Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

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 identified.

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).

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