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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: When the God of the Bible Is Rejected

Don Stewart :: What Is Animism?

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What Is Animism?

When the God of the Bible Is Rejected – Question 8

Animism is a term which goes back to the 19th century. It is derived from a Latin word anima which means “breath” or “soul.” The term was coined by man by a man named E.B. Tylor who was one of the founders of modern anthropology. Tylor, applying Darwin’s theory of evolution to the religious realm, reckoned that religion started off as something primitive. He alleged that the first religion was animism.

Animists believe there are innumerable spirits or ghosts which are behind events in the natural world. Indeed, animists see a spirit or soul living in every object including plants, rocks, and animals. Consequently, everything in the world is, in some sense, alive.

According to Tylor, as humans progressed so did their understanding of the spiritual world around them. From animism developed the worship of many gods, or polytheism. Eventually polytheism led to the worship of one God, or monotheism. Thus, animism was the belief of early man in his primitive stage. As humans evolved so did their religious beliefs.

While this theory became popular, and still remains popular in some circles, there was no evidence to support that this is what actually happened. Nowhere do we find any historical confirmation that humans moved from a simple animistic belief to a more developed belief in one God.

Indeed, various forms of animism are still practiced today all over the world. In fact, it has been estimated that up to 40% of the population of the earth have some sort of animistic belief. Even in developed countries, such as Japan, animism exists in the form of ancestor worship. This is a belief that deceased relatives can actually exercise influence on those who are living. It is assumed that these dead ancestors are interested in the affairs of the living. Consequently, there is the attempt of the living to placate those who have died.

To sum up, there is no evidence that animism was a primitive religious belief that gave way to more developed or sophisticated religious beliefs. Animism, in a number of forms, is alive and well today.

Bible Evaluation of Animism

Animists do not believe in one personal God but rather in innumerable impersonal spirits. Consequently, they are at odds with what the Bible has to say about unseen world.

1. Spirit Beings Are under God’s Authority

While the Bible teaches that spiritual beings do exist, all of them are under the ultimate authority of the one true God. These spirits have limited ability to do harm to individuals.

In fact, in an episode recorded in the Book of Job, we are told that Satan, a spirit-being and the chief adversary of the Lord, had to seek His permission to cause trouble to Job. The Bible explains what happened in this manner.

One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord asked Satan, “Where have you come from?” “From roaming through the earth,” Satan answered Him, “and walking around on it.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? No one else on earth is like him, a man of perfect integrity, who fears God and turns away from evil.” Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Haven’t You placed a hedge around him, his household, and everything he owns? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions are spread out in the land. But stretch out Your hand and strike everything he owns, and he will surely curse You to Your face.” “Very well,” the Lord told Satan, “everything he owns is in your power. However, you must not lay a hand on Job himself.” So Satan went out from the Lord’s presence. (Job 1:6-12 HCSB)

We see that Satan was only able to do to Job that which the Lord allowed. Thus, the believer is under the protection of the Lord. Spirits have no ability to harm or harass people unless the Lord allows it to happen. The Apostle John wrote,

Children, you belong to God, and you have defeated these enemies. God’s Spirit is in you and is more powerful than the one that is in the world. (1 John 4:4 CEV)

The believer should take comfort in this all-important truth. We do not have to fear spirits as do those who accept the beliefs of animism.

2. Spirits Do Not Reside in Inanimate Objects

There is something else. The Bible does not teach that inanimate objects such as rocks or trees or the sun and the moon have spirits of the dead residing in them. Neither do we find that the spirits of the dead reside in animals. Indeed, there is nothing in Scripture that says the spirits of the dead have the ability to wander around and reside in inanimate objects.

There is one episode in Scripture where it speaks of evil spirits entering animals. This is the account recorded in the gospels of Jesus casting out demons and sending them into a herd of pigs. However, in this instance the pigs immediately drowned themselves rather than being inhabited by these spirits! The behavior of the pigs certainly does not support the idea that evil spirits could reside in animals.

3. Spirits Can Live in Humans

Evil spirits do exist and they are able to reside in humans. The Bible refers to this as “demon-possession” or a person being “demonized.” Scripture does provide examples of people being demon-possessed. It also records examples of Jesus driving out demons that controlled the behavior of certain people. However, demon-possession is something that cannot happen to the believer because each Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God. We deal with this issue of demons in great detail in our course “Angels, Demons, and Satan.”

4. Christians Are Not to Attempt to Contact Spirits

As we examine the Scripture we find that it is clear on this subject. God’s people are to have nothing to do with any type of animistic belief or practice. Any attempt to contact spirits of the dead, worship them, or appease them in any way, is strongly condemned in Scripture. We find the following warning given to the children of Israel as they were about to enter the Promised Land:

“When you arrive in the land the LORD your God is giving you, be very careful not to imitate the detestable customs of the nations living there. For example, never sacrifice your son or daughter as a burnt offering. And do not let your people practice fortune-telling or sorcery, or allow them to interpret omens, or engage in witchcraft, or cast spells, or function as mediums or psychics, or call forth the spirits of the dead. Anyone who does these things is an object of horror and disgust to the LORD. It is because the other nations have done these things that the LORD your God will drive them out ahead of you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God. The people you are about to displace consult with sorcerers and fortune-tellers, but the LORD your God forbids you to do such things.” (Deuteronomy 18:9-14 NLT)

The Bible consistently condemns all forms of worshipping spirits of the dead or attempting to contact them. While spiritual beings exist, they do not exist or function in the same way as animists believe. The beliefs of animists are not-biblical. Hence they are wrong.

Summary – Question 8
What Is Animism?

Animism is a general term given to certain religious beliefs which imagine that spirits are living in all objects. Animists believe that these spirits have the power to do good or to do harm. It was once popular to think that animism was the earliest form of religion practiced by primitive humans. From animism came the belief in many gods, or polytheism. Eventually this led to monotheism or the belief in one God.

This evolutionary theory or religious beliefs has no evidence to support it. Indeed, the idea that spirits of the dead dwell in animals as well as in inanimate objects is not limited to ancient times. Today we can find millions of people worldwide who hold to some form of animism. People still worship the sun, moon, and stars because they believe these inanimate objects have spirits residing in them.

The Bible does not teach that inanimate objects are inhabited by spirits or ghosts. While acknowledging the existence of spirits both good and bad, these spirits do not control events as animists believe.

The biblical example of Job shows that evil spirits are limited in what they can do. Satan, who is a spirit-being, had to ask the Lord for permission to test Job. God limited what the devil could do. Thus, we find that the ultimate control of all things belongs to the God of the Bible. Therefore, while the Christian should respect the power these spirit-beings may have, we are not to fear them. The Lord is our Protector.

Moreover, believers are warned not to have anything to do with animistic beliefs or practice. We are to stay away from such things. Dabbling in this sort of practice can cause us real harm.

Instead of seeking after the spirits of the dead, our worship should be directed toward the only God who exists, the God of the Bible.

What Is Dualism? ← Prior Section
What Is Polytheism? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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