Rev. Brummel is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Edgerton, Minnesota.
I intend to write a series of articles which introduce the major false religions of the world. My desire is that these articles will equip the reader both to be on his guard against the lie and to speak the truth in opposition to it. May God increasingly use us and our churches to bring the comforting gospel of Jesus Christ crucified to those who are in bondage to these lies.What is Animism?In simple terms, Animism is used to describe a form of religion which worships spirits, as distinguished from the worship of God or gods. The influence of animism is worldwide, underlying virtually all of the major religions of the world. Animism is especially evident among primitive groups such as the American Indians, the Aborigines of Australia, the Eskimos, and most of the tribes of Africa and South America. In fact, of late, the term “Animism” is being replaced by the term “Primal Religion,” which is thought to be more broad and descriptive. But the term “Primal Religion” seems to imply that the only people holding this form of religion are primitive peoples, when in reality even the sophisticated are among its adherents.
Animism is present in the United States, although it is often more subconscious than is the deliberate spirit-worship found in more primitive societies. Americans reveal their preoccupation with spirits and the supernatural in the books they read, the movies they attend, and the superstitions which they believe affect how their day may proceed.1
Animism in its narrowest sense is preoccupied with the concept of the soul. All men seem to be aware of a soul as distinct from the body. The common belief is that the soul is as a little man inside the body, who indicates his presence by the movements of that body. When the body dies, the soul will escape from the body. Concerning those souls that escape, many questions arise: Where have they gone? Are they capable of exercising power and influence over the living? If they do pose a threat, what measures can be taken to minimize that threat? What measures can be taken to insure that the souls are removed as far as possible from the living?
The driving concern of the animist is the security of the living in relation to the souls of those who have departed. Souls which have departed from men and women are viewed as unfriendly and prone to do harm to those who remain on earth. Especially the souls of those who die violent deaths are thought to remain on earth in order to bring misfortune to their neighbors.
One method of appeasing the souls is by offering sacrifices and worshiping the departed ancestors. This worship is not performed out of respect and reverence for the dead, as is true among some religions and peoples. Animistic people perform ancestor worship out of tragic fear of the possible threat which the souls of the dead pose.
The animist will take every opportunity to honor the dead. Harvey Hoekstra relates an experience among the Anuaks in the Sudan, Africa:
One morning an Anuak man from the village and I were hiking together to a distant village. We were visiting and conversing together as we walked. I was in front and he was close behind me. I’d been talking, but when I got no reply, I turned around to look and establish eye contact. The man was no longer there. I turned back and soon found him about 30 feet off the path. He was on his knees talking out loud to no one visible. He was in front of a dilapidated abandoned Anuak hut. I waited a moment before speaking, somewhat surprised to hear him talking to someone who obviously wasn’t there. With no further explanation, my companion said, ” I just stopped for a moment to greet our chief who once lived here before he died.”
I understood better what it meant for Africans to honor the “living dead.” It was important for my friend to keep on the right side of this dead person whose memory was vivid enough to cause his spirit to respond appropriately if he wasn’t properly respected. 2
One need not go to Africa to find this honoring and worshiping of the dead. Ancestor worship is common among immigrants to this country and even many Americans. Although it is not openly viewed as “ancestor worship,” among Americans there are many superstitions regarding a dead person’s soul. Many believe that the soul will be angry and perhaps retaliate with evil if the departed one is not spoken kindly of and eulogized at the time of burial, if the grave is not visited frequently, if his possessions are not treated with respect, etc.
The worship of souls involves more than simply worship of the dead. It assumes not only the survival of the souls of human beings after death, but also the existence of supernatural powers or “magic.”
Where a belief in supernatural powers exists, utmost caution is taken to protect oneself from invisible attacks by the spirits and souls. This gives rise to the many taboos which govern every aspect of the life of an animist. One example from African culture has to do with taboos which are associated with pregnant women and newborn infants. Harvey Hoekstra relates some of these taboos which he saw among the Anuak tribe in Sudan, Africa:
Anuaks believed that a pregnant woman cast an evil shadow on certain things and events. The influence of a pregnant woman had to be counteracted. She mustn’t be around the cattle or there might be miscarriages of calves. Cows would give less milk when a pregnant woman was around them.
The belief that a pregnant woman could actually cause a newborn baby’s umbilical cord to pop out and not heal properly was very strong. Every Anuak believed this to be so. They called this influence “theri.”. . .
Whenever the navel of a newly born baby failed to heal properly and infection set in, the immediate, burning question was, “What pregnant woman caused ‘theri?’ Who did it?” And, if the baby died, it became a matter of life and death for the suspected person.3
American culture is saturated with taboos. The superstitious nature of Americans is seen in the popularity of astrological charts and horoscopes in the daily papers. Insignificant actions, such as opening an umbrella indoors, can create significant offense and even fear.
The animist lives in constant awareness of the powers of evil and is constantly attempting to appease them. On one occasion missionary Hoekstra stumbled on a group of village leaders who were discussing what to do with a little baby boy.
