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In this lesson, we look at the basics of animism and shamanism and why these categories can be controversial.

You’ll imagine the conversations among anthropologists as they aim to better understand these beliefs.

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Nature as Spiritual

Think about the natural world as you know it: plants, animals, rocks, the weather, and human beings. Now imagine there are parts of this natural world that you believe live at a different spiritual level than you and me. In this view, loved ones who have died and other spirits may also live at this level, even though we cannot see them.

These sacred life forms are believed to influence much of what happens in our lives.Now imagine that you also believe that there are some people among us who know how to communicate with this spiritual side of the natural world. Those who are able to communicate in this way can then impact what happens for the rest of us as a result.In this lesson, you’ll learn the basic characteristics of worldviews known as animism and shamanism. You’ll also better understand the controversy surrounding the labels anthropologists use to describe those who practice these beliefs.

Animism

Animism is a way of looking at the world in which natural elements have special spiritual significance and importance. Some describe the tradition as the belief that everything around us has a soul. The practice of animism goes beyond one school of thought in a single region. Instead, these beliefs are expressed differently depending on the particular culture and people who hold this worldview in their community.For instance, Shinto, a religion originating in Japan, incorporates animist beliefs. Yet not everyone who holds animist beliefs will be part of this religion of Shinto. Different groups of people, particularly those who are indigenous to an area, have established their own practices and approaches to this spirit world.

You can remember the term ‘animism’ by thinking of animals, which are an important part of the natural world that animists honor.

Religion or Worldview?

So, is animism a religion? There is debate about this topic. Animism is certainly widespread enough in the world to be considered a major school of thought. The beliefs of animism have been practiced longer than many other religions in existence.

Yet it is also practiced in distinct and culturally-specific ways. This means that it would be inappropriate to try to define one set of common beliefs to all of the people who hold this worldview.In addition, many who identify with animist views would describe this way of looking at the world as interconnected with everyday life, rather than a religion or spiritual practice that’s separate from typical activities.

Shamanism

Many cultures that have animist beliefs also have a special role for a human being who can communicate with this spirit world. This person may have visions, or may enter altered states of consciousness, like being in a trance. They may also perform other duties in society alongside their spiritual role.

Anthropologists have historically labeled this person a shaman. The first use of this term came from the Evenks, indigenous people of Northern Russia. Since then, the label of ‘shaman’ has come to refer more broadly to those who engage in the activities mentioned earlier, such as having visions and entering altered states of consciousness to connect with the unseen world.Some differentiate strongly between shamans and other spiritual healers and mediums.

Others describe shamanism as encompassing a wide range of approaches. As a result, shamanism has come to describe the tradition of having a person in the role of communicator with a vast spirit world.

Controversy

Not all anthropologists agree on how and when to use the terms ‘animism’ and ‘shamanism.’ Some find it useful to have these categories that help them describe those who seem to have characteristics in common. Others don’t like using these broad terms to describe practices from around the world that they see as quite diverse.Modern anthropologists have healthy debates at times to determine which labels are appropriate and which are not. They aim to prevent the mislabeling of groups of people and practices.

This mislabeling based on one’s own cultural assumptions was a tendency of earlier anthropologists. This can still be a challenge for present-day researchers, even though they try to avoid this pitfall.

Lesson Summary

Animism is a way of looking at the world in which natural elements have special spiritual significance and importance, such as plants, animals and objects, like rocks.

Human beings who have passed on may be part of this spiritual world.Animist beliefs are expressed differently depending on the particular culture and people. The worldview of animism tends to be interconnected with everyday life, and there’s debate about whether to categorize it as a religion.The term ‘shamanism‘ is often used to describe the tradition of having a person in the role of communicator with a vast spirit world. Anthropologists have historically described a shaman as a person who may have visions or may enter altered states of consciousness.

They may also perform other duties in society alongside their spiritual role.There is controversy about the use of such terms, since not all cultures practice animism or shamanism in a uniform way. Healthy debate among anthropologists allows researchers to consider these questions in depth.

Learning Outcomes

After you have finished with this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe the concepts of animism and shamanism
  • Summarize how animist beliefs relate to culture and the debate about whether animism is a religion
  • Explain the historical description of shamans and their roles in society
  • Identify the controversy surrounding the terms of ‘animism’ and ‘shamanism’

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