Animism is undergoing a renaissance of interest finding its way not just into popular culture but also scientific/philosophical discussion. This page offers quick answers to some basic questions. Readers interested in an in depth discussion are directed to Beith’s article Why Animism … and what is it anyway? Some readers may be interested in our bibliography.
What is Animism?
Graham Harvey’s Animism: Respecting the Living World offers a helpful starting point for understanding the concept of animism:
“Animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others. Animism is lived out in various ways that are all about learning to act respectfully (carefully and constructively) towards and among other persons. Persons are beings, rather than objects, who are animated and social towards others (even if they are not always sociable). Animism may involve learning how to recognize who is a person and what is not – because it is not always obvious and not all animists agree that everything that exists is alive or personal. However, animism is more accurately understood as being concerned with learning how to be a good person in respectful relationships with other persons.”
The canon definition:
The original definition of animism is the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. This idea traces back to the beginnings of anthropology with Sir Edward Burnett Tylor who saw animism as the starting point for all religion. Left there, the idea could have been harmless but like a katamari it rolled downhill and quickly gathered up a lot of toxic waste. Victorian assumptions of white supremacy combined with modernism dismissed animism as something quaint or childlike and only practised by ‘primitive’ people.
An emerging consensus:
Animism is a word that needs to be de-colonized. Participants have known what animism is all along of course but the academy of philosophers and social scientists have begun the process of de-tangling the word from its racist past. There are multiple parts to this new definition.
a. The first comes from biological science about the reality of our place in nature. David Suzuki sums it up nicely:
“There is no environment ‘out there’ separate from us. The environment is embedded in us. We are as much a part of our surroundings as the trees and birds and fish, the sky, water and rocks.”
b. The second is that animism is the experience of connection to the world. This may sound mystical but it is an everyday experience shared by most people. The sky might look moody, a dog is seen as a member of the family, an old machine’s idiosyncrasies are tolerated because you’ve been through so much together.
c. The third comes from philosophy. Animism is a relational epistemology. When faced with the question, “How do we know that we know?” Animism answers: we know the world through our complex relationships and connections with the world around us. Understanding can be verified through context and from multiple perspectives. Animists reject modernism and Cartesian subject-object dualism. The world is not truly mechanistic, inert or primarily about the individual. “I think therefore I am” could be replaced by ‘it isn’t all about you.” Life is complex. Sensation, intuition, emotions and interactive experiences are as important as thought.
d. The fourth is that animism isn’t something ‘primitive’ or a precursor to ‘advanced’ religions. It is a sophisticated point of view and currently experienced across the globe.
Where is animism found?
Some sources incorrectly suggest that animism is only present in traditional tribal cultures, Shintoism and non-Abrahamic religions. In fact, animism is present across the globe. Animism is perhaps best described as an experience or philosophy rather than a religion.
What beliefs do animists share?
Animism is an experience of reality rather than a belief. Because this experience is shared by many cultures across the globe and over millennia there is great diversity. One belief or opinion that may be shared in common is the idea that life itself is sacred and ought to be respected. Some animists revere ancestors of blood, land and/or spirit.
Who is the founder of animism? What is the origin of animism?
Animism dates to prehistory and across many cultures so it does not share a common founder. The anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor coined the English term in 1871.
Does animism have a god?
Animism is a diverse global phenomenon. Belief ranges from atheism to polytheism.
Does animism have a sacred text or holy book?
Animists who belong to a particular religion may treasure a holy book but generally speaking animists see the whole world as sacred. As Ralph Austin wrote in the 17th century, “The world is a great library, and fruit trees are some of the books.” Spiritual understanding comes from one’s experience connecting with other people and the world.
Do animists have a place of worship?
Animists who practice a religion may go to a place of worship. Some animists have shrines or altars in their homes and gardens to honour ancestors or spirits. Generally speaking animists do not see a separation of sacred and profane. The whole world is sacred.
What are the symbols of animism?
The personal symbols of animism are as varied as the people participating.
What are the animist holidays?
Animists who identify as neo-pagans celebrate solstice and equinox events. Animists who identify as religious celebrate the events of their traditions.
What are some animist rituals or practices?
Because animism is a global experience and dates to prehistory there is great diversity of practice. Some animists honour their ancestors. Neo-pagan animists celebrate solstice and equinox periods. Religious animists celebrate the practices of their tradition. Generally speaking, animism is a DIY affair: a genuine, personal connection and participation with the world. Practice can include meditation, mindfulness, creating art, going on pilgrimages, engaging in magical acts and so much more. One is limited only by one’s imagination. One of the purposes of Anima Monday is to offer animism exercises designed to inspire new ways to connect with the world.