Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stephen Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, advances an interesting point about animism. Broadly defined, animism is the belief that everything has a spirit: trees, birds, rainstorms, rocks. Asma points out that in the Western world, amidst the ongoing, headline-grabbing scuffle between atheists and the devout, we don't often hear from the planet's animists. He offers the following points you may not have known about animism:
It's incredibly widespread. "Most of the world is made up of animists," writes Asma. "The West is naïve when it imagines that the major options are monotheistic. In actual numbers and geographic spread, belief in nature spirits trounces the One-Godders. Almost all of Africa, Southeast Asia, rural China, Tibet, Japan, rural Central and South America, indigenous Pacific Islands--pretty much everywhere except Western Europe, the Middle East, and North America--is dominated by animistic beliefs."
It doesn't get no respect. "Even religious devotees of monotheism in the developed West look down their noses at animism," Asma says. "Animism is the Rodney Dangerfield of religions."
It's actually kind of a rational response to life. "The daily lives of people in the developing world are not filled with the kinds of independence, predictability, and freedom that we in the developed world enjoy," writes Asma. "You do not often choose your spouse, your work, your number of children ... In that world, where life is particularly capricious and more out of individuals' control than it is in the developed world, animism seems quite reasonable." This may seem like a strange attitude to First-World rationalists, says Asma, but "in the developing world, animism literally makes more sense."
Asma goes on to say that even though he's an agnostic, he'd be the first to acknowledge the value of religion:
Religion, even the wacky, superstitious stuff, is an analgesic survival mechanism and sanctuary in the developing world. Religion provides some order, coherence, respite, peace, and traction against the fates. Perhaps most important, it quells the emotional distress of human vulnerability. I'm an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation, but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously. I'm not naïve--I don't think it did a damn thing to heal him. But when people have their backs against the wall, when they are truly helpless and hopeless, then groveling and negotiating with anything more powerful than themselves is a very human response.
Militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are too quick to condemn faith, says Asma. "Religious ideas that encourage dehumanization, violence, and factionalism should be reformed or diminished," he writes. But "those that humanize, console, and inspire should be fostered ... Whether it is Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism, or animism, the virtues can be retained while the vices are moderated. In short, the reduction of human suffering should be the standard by which we measure every religion."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.