Animism was practiced thousands of years ago before recorded history. Modern people tend to dismiss it as a primitive, ignorant if not a demonic religion. Animism is the attribution of divineness and consciousness to natural phenomenon, natural things and even inanimate objects. It is not a religion in itself but just one of the many ways to express faith. In animism, people revere parts of nature, especially ones with striking features—like a majestic-looking mountain, a rushing waterfall or a solid piece of rock.
Before going any further, let us first look into the modern theory of unity, or the inseparability of creator and creation. God, the creator, cannot be separated from all his creations. Every single thing in this cosmos is a part of God.
There is a parallelism with humans. When humans create something, they ingrain a part of themselves into whatever they create. A painter blends a part of himself to every masterpiece in the canvas. A composer shares an element of himself in every song he composes. A novelist weaves an aspect of himself in every story he writes. An engineer rivets a part of himself in every structure he builds. Every painting, every song, every story, every house —whatever mundane creation it is— has the essence of the person who created it. And as a modern society, we have norms for respecting these creators and their creations.
Now, if we can acknowledge that a piece of art contains a part of the artist — it should be easier to acknowledge that things in our surroundings contain a part of God. Imagine how an all-powerful, omniscient, omnipresent God can leave his essence into every single thing he created. There is divine presence in every person- a dominant belief. But there is also divine presence in every mountain, in every tree, in every animal, in every bolt of lightning.
Psychologists agree that belief in transcendence is innate in humans. Ancient humans, despite lack of formal religious training and resources, knew that there is a transcendent entity behind every single thing that they see. That invisible entity could be a god or a spirit. They just knew it. Thus, when ancient people worshipped a century-old tree, they were not worshipping that tree in itself—but the God who created it. When they lay prostrate in front of a volcano, they were not praying to the volcano itself —but to the God who created the volcano. When they trembled every time a thunder roared, they did not fear the thunder itself, but the god who created the thunder. Ancient animists were aware that these things possess a godly essence and thus, showed both fear and respect for them.
And how is kneeling before a tree so radically different from the contemporary way of kneeling before a cross? How is lighting a bonfire at the foot of a mountain so incompatible with lighting a candle in front of the icon of Buddha or St. Joseph?
Yes, there were extremes in the practice of animism, such as human sacrifice. But aren’t modern religious groups also plagued by extremism and violence?
And so, if we try to think objectively about it—animism is not that ignorant, and not that far off from what modern religious practitioners are doing. It makes sense. Creator and creation are fused together. They are inseparable. When a visible, tangible creation is treated with reverence— the invisible, divine Creator is revered and held sacred as well.