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Author Topic: Animism and fluffiness  (Read 17866 times)
Purplewitch
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« Reply #45: September 06, 2007, 01:32:09 pm »

I think that people are missing my point. I'm saying that for most people labeled as "animists" in the world today, the term is reductive when describing their religious lives. I say that polytheism is a better definition for those groups labeled as "animists" because it is (slightly) more accurate an umbrella term.

Not necessarily though because the two terms have different meanings, while there might be overlap since the people could be animistic and polytheistic, the two terms aren't synonymous.

It smacks to me a little of scholarly snobbery equating animism as primitive and therefore lesser somehow than polytheism which they presumably see as more civilised or better. (From the journalists and scholars, not from you)

Just my take on it, and I'm known for having little use for labels, reclaimed or otherwise, sayeth the Witch Wink
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jasonpitzlwaters
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« Reply #46: September 06, 2007, 02:58:54 pm »

Not necessarily though because the two terms have different meanings, while there might be overlap since the people could be animistic and polytheistic, the two terms aren't synonymous.

Here is where I'm coming from on this (because I feel that perhaps I'm not coming across well, so picture me smiling and having a lively interesting conversation with you Cheesy). Some time ago, the term "animism" was placed within an evolutionary context to describe religious systems that were "primitive". Presentations on the history of religion would often go from cave-men, to the "animists", take a quick detour in the world of classical paganism, and end up with the highly "evolved" monotheist traditions. So "animists" were all those non-Christians from tribal societies who hadn't wised up to the higher orders of religious belief (Native Americans, indigenous Chinese belief systems, African Traditional Religions, Native Australians, and so on). What old Bugs Bunny cartoons would describe as "savages".

Flash forward and the evolutionary idea of religion has fallen into disfavor in most places (though it still exists here and there), but some of the terminology still exists and is used to define religious movements around today. Such is the case with "animism". While academics and journalists who use the term today to describe non-Christian/Muslim religion in places like Africa mean no offense, many from Africa feel the term is deeply offensive. Aloysius M. Lugira classifies terms like "animism" as "semantic racism", while Stephen Moseray at africansocieties.org says that the term animism has "always carried a negative connotation". This sentiment is reiterated by Peter K. Sarpong in an article concerning dialog between Christians and adherents of African Traditional Religions which states that the term is "simply incorrect", and the African Access Review (and informational source for libraries and schools to improve their materials on Africa) recommends buying books that avoid using the term animist. 

When I personally am speaking broadly about pre-Christian religion I will often use the term "polytheist" (while when speaking more specifically I try to use terminology picked/approved by the religious groups in question). I fully understand that this term isn't perfect or encompasses every individual, but it also isn't laden with baggage from the colonial era that some non/pre-Christian groups find offensive. I stand by the assertion that the majority of the people in the world who are labeled as "animists" could just as easily be called polytheists. For example: Vodou contains "animistic" qualities, but to label it as animism is (again, in my opinion) reductive. It would be more apt (again, in my opinion) to say they acknowledge a multiplicity of numinous powers (which in my mind falls under the umbrella of "polytheism").

Now none of this is to say that people can't/shouldn't use the term "animism" to describe themselves. Far from it. In fact some academics (like Graham Harvey) are trying to rehabilitate and re-purpose the term (which I completely respect). Nor am I saying that animism and polytheism are the same thing, I fully acknowledge you can be a monotheist animist, or a polytheist non-animist. But then "umbrella terms" are always going to be problematic because humanity doesn't always fit into neat little boxes. I was simply trying to voice a personal preference between sweeping generalities when referring to a certain specific religious classification, the lesser or two evils if you will.

I truly hope I didn't offend anyone before, and I hope I have made myself clearer. If not, well then I chalk it up to the limitations of the medium and will avoid blaming myself overmuch!  Wink

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« Reply #47: September 06, 2007, 03:14:23 pm »

But then "umbrella terms" are always going to be problematic because humanity doesn't always fit into neat little boxes. I was simply trying to voice a personal preference between sweeping generalities when referring to a certain specific religious classification, the lesser or two evils if you will.

Ain't that the truth? I do dislike 'neat little boxes' (There's a shocker to most round here Wink ) People do not, naturally, fit into neat little boxes. We aren't box shaped after all  Cheesy

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I truly hope I didn't offend anyone before, and I hope I have made myself clearer.

