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Holy place in a Santhal village in the Dinajpur district, Bangladesh.

Animism is a belief common in many different religions and philosophies. An animist is a person who believes or practices animism. Animism is the belief that there is more in nature than the physical things that can be seen and touched. The part that is not physical can be called a soul, life force, or spirit. Physical things come in two types: things that are alive and things that are not alive. Animals and plants are alive. Most animists believe animals and plants have a spirit.[1] Some animists also believe some non-living parts of nature have spirits.[1] These non-living parts of nature include the wind, the rain, and geographic features like mountains and rivers.

The word "Animism" looks like the words of other belief systems with the suffix "-ism." However, it is not like other belief systems. Animism is not organized on purpose. Animists did not come up with the word "Animism." Animists did not apply the word to themselves. Instead, Animism is an idea of European anthropologists. The first anthropologist who described Animism was Edward B. Taylor.[1] Taylor was trying to describe what was similar among many groups all over the world. The word "Animism" is very new: it was first used in 1832.[2] In contrast, the ideas described by "Animism" are very old. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims that Animism "has been the dominant religious tradition across all human societies since our ancestors first left Africa."[3]

The kind of "spirit"[change | change source]

The word "animism" is based on the word anima from Latin. Anima means breath, life, or spirit.[1] However, these are English words. The ideas of animism are often not from people who speak English. This means there is not one definition of spirit. The definitions are different in different animist groups. The following definitions are from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Some groups believe that nature moves and interacts because of the spirit in things. Other groups believe that nature has more than just a spirit of movement. They believe that spirits in nature are persons like humans are persons. They believe that persons of nature can have a "social relationship" with other persons. Other groups believe that the persons of nature are dead relatives of humans who are alive.[3] Still other groups believe that a single plant or animal may be many spirits in one. They believe that existence, movements, and more are each a separate spirit.[3] In summary, not all animists define "spirit" the same way, but animists do believe similar things. They believe there is a spirit in many things which are not humans. They believe these spirits are why things that are not human move and interact.

The kinds of Animist belief[change | change source]

Differences between Animism and similar beliefs[change | change source]

Animism is different from other similar beliefs. However, it is often confused with other similar beliefs. First, Animism is not Hylozoism. Hylozoism claims that the entire universe is alive and has an animating power like a spirit. Animism does not claim that the universe is alive. Animism does not believe all things are alive.[3] Second, Animism is not Panpsychism. Panpsychism claims that all things have a mind and that mentality is the reason why the universe can exist. Animism claims that only some things have a mind. Animism does not believe that things must have a mind in order to exist.[3] Third, Animism is not Vitalism. Vitalism claims that things which are alive cannot be explained without a spiritual as well as physical reason. Animism does not always believe that everything alive has a spirit. Animism also sometimes believes that non-living things have spirits.[3]

Differences between Animism and Theism[change | change source]

Animism is often compatible with Theism. Theism is the belief in the divine. The divine can be a single god (monotheism), many gods (polytheism), or everything (pantheism).[4] Theists believe that the divine is "transcendent," separate from human life. However, Animism is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic. The spirits of Animist belief are not transcendent, and that is why humans interact with them.[3] Also, Animism is not pantheistic. The spirits of Animism are not all one (monism), but are unique to each thing with a spirit.[5]

"Old Animism" and "New Animism"[change | change source]

Animism is an idea described by anthropologists, not Animists. As anthropologists have studied Animism, they have changed their minds on how to describe it. This means that the first definition of Animism is now known as "Old Animism." The first definition was offered by Ernst Stahl in the 1800s. Stahl was a chemist and physician.[3] He was not describing a religious belief. However, Edward Tylor borrowed his word to use for religious beliefs in other parts of the world.[3] These beliefs were different and older from what Tylor believed. Because they were different and older, Tylor argued that his beliefs must have developed from Animist beliefs. He argued that all people groups develop in this way. The main change he proposed was that people move from religious explanations for the world to scientific explanations for the world. This was called the social evolutionary approach to anthropology.[3] It is not popular with anthropologists since the 1920s.[3]

Now, anthropologists have stopped thinking of Animism as a way of explaining the world. Now, Animism is described as a way of relating to the world. This is the difference: the "old Animism" explained the unknown, but "new Animism" builds relationships with non-human people.[3] This change in definitions is possible mostly because of Alfred Irving Hallowell. Hallowell studied the Berens River Ojibwe of North America in the 1930s. He lived with them. He learned that the Ojibwe do not think there is a spirit in all things at all times. They do not believe spirits explain every question. Instead, the spirits of things which interact with humans as persons. Animism for the Ojibwe is about relationships. Hallowell said the best way to understand this "new" Animism was to also believe in it.[3] It is not common for anthropologists to believe similar things to the people they write about. However, this definition of Animism is the one that anthropologists are writing about today.

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Swancutt, Katherine (2019-06-25). "Animism". Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology.
  2. "Definition of ANIMISM". Retrieved 2022-11-11.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 Smith, Tiddy. "Animism". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ISSN 2161-0002. Retrieved 2022-11-11.
  4. "PBS Faith and Reason Glossary". Retrieved 2022-11-11.
  5. "Pantheism Explained". Learn Religions. Retrieved 2022-11-11.

Related pages[change | change source]