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.