Animism Is Actually Pretty Reasonable

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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."

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