Understanding Animism

Posted on: 
July 1, 2022

The rainy season is just starting in our town, bringing cool showers and relief from the stifling humidity of April and May. With the start of the rains also comes a certain responsibility for the comisario (mayor) of the town. Accompanied by village elders and a marching band of drums, trumpets, and tuba, the comisario makes a yearly trek to the “house of the rain” on a hill overlooking the town. There he performs ceremonies to ensure that the year’s rains are adequate for a good corn crop, but not so strong as to cause landslides and flash floods. The ceremonies are believed to influence the following season’s weather. To prove their effectiveness, the townspeople tell about when the comisario did not perform the ceremonies in 2013 and the result was a year of unusually strong thunderstorms and torrential rains. Since then, the comisario has been all the more careful to do his duty.

This belief that the rains are controlled by a spirit or spirits that can be manipulated by human-performed ceremony is a classic example of animism.

Many of the world’s unreached people groups have some form of animism as the main component of their religion. Animism is difficult to define, as it does not refer to a specific doctrine or creed, but rather a range of beliefs and resulting practices. In his book Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, Gailyn Van Rheenen describes animism as “the belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and, consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power” (Rheenen, 1991). The range of religious activities that this belief in “personal spiritual beings” and “impersonal spiritual forces” gives rise to is enormous. In some future posts we may look at how animism is manifested in certain cultures, but today we’ll briefly discuss how important it is for missionaries to animistic groups to have at least a basic understanding of it.

Secular Influence and Animistic Influence

I expect that nearly everyone reading this post lives surrounded by a secular society such as the United States or Canada. Secular societies believe that spiritual beings and powers are nonexistent and that reality is limited to only what we can see, feel and understand. As Christians, we are theists, believing in a sovereign God that allows His people a good deal of free choice, but, influenced by the culture surrounding us, we tend to minimize the influence that any power apart from God has on our daily lives. We read the Bible through lenses tinted by the secular culture around us. We don’t doubt the stories about Jesus and His disciples expelling evil spirits, but we rarely see this as being directly relevant to us today. Indeed, some western theologians have even speculated that personal spiritual powers used to exist but their dispensation ended since Jesus’ day.

In contrast, cultures with high levels of animistic beliefs are very conscious of spirits and powers around them (whether real or perceived) which affect their daily lives. To the animist, nothing is random, and people have no or very little free choice. Instead, the spirits control what happens and, in order to survive and thrive, humans must do what they can to manipulate these spirits through shamans, by offering sacrifices, or by performing ceremonies. When people from animistic contexts come to a belief in the true God, they rarely reject as nonexistent the spirit world they formerly manipulated. Yes, God is more powerful than those spirits and powers, but God’s power must be invoked to rebuke the spirits rather than using the old manipulatory methods. For these Christians, the stories of Jesus casting out demons feel quite relevant.

My point here is not to pass judgement on either secular cultures and animistic cultures and say which one is closer to accurate. I believe both possess error that is corrected by Biblical teaching, and perhaps each possesses truth that the other is lacking. Rather, my point is that the vastly different views of the spirit world which these two types of cultures hold can easily result in confusion and misunderstanding when people from a secular-type culture interact with those from a animistic-type culture. This is true even if both parties are Christians. I come from the United States and have been influenced by its secular culture. I live among a people that are animistic; a few are Christians. . .most are not. Those who are not Christians live in fear of whirlwinds and thunderstorms, rainbows and pretty yellow birds. Those who are Christians emphasize the power of Jesus over disease and life and death. Neither the fears of the non-Christians or the emphasis of the Christians is something I was used to previously.

Encountering Animism

It is important for me to understand as well as possible the animistic or animism-influenced worldview of my friends. Back in the States, I could assume that most people with whom I read the Bible would reach an equal or very similar understanding of the story or teaching under consideration. Here I cannot make that assumption. Whether I’m considering Bible teaching with a Christian or non-Christian, we may very easily differ on what the main point of a particular passage is. In the case of the Christian, it is possible that God’s Spirit has revealed truth to him that has been previously hidden to me. In the case of the non-Christian, he may be misunderstanding the nature of God and God’s creation and needs special teaching to correct an error in worldview. In either case I must understand their worldview, or else I will be confused by their responses and incapable of either learning or instructing.

For me and my colleagues, understanding animism is not an interesting intellectual exercise, it is important to successfully communicating Bible truth to the lost souls around us.

—Leonard H
Rheenen, G. V. (1991). Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library.

  • “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Romans 10:17
  • “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witness of these things.” Luke 24:47, 48
  • “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew 28:19
  • “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:3
  • “That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the Gospel.” Ephesians 3:6
  • “That they all may be one; as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us; that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:21
  • “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’?” Mark 11:17
  • “Ask of me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance.” Psalm 2:8
  • “Behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes.” Revelation 7:9
  • “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified.” 2 Thessalonians 3:1
  • “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16
  • “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105
  • “As cold water to a weary soul, so is good news from a far country.” Proverbs 25:25
  • “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” Psalm 19:10
  • “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You.” Psalm 22:27
  • “Truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.” Numbers 14:21
  • “Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples. For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods.” Psalm 96:3, 4
  • “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” Habakkuk 2:14
  • “That all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.” 1 Kings 8:60
  • “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations.” Malachi 1:11
  • “All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name.” Psalm 86:9
  • “For as the earth brings forth its bud, as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” Isaiah 61:11
  • "Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!" Psalm 46:10
  • "This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." 1 Timothy 2:3, 4
  • "You are worthy. . .; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God." Revelation 5:9, 10