Animism vs Atheism

Johnm55 raised an interesting point in a comment on my recent post Reflections on Kenyan Christianity. I’d said that, in Kenya, “events and circumstances are freely and directly attributed to God or the devil”. John responded:

“[this] made we wonder exactly how far removed from the Animism that it replaced is Kenyan Christianity? Of course it can be argued that all religions are just more (or less) sophisticated versions of animism, that need gods and devils to explain natural phenomena.”

Now I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with this – but nor would I necessarily see it as a problem.

Reverence for nature

For a start, it seems to me that there’s quite a lot of good in some aspects of African animism. Watching the excellent BBC Human Planet series, I was impressed at the Kenyan Samburu tribe who have learnt to use wild elephants’ water-finding skills to lead them to water hidden under dried-up river-beds. Having found the water, they offer up thanks both to the elephants and to the Gods of Nature. Then when they return home to their village, they draw up water from their deep well and leave it out as a gift for passing animals. One tribesman explained: “We Samburu believe in giving life to all living things”.

I’m sure there are less positive aspects of African animism – witch-doctoring for example – but I’m not going to dismiss it all as bad or merely superstitious. It seems to me there’s a lot we could learn from the way these people live and work with nature, treating it with respect and reverence rather than seeking to exploit or destroy it for commercial gain.

A right kind of misunderstanding

On a more philosophical level though, I believe that as a worldview Animism has more going for it than Atheism. I would say that both views are misunderstandings of the universe, but that Animism represents a right kind of misunderstanding whereas Atheism (for me) is a wrong and unproductive kind.

Animism looks at nature and the universe and sees wonder, mystery, meaning, purpose and personality – a world one can have a relationship with. Atheism looks at the same things and sees only a web of blind, random, purposeless and impersonal forces and matter, without ultimate meaning or relational potential. Scientifically and rationally of course, Atheism is way in advance of Animism. Relationally, emotionally and philosophically though, it’s light years behind.

Myth and reality

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia is a magical, spiritual land of talking animals and divine waters, where even the trees and rivers have spirits and personalities (dryads and nymphs). And in his earlier, adult Cosmic Trilogy Lewis pictured our own universe as teeming  with life and spiritual personality, rather than as dead empty space. In other words, the worlds he imagined were characterised (or animated) by Animism rather than Atheism.

Of course, Lewis didn’t actually believe that rivers, planets or trees are spirit beings. But he did believe that there was an important kind of deeper poetic or spiritual – mythical – truth in this picture of the universe, and that it was far closer to the reality than the scientific picture of a sterile, impersonal universe. Myth was very important to Lewis, even foundational to his understanding; he loved pagan myths and came to believe in Christ as the unique person and place where ‘myth became fact’. And as a truth-bearing myth, Animism wins hands-down over Atheism for Lewis. (NB I’m using ‘myth’ here in the technical not derogatory sense – a narrative that mediates metaphysical truth about the world and our place in it.)

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace meets the retired star Ramandu and comments, “In our world, a star is just a huge ball of flaming gas”. Ramandu gently replies, “Son, even in your world that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of”. Lewis utterly rejected the ‘nothing-buttery’ of ontological reductionism which sees anything – stars, symphonies, people – as merely the sum of its component physical parts. For Lewis, the universe and everything in it had meaning, life and a kind of personality, because the God who created it has meaning, life and personality.

Children and adults

Animism sees the world through a child’s eyes, both with a child’s fear of the dark and with a child’s wonder at nature and belief in the possibility of magic. Atheism sees it through sophisticated adult eyes which have no room for such nonsense. But sometimes, as in the tale (or myth) of the Emperor’s New Clothes, children see more clearly and accurately than adults. “To enter the kingdom of heaven, first you must become like little children”… or something along those lines.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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9 Responses to Animism vs Atheism

  1. dsholland says:


    Additionally to the argument that –
    “…all religions are just more (or less) sophisticated versions of animism, that need gods and devils to explain natural phenomena.”

    Huston Smith (The World’s Religions) makes the point that the monotheism of Judaism introduced the idea of a transcendent God. A God that was not part of nature but beyond it. This understanding, truly this revelation, is a profound and essential distinction between Animism and Theism. The idea that the Atheist is ignorant of this distinction echos the Psalmist’s declaration that “the fool has said in his heart there is no God.”


    • harveyedser says:

      Yes, I take your point – though I think that at least some forms of Animism do have an idea of a transcendent God who is above all the other gods. Where this is the case though, this God is usually seen as aloof and unapproachable, and it’s the little local gods who are seen as more important to everyday life.