A person suspected of being a “shi-jwok” (one who would have the ability to cast evil spells on people, villages, and events) was greatly feared and people were always on the lookout for someone who might be a “shi-jwok” and have caused a misfortune. They were discussing the fate of a little, newborn baby whose testicle had not come down. A child born with that abnormality among the Anuaks was cursed and had to be killed. If allowed to grow to adulthood, this person would have the ability to curse people and cause great harm.4
Hoekstra convinced the men to go to bed and wait until morning to make a decision, hoping that they would then be more sober and save the life of the child. But later he heard that the baby had been killed the next morning. Writes Hoekstra: “My presence had delayed the inevitable, but had not prevented it. I was reminded again that without Jesus there is darkness, fear and superstition which brings death.”5
The animist lives a life of fear, devoid of comfort. Four characteristics summarize the life of the animist. 1) The prevalence of fear, 2) the absence of anything in the nature of religious comfort, 3) no differentiation between good and evil, and 4) a fatalistic outlook on life.
Fear is the outstanding and most noticeable characteristic of Animism. “Never any waking moment of day or night is the animist parted from consciousness that he is surrounded by a host of evil spirits who may ruin his crops, or inflict other misfortunes, unless he walks warily and observes the necessary taboos.”6
Selfishness also reigns among animistic people, exposing a complete absence of love. The entire religion is man-centered. While it may seem as though the animist upholds morals, upon closer examination one finds that the seemingly moral behavior is motivated by taboos and is not a sign of true spirituality at all. There is no concern about what is morally good or evil.
Religious morals and love are entirely absent. Sin occurs when one goes against the understood customs or taboos.
The animist finds himself a slave to fear and self-love because he has turned aside from the worship of the one true God. This drives him to seek help from mediums, witch doctors, palm readers, star gazers, astrologers, horoscopes, etc. By forsaking the revelation of God in creation and through His Word, the animist has launched himself into the darkness of despair (Rom. 1:18-32).
The most commonly given reason as to why animists do not worship the true God is that they are not afraid of the Creator God. Primal religions view God as benevolent and loving. The devil and evil spirits, on the other hand, are seen as evil and fearful, so they are worshiped. The apostle Paul, in Romans 1:18-25, enlightens us as to the true reason why the animist does not worship God. It is not merely because God is not feared, but it is because the true knowledge of Him is held under in unrighteousness. Animists see God’s revelation in creation, but they reject it and worship spirits instead.
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Romans 1:20, 21)
The animist is guilty of precisely the sin described in verse 25: “Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.”
The Bible clearly exposes the sin of animistic religion. We read in Leviticus 19:31: “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God.” We must see this to include horoscopes, palm readers, and any other attempt to know the future through wicked men. I Samuel 28:6,7 relates the tragic incident of Saul seeking an answer to his dilemma from an evil spirit. Although the truth is revealed to Saul through this means, the truth condemns Saul and informs him of his certain destruction due to his rebellion against God.
The prophet Isaiah warns Babylon of her sinful, futile attempt to trust in sorceries and enchantments. Isaiah 47:11-14a:
Therefore shall evil come upon thee; thou shalt not know from whence it ariseth: and mischief shall fall upon thee; thou shalt not be able to put it off; and desolation shall come upon thee suddenly, which thou shalt not know. Stand now with thine enchantments, and with the multitude of thy sorceries, wherein thou hast laboured from thy youth; if so be thou shalt be able to profit, if so be thou mayest prevail. Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee. Behold, they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame.
Our society is filled with fear. In order to overcome that fear many, including some of our presidents, have tried to determine the future through horoscopes and palm readers. Men and women look for something to do in order to appease Jehovah God, but peace and comfort will not come through spirit worship, maintaining superstitions, or reading the stars.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only power which is able to break the fear of Animism and replace it with true peace. Indeed, there is a spiritual battle between the forces of evil and good, but Christ, the triumphant Lord, has defeated all principalities and powers. “And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15). In Christ Jesus we have been delivered from all the bondage of the devil and evil spirits. When God works the assurance of Christ’s victory in the heart of His child, all animistic practices must be put aside. As difficult as it is to discard all the emotional and psychological baggage of a false religion, it is possible by the power of the regenerating Spirit. Our desire is to witness of God’s wonderful work through Jesus Christ to all those who cling to this comfortless religion, whether they be here in America, or in other countries throughout the world. The power of God can and will bring all of His sheep out of their fearful, rebellious walk and bring them to know the joy of salvation.
The gospel of Christ crucified must be brought to the animist, both through personal witness by individual Christians and through the official preaching of the Word. Personally we must witness of the joy, peace, and freedom which we have in Jesus Christ. Never may we take that peace and freedom for granted! We will invite our superstitious, fearful neighbor to come with us to church to hear the wonder of Christ crucified. We pray that God will use the power of the preaching, both in our congregations and on the mission field, to convict and expose the man-centered, hopeless religion of the animist and replace it with the joy of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Our next article will focus on Hinduism, the Lord willing.
1 Gailyn Van Rheenen, Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), p. 27.
2 Harvey Hoekstra, Honey, We’re Going to Africa, (Mukilteo: Wine Press, Publishing, 1995), p. 102.
3 Ibid. p. 107,8.
4 Ibid. 112, 113.
5 Ibid. p. 113.
6 J.N.D. Anderson, Editor The World’s Religions, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 18.