Animism is a primitive concept that all elements of the world have spiritual energy. Animism is more than a religion or doctrine. It’s a belief system that surpasses religion by ranging across many religions and hierarchies.
What is Animism?
Animism is the belief that everything in the world, from humans to objects, has a spirit within it. Therefore, everything is connected via this spiritual energy.
The energy in question is the same energy we see in Shintoism, Buddhism, and other religions. It can be called chi, karma, mana, chakra, and more.
The basis is that there is a spiritual force in the world that all things possess, especially living beings.
The biggest difference between animism and other similar beliefs is the focus on the credence that even non-living things possess this energy. This transcends the type of “life force” that plants have by giving the same life force to a river or even a plastic chair in some cases.
Animism itself isn’t a religion but a practice, like a prayer, that is a puzzle piece for many religions and other belief systems.
Origins of Animism
The concept of animism has been around for nearly as long as humanity, but it wasn’t a term until the 1800s. In 1871, Sir Edward Burnett Tyler coined the term for his book Primitive Culture, using the word to describe the belief in universal energy. But the concept has deep origins.
The earliest form of the belief dates back to at least 400 B.C. when Pythagoras mentions the connection between our soul and the universal soul (divine soul that connects us all). He discovered this notion when he studied the ancient Egyptians, letting us know that animism is far older than even the Greeks first thought.
Concepts of Animism
The concept of animism is the belief in the animation of all nature. If you spend much time in nature without the distractions of modern society, you may feel the energy that many cultures consider the basis of animism.
Because the definition is so vast, there are multiple concepts of this belief.
Hylozoism, Panpsychism, and Vitalism
These three doctrines – Hylozoism, Panpsychism, and Vitalism – are so closely related that it’s easiest to combine them when breaking down their concept.
Hylozoism is the belief that the universe is one living organism. Panpsychism is the belief that everything has life and a mind. Vitalism is the belief that biological phenomena cannot be explained without spiritual favor.
None of these systems are consistent with true animism but a modernized (1800s) view created by Europeans. It was a valid attempt at understanding the belief but has a few holes.
Modernist animism encourages the concept that we see in others what we believe about ourselves. This can be true for not just other humans but how we will reflect how we see ourselves in nature.
This approach is quite controversial, as it can downplay the naturalist view, giving our minds too much credit.
Enactivist animism is another attempt at understanding that can be summed up as a heightened sense of awareness. It does not ride on the spirit side of animist belief but a shared experience of life and a way of engaging with the natural environment.
In a way, it’s not a deeper understanding of the soul but a deeper understanding of kinship with all living things.
In ontology, animism is also a shared experience between species with unique characteristics. We all have a private state of experience despite having different appearances, abilities, and walks of life.
Just like in any type of animist concept, respect is key, despite the more realistic approach.
Social-relational animism shares an approach that redefines what is considered a person. They do not give objects a personification but rather change our perception of what a person is and only persons have souls.
This separates the term “human” from the term “person.”
The Difference Between Animism and Totemism
Animism and totemism are closely related concepts. In animism, individual spirits work together to maintain life as we know it. In totemism, ancestors and the land as a whole connect everything rather than the individual spirits working together.
There are also totems in totemism, a key part of the concept that is lacking in animists’ beliefs. The totems are used in homes and villages to represent ancestors, traits, and tribes, but there is no equivalent to this in animism.
Animism and Religion
Animism is not a religion on its own, but it is found in many Eastern religions. Animists believe that there is a spiritual realm, yet the energy from that realm is all around us in nature, humans, and some inanimate objects.
Do Animists Believe In God?
Animists generally do not believe in a Christian god. Instead, they believe in spirits that connect us. The communication (as opposed to prayer) with “higher” spirits often comes from astrology, fortune telling, or shamans.
Benefits of Animism
- Empathy – for every living thing, including plants
- Sense of purpose – to protect others, the earth, and value our souls
- Spiritual connection – no matter your given family, there is a sense of kinship
- Mind-body cohesion – a better understanding of how to connect your mind and your body
- Harmony – to learn to live with others who you may not agree with or connect with
Where is Animism Practiced?
Animism is found on most continents, but it is still widely practiced today in Africa and Asia. Religions like Shintoism are still popular, with nearly 80% of Japan considered Shintoists.
Other religions that believe in animism include Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, with millions of followers in modern society.
Importance of Animism
Animism is a vast and important term. It is the animist belief system that teaches us to take care of our earth, have empathy for animals, and connect to each other on a deeper level.
Almost every religion believes in souls, or some type of energy, and animism is an easy way to understand that. So whether or not you believe in the pure concept of practice, there are benefits you can draw from the core beliefs.
We are all connected, and it is up to us to nurture this connection, refusing to let anyone severe it.