Defining an Animistic Worldview

Presented at the Symposium "Distinctively Christian, Distinctly Mongolian" in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on March 11, 2003

By Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen

I begin this description of animistic worldviews with some trepidation.  I acknowledge that views about animism (and the Christian approach to animism) vary greatly.  Some have not been trained to see animistic realities.  They merely conclude it is something that old people do.  Others see animism from a secular perspective and discount it as superstition.  The encounter between Christianity and animism, therefore, takes the form of ridicule.  A few Christian leaders emphasize power so much that they implicitly incorporate animistic elements into Christian thinking and practice.  Their encounter with animism is paradoxically more animistic than Christian.

Many (especially Western missionaries and Westernized Christian leaders) know little of animism and disregard it in the discussion of Christian ministry.  They are oblivious to the dilemmas of animists who are on a journey to come to Christ.  Many others understand the issues to some degree, desire to learn more, but have never had the opportunity.  This presentation will be especially meaningful to them.

The purpose of this lecture is to describe five presuppositions of an animistic worldview, and based upon understanding these presuppositions, define animism.  Understanding animism will then enable us to more effectively minister in animistic contexts.

Presuppositions of an Animistic Worldview

The Seen is Related to the Unseen

First, animists assume that the seen world is related to the unseen world.  An interaction exists between the divine and the human, the sacred and the profane, the holy and the secular.  The influences of God, gods, spirits, and ancestors affect the living.  Humans are thought to be controlled by spiritual forces, whether they are ancestors or ghosts, gods or spirits, witchcraft or sorcery, and curses or the evil eye.  They in turn seek to appease the powers through sacrifices and libations, to access power to cope with evil through ritual, and to protect themselves through charms and amulets.

Christians, shaped by Western education and philosophy, are usually unable to perceive the spiritual world.  They divide reality into two big slices: the natural and the supernatural--the secular and spiritual.  This division can be traced all the back to Thomas Aquinas (1215-1274).  Based upon Aristotelian thought, Aquinas differentiated nature and grace. "Grace" was the higher realm of God, heaven, and the unseen.  "Nature" was the lower realm of the created, the earthly, and the visible.

REALM                                               God
OF GRACE                                         Heaven
The unseen

REALM                                               The created
OF NATURE                                       The earthly
The visible

Figure 1:  Aquinas' Model of Grace and Nature

Over a period of time the realm of nature became autonomous from the higher realm and began to consume it.  "Enlightenment" thinking amplified this process by emphasizing the superiority of human reason and negating (or in some cases limiting) the influence of the spiritual realm upon life.  Francis Schaeffer writes, "It is destructive when nature is made autonomous.  As soon as one accepts the concept of an autonomous realm, one finds that the lower element begins to eat up the higher" (Schaeffer 1968, 209-214).

Contemporary Western cultures still reflects the two-tiered view of reality that segments the natural and supernatural.  Spiritual beings are relegated to the realm of the supernatural where they can only be perceived by miracles and visions.  Humans are thought to dwell in the natural realm where they have little contact with spiritual beings or forces.  Few, if any, spiritual beings and impersonal forces are thought to exist in the world. This compartmentalization of the natural and the supernatural is diagramed as follows:

SUPERNATURAL                  Angels                          Perceived by miracles
REALM                                   Demons                                    and visions
God                              People act by faith.

NATURAL                              Man                             Perceived by sight and
REALM                                   The Church                              experience
Science                         People act by knowledge.
The World

Figure 2The Western Compartmentalization of the Natural and Supernatural
(Adapted from Hiebert 1983)

Hiebert, in an insightful article entitled "The Flaw of the Excluded Middle" (1982, 35-47), suggests that Western culture has neglected the realm of this-worldly spiritual beings and forces which exists between the natural and the supernatural.  Belief in this middle realm began to wane during the Age of Enlightenment due to "the secularization of science and the mystification of religion" (Hiebert 1982, 43).  Reflecting their Western heritage, many missionaries have traditionally excluded this middle realm.  They,  consequently, are ill-prepared to communicate the gospel in animistic contexts where this realm is emphasized.  Hiebert testifies, "As a scientist I had been trained to deal with the empirical world in naturalistic terms.  As a theologian, I was taught to answer ultimate questions in theistic terms.  For me the middle zone did not really exist" (1982, 43). When Hiebert entered an Indian context where rakasas ("evil spirits") and ancestors were known to impact life and had to be manipulated and controlled, he had no answers to questions of the middle realm (1982, 43).  Peter O'Brien recounts a similar experience.  His rethinking of the nature of principalities and powers began as he taught at a theological seminary in Asia.  He found that his students considered Paul's perception of the powers "perfectly intelligible in their own cultural contexts," but they critically objected to the Western commentaries which failed "to take seriously the accounts about demons, exorcism, and Christ's defeat of them" (O'Brien 1984, 130).  Thus while those of an animistic heritage emphasize the excluded middle, missionaries sent to teach them have little conception of this realm.

