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Animism and Related Beliefs

Animism and Related Beliefs

Author: Ted Fairchild

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

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Hello. Welcome back. Today we're going to talk about animism and related beliefs. And we'll look at the presence of animism in several of the religious and spiritual traditions. The word "animism" comes from the Latin term "anima," which means "soul" or "life force." And it's the belief that all living things are endowed with a spiritual essence.

Plants and microscopic life are included sometimes. And even inanimate objects are sometimes filled with the animating force of life, according to some animistic beliefs. One distinctive feature of animism is that there is no separation, no distinction between the realms of matter and the realms of spirit.

Animism is present in many of the religions of the world. For example, in certain Hindu traditions there's a practice of sacrificing the spirit of the rooster through offering its blood in sacrifice to particular gods.

And there are elements of animism also in the religion of Jainism. Practitioners practice extreme nonviolence and self control as a principle means of spiritual freedom and spiritual liberation. All forms of life--animal, plant, down to the microscopic level-- possess souls, according to cosmology of Jainism.

And the traditional Japanese religion called "Shinto" has many animistic futures also. The Japanese word "kami" refers to many things. It refers to divinity, animal spirits, all natural forces and also to the general category of essence. Many Shinto shrines incorporate natural structures--mountains trees, et cetera-- all with kami that are honored and revered.

And there are many ancient and contemporary traditions that are categorized as pagan religions or paganism. Animism is a central feature here as well. All of nature is believed to be inseparable from the spirit realm. Deity infuses nature, and there's therefore no distinction.

Within contemporary paganism, however, there are at least two different perspectives on animism. In one case, it's believed that a spiritual energy resides in everything, 0 in every aspect of the universe. And in other cases, some pagans believe that there are very specific spirits that dwell in particular places, natural structures, et cetera, which can be engaged and communicated with through things like rituals and prayers and ceremonies.

And finally there is pantheism, which is the idea that a divine transcended being or god is omnipresent in the created world of matter and therefore resides in every aspect of life in the universe. Pantheism can often be applied to and compared with paganism, in part because they both have animistic beliefs in common.

However, if anything might distinguish a pantheistic tradition from the formal category of animism, it would be the fact that usually pantheists believe in a divine eminence more in terms of an all-present god. And animism doesn't have specific notions regarding the nature of divinity per se. The foundational structure of animism has more to do with primal spirits differentiated by the form of life that they inhabit.

So now we can review animism and related believes. The related beliefs that we talked about were paganism and pantheism. We looked at animism in three different religions--Hinduism, Shinto and Jainism. Perhaps Jainism stood out most because it considers even the microscopic level of life to be invested with some kind of spiritual essence.

And it's expressed in Shinto in various ways that we mentioned and also in Hinduism in terms of animal spirits and sacrificing to gods in particular schools or sects of Hinduism.

And then we distinguished between pantheism and animism in terms of how deity is understood. We noted that in animism there's no specific concept of deity per se, but it has more to do with the spiritual essence that is invested in one particular life form or another.

And then for pantheism, the general idea is that a deity, a supreme deity is omnipresent, in all aspects of life, in all forms and aspects of the material world. And there's no distinction between the two given that that deity is infused.

  • Anima

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

  • Spiritual Essence

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

  • Life Force

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