Definition: animism
Belief in spiritual beings capable of influencing human events, based on the idea that animals, plants and even inanimate objects have souls. The term was coined in 1871 by anthropologist Edward Tylor, who believed it to be the earliest form of religion.

Animism is the belief that animals, plants, rivers, mountains, and other entities in nature contain spirits. Animism has many forms, which reflect the geographical environment, religious or spiritual cultural history, and distinct worldview of those who practice it.

The English word "animism" was proposed by British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), who is considered the founder of cultural anthropology, in his book Primitive Culture (1871). He based the term on the Latin anima, meaning "soul" or "life," which is the root of other English words like "animal," "animate," and "inanimate."

The term is thus an anthropological construct, not a term used by practitioners. In fact, most animists do not have a word in their language for this concept, nor even for "religion," as it is an inherent aspect of their worldview.

Tylor defined animism as "the general doctrine of souls and other spiritual beings in general" and noted that it often includes "an idea of pervading life and will in nature."

Animism and Religion

There is disagreement among scholars as to whether animism should be categorized as a religious belief or an entire worldview unto itself (thus more akin to a religion). It is certainly not an organized religion; animists are found all over the world and have a variety of mythologies, rituals, and ethical views.

Animism isn't always practiced in isolation today; sometimes it's practiced inside a larger religious context. Expressions of animism may be found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Neopaganism, and Shinto. There is even a Christian animism, proposed by theologian Mark Wallace, which emphasizes God's presence in all earthly creatures and objects: "All of creation and its many inhabitants are God in a variety of forms and disguises."

Animism and Shamanism

In shamanism, a person called a "shaman" attempts to mediate between the human and spirit world, usually by means of entering into a trance. It is believed that shamans have the ability to interact with the spirits of deceased people; this is perhaps their foremost characteristic. However, shamans also may be called upon when certain calamities strike a community, such as a crop failure. In this case, the shaman may attempt to engage with the spirit of the soil, rain, sun, or another related agricultural factor to improve the difficult circumstances.


  1. Animism.” Wikipedia. "Animism (from Latin: anima, 'breath, spirit, life') is the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence.... Animism encompasses the beliefs that all material phenomena have agency, that there exists no hard and fast distinction between the spiritual and physical (or material) world and that soul or spirit or sentience exists not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers or other entities of the natural environment."
  2. Hinnells, John R. (ed.), Penguin Dictionary of Religions (London: Penguin Books, 1997), animism. "(1) The belief that a Spirit (or spirits) is active in aspects of the environment.... (2) The theory that the origin of religion lies in "belief in spirits"... (3) A loose, misleading, designation for religion in any tribal culture."
  3. Doniger, Wendy (ed.), Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions (Merriam-Webster, 1998), animism. "belief in spiritual beings that are capable of helping or harming human interests.... The term animism covers a range of spirits, from sojourning ghosts and mortal witches to perennial beings, whose natures and dispositions to humanity are attributed by categories."
  4. Dougherty, Ryan. “Theologian Mark Wallace Explores Christian Animism in Recent Book.” 20 October 2020.

Further Reading


Article Info

Title animism
Last UpdatedFebruary 15, 2021
MLA Citation “animism.” 15 Feb. 2021. Web. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021. <>