Animists do not make the typical Western dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural.  This is true even in North American animistic contexts.  For example, a foundational concept of the New Age movement is that the physical world and the spiritual world are "interrelated, interdependent, and interpenetrating" (Groothuis 1986, 18-20).   Tina Lucia, a New Age therapist living in Stone Mountain, Georgia, uses crystals for healing purposes because "physical problems are manifestations of spiritual problems" (Friedrich 1987, 64).  John Taylor, writing about an African context, says, "No distinction can be made between sacred and secular, between natural and supernatural, for Nature, Man and the Unseen are inseparably involved in one another in a total community" (1963, 64).  In animistic contexts no distinction can be made between the natural and the supernatural. "Whatever happens in the physical world has its spiritual coordinates . . . . Everything man is, does, handles, projects, and interacts with is interpenetrated with the spiritual" (Steyne 1989, 39).

Life is Interconnected

Second, animists believe that all of life is interconnected.  People are intimately linked to their families, some of whom are living and some who have already passed into the spiritual realm.  They are also connected to the spiritual world: The ambivalent yearnings of gods and spirits impact the living.  Animists feel a connectedness with nature:  The stars, planets, and moon are thought to affect earthly events.  The natural realm is so related to the human realm that practitioners divine current and future events by analyzing what animals are doing or by sacrificing animals and analyzing their livers, entrails, or stomachs.  Many animists also believe that they are connected with other human beings.  They are able to access the thoughts of other human beings through Extra Sensory Perception (ESP) or some other types of thought transfers.

These interconnections of life appear more overtly during cultural rituals (birth rites, coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, and funerals) than at any other times.  For example, traditional Kipsigis living in Kenya believe that the spirits of the dead will eventually be called back to live in the bodies of another generation. This is not obvious unless the missionary sees and hears what occurs at traditional burial ceremonies.  When a father dies, his eldest son throws crabgrass into the grave as a parting blessing and verbally bids his father farewell. "Go safely," he says. "We will soon call you to come back to us."   This calling back of the dead into life is done when a new child is born. Such an explicit statement of a cyclical worldview is seldom heard except at times of death and birth.  The traditional Kipsigis hope is this-worldly--to be reborn into the present world.  These animistic perspectives of life become apparent to the identificational missionary during death and funeral rites.  Without understanding these motifs, the missionary lives in a cultural void.

Power is Sought to Control Life

Third, animists seek power to control the affairs of everyday life. The essence of Animism is power--power of the ancestor to control those of his lineage, power of an evil eye to kill a newborn or ruin a harvest, power of planets to affect earthly destiny, power of the demonic to possess a spiritist, power of magic to control human events, power of impersonal forces to heal a child or make a person wealthy.  Animism's "foundation is based in power and in power personalities" (Kamps 1986, 5).

This power can be used malevolently to harm one's enemy or benevolently to enable a barren wife to give birth to a child.  When an individual secretly uses spiritual power, the intent is almost always malevolent--meant to cause suffering.  The public use of spiritual power by recognized leaders of a society is usually benevolent, discovering who has brought evil upon the society.  Power might also be classified as ambivalent--used to either help or hinder depending on the disposition of the possessor.  Whether spiritual power is used negatively, positively, or ambivalently, its existence is never questioned by the animist.

Animists' relationships with spiritual beings is viewed in terms of power.  Spiritual beings are propitiated, coerced, and placated because they have power.  Magic ritual is employed because of its power to influence impersonal spiritual forces and personal spiritual beings.  Shamans reveal to the living the source of powers which impact their lives. Various methodologies of divination are employed to determine what power is causing misfortune or illness and what other power(s) must be employed to counter such negative power.  Animism is a power religion based upon manipulation and coercion of spiritual powers.

Christians of an animistic heritage must not view God’s power as something to be manipulated and coerced.  They have been called into a loving, covenant relationship with creator God.  Within this covenant relationship Christians perceive that not only is God's power quantitatively greater than Satan's, but its quality also has a different nature.   Satan's power is debasing--contorting the disobedient who follow the cravings of their own sinful nature (Eph. 2:3).  God's power, rooted in his great love, raises believers above these earthly cravings into heavenly realms (Eph. 2:4-6).  Not only is God's power quantitatively greater than Satan's, the quality is also different.

