tribes they studied. They applied Darwinism to philosophy and religion and considered animists a window into the past, believing this was how Westerners had seen the world before they evolved into less superstitious theists and finally into civilized atheists.
Likewise, they believed, “primitive” man would evolve and animism would die out. Freud explained this developmental trajectory with fluent ethnocentrism in Totem and Taboo and drew parallels between people with animistic beliefs and people with neuroses, concluding that they share similar traits.
“Animism is the oldest way of seeing the world since Adam’s walk with God.”
It is true that animistic orientation is ancient—the oldest way of seeing the world since Adam’s walk with God. It has held the human imagination through time and remains fresh, renewing itself not only in isolated tribes but also among neopagan youth in the West.
Animism in the West
Digging deep uncovers animistic roots in every culture. The West is no exception. The days of the week, Western wedding traditions, and Old Saint Nick are animistic fossils of Northern European tribes and clans. Thursday is Thor’s Day, and Friday honors the fertility goddess, Freya. Bridesmaids are decoys meant to confuse malevolent spirits who would snatch the bride away, if only they could see her behind that veil. Father Christmas is less scary than Odin the Allfather, who would land his horse-drawn sleigh on the roofs of his worshipers to distribute presents, accompanied by an entourage of ghosts. (Ever wonder why Hollywood releases ghost stories around Christmastime?)
But animistic orientations are not mere relics. They are perennial. Elements of animism are woven into secular peoples’ eclectic belief systems. Consider Nancy Reagan consulting her astrologer about when President Reagan could safely travel or meet certain dignitaries. Today, among Westerners disillusioned with modernism and steeped in pluralism, paganism has made a comeback.
Neopaganism—a term for contemporary, nature-centered religions—is spurred by environmental concern and is a response to modernism’s abuses and to hypocritical mutations of Christianity. Its rituals, magic, calendar, and spirit orientation derive from animism.
The label “Pagan,” like “Christian,” was originally pejorative, but Western adherents now own it with pride. Hospital staffs in France and Switzerland include witches. In children’s entertainment, the movie Coco celebrates the ongoing relationship between the living and the dead, and superhero Ladybug has an empowering bond with her guiding insect. It’s now popular to refer to the Universe as an almighty, personal-god substitute working out circumstances on one’s behalf. This, too, is animistic.
God and the Animists
The Bible shows God’s response to people who serve territorial and ancestral gods. Though he punished idolatry, his first recourse was love. God called Abram out of polytheism into communion with himself and founded through Abram a nation identified with the One True God as a beacon for all others.
As the nation encountered other nations and their deities, the Lord demonstrated his power over other gods. The plague of darkness he sent on Egypt, for example, was an affront to Ra the sun god and to Pharaoh himself, thought to be Ra’s descendant (Ex. 10:21–29).
God also demonstrated his reach over everything—that, unlike other gods, he is not limited by territory or topography. When the enemy made plans to attack Israel in a location believed to be controlled by the enemy’s gods, God used a prophet to deliver this message to King Ahab: “Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord” (1 Kings 20:28 NIV).
Omnipotence and omnipresence were startlingly new divine qualities that took animists’ eyes off their own gods and turned their attention to Elohim. Throughout the Old Testament and into Paul’s missionary journeys and correspondence with the churches, there is a record of the struggle to let go of pragmatic alliances with territorial and ancestral gods and completely trust the Lord alone.
Even today, many Majority World people prefer to diversify their spiritual portfolios by investing in local saints, spirits, and power sources. Most animists think the high god created the world then moved on to other interests; he is not engaged in daily affairs, unlike the ancestors, spirits, and other powers in our world.
So a politician in Northeast Brazil hires a sorcerer to hex his opponent in the municipal election. A socialite in São Paulo joins a séance to contact the deceased sister she misses so much. A young, educated woman in Lima relies on her late mother as guardian angel and benefactress—more powerful in the afterlife than she was in this life.
Animism lives on. As time and experience prove other philosophies and worldviews false, people take comfort in the new old ways.
Jennifer Waldrep is an IMB missionary in Lima, Peru.
Video by Andrew Rivers, who lives with his wife in Southeast Asia.