Things We Wish We Knew: Animism

Animism refers broadly to the varieties of ‘nature religion’ of the world’s Indigenous peoples. But animism is not a religion – what even is a religion? In our materialist and scientific age, any assertion of a belief or knowledge in the non-material world is considered ‘religious’, yet religion was and is associated specifically with social and political phenonema; referring more to faith-based ideology that binds a community together (Morreal & Sonn, 2013).

There is still no scholarly consensus on what religion actually ‘is’, for it only emerged as a concept in the 1600s in the Enlightenment period as a distinction from ‘science’ (Nongbri, 2003). In the case of animism and in the Indigenous contexts it is found, that kind of division doesn’t exist. Anthropological study of it, due to confusions of it as a ‘religion’, has thus been fraught with contention. But can it be a religion? Maybe, but there is still something missing.

The first anthropological use of the term was by Edward Tylor, who used it to denote the various practices of non-Western Indigenous peoples who seemed to share the belief that everything in the world was alive and possessed a soul (Tylor, 1871). Anima means ‘soul, breath, or life’ in Latin; it is where we get the term animal (from animalis, ‘possessing life/soul’) and the word animation (the action of ‘imparting life’).

Tylor therefore chose animism against the earlier-proposed term spiritualism, because of the potential confusion with the then popular Western occult practice of Spiritualism, with its ouija boards and séances – the Victorian precursor to New Ageism. Tylor spent some time with them, too – remarking how it seemed to be a ‘survival and revival of savage thought’ (Bird-David, 1999). Check out Abbie’s post about Spiritualism here!

The word is thus an entirely anthropological construct, a theory proposed by Tylor to explain something he didn’t understand, and it is perhaps the first term, or neologism, to be coined in the discipline of anthropology in general. It is therefore surely one of the most important, precisely because it can help us understand how anthropology has come to understand Indigenous people, and how little this has changed in the 150 odd-years since.

According to anthropology and our scholarly categories, perhaps until recent times, every belief system that isn’t European scientific rationality, or isn’t part of or associated to some extent with, the world’s designated ‘major religions’, is said to be animism of some kind or another. The reason this logic seems incomplete is because it is.

Surely all the world’s indigenous peoples don’t believe the same thing about reality? But, if we really are all the same inside, wouldn’t it make sense that there are connections across cultures? There are, and the connections and categories shared between many Indigenous peoples designate the theory of animist ontology today, ever since the work of Tylor.

That everything has a soul, that humans-as-persons co-exist in a living world with other non-human persons, that a person’s consciousness transforms into something immaterial after death. That ghosts exist, that spirits exist, that it’s possible to be possessed by a malevolent spirit, to be cursed by someone with malevolent intent, and basically every other ghost story and supernatural and/or paranormal idea you can think of. These things are the bread and butter of animism, and despite great cultural distinctiveness and difference everywhere, these same patterns of belief and practice are found all over the world.

If we’re not going to be racist, then how can we dismiss these ideas outright, when they form the bedrock of so many cultural traditions? How can we accept animist ontology if it seems so irrational to our categories? These are the questions that have troubled anthropology since Tylor and, in essence, since the beginning of the Colonial encounter.

Tylor, like James Frazer and many others after him, was an evolutionist – he firmly believed in the idea that this animism was an evolutionary precursor to monotheistic religion and scientific rationality, which equated to the truism of pre-20th century European thought; that all Indigenous peoples were ‘children’ in the face of ‘adult’ Europeans.

Tylor thus dismissed animism as delusional, and this remained relatively unchanged in anthropology, despite many sociological and rational explanations for it (Durkheim, 1912; Evans-Pritchard, 1937) for decades. Hallowell (1960) revived, to some degree, a consideration of animism with a study of Canadian Aboriginal Ojibwa ontologies, while Levy-Strauss transformed anthropology and philosophy alike forever in the 1950s with a generalised theory of Structuralism, as a result of fieldwork in the Amazon basin. The variety of words that emerged in these studies, following Structuralism particularly; shamanism, totemism, spiritism, spiritualism; all essentially relate to the broad category of animism, or animic ontology (Sahlins, 2014).

In the past two decades in anthropology, animism studies has seen a revival. With the discipline’s increasingly decolonial impetus, new anthropological work is now filling in huge gaps in our knowledge of the metaphysics of the non-Western world (Bird-David, 1999; Viveiros de Castro, 1998; Descola, 2013).

According to the recent work of Descola and Viveiros de Castro (of which there is some dispute between), one of the many things that can be said about animistic beliefs is the striking reversal they pose to many of ‘our’ society’s core concepts of modernity, such as the agency, intelligence and personhood afforded to things in the natural world. Where modern capitalist civilisation and the values of the monotheistic tradition uphold humanity’s power and entitlement over nature (nature our object to do with what we will), animism holds the flattening of such hierarchies; we are the object of nature.

Where modernity holds the material nature of reality, animism holds the immaterial. Where modernity holds the unitary and cold image of the natural world, animism holds it to be multiplicitous and alive. Where modernity holds the plural and relative nature of human culture and the human mind, animism holds the unity of it (see Viveiros de Castro’s concept of multinaturalism, 2013). Where modernity holds that the source of human consciousness is the physical world, the physical body and the brain, animism holds that the source of the physical world and the physical body is consciousness .

Anthropology, like all scholastic pursuits, is rooted in post-Enlightenment scientific rationality. The anthropology of animism, as a pursuit to understand the nature of this seeming cosmological reversal, infers a natural encounter with radical alterity (Hage, 2013); it offers a unique opportunity to challenge our categories. Both epistemological; how it is that, through history, modern civilisation has constructed knowledge about the natural world and the self, and ontological; how it is that we experience and embody the world around us. As our culture progresses and we attempt to move towards an age of increasing justice, harmony, co-existence, and biological, cosmopolitan peace – perhaps we all too, shall become animists.


Bird‐David, N. (1999) ‘”Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology’, in Current Anthropology. 40 (S1) Special Issue Culture, February 1999, S67-S91. The University of Chicago Press.

Descola, P. (2013) Beyond Nature and Culture. University of Chicago Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1937) Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford University Press.

Hage, G. (2012) Critical anthropological thought and the radical political imaginary today, in Critique of Anthropology 32 (3) 285–308. Philadelphia: Sage.

Hallowell, A. I. (1960) ‘Ojibwa Ontology: Behaviour and World View’, in Culture and History, ed. Diamond, S. New York: Colombia University Press

Morreall, J. & Sonn, T. (2013) ‘Myth 1: All Societies Have Religions’, in 50 Great Myths of Religion, 2–17 . New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nongbri, B. (2013) Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. Yale University Press. 

Tylor, E. (1871) Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom Vols 1&2. London: John Murray.

Viveiros de Castro, E (1998) ‘Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism’, in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 4 (3) (September, 1998), 469-488.

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