Mon | Oct 15, 2018

Animism: An old religion for modern times

Published:Sunday | December 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Contributed A Shaman belonging to the Huichol people of Mexico
Contributed A Hupa woman
File Animism has taken the concept of love to an unfathomable level where plants, brooks, trees, valleys, rivers, mountains, forests, and animals are all imbued with a life force,

"The land is sacred. These words are at the core of your being. The land is our mother, the rivers our blood. Take our land away and we die. That is, the Indian in us dies."

- Mary Brave Bird

"The Great Spirit is in all things: He is in the air we breathe. The Great Spirit is our father, but the earth is our mother. She nourishes us; that which we put into the ground she returns to us."

- Big Thunder (Bedagi) Wabanaki Algonquin

Somewhere along the way, the original purpose of religion was derailed, polluted, and subject to countless interpretations. Beliefs were pitted against each other in an orgy of unbending sophistry. The result has, and will always be, strife and sectarianism, fuelled by religious dogma.

For sure, theologians have a lot of explaining to do. To their credit, though, apologists have argued that religion is not solely responsible for major conflicts and human disasters, directing us to Bolshevism, Nazism and the Cambodian killing fields, said to be the handiwork of atheists.

While we can hardly debunk this argument, it is equally difficult to dismiss the destructive lessons of institutionalised religion. It has promoted man as a custodian over nature with foreboding results. In Genesis 1:26, we read: "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth'."

unnerving hubris

But this mandate has led to an unnerving hubris, and a warped, self-serving philosophy that threatens the planet. Maybe, our assault on nature began with this misguided belief in a divinely mandated authority over our environment. This, according to many, will lead to dire consequences.

Scriptures predicting an inevitable implosion are cited. For example, it is inscribed in the Koran, chapter 99 (The Earthquake), "And when the Earth throws out its burdens, and man cries (distressed): `What is the matter with her (nature)?' That day it will declare its information (about all that happened over it of good or evil)."

Now, let's for a moment imagine the earliest religion, divorced from precepts and all forms of rigidity and hierarchy. Imagine a time when religion was not used to justify the subjugation, rape and control of peoples, cultures and the environment with swords and sacred texts. A period free from so-called scholars who devised tomes of jurisprudence that strangle our natural expression of spirituality and responsibility to self and community.


Those were the days when animists held court, only to be later vilified, killed or converted by theologians bent on competing for souls. Animists, we are told, are heathens and pagans, steeped in superstition; the worshippers of trees and stones.

Today, with 'kinder', impartial researchers, animism is better understood and appreciated. Etymologists agree that animist is a derivative of animus or soul. A life force that permeates everything as displayed in the kinetic, esoteric and shamanic ceremonies of Native Indians and other indigenous peoples.

According to notable anthropologist, E.B. Taylor, animist beliefs form the basis of every religion today. He writes, "In upholding the principle that the world is a giant womb of interconnected parts, animism has taken the concept of love to an unfathomable level where plants, brooks, trees, valleys, rivers, mountains, forests, and animals are all imbued with a life force, a spirit similar to what resides in us."

Animists have always walked that fine line between reverence and worship of nature. Regrettably, we have misunderstood their ritualistic interplay with their surroundings, and condemned their practice as ungodly. Author Peter Occhiogrosso once said that: "(Animists) have less need to destroy or reshape the world as more technologically developed countries do. The goal could be described as achieving harmony in the personal, social and economic realms."

Ron Barton develops this thesis in The Sacred. His work on Native American spirituality is provocatively insightful. He argues that: "Animism is nature-based, growing out of a strong sense of interrelation with the earth, shared communal ritual and sacred traditions that are accompanied by ethics and morals."

That said, we must be mindful that the core principles of animism cannot be prescribed by law. It must be nurtured, cultivated over time, until it becomes almost organic. Only then can an unadulterated dialogue between humankind, nature and the Great Spirit truly take place. Soon, and hopefully not too late, we will realise that animism is a far more constructive and healing philosophy than we ever cared to imagine.

n Dr Ashby is a social critic and president of Global Interfaith Council Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby