Animism

Page author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 01/01/2020

Last modified: 21/02/2020

Animism is a term based on the Latin word for 'soul', which frames all religious belief in terms of how it imbues the natural world with agency and personality, but more recent scholarship has developed this understanding to focus more on the relationships and responsibilities which typically define animist perspectives.

Concepts

Table of Contents

Introduction

Animism is a category of religious systems in which human activity is understood within a broader context of persons and their relationships; these persons may include visible beings such as humans, animals, plants, and rocks, and non-visible beings such as spirits or ancestors.

New animism is differentiated from ‘old’ animism by its focus on relational ontologies - ways of being in the world which hinge on relationships, thus taking a more nuanced approach to the subject than historical efforts, which typically centered on the belief in souls which inhabit material bodies and natural phenomena.

The new animism can be viewed as a category of religious belief and behaviour, which emerged as a response to the original definition of animism promoted by E. B. Tylor, which understood animists as believers in a world populated and controlled by souls - this included natural phenomena such as trees, rocks, and storms. This conception of animist belief was not only inaccurate, but it was frequently placed within a conceptual framework of positivism, wherein scientific analysis and reasoning were the most accurate way to understand the world, and therefore animism represented a flawed, childish perspective, in keeping with the intellectual capacities of so-called ‘primitives’ (Bird-David, 1999, p.68).

For Tylor, subjects and objects were two separate categories, and entities belonging to one could not belong to the other - scientific advancement was founded on this understanding of the world as fundamentally inanimate (non-souled). Animists, by contrast, were also trying to make sense of the world, but their scheme of classification did not match the scientific worldview from which Tylor observed, their spirits and sprites were vague and imprecise attempts to explain the phenomena of dreams or the forces at work in the world (Harvey, 2013, pp.134-135).

Animism, therefore, was the label used by Western commentators to cast indigenous people as childlike, mentally underdeveloped, or delirious, and their religious systems as the most basic form of scientific explanation, so thoroughly superceded as a tool for understanding the world that to continue to believe and practice as an animist was antithetical to being a rational, modern individual.

Conversely, the study of new animism takes a different approach, and attempts to understand the local concepts at work in animist cultures directly, without trying to fit those concepts within an external hierarchy of valid epistemology - as a result, new animism is typically viewed as a relational ontology - adherents view the universe as a web of relationships, within which the individual is less sharply differentiated, more integrated with a broader biological and social system. In contrast to cognitive theories, new animism is not a theory of religion, but an example of religious belief and behaviour - however it is noteworthy for the emphasis it places on indigenous perspectives, particularly given the historical context of ‘old’ animism.

From the perspective of new animism, personhood extends beyond the individual, both into the realm of non-human persons, and the realm of personified relationships - a concept that Strathern refers to as the ‘dividual’ (as opposed to the individual) (1988, in Bird-David, 1999, p.68), and which can be seen demonstrated by the davaru, a category of being which Bird-David notes is based on Nayaka perceptions of ‘…mutually responsive changes in things in-the-world and at the same time in themselves … met by the Nayaka as they act in, rather than think about, the world…’ (1999, p.69).

This focus on action, reaction, and relationship marks a significant divergence from the cognitive theorists, who approach religion using a framework centered on the experiences of the individual, and its tendency to perceive other individuals ‘out there’ in the world. Instead, the Nayaka attribute ‘thingness’ not to an isolated individual, but to a flow of action and reaction which may involve elements of the natural world, and/or the Nayaka themselves. Their understanding of personhood does not easily align with the worldview presented by theorists like Boyer, since the language he uses assumes an individual / world dichotomy, however his position regarding the social value of religious ideas certainly does help to explain why relational worldviews might be preserved by small communities, but again this is largely a matter of confirming a mechanism for transmission of memorable ideas, rather than a comprehensive theory addressing the underlying spark of behaviour and experience.

The study of new animism does not directly address the question of what a religion is, but does deal with themes and ideas commonly considered to lie within the domain of religion - e.g. unseen entities, moral responsibility, and supernatural forces. In the case of Hallowell’s study of the Ojibwa, his approach was to study their way of living and being, which naturally involved their understanding of personhood and relationship, but his goal was not to explain the meaning, purpose, or origin of ‘religion’ for all cultures.

In fact, to the extent that Hallowell and subsequent scholars have moved the discussion around animism away from ‘beliefs’ and into ‘ways of being’, they have reflected the shift in academic approaches to the study of religion more broadly, which has attempted to move away from a focus on beliefs and texts, and developed a self-awareness of its own language and concepts.

’…many of the people that we study by means of this category [religion] have no equivalent term or concept whatsoever … in using this Latin-derived term as a technical, comparative category, even the most ardently, sympathetic religious pluralist is, from the outset, deeply embedded in the act of intellectual, if not cultural imperialism or theoretical reduction'

(McCutcheon, 2001, in Urubshurow, 2008, p.10).

This same awareness is less prominent in the cognitive study of religion, where religious ideas, religious experiences, and religious behaviours are typically taken at face value. The study of new animism, by contrast, is grounded in studying the lived experience and perception of groups like the Ojibwa and the Nayaka, rather than developing universalist theories based on shared human biology.

The ethnography of new animism is typically focused on exploring and understanding the perspectives and experiences of those individuals (or dividuals), and there is less of a focus on using these observations to build universalising theories (whether of religion or of the mind). Informants are allowed to speak for themselves, and the conclusions drawn are typically only related to that specific culture or group - as Bird-David notes, a ‘…diversity of animisms exists, each animistic project with its local status, history, and structure…’ (1999, p.79).

References

  • Bird-David, N. (1999) ‘“Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology’, Current Anthropology, vol. 40, Supplement, pp. 67-91 [Online]. Available at https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/200061 (Accessed 18 February 2020).

  • Harvey, G. (2013) ‘From beliefs about spirits to relationships with other species: introducing the new animism’, in A332 Book 3, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp.121-162.

  • Smith, J.Z. (1982) Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

  • Urubshurow, V.K. (2008) Introducing World Religions, Oxon, Routledge.

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