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Western animism


“belief systems that attribute souls or spirits to animals, plants, objects, natural phenomena, geographical features, ancestors etc. – these are seen as mediators requiring homage” (Steven Musa-Kormayea, drawing on Christopaganism or indigenous Christianity? by Yamamori and Taber)

It can be helpful to distinguish between different worldviews (ways of seeing the world) held by different cultures – secular materialism, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism etc.  There are certainly very major differences between the way someone in an urban, (post)modern, (post)industrial community might typically understand life and the typical worldview of someone in rural India or the Amazon basin.  However, it can also be helpful to see similarities – particularly this one: we are all animists at heart.  Once you dig down into our very different cultures and once you peel away the layers of our very different personal psychologies, you find that we are all naturally inclined towards animism.  As someone has put it, ‘Animism is our default setting.’  As Christians we pray that our minds are being renewed and reprogrammed with a True view of Reality but naturally speaking we are all born animists and that is the position to which we are all inclined to fall back.

But can we really say that the Western CEO is an animist as much as the devotee of African Traditional Religion?  Romans 1:25 describes the condition of the whole human race, North and South, East and West:

‘They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator’.

That sounds a lot like animism. How do we see this in practice?  I think there are a number of ways in which you can see animism bubbling up underneath ‘Western’ secular materialist humanist culture:

  • Traditional folk religion persists in the form of little superstitions and rituals that even educated professionals observe.  Many will not walk under a ladder or stay in room 13 at a hotel.
  • There is a great openness to Eastern mysticism, occult, reincarnation and ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ medical therapies.  In fact, since 2005 the National Health Service in the UK has been funding Reiki (Japanese-originated spiritual energy channeling technique).
  • As Mark Simpson, a pastor in the north of England, has pointed out (see his great recent post here), ancestor worship is alive and well in the UK. Flowers are placed on graves out of ‘respect’ or ‘in remembrance’, ghosts and communication with the dead is very widely believed in.
  • Vast numbers of people in the West look at horoscopes.  It has been said that newspapers would go out of business if they didn’t contain star readings.  Large numbers also believe in various conspiracy theories – what David Aaronovitch has telling called Voodoo Histories.
  • It is very common to find secular humanists who talk of ‘living on’ through their children and grandchildren.  It is not at all far from the traditional beliefs in some groups here in Kenya that a grandparent’s spirit is reborn in a grandchild.

But more importantly, animism isn’t just underneath secular materialism – secular materialism IS animism.  They basically end up amounting to the same thing.  At the very least there is a lot of convergence between the two:

  • At a heart level western culture worships and serves created things rather than the Creator – money, education, freedom, tolerance, popularity, celebrity, football, youth, technology, music.
  • At a philosophical level John Lennox has pointed out that Stephen Hawking ends up treating physical laws as gods by ascribing agency and creative power to them (laws can’t create matter out of nothing but having dismissed God that’s what Hawkings has to argue).
  • Because both animism and secular materialism reject a Creator God and the concept of revelation, both inevitably end up believing that Truth is unknowable.
  • As a result both Western cultures and animist cultures privilege ‘experience’ and emotional sensation over knowledge, wisdom and understanding.  So many times before we left the UK for Kenya were we told, ‘Well it’ll be a great experience’ or ‘As long as you’re happy – that’s the main thing.’
  • Again, because they reject the reality of Creator and creation, neither secular materialism nor animism have a concept of sin (certainly not in the relational sense of rejection of and rebellion against your Maker deserving eternal separation and torment) and so they have no place for salvation either (certainly not in the sense of a propitiation of wrath).  Instead there are ‘problems’ that require pragmatic solutions.

What do you think?  Can you see the animism in our hearts and cultures… and churches?

2 thoughts on “Western animism

  1. Francic Schaeffer shares a lot of this in his book ‘He is there and He is not Silent’. Moving from a hopeless state of belief in things separate from the Creator, to belief in the Creator who defines all these things.

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