Religion is defined as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” or “a particular system of faith and worship”.*
The word religion is relatively modern. It was first used by the Romans, with the meaning of an obligation or duty to the gods and the strict observance of Roman religious laws. It came to mean the life led under Christian monastic vows in Middle English, being inherited by Roman Christianity from the earlier, pagan, Roman belief system.
As we all know, Roman Christianity spread throughout Europe, decimating and appropriating indigenous European beliefs and animism, before replicating itself around the world like a virus through Roman-romanticising empire building, collonialism and economic conquest.
As such, it’s not appropriate to apply the word religion to practices and concepts outside of modern Western experience, and most certainly not appropriate to backdate it’s use into our ancient past, to the practices and spiritual experiences of our distant European ancestors.
To apply religion in this way is a function of collonialism.
The idea that we can define and restrict the language around practices, beliefs, experiences and thoughts of other peoples, other cultures – even our own ancestors. This colonial attitude stems from an arrogance and racism that believes modern Western culture is more important or better, historically, than those of other places and times.
Our ancestors didn’t share this same concept of religion, and neither do many other cultures around the world today, particularly endangered, indigenous cultures like the Aboriginals of Australia and the remaining Native American tribes. To force the spiritual and world-views of these non-Western cultures into a Western concept and language is another way that oppression is perpetuated. In a way, it is also an oppression of ourselves; an oppression that has been perpetuated for millennia, beginning initially with our own ancestors.
Animism, therefore, doesn’t fit the definition of the word religion.
Practicing animists don’t have to believe in or honour, worship or acknowledge any God or Gods; practice can be humanistic, pagan, monotheistic or change depending on the situation. Many animists the world over experience some form of great spiritual being or awareness, but just as many others do not. There are no rules in animism.
And because there are no rules, there is no overarching system of animist practice. There are no universal animist laws, practices, beliefs, authorities, sources, organisations or experiences; animism changes over time and within space, and even within an individual depending on need. This fluidity and openness means that animism cannot be called a system: “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method“.*
But if it’s not a religion, what is animism?
Animism is fluid, personal and contextual; it’s practice and experience is dependent on the people, time, place and intent of it’s use. It can appear similiar to Western religions, or folk magic, or philosophy, or mysticism, or art, or any number of other ways that people make sense of the world.
Where it is universal is it’s adaptability. Animism is consistently open to change and need. Like other fundamental expressions of humanity, it’s power is in it’s personal and direct usage. Animism is a fundamental facet of human nature, unlike any other, larger than any language, culture or category.