What Is Animism? Definition and Examples

Animism means all things, whether animate or inanimate, contain a spirit or soul. Animism believes in the existence of good and bad souls, and ancient religions often used spells and incantations to ward off evil spirits and invite the company of good ones.

Updated Dec 21, 2020
What Is Animism? Definition and Examples

Animism means all things, whether animate or inanimate, contain a spirit or soul. Animism believes in the existence of good and bad souls, and ancient religions often used spells and incantations to ward off evil spirits and invite the company of good ones.

To receive the good favor of the benevolent spirits and to escape the grasp of harmful ones, humans must, according to animism, worship such beings and offer sacrifices and rituals to appease such spirits. Like the Ancient Greek religions, it was appease or face the consequences. No love, grace, or forgiveness existed in such things.

I was first introduced to the idea of animism when I turned six years old and watched Disney’s rendition of Pocahontas. In one of the songs, the lead character sings about how every rock, every tree, every creature on earth has a life and spirit.

Animism Religions in History

Animism is linked with the existence of idolatry. The idea that a spirit can invade an image of gold, stone, or wood is woven in the fabric of just about every ancient civilization (Daniel 5:4). We see this in the case of many of Israel’s enemies. The Canaanites worshipped Baal (Psalm 106:28). The Assyrians praised Dagon (Judges 16:23), the list of enemies and their practices of animism goes on throughout all 66 books.

Animistic practices included child sacrifice, animal sacrifice, charms, enchantments, among other rituals which dot the Old and New Testament narrative.

One should note that not everyone places animism under the same definition. How one defines it plays an important role in how we see it playing out in the world today. For the sake of clarity, this article defines animism as the worship of false gods, especially the belief in which the so-called god can inhabit something inanimate or animate. 

Animism Today 

Although polytheism and animism seem like an item of the past, animism actually pervades several major religions today. Below, the article will highlight some of these religions. Keep in mind, those who adhere to these belief systems will likely not agree that they fall under the animistic umbrella:

  • Hinduism – AsI first entered a Hindu temple for a college class, I noticed a number of what I perceived to be idols lining the walls. According to my tour guide, Hindus believed spirits could inhabit those inanimate objects, hence why they clothed them and offered sacrifices of food and money.
  • New Age Movements – This spiritual movement which has overtaken the West in the latter half of the 20th century believes in several animistic principles, such as the presence of a spirit in all things. Granted, New Age envelops several movements, and not all may hold as strong an animistic attitude as others.
  • Shinto – The idea of the spirits of the dead affecting the lives of those living falls under the animistic category, a belief in which Shinto, and several other forms of spirituality, holds to be true.

What does the Bible have to say about animism? 

Although God does give all humans a soul, the Bible makes it clear one and only one God exists (Genesis 1:1).

God spoke out frequently against animistic religions in the Old and New Testament, and He grew angry with the Israelites for following in the footsteps of some (Numbers 25:3). Israelites who participated in such practices often faced death. The idea that any power outside of God’s jurisdiction legislating one’s future goes against God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.

If we engage in animistic practices, not only do we disregard God’s power, but we also play with fire.

Demons have a strong influence over such rituals and systems. They have strong ties to the occult, witchcraft, mediums, enchantments, and other items associated with this religion. Anyone who engages with such things invites demonic activity.

Although we acknowledge spiritual forces can interact in our every day lives, we need to understand God created everything in and outside of the earth. Nothing can escape His power, and nothing can overpower Him. Unlike animists, we don’t have to appease inanimate objects to avoid harm coming our way. We can trust in a God who offers grace to sinners and who exercises power over all things. Yes, even every rock, tree, and creature Pocahontas sang about.

Why should we care about animism?

Animism has a way of creeping into pop culture, whether we realize it or not. In the movie Pocahontas, the main character sings about how every living creature contains a spirit. Even if we don't know someone who practices animism, New Age and Eastern religions have found ways to weave these ideas into the very fabric of our society. If we don't know about the other worldviews that surround us, we may fall prey to the enemy.

Satan prowls like a roaring lion. Prowls means sneaks, slinks. We don't see him coming unless he's about to pounce.

But we also know that Satan has operated the same way since the beginning of time, and he often uses the same bag of tricks. Animism has existed throughout history, and it rears its ugly head every so often. We should know about it because a lack of knowledge prevents us from removing any animistic ideas in our own lives.

Secondly, we should know about animism because it's important that we don't create straw man figures out of other religions. When we witness to people who have different worldviews, we should understand why they believe what they believe. Nothing can turn off someone more to a theology conversation if you present ignorant ideas about what they believe. Like Paul and the statue to the unknown god, we can use shared ideas as a diving off point when it comes to talking about God.

Finally, we need to remember that our God is one. Although demons can exercise a certain amount of power, they pale in comparison is an understatement when placed against the power of our Almighty God. We know that our God is not confined by wood, stone, or gold. He is immaterial.

Animism has many variant forms, and if we don't watch vigilantly, it may find its way into our vernacular. My best suggestion for readers is to analyze as much as you can about these religions. Then compare what they say with what the Bible says and see how hopeful the message of the Gospel is by comparison. Satan often uses the same tricks in history because he knows that people will fall for him. Ask God for discernment and the right words to say when you encounter someone who believes in animism.

Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a recent graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 300 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 2,700+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog, which receives 63,000+ monthly hits. Her modern-day Daniel, “Blaze,” (Illuminate YA) just released. Find out more about her here.

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