Controlling Powers are Determined by Divination

Four, animists seek to determine by divination what powers and forces are influencing their lives.   Marta, a Bolivian Christian living in La Paz, was frightened.  She was feeling sick and steadily losing weight. Soon after doctors indicated that nothing was wrong, a friend half-jokingly commented, "Somebody must have put a spell on you."  Marta casually mentioned this to her mother, a Sunday school superintendent and faithful church member, never imagining that her mother would take the comment seriously.  Her mother approached a curandero, a shaman who divines the source of problems, prescribes solutions, and sometimes casts spells.  The curandero divined Marta's problem by casting coca leaves and analyzing their pattern.  Her illness, the curandero said, was caused by the jealously of her husband's former girlfriend, who had cast a spell on her.  The curandero prescribed that a live guinea pig be rubbed over Marta's body to absorb the spell. This pig would then be taken to the girlfriend's town and burned. This rite would both free Marta from the spell and kill the other woman (Koop 1987, 6).  Even faithful Christians in animistic contexts are tempted to turn to divination during times of crises.

Divination, as illustrated in the story of Marta, is the decision-making process by which animists determine the impact of personal and impersonal powers upon themselves. Divination is a method for "bringing into the open what is hidden or unknown" to make everyday decisions of life (Turner 1981, 29).  This discovery of the unknown is a twofold process.  First, animists seek to discover the source of an immediate, everyday problem. In the case of Marta the casting and reading of coca leaves was the methodology for discovering the cause of her illness.  Second, animists seek to determine an appropriate human response based on the knowledge gained in the initial stage of divination.  In the case of Marta the rubbing of a live guinea pig over her body and burning it in the place where the enemy lived inverted the power, turning it around to kill the one who initiated it.

Diviners use innumerable and varied types of methods to determine the will of spiritual powers. They check omens, use astrology, divine by technique, employ ordeals, rely on guidance from the dead, interpret dreams and visions, and divine while possessed.  These types of divination are based on the conception that the universe functions harmoniously as an organism.  The stars of the heavens, the signs of nature, the dreams of the night, and the wishes of spiritual beings are all interrelated and connected to events which occur in the world. What happens to one part of the organism is reflected in its other parts.  The astrologist reads signs of the heavens to determine the workings of the world.  He believes that these elements work together harmoniously in an interconnected world.

The motivation that leads animists to perform divination is opposed to the very nature of God.  God is love, and this love leads him to personally relate to humanity.  While prayerful supplication affects his working, divination implies a desire to force deity, an impatience to look behind the curtain of time, a disbelief in God's sovereignty.  It is an attempt to manipulate the spiritual forces of God's world to learn its secrets and manipulate them for personal benefit.  These motivations, based on greedy self-benefit, are alien to the mind of God. While the Christian way is relational, the animistic way is manipulative.

Sources of Evil are Anxiously Sought

Five, animists are concerned about what powers have or will in the future cause evil in their lives. They consequently live in fear.  They believe that only by use of the powers can they be successful. They desperately search for information to ward off evil and manipulate the powers to do their bidding.  They may appease the spirits before and after harvest, seek the spirit world to insure success before the marriage of their daughter, determine how the planets and stars will be arranged on the day of an important election, or dress their male child like a girl so that he might not be injured by the evil eye of a jealous neighbor.

Animists are never completely confident that all powers are lined up on their side. When confronted with unexpected evil, they typically ask questions like "Who has caused this affliction to come upon us?  Why has it happened to our family at this particular time? What power is troubling us?  Has this been caused by an ancestor?  By some spirit?  By witchcraft?  By the evil eye?  By the stars?  Who can help us discover the cause and source of this evil?"

Benevolent animistic specialists are consulted to determine the cause of the affliction and prescribe remedies.  It might be determined that malevolent practitioners have brought the evil upon those afflicted.  Sometimes malevolent practitioners, despised and feared in every animistic society, are consulted to defeat enemies.

These characteristics will all appear in some form in our definition of animism.

