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Animism and Related Beliefs

Animism and Related Beliefs


This lesson discusses animism and other so-called "primitive" belief systems, such as paganism, voodoo, and spirit worship.

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Welcome to this tutorial on animism. Animism comes from the Latin word "anima" which means "soul" or "life force." Animism is the belief in a hidden life force, or essence. That essence can be found in inanimate objects like stones. Not all stones, but certain special stones, could be held to be-- have a kind of divine life force. Sacred plants, that might be valuable for medicinal purposes, might be considered to be divine. Certain sacred objects, like an object that was used by a holy person, an object that was used by a hero, might consider to be sacred, might be considered to have a kind of spirit in it. Animism, in various different versions, of course, is a term that's used primarily by scholars of religion. It could apply to everything from indigenous traditions to some aspects of various world religions. It's a term with a very broad application. The main thing that all animistic beliefs have in common is a denial of a stark division between the natural and the supernatural. It's at least positing a very thin division between the divine realm and the human realm. So, there's a very porous understanding of how the various different layers of reality interact with each other.

Let's take a look at a few different religions. You can find more information on these religions in other tutorials, but let's just go through them. In Hinduism, there's an idea of something called prana, which you might say is a kind of life force, or kind of essence, that can be found in air when you breathe in. But it really resides within everything, it's kind of similar to the concept of qi in Taoist yoga. Next, Jainism. Jainism, of course, having this strict belief in nonviolence, so all living things have a kind of divinity. You should not kill animals, you should not even kill bugs, you should not eat plants that grow beneath the ground because you might accidentally kill an insect, and so forth. Next, Pantheism, which is sort of a philosophical religion. Pantheism is the belief in an imminent god within nature and within everything, maybe not as much of a belief in spirits, but nonetheless, divinity within everything. Paganism, so the ancient pagan beliefs, which are now in the midst of a neopagan revival, the belief in gods dwelling in nature, and you can come into contact with those deities, by going out into nature and by performing rituals in nature. Shinto, Japanese nature religion, spirits called Kami, which we live in nature, that you can propitiate at shrines, you can come into contact with these nature spirits and they can help you or harm you, so it's best to have them on your side.

What's the difference between Pantheism and Animism? We talked briefly about Pantheism already. Again, a kind of philosophical nature religion. So Pantheism says that God is imminent in nature. So again, that same denial of a separate divine realm, but God residing within nature. And next, Animism, perhaps less specific about the nature of the divinity, but holding nonetheless that we can find the divine in common things, that divinity is not to be shunted aside in some kind of separate supernatural realm. So, we have here a variety of different animistic beliefs, and a variety of different world traditions, so this is a strand of thought that can be seen in religions the world over.

Just to recap, we said that Animism has its origins in Latin word "anima" which means "soul" or "life force." In keeping with its etymology, Animism is the belief that all living things, including plants and animals have, a spiritual essence, and that in some forms of Animism even animate objects can have a kind of life force. We said that in Animism there's no true distinction between the spiritual and material realms. We also named examples of various different religions that have aspects of animism in their teaching, including Hinduism, Jainism, Pantheism, Paganism, and Shinto. We said that Pantheism gives a little more philosophical specificity to Animism, as an imminent deity residing within nature.

Terms to Know

In Animism, that which enlivens and gives character to plants, animals and (sometimes) physical objects.

Life Force

That which imparts life, spirit, and/or soul.

Spiritual Essence

That which expresses the true nature of a person, place, or thing.