Speaking for myself I'm not offended Smiley
And I see where your coming from, though I'm pretty sure I disagree, or at least fail to agree with the whole of their reasoning, but I understand it, I think.
(Shocker number two - purple disagrees... lol)
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« Reply #48: September 06, 2007, 04:05:13 pm »

The particular feature that used to irk me the most was when such folks made a big fuss about "leaving something in exchange", but with nary a thought to whether the "something" they were leaving was of any sort of value to the tree from which they'd taken leaf/flower/twig/etc.

In my experience, "animist" is an incorrect description of these folks.  They don't just "assume it would be an honor"; they don't really believe the object can accept or decline - their asking, and their offering-in exchange, are done as a matter of "proper form", not because they give any real credence to its function.  At the most sincere end of the spectrum, to believe that the tree has a spirit, but not believe that spirit is/can be aware and volitional, is semi-animistic at best.

You are right. That is a much better way of describing it. I think part of that mindset is an idea that the reason you do it is because it is done by "tribal people" or "our ancestors" or whoever's spiritual practices you are inclinded to draw inspiration from. Not because you are personally moved to show respect to the indwelling spirit of that tree/rock/etc, but because doing your spirituality "correctly" entails leaving offerings in this way.

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« Reply #49: September 06, 2007, 04:17:17 pm »

If we are talking about pre-Christian tribal and indigenous cultures (which I was), to describe what they do as "animism" is greatly reductive of their cultures and faiths (in my opinion).

In surviving pre-Christian religions that are labeled with "animism" it isn't merely rocks, plants, and other objects that are numinous, but the ancestors, and the gods/spirits. Respected religious scholar Jordan Paper (who has studied, practiced, and lived among African, Native American, and Chinese polytheists) considers the term so "vague" as to be useless in describing these faiths.


I fear that I must challenge this Christian view of the world.  Why do you use the phrase "pre Christian".  The assumption that animist religions were replaced by Christianity is true in Siberia and parts of Africa, America and Australia, but many of the areas you are talking about never were Christian - there are more Muslims in Africa than Christians and China never was Christian. And what about Japan where an animist view of the world (Shinto) happily coexists with Buddhism. Those of us who were not brought up in the Christian faith might find you view of history limited if not outright offensive.
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« Reply #50: September 06, 2007, 04:43:40 pm »

I fear that I must challenge this Christian view of the world.  Why do you use the phrase "pre Christian".  The assumption that animist religions were replaced by Christianity...

I think we are using the phrase in different contexts here. I make no assumptions that any of these faiths were "replaced" by Christianity (except in cases where they were), merely that they can trace their existence to before the advent of Christianity (which is now spread all over the world, and is certainly the dominant religion in my part of the world). It was shorthand, perhaps sloppy shorthand since I was being informal. I'm certainly not making any statements of superiority concerning Christianity.

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Those of us who were not brought up in the Christian faith might find you view of history limited if not outright offensive.

I wasn't brought up in the Christian faith. I never went to church as a kid, so don't be to hasty in assigning me "other" status by using phrases like "those of us", since I might just be "one of you".

As for Africa, have you heard about how the Pentecostal movement in southern Nigeria is destroying relics and altars of Traditional African Religion at an alarming rate? In another generation the tribal religions in that area could be almost completely wiped out.


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« Reply #51: September 06, 2007, 05:04:11 pm »



I wasn't brought up in the Christian faith. I never went to church as a kid, so don't be to hasty in assigning me "other" status by using phrases like "those of us", since I might just be "one of you".

As for Africa, have you heard about how the Pentecostal movement in southern Nigeria is destroying relics and altars of Traditional African Religion at an alarming rate? In another generation the tribal religions in that area could be almost completely wiped out.




Sorry, I think my message sounded harsher than I intended.  I have heard about what is happening in  Southern Nigeria and it is bad.  But there are some strange survivals Yezidis survive in Iraq and I recently met a shaman in Siberia (but whether he was a Shaman for tourists or the real deal I can't say).
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« Reply #52: September 06, 2007, 05:28:54 pm »

Sorry, I think my message sounded harsher than I intended.