Defining Animism

The term animism originally meant "belief in spiritual beings.”  Edward Tylor, considered the father of the discipline Anthropology, wrote, "Animism, in its full development, includes the belief in souls and in a future state, in controlling deities and subordinate spirits, . . . resulting in some kind of active worship" (1970b, 11).  These spirits include both those of living ancestors who are "capable of continued existence" after death and "other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities" (Tylor 1970b, 10). Through his cultural studies in Melanesia R.H. Codrington discovered beliefs in impersonal spiritual forces (1891).  It soon became clear in both anthropological study and missionary ministry that no clear differentiation can be made between personal spiritual beings and impersonal forces.  These powers are thought to exist side by side and interact with each other. For example, in Folk IslamAnchor[1] it is often impossible to distinguish between misfortunes attributed to jinn (personal spiritual beings) and to those attributed to the evil eye (an impersonal spiritual force). The jinn are frequently thought to make use of the evil eye for their own purposes (Westermarck 1933, 19).  In many cultures magic, an impersonal spiritual power is used to force spirits to act.  Frequently practitioners of animistic beliefs are possessed by spirits or receive information from spirits to determine what personal or impersonal spiritual powers are causing sickness or catastrophe.

In most world cultures personal spiritual beings exist side by side with impersonal spiritual forces and even interact with each other.  Therefore, a broader definition of Animism is needed—one that acknowledges that impersonal and personal spiritual powers cannot be easily segmented.

Animism then can be defined as "the belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and that humans, consequently, must discover what beings and forces are impacting them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power." We will now discuss the various components of this definition.

Animism is a belief system through which reality is perceived. The seen world is related to the unseen.  Personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces are everywhere thought to be shaping what happens in the animists' world.  Animists live in continual fear of these powers.

Beings and forces are thought to exist side-by-side in animistic contexts.  Beings are personal spirits that include God, gods, ancestors, ghosts, totemic spirits, nature spirits, angels, demons, and Satan.  Forcesare impersonal powers.  They include the power behind the use of magic, astrology, witchcraft, evil eye, and other related phenomena. Some cultures have broad, descriptive terms for this power, like mana in Melanesia, toh in parts of Indonesia, and baraka in the Muslim world.  Since personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces interact in animistic cultures, they must be studied in relation to one another.

Because the essence of animism is power, this word is central to the definition.  Animists believe in the power of the ancestor to control those of his lineage, the power of an evil eye to kill a newborn or ruin a harvest, the power of planets to affect earthly destiny, the power of the demonic to possess a spiritist, the power of magic to control human events, and the power of impersonal forces to heal a child or make a person wealthy.

The phrase "discovering what beings and forces are impacting life" defines the role of divination in the life of the animist.  The animist lives in fearful of the spiritual powers that might bring evil upon his life. He believes that only by use of the powers can he be successful.  He desperately searches for information to ward off evil and manipulate the powers to do his bidding.

The phrases "to determine future action" and "to manipulate their power" designate the two primary functions of animism.  Animists first determine what spiritual beings and forces are impacting them through some sort of divination and then seek to manipulate these powers by appeasement or ritual to do their will.

Understanding Spiritism in Brazil will help us see these concepts within a specific cultural context.

An Illustration:  Gods and Spirits in Brazil

Although Brazil is officially a Catholic nation, it has been called "the land where spirits thrive" (Maust 1985, 48).  In fact, more Brazilians participate in spiritistic rituals than go to mass (Nielson 1988, 94).  Spiritism is a new religion derived both consciously and unconsciously from the blending of many different heritages of Brazilian thought and culture.  Early Portugese settlers, although nominally Catholic, were animistic. Their worship "centered on a cult of the saints, promises, communications with the dead . . . largely to the exclusion of doctrinal matters and the sacraments" (Bruneau 1982, 24). Religious reforms which touched other parts of the European continent had little influence upon the Christo-pagan Catholicism of Portugal. African slaves added another element to Brazilian spiritism.  These slaves were forced to outwardly embrace Catholicism, but the gods that they from Africa became intertwined with this new religion.  They thought that if their African gods could not help in a certain situation, maybe the other deities could be induced to act.  In time the West African gods became interchangeable with Catholic deities (St. Clair 1971, 62).Anchor[2] Brazilian Spiritism was also influenced by the writings of Denizard Rivail, a French doctor who claimed to be the reincarnation of the Druid Allan Kardec. A high class Spiritism, called Kardecism and characterized by "reincarnation, seances, healings, and enough Christian terminology to confuse people" (Maust 1985, 49), developed from this French influence upon Brazil. Finally, Brazilian Spiritism was also influenced by the animistic beliefs of indigenous Indians.

