|A form of religion centered on relating to spiritual powers or beings who
permeate the world. The spiritual power may be conceived as an impersonal force running
through everything and capable of being used for good or evil. The unseen power also may
be understood as numerous spirits, some of whom are friendly, some "tricksters,"
and some dangerous. Spirits and humans are interdependent parts of a single cosmos.
Animist groups have no elaborate religious organization and no required creed. Individuals
may be recognized as vehicles for communicating directly with spirits (shamans,
spirit-mediums). These religious specialists also may be healers or diviners. Fasting is
common as a way of preparing for the bodily reception of the sacred or for allowing the
sacral power within to emerge. Ritual activity tends to be magical. Rituals attempt to
control spiritual powers or beings for the benefit of oneself or groups with whom one is
Edward Tylor (1832-1917) defined religion as the belief in spiritual beings or animism; that is, he considered the essential element of all religions to be a belief in souls and/or a belief in spirits. Tylor argued that these beliefs were reasonable given experiences such as dreams and trances. The universality of these experiences explains why religion exists everywhere. Monotheism is the "animism of civilized man" (see Morris 1987:98-102).
While animists can be found in almost all Asian countries, they are more than 5% of the population only in Laos. Animists are between 1% and 5% of the population in Burma, India, Indonesia, Kampuchea, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
Joseph B. Tamney
B. Morris, Anthropological Studies of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
|return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents|