Animism (religion)

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The term animism (from ancient Greek ἄνεμος ánemos "wind, breath" as in Latin animus , as anima later in religious contexts also soul or spirit ) has or had three different meanings in religious studies and ethnology :

  1. Basically, the vague term animism stands for the spiritual-religious notions of an all-soulness , which plays a major role especially in ethnic religions : Every or certain objects of nature are assigned a "personal" soul or an indwelling spirit .
  2. In connection with evolutionism , which is now outdated , animism was a religious-scientific theory according to which this belief was either the oldest or at least one of the oldest phenomena of religious conceptions of man.
  3. In colloquial and theological usage, the term animism is used as a synonym for all ethnic religions . Critics regard this usage as pejorative (derogatory) and point to the danger of confusion with the outdated animism theory.

The term animism was introduced in the course of research by Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871 in his work Primitive Culture, Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom to denote certain ideas of the spirit and soul of certain peoples (allegedly) early stages of social development.

Animistic religiosity and spirituality ("all-soul")

"Whisper to the rocks, something is listening in what is hidden, receives the word, carries it on and completes it."

Are objects of nature - animals (sometimes also whole animal species), plants, springs, rocks, mountains and much more. - regarded as animated , one speaks in the ethno-religious jargon of animistic conceptions. In many cultures such “inner beings” are equated with the human soul, while the external appearance is nothing more than what is actually perceived. In their pure form, such ideas are particularly widespread among hunter-gatherer cultures .

“Animists” regard every part of the world, no matter how small, that they see as animated, as an awe-inspiring cosmos that is comparable to the soul of the Mosaic religions. For them, the spiritual world is the real reality.

Although there are no uniform animistic ideas, some essential characteristics can be identified that occur in general. Thus every religious superstructure is alien to animistic thinking. "Sacred" in the sense of "respectful", but also "respectful", are manifestations of the natural environment in most forms: Developed in every soulful stone, every plant, every animal and every human being, also in every place " Life force ”a will of its own that follows natural rules.

The idea of ​​the animated nature of the world of objects can still be found in Japanese folk beliefs: everyday objects and, above all, things that are thrown away can come to life and then, as tsukumogami, cause more or less harmless confusion.

Typical characteristics of belief systems with an animistic base are:

  • the lack of omnipotent , monotheistic gods, although there is usually a "supreme being" (often a master of animals ).
  • the lack of metaphysics : it is precisely natural phenomena that are themselves animated and with which man can communicate in various ways.
  • The focus on this world and the resulting behavior primarily aim to secure existence in this world.
  • the idea that man has a body and at least one soul that exists with a certain degree of independence from man. It is a second human ego in the spiritual world. If this spiritual double leaves the person permanently, he becomes sick, weak and can die. So man lives in two worlds at the same time, after the death of the body only in the other world.

The religious studies animism theory

The theory of animism as a comprehensive "primordial religion" is today only a concept that is relevant to the history of science.

The term was introduced in 1871 by the anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor . According to Tylor, animism is the earliest form of religion developed by humans. Basic requirement was to his mind the idea of a personal, corporeal independent, free-moving soul (→ free soul ), which inevitably also the belief in a continued existence after death, rebirth u. included. Although ethnography shows a wide range of divergent representations, Tylor unified these ideas and also ascribed an "object soul" to inanimate devices and goods. He concluded that from this first object-bound, later free, superior spirits and finally the gods should have developed, in order to finally merge into the central figure of a single god or into a general pantheism .

According to Tylor, people built their earliest social systems on the basis of animism to explain why things happen. When he published this, his theory was considered politically radical because it allowed peoples without a book religion to actually have a religion.

In addition to Tylor, Herbert Spencer and John Lubbock developed the theory that belief in souls and spirits was the conception of all original religious ideas: "primitive" people at a relatively early stage of human history had deduced from the experiences in their environment that they had something that leaves his body temporarily in illness, dream and sleep and finally in death: the soul.

Later stages of abstraction would have developed spirits from this, souls of the dead, of animals, plants, objects that affect human life with relative independence and whose behavior the human being can influence through ritual contact. Further abstraction has resulted in the idea of ​​gods and finally of a monistic conception of God. This evolutionary theory of the origin of religious ideas, according to the belief in spirits is strictly necessary transitional stage of all religious and philosophical developments - so to speak, the "minimum of religion performance" - was was between 1905 and 1909. with philosophical and psychological arguments of Wilhelm Wundt substantiated: through empathy projiziere man applies his own ego to objects (body-soul, whereby the concept of the soul is the principle of life).