This merging of Catholic, African, French, and Indian heritages of animism has led to new forms of Spiritism in Brazil.  For example, Umbanda, the largest of the Spiritist groups, has effectively syncretized animistic belief in spiritual beings to fit the Brazilian context.  Zelio de Moraes, Umbanda's founder, divined solutions to people's problems while possessed by the spirit of a Brazilian half-breed named Caboclo of the Seven Crossroads.  Caboclo was half-Indian and half-African. Because of his mixed breeding, he communicated directly with the local Indian spirits who once inhabited the land and the African spirits of Condomble.  Brazilians understood this mixing of blood.  Caboclo was one of them.  As a half-breed, he could understand their nation and their problems. Caboclo told Zelio that neither Kardecism nor Condomble was right.  He began to dictate a new set of rules incorporating parts of Kardecism, Condomble, and Catholicism with other distinctive elements into a new whole (St. Clair 1971, 136-137).  Like Caboclo and the nation of Brazil, Umbanda seeks to unify a people of many different heritages by integrating animistic beliefs from each tradition.

Spiritism, whatever its distinctive form, is based on the belief that humans can contact spirits and influence them to act on their behalf.  Hundreds of believers come to spiritist centers to seek guidance from spirit-gods. During an orunko ceremony, the spirit-gods come down and "ride" the mediums, who are considered the cavalos ("horses") of the spirit-gods.  Through the mediums these gods divine solutions to all types of human problems:  A woman estranged from her lover seeks the cause of the disrupted relationship and the course of action to bring reconciliation; the sick yearn to know what has caused the illness and how health can be restored; and the businessman seeks the reason his business has fallen apart and how it might be rejuvenated.

Condomble, Kardecism, and Umbanda are distinct contextualizations of animistic beliefs drawn from various cultural streams.  Christians generally classify these pagan gods as demonic forces dressed up in contemporary garments.


These basic understandings of animism can only help us to more effectively minister in animistic contexts.  The following lectures will continue this discussion:  How should the Gospel be distinctively communicated in animistic contexts? How should Christians define power?  Why are they receptive when the Gospel is distinctively presented?   To what degree has Western cultural baggage hindered us from effectively communicating a distinctive Christian message in animistic contexts?

Works Cited

Bruneau, Thomas C. 1982.  The Church in Brazil --The Politics of Religion.  Austin:
University of Texas Press.

Friedrich, Otto. 1987.  New Age harmonies.  Time, 7 December, 62-72.

Groothuis, Douglas R. 1986.  Unmasking the New Age.  Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity.

Hiebert, Paul.  1982.  The flaw of the excluded middle.  Missiology 10 (January):35-47.

Kamps, Timothy James. 1986.  The biblical forms and elements of power encounter.  Master's thesis, Columbia Graduate School of Bible and Missions, Columbia, S.C.

Maust, John. 1985.  The land where spirits thrive.  Christianity Today (13 December): 48-50.

Nielson, Niels C. 1988.  Umbanda in Brazil.  In Religions of the World, 94-99.  New York:  St. Martin's.

O'Brien, P.T. 1984.  Principalities and powers:  Opponents of the church.  In Biblical Interpretation and the Church, ed. D.A. Carson, 110-50.  Nashville:   Thomas Nelson.

St. Clair, David.  1971.  Drum and Candle.  New York:  Bell.

Steyne, Philip M. 1989.  Gods of Power.  Houston:  Touch Publications.

Taylor, John V. 1963.  The Primal Vision.  London:  SCM.

Turner, Victor W.  1981.  The Drums of Affliction.  London:  Hutchinson.

Tylor, Edward.  1970.  Religion in Primitive Culture (Primitive Culture, Part 2).  London:  John Murray, 1958.  Reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith.

Westermarck, Edward.  1933.  Pagan Survivals in Mahammedan Civilization.  London:  Macmillan.

Anchor[1] I use the phrase folk religions in a similar yet different way than the term animism.  Folk religions synthesize popular beliefs and practices, frequently animistic in nature, that are developed within cultures to handle every day problems with the major world religion(s).   In many contexts folk religions co-exist within world religions by syncretizing animistic beliefs with those of the religion.  In tribal contexts (where people understand themselves to live in terms of an extended family, a clan, and a tribe having a distinct cultural heritage) folk religion sometimes exists outside the fold of a major world religious tradition.

Anchor[2] Olodumare, the supreme Yoruban god, was transformed into Jehovah.  The name of Obatala, Olodumare's chief subordinate also known as Orixala among the Yorubas, was shortened in Brazil to Oxala and became Jesus Christ. Shango, the Yoruban god of thunder, had the spelling of his name changed to Xango and became the personification of John the Baptist and St. Jerome. Other West African gods also experienced a name change and were merged into the same categories as Catholic deities (St. Clair 1971, 62). This African heritage is reflected in Condomble, the form of Spiritism most prevalent in the Brazilian state of Bahia.  Some animistic practices, which are disappearing on the African continent as people accept Islam and Christianity, have become institutionalized in Condomble. Condomble spiritism has become more African than Africa.