      I wouldn’t normally try to defend pagan superstition against intellectual atheism, particularly when I agree that the authentically Christian understanding of God is utterly different from the water-spirits and ancestor-worship of much tribal religion – belonging to a completely different category in fact. But if I had to choose between the two, it would be animism over atheism any day. 🙂


  2. johnm55 says:

    I would disagree with the idea that atheists/agnostics necessarily lose their wonder and reverence for nature. The fact that one knows and understands the science and the reasons why the universe is the way it is does not lessen the sense of awe one encounters when confronted by the sight of the stars on a clear dark night. It does not lessen the delight in seeing; say a school of flying fish take off on the bow wave of a ship, nor the amazement at the constantly shifting patterns that a flock of starlings can make as the fly towards their roosts at dusk.
    I would indeed argue that Christian Dominionist theology (which I am sure you don’t share) by placing human beings, at the centre and pinnacle of the Universe, or God’s Creation as they would have it, does far more damage to nature and our understanding of it than the atheist view of the place of human beings in the universe.
    Essentially, the universe doesn’t really care whether we exist or don’t. We would all like to be Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Total Perspective Vortex, (Douglas Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe Chapter 11), but we are not and the realisation that we are stardust can be as frightening as it can be liberating.
    Ultimately Zaphod’s illusion that he was the centre of the universe was because the Total Perspective Vortex had been rigged to give him that impression.


    • harveyedser says:

      I take your points John, and I’m aware I was a little harsh on atheism (though I didn’t mention agnosticism, which I see as entirely different). I’m not sure though that what I mean by atheism is quite the same as your understanding. I was really talking about philosophical Atheism (capital A) rather than the practical, personal atheism of the average non-believer.

      I would agree entirely that it’s possible to be an atheist and to maintain your sense of awe and reverence for the universe. Indeed, I think this is often the atheists’ saving grace, and puts them ahead of the dominionist Christians! However, to my mind this reverence is not logically coherent with philosophical Atheism, which necessarily sees the universe – and ourselves – as ultimately meaningless and purposeless accidents of being. The fact that atheists can still have a sense of wonder is a testament to their humanity, but not necessarily to their logic.

      I do disagree slightly on the point about “understanding the science and reasons why the universe is the way it is”, which seems to imply that you have to be an atheist or agnostic to understand these things. I would argue that not only is this not the case, but that actually atheists have a poorer understanding of the universe and its reasons because they are restricted to a naturalist and solely scientific understanding – which is good but is only partial. Truth is much broader and more complex than the (admittedly highly useful) account that science can give.

      Finally, I don’t agree that the universe doesn’t care whether we exist or not – its fundamental parameters are fine-tuned for our existence to be possible. Of course the physical universe isn’t sentient, but it’s only the atheistic materialist position that holds that unsentient Matter is the central fact of the universe. It’s equally plausible (I would say more plausible) to see Mind as the foundation of everything, which of course is the basis of Theism.

      All that said, I do have a lot of time for anyone who finds themselves unable to believe in God. I just don’t have a lot of time for dogmatic philosophical Atheism – or indeed for dogmatic fundamentalist Christianity for that matter.


  3. dsholland says:

    @john55 – I think there is confusion WRT the biblical directives for man toward creation. It has always been clear to me that the dominion of man was the responsibility of stewardship or husbandry. In fact God’s wrath is expressed against those who destroy the earth (
    I suspect my sensitivity on this point is due to my Native American heritage. It was an issue I had to resolve in my journey to Christ.


    • johnm55 says:

      I fully agree with your (and I’m sure Harvey’s) understanding of the bible’s directives toward care for the planet.
      What I was getting at is that there is a school of thought that takes certain texts as proof textsand twists the into a philosophy that puts humankind at the apex of creation and says that god provided this planet for use and we can do what we want with it. The also seem to believe that if and when we screw it up completely that somehow or other their god will save the day by rapturing them or something like that.


      • harveyedser says:

        Yes, unfortunately there are some very stupid and selfish Christians out there… though I can’t throw stones as I suspect I have plenty of faults of my own. Dominionism seems to me a total and tragic misunderstanding both of the Bible and of the kind of God Christians believe in. I’m very glad though that many Christians – and others – seem to be waking up to the realisation of their responsibility for the planet and the environment. I would still argue that ‘creation care’ makes more sense within a thought-through Christian philosophy than it does within an atheist one… but I’m going to stop bashing atheists for now! I might even write a post defending atheism next… 🙂


  4. Pingback: Atheism » Blog Archive » Atheism/agnosticism 1: Atheism okay… | The Evangelical Liberal

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