The Religion of Animism

Written by Bob Mach

The gospel is universal in its message and application, yet the best presentation of gospel truth depends on what is already understood and misunderstood by the people you are trying to reach. Successful evangelism and church planting on the African continent requires a good understanding of the mentality of the African people. This understanding requires an adequate knowledge and comprehension of animism.

The gospel is universal in its message and application, yet the best presentation of gospel truth depends on what is already understood and misunderstood by the people you are trying to reach.

The religion of animism is found in different parts of the world, including Asia and Latin America. It is most prevalent, however, on the continent of Africa. Practically all indigenous cultures found within the 54 countries on the continent of Africa are based on animism or animistic belief of some kind. This animist viewpoint has an effect on the animist’s views of monotheism, sin, scripture, and grace.

This animist viewpoint has an effect on the animist’s views of monotheism, sin, scripture, and grace.

In animist thought, there is little concern for a supreme, all-powerful being. If such a singular creator exists, he has long since lost interest in what is transpiring on the earth. If there is one Almighty God, He no longer has any role or implication as to what happens in the life of the individual. God is, at best, an ambiguous and undefinable entity. The animist does not concern himself with such a concept.

The animist does concern himself with his belief in the spirit world. This spirit world operates in conjunction with the physical world. These spirits are ancestors, spirits inhabiting inanimate objects, and other spirits including evil or wicked spirits. In the mind of the animist, these spirits are absolutely affecting and influencing what is taking place in his life specifically and in the world in general. As such, the spirit world is the major concern in the mind of the animist.

In animist thinking, a spirit can take up residence in an inanimate object. This object can be something in nature such as a tree, a mountain, or a river; or it can be something made from human hands such as a vessel or an idol. When an object is considered to be inhabited by a spirit, the object is then considered to be animated. This gives meaning to the word “animism” given its Latin root “anima” which means “breath, spirit, or life.”

In animist thinking, animated objects are to be worshipped. Again, whether objects in nature or manufactured objects, these objects are to be worshipped given the spirit that is animating them. This worship can be demonstrated in actual physical prostration, prayer (supposed communication with the spirit), and practices such as oblation (the offering of elements such as food or drink). Such worship can take place on the individual level or the corporate level (an entire village together).

This animist theology is passed from generation to generation through oral tradition. Nothing is written. Nothing is learned from that which is written. All that is known and understood in animism is held in the mind of the animist and is passed orally to the next generation. Much of this knowledge is passed when a boy reaches the age of initiation. At specific times, eligible boys are secluded from the rest of society where they experience certain practices and rituals and are initiated in receiving knowledge of animism and animistic practice. There are few, if any, written documents.

This theology of animism lends itself to what is technically referred to as fetishism. If an idol (fetish) is animated by a powerful spirit, then perhaps that spirit can be motivated to do something beneficial for the worshipper (fetisher). Various incantations, sacrifices, or other practices may be incorporated in an effort to convince the fetish (spirit) to act on behalf of the fetisher. This particular help sought by the fetisher could be in the areas of seeking a marriage partner, influencing a particular individual for marriage, having children, succeeding at business, obtaining a position of influence or power, or being healed of an illness or wound.

Evident in the practice of fetishism is that anything “beneficial” received by one person has absolutely come at the catastrophic expense of someone else. This is inherently understood in the practice. Any improvement for one person comes through the devastation of another. From a general world viewpoint, this is why the practice is evaluated negatively. The English colloquial term for fetishism is “voodoo.” It is important for the believer to recognize, however, that the Bible refers to it as sorcery.

Evident in the practice of fetishism is that anything “beneficial” received by one person has absolutely come at the catastrophic expense of someone else.

It is for this reason that many animists carry or wear things for protection. Rings, bracelets, necklaces, or items (gri-gri’s) carried in the pocket are considered as protection against what the spirits or a spirit might do to them. In animist thinking, different spirits have different levels of power. One hopes that the spirits of his protective devices are stronger than any spirit one might encourage against him.

As well, the lack of a supreme power or authority in the life of the animist tends to leave him with a sense of relativism. Things that are wrong in one context may not be wrong in another context. Rather than being evaluated on their own, specific acts are considered positive or negative based on the scenario in which they appear. There are no absolutes.

Given the mentality of the animist, the Christian must begin by convincing the animist of the existence of the one true God. General revelation should be used to convince the animist concerning this point. Only an absolute God could create the universe. As well, only a caring God would create the sun, the rain, and the growth of what is necessary for life. God is not an uncaring distracted God, but rather a God who is involved in His creation and the life of each individual.

In the animist viewpoint, a lack of God in the Biblical sense provides a lack of understanding concerning sin. Once it is established in the mind of the animist that there is one true God who is interested in their life, the animist can then begin to adjust his understanding of sin. An Almighty God determines Himself what is right or wrong, rather than the circumstances or contexts of life.

This God has, in fact, made such determinations and these determinations are given to man in written form. Rather than maintaining a secretive oral tradition, God has given an open written Word. Given that our concern is no longer with the conflicting and varying opinions of different spirits, but rather with one supreme God, His Word and will can be openly and clearly understood by all. Secret initiation through oral communication is no longer necessary.

Once the animist understands his need to recognize the one true God who has communicated to us openly by His written Word and defined for us what acts are righteous and what acts are sinful, one can begin to explain to him concerning the grace of God. Animism is a religion of fear and intimidation. The animist lives to placate spirits and counteract fetish acts against him. There is the continual pressure to “stay one step ahead” of what anyone might be trying to do to him.

The animist must see the contrast between this and the grace of God. Rather than fearing a multiplicity of spirits, he can accept the grace of one Almighty Being. Rather than provoke the spirits against someone else or protect oneself from such provocations, the animist can recognize that the Almighty loves him and has provided salvation for him. As well, he can understand that the grace of this Almighty God has the victory over all possible evil from the evil one.

Rather than fearing a multiplicity of spirits, he can accept the grace of one Almighty Being.

When the animist comes to a saving knowledge of Christ, the emotion that is usually the most strongly felt is that of relief. Rather than developing relationships with a multiplicity of spirits, he can develop one with the Almighty. Rather than relying on secretive oral initiations, he can rely on the clear, written Word. Rather than having to discern right from wrong through specific circumstances, he can know right or wrong from the Word. Rather than living in fear and intimidation, he can accept the grace of God.

To effectively reach the animist, it is necessary to understand how he thinks and what he believes.