The hope of the 19th and early 20th centuries, initially under the influence of Romanticism , later under the influence of evolutionism , of penetrating through research into the so-called " primitive peoples " to the "primordial religion" of mankind, is now considered to be buried. These ethnic groups are not "primitive peoples" or representatives of a "primordial culture" of humanity, but rather contemporaries whose history has been and is different from industrial societies. In terms of content, this development is mostly unknown to us - with the exception of the recent periods, e.g. B. the Indian Wars in America, which led to the decline of Indian cultures - but can be assumed as a very long-term change e silentio .

Knowledge of the beginnings of religious ideas is very limited in the history of religion, i.e. in anthropological-prehistoric research. Accordingly, the hypothesis of a once purer belief in God of the “primitive peoples” (primeval monotheism) must be understood as one of many other speculative options , as must all older evolutionist constructions about pre- animism, animism and manism . Due to the lack of evidence, a significant further development of hypotheses towards real, established knowledge is not to be expected.

In ethnological, religious-historical and developmental psychological terms, “animistic” and other ethnic-religious ideas are not just at the beginning of development, but rather they are more recent and derived phenomena. The ethnologist Wilhelm Schmidt already recognized this and put forward the theory that it was the other way around: In the beginning there was monotheism, as it is taught in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. From this developed an oligotheism (the belief in the sole rule of one God among many), from which in turn a polytheism emerged , which eventually became an animism. In the relevant literature, this approach is known as the degeneration hypothesis . However, this theory is also rejected today as being far too abstract.

The theory of animism was also criticized from the clerical side, since it was seen as an attack on the claim to exclusivity of the supernatural Christian doctrine of revelation. This criticism was initially formulated primarily by Andrew Lang , and later particularly by Wilhelm Schmidt with his theory of primordial monotheism .


The criticism of the theories of animism (in the sense of a "primordial religion") by philosophy, parts of the religious studies and ethnography also led to the formulation of pre-animistic conceptions, i.e. the assumption of a magical force (in J. Frazer, 1890), an impersonal force (in J. Hewitt, 1902), a belief of the "primitive" man in the animatedness of all nature (in Wladimir Germanowitsch Bogoras , 1904), which must first have existed in order to trigger and enable the development of religious ideas outlined by animism. Although this criticism did not give a more detailed answer of its own to the question of the origin of the religious idea, emotions, affects, and unconscious impulses were also included in the consideration, insofar as they had become habits and ritual acts and although they did not become one until much later religious interpretation was given.

This view was mainly represented by K. Preuss (1904), A. Vierkandt (1907) and R. Marett (1899), who coined the term preanimism , and also by Ernst Cassirer and Rudolf Otto , who wrote Wundt's version of animism as early as 1910 had subjected to a principled criticism.

These theories are also obsolete today.

Animism as a synonym for ethnic religion

“Animism is not a 'religion', not a 'church', not a 'sect', not a 'movement'. It is direction, a tendency, an indication, a feeling, and that is a good thing, because as soon as a 'religion' has a name, a structure, a fixed creed, it is probably no longer a religion at all. "

- Jack D. Forbes , indigenous American historian

Today the term animism is used colloquially and especially in connection with theological writings as a synonymous term for the non-scripted ethnic religions. However, most authors who use the term in this way reject Tylor's theory of animism. In most cases, they therefore put their own definition of their animism in front of their work . For example, the evangelical theologian Rainer Neu or the evangelical religious anthropologist Lothar Käser .

Secularly oriented ethnologists, on the other hand, also see this use critically, since animism is only a partial aspect of ethnic (and other) religions and a generalization would lead to misunderstandings. In addition, animism is presented differently in every culture as a religious aspect as well as a set of rules for the structure of socioculture and also as a mythical explanation of the world. Furthermore, due to the reference to the outdated animism theory, it can be understood as a relic of evolutionist perspectives. A “ -ism formation” can therefore lead to the wrong association of an actually non-existent uniformity.

The term is still used quite often for the ethnic religions of North and Central Asian peoples ( e.g. Siberian animism ) .

Animism in Developmental Psychology

Jean Piaget took over the term animism from ethnology to classify a child's mental attitude that is fundamentally derived from egocentrism . The takeover is well founded. Many children also have an implicit understanding of the world in such a way that they see the world endowed with soul, intentions and consciousness. Animistic children assume that everything that happens in the world is based on moral principles. Causal-physical relationships are largely hidden; not because the child does not want to accept it, but because it is cognitively incapable of separating its psychological identity from the outside world.

The more recent developmental psychology has shown that soulfulness or soulfulness is a primary experience of the child's psyche , whereas the abstraction of "dead" things from "living" things is only an achievement of the grown person on the basis of learning. This discovery contradicts Wilhelm Wundt's psychological justification of animism that it is not the child but the adult that is “animist”.

See also


  • Lothar Käser : Animism. An introduction to the conceptual basics of the world and human image of traditional (ethnic) societies for development workers and church workers overseas. Liebenzeller Mission, Bad Liebenzell 2004, ISBN 3-921113-61-X . With an abbreviated subtitle Introduction to its conceptual fundamentals also at Erlanger Verlag für Mission und Okumene, Neuendettelsau 2004, ISBN 3-87214-609-2 . Review: Thomas Schirrmacher: Lothar Käser as a thought leader on animism: A review (PDF, 699 kB); MBS texts 42; Bonn u. a .: Martin Bucer Seminar, 2005
  • Lothar Käser: Foreign Cultures - An Introduction to Ethnology. Liebenzeller Mission, Bad Liebenzell 1997, ISBN 3-921113-84-9 .
  • Bronislaw Malinowski: Magic, Science and Religion. Series Conditio humana, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1973, ISBN 3-10-846601-1 ; Fischer TB 7335; Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 1983; ISBN 3-596-27335-8 .
  • Daniel Quinn : The Story of B. An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. Bentam 1997, ISBN 0-553-37901-1 .
  • Robert Badenberg : How about 'Animism'? An Inquiry beyond Label and Legacy. In: Klaus Müller (ed.): Mission as communication. Festschrift for Ursula Wiesemann on her 75th birthday. VTR, Nuremberg 2007, ISBN 978-3-937965-75-8 u. VKW, Bonn 2007, ISBN 978-3-938116-33-3 .
  • Ulrich Neuenhausen: The phenomenon of world religions. Christliche Verlagsgesellschaft, Dillenburg 2005, ISBN 3-89436-454-8 .

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ Based on the Greek-German school and manual dictionary by Wilhelm Gemoll . Freyta, Munich 1959 (7th edition), also "breath, breath" and "breath of life", whereby unlike the largely synonymous psyche ( ancient Greek ψυχή ) no longer the activity of breathing, but only the air or air movement seems to have been meant as such, although both words were also used to denote “life, alive” and “vital force”; the dictionary of origin of the German language (vol. 7 of the Great Duden ) also states that the entry "animate" also states that ancient Greek ἄνεμος with ancient Greek ἆσθμα ásthma and Latin halare " breath " (such as in in-halare " breath " cf. “inhale”) linguistically related; via French animer , animate for "stimulate, encourage" was customary in German , animalisch, on the other hand, became the often derogatory term for "animal", in contrast to English animals (literally "breathing") for "living beings, animals"
  2. Julian Jaynes ; Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1993; Pp. 350-356; Chapter The invention of the soul
  3. a b c d e f Klaus E. Müller: Animism. Keyword in: Walter Hirschberg (Greetings), Wolfgang Müller (Red.): Dictionary of Ethnology. New edition, 2nd edition, Reimer, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-496-02650-2 . P. 25.
  4. ^ A b Karl R. Wernhart: Ethnic Religions - Universal Elements of the Religious. Topos, Kevelaer 2004, ISBN 3-7867-8545-7 . Pp. 83-84.
  5. ^ A b Adam Jones: New Fischer World History. Volume 19: Africa to 1850. S. Fischer, 2016, eISBN 978-3-10-402419-6. Cape. F, 1st page.
  6. Klemens Ludwig: Whisper to the rock. Herder, Freiburg 1993, ISBN 3-451-04195-2 . P. 195.
  7. Marvin Harris: Cultural Anthropology - A Textbook. From the American by Sylvia M. Schomburg-Scherff, Campus, Frankfurt / New York 1989, ISBN 3-593-33976-5 . P. 303.
  8. See Käser: Animismus .
  9. ^ Wilhelm Schmidt: The origin of the idea of ​​God ; Münster: Aschendorff, 1926–1955. Ulrich Neuenhausen: The phenomenon of world religions ; 2005
  10. Andrew Lang: Making of Religion ; 1898
  11. ^ Wilhelm Schmidt: The origin of the idea of ​​God , 12 volumes; 1912-1955
  12. ^ Jack D. Forbes : The Wétiko plague. An Indian philosophy of aggression and violence. Peter Hammer Verlag, Wuppertal 1981.
  13. ^ Rainer Neu: Animism on
  14. Lothar Käser: Animism: an introduction to the conceptual bases of the world and human image of ethnic societies. VTR Nuremberg 2004; Edition 2014, ISBN 978-3-95776-112-5 . -and- The animism. The religions of traditional cultures in a modern perspective . In: Evangelical Missiology 1992.3, pp. 35–40.
  15. Jean Piaget, Bärbel Inhelder: The psychology of the child. Munich 1993, p. 111.