Lies, Damned Lies and Anthropology

Animism is not a religion. It has no sacred texts that all practitioners must use. It has no priesthood or hierarchy other than those local practitioners choose to work within. It has no universal rules; no god or goddess that all must worship, no form or method that must be followed, and no moral law to govern behaviour.

Animism has a set of underlying principles and a toolbox of methods, ideas and stances that can be called on, modified or bypassed depending on the situation and goal. And while it has been defined by anthropologists over the last few centuries as ‘the belief that matter has a soul’, it is a much wider worldview than this, as well as being much more than simply a belief system.

But anthropologists from the West have typically defined animism as a religion.

One that is based around the belief that inanimate matter has a soul, the belief that the universe has a soul, or the belief in ancestor worship. These definitions have created confusion and misconceptions around animism that obscure the reality.

While many forms of animism do involve beliefs around ancestors and the relationships between people and the inanimate world, these beliefs and practices are neither universal, nor required. And even when these beliefs are applicable, they are neither as simple nor as directly translatable into dominant Western concepts and language as anthropological definitions suggest.

Anthropology fails in its understanding of animism because of three factors.

The first of these is that anthropologists are always a product of their own culture and language. When one culture considers itself superior, as Western culture has for centuries, and where it is entwined with dogmatic, religious views, its language is limited by this bias and it is almost impossible for members of that culture to understand the cultures and spiritual systems of other people.

These are the encumbrances that Western anthropologists have brought to the study of animism, both the animism of other cultures and that of their own ancestors. The influence of these limitations can be seen in the language used to define animism; both the words “soul” and “worship” have a long history of religious use in the West, and are inextricable from their specifically Christian past.

Neither word can appropriately be applied to animism when speaking generally, because of the lack of any standard form of belief in animism and because of their very broad meaning in the Western culture. Coming as they do from a religious system that has perpetuated prejudice and misinformation about animist practices for thousands of years also makes their application to animism oppressive.

Animism is not a religion.

This leads us to the second factor in the failure of Western anthropology to define animism. While we tend to, as a culture, ascribe all belief and spirituality to the realm of religion, animism is far older than all organizing systems of belief. While it can be considered their root, and in many religions we can see it’s echoes, animism has totally different goals, methods and principles than any religion.

Anthropologists from mainstream Western cultures are biased to look for religions; for organized practices and consistent rules. But animism has no rules, no hierarchy and no source material. There are no proscribed beliefs everyone must adhere to, but rather principles that are applied depending on the situation.

When you look at animism expecting to see a religion, it’s easy to miss the subtle variations, mundane practices and everyday beliefs that are alien to your experience of religion, and so to discount them. It easier still to see the broad strokes of spiritual practice and thinking, and to ascribe to them a structure that meets your expectation. And it’s likely that you will make damaging assumptions about the meaning behind the practices of people you don’t understand.

Animism varies massively in it’s application.

Everything from folk magic to architecture, art to the way someone wears their hair, can be a part of it’s practice. It is more akin to a culture in itself than a religion. It cannot be defined down to such a simple concept as ancestor or nature worship.

The final factor in how animism has been misunderstood is that animism is fundamentally experiential. It is not a theory or mythology, but a system of active relationship. The views of Western anthropologists have been based largely on observation, and it is impossible to fully grasp these practices without firsthand experience of them.

For example, watching another person practicing trance or ceremony will provide you with very little understanding of the internal experience of these practices. From the outside, the person may be behaving with extraordinary energy, or be very still and silent. They may use highly symbolic, charged objects like masks and weapons, or a drum, or nothing at all. They may act out part of their experience, or be completely self contained.

But the external expressions of these practices tell you very little about how and why the person is using them, or what they gain from them. It’s very easy to dismiss these practices, or on the other hand to exoticise them, when all you have is the external form to judge by. They may all look the same, though they are highly personal, or they may look vastly different, though they share deep principles.

Studying the theory of these practices, again, can’t convey more than the basic form. Practitioners who begin working with these tools are always surprised by how vivid, profound, subtle, difficult or even empty they are – no one can know how each method will feel for them until they engage with them personally.

Direct experience of animism can transcend these barriers.

Those anthropologists who have personally engaged with animistic practices, such as Dr Alberto Villoldo and Micheal Harner have often become practitioners of animism themselves. Animism is, in fact, so deeply rooted in our species’ heritage that contact with it can transcend almost all cultural, religious and psychological barriers. It is both our past, and our unified future. The root of human connection and our one, shared heritage.

Practitioners of animism will all give you different answers of what animism is, why they practice it, and what they call it. For many, it is simply the way they live, as unthinking at breathing. For others, particularly in the West, it’s a hard won and treasured path, sometimes recognised as related to the animism of other cultures, but often not.

Anthropology has a lot to answer for.

For the last few centuries, anthropologist have been encountering the animistic concepts and practices of cultures around the world and attempting to define them for a Western audience, and they’ve largely done it badly. This has led to a very poor understanding of animism in Western culture. These misunderstandings have become so pervasive that many practitioners of animism don’t even realist that that’s what they’re practicing, instead believing that they’re practicing ‘shamanism’, energy medicine or Jungian psychology.

Folklorists, theologians, the religious establishment, psychologists and new ‘spiritual’ movements have some blame to take here as well. Through their biased understanding of the spiritual heritage of the Western peoples, they have perpetuated some of the most damaging myths about spirituality and animism, like the belief that Western people have no animist heritage or that animism is inherently a religion.

But we can reclaim animism; it’s not lost.

When we get past the myths and lies about our indigenous spiritual heritage, we find that it’s right here, waiting for us.