While on a mission trip to a Garifuna village in Belize, natives asked our team to take care lest we upset the ancestral spirits in the rocks and trees. Native American shamans battle spirits of disease in members of their tribe, and British pagans dance to awaken tree spirits. An American friend told me that her son would make his drive home safely because her late grandmother would protect him. All these examples reveal an animistic worldview.
Under the Radar
Though animism doesn’t rank high for most people on the top religions list, it is one of the most prevalent religions in the world. According to Joshua Project, ethnic religions, which usually include a large dose of animism, are the primary belief system for 669 million people (over 9% of the total global population). Animism is a foundational belief of many in early, tribal societies.
Animists believe that everything, including people, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, has a spiritual essence. They see unity between the physical and spiritual worlds rather than a sharp distinction between the two. The spiritual essence found in nature may be nature spirits, such as a spirit of the waters, or ancestral spirits, such as prominent tribal forebears. These spirits hold power in the spiritual and physical worlds and must be pleased or at least placated by the living to bring success or to avoid catastrophe. People who hold animistic beliefs perform rituals to help control these spirits.
Animism is often combined with organized religion in a process called syncretism. In Africa, for example, people might become Christians and attend church on Sundays, but then worship nature and ancestral spirits throughout the week. In a famous article titled “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle,” the late Trinity missions professor Paul Hiebert wrote that Western thinking uses science to address the physical world and religion to address the spiritual world, but fails to address how spiritual forces impact the natural world. An animist who is also a Christian, for example, might plant his fields with the latest scientific techniques to build his livelihood, and go to church on Sundays to guarantee his afterlife. But he might still do homage to the spirits of his departed ancestors to prevent them from damaging his crops or entice them to help his wife get pregnant. The resulting belief system is not really Christianity. Animists often live in fear, never sure if disaster will come from some ancestor they have forgotten to appease or some other spirit that they have offended. Animists may blame themselves for every misfortune, thinking that by omission or commission they have brought disaster on themselves and those they love.
The good news of Jesus is that He is Lord of the Universe. He builds our jobs and our families, and He secures our future both now and beyond the grave. The universe truly is full of spiritual forces, including men, angels, and demons, but Jesus, the Incarnate God, has absolute control over every one of these forces. There is no need to appease the spirits of nature or of ancestors because ancestors have gone to their eternal destiny and because Jesus protects His people from demons, and all other dangers.
As Christianity, Islam, and other major religions spread around the world, animism is receding as a primary belief system. However, animism is still commonly mixed with major religions. Followers of Jesus must make sure that we do not hold animistic ideas, no matter how harmless they may seem. We must also be bold in sharing the power of Christ with animists, because only He can free them from this terrible burden.
— Animism is one of the religions that will be covered in this year’s Secret Church simulcast titled “A Global Gospel in a World of Religions.” To learn more about Secret Church or to register, go here.