No problem, it is one of the perils of the Internet!  Wink
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« Reply #53: September 06, 2007, 06:28:34 pm »

I say that polytheism is a better definition for those groups labeled as "animists" because it is (slightly) more accurate an umbrella term. The "divine spark" the "theos" or the "numinous" is understood as multiple in these cultures and transcends the reductive definition of animism ("religions that attribute souls to non-human entities").

I think using "polytheist" to mean "animist" is simply incorrect. One need not believe in any gods to be an animist (just believe that all/most things have spirits). To be a polytheist, one must believe in two or more deities but need not believe that things in general have spirits. Using "polytheist" for both makes no more sense to me that using "Christian" to describe animists would.
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« Reply #54: September 06, 2007, 07:35:32 pm »

I think using "polytheist" to mean "animist" is simply incorrect. One need not believe in any gods to be an animist (just believe that all/most things have spirits). To be a polytheist, one must believe in two or more deities but need not believe that things in general have spirits. Using "polytheist" for both makes no more sense to me that using "Christian" to describe animists would.

I try not to be a hard ass about terms and definitions, but I have to say it is getting awfully fuzzy out there!  I could see, possibly, relating animism and pantheism.....but polytheism??  Whoa....vocabulary, like good penmanship, is on its way to being a lost art.
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« Reply #55: September 06, 2007, 08:00:29 pm »

If we are talking about pre-Christian tribal and indigenous cultures (which I was)
It seems to me that the friction arose because it's not clear why you're focusing so wholly on those cultures.  I largely agree with your assessment of the shortcomings of the anthropological usage of "animist" (though there are fine points that could be debated - I once had a lovely discussion with an African-born gentleman about his [nameless] tribal religion, which he was quite satisfied to describe as animism because neither the nature spirits nor the ancestors venerated therein were "gods" - and he did seem to have exposure to the idea of non-omni3 conceptions), but given that the topic at hand was animism in a neoPagan context, it's puzzling to me why you would focus so strongly on a different context, without being clear that you wanted to shift the focus.

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« Reply #56: September 06, 2007, 11:01:40 pm »

I think using "polytheist" to mean "animist" is simply incorrect.

Man, I'm feeling like I'm just not coming across here. I am not using polytheist to mean "animist", I am saying that in the cases I have referenced (specifically in Africa) the term "animist" is limiting, insulting to some of the groups included in that term, and ultimately incorrect. Which is why, in that instance, I prefer the term "polytheist" when I search for a blanket description, because I feel it fits better.

Make sense?
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« Reply #57: September 06, 2007, 11:10:37 pm »

I try not to be a hard ass about terms and definitions, but I have to say it is getting awfully fuzzy out there!  I could see, possibly, relating animism and pantheism.....but polytheism??  Whoa....vocabulary, like good penmanship, is on its way to being a lost art.

OK. Maybe I'm having an "off" communication day or something. I never said that people who identify as "animists" should be called "polytheists". I said that when the term is used to refer to the large and diverse religious communities that exist in places like Africa it is incomplete, or even, incorrect (and to many Africans, it can be insulting). In those cases I personally prefer the term "polytheist" as (somewhat) more accurate religious descriptor. I am not denying that these faiths may or may not have "animist" qualities, nor am I say that those who define themselves as animists are actually polytheists. I am perfectly aware of the definition of both polytheism and animism. Honestly.

Yours in un-fuzzying my apparently fuzzy thinking...
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« Reply #58: September 06, 2007, 11:14:46 pm »

Man, I'm feeling like I'm just not coming across here. I am not using polytheist to mean "animist", I am saying that in the cases I have referenced (specifically in Africa) the term "animist" is limiting, insulting to some of the groups included in that term, and ultimately incorrect. Which is why, in that instance, I prefer the term "polytheist" when I search for a blanket description, because I feel it fits better.

Make sense?

It does make sense, in that if you feel, or have been told, that the term is an insult, you would prefer to use another term.  Most neo-pagans, however, do not feel the term to be insulting, simply descriptive.

On the North American front, I have to say I am surprised to find it considered insulting.  I am an animist, and a polytheist, and was brought up this way.  My religion is pre-Christian in the sense you mean, and while my concepts are not as true-to-heritage as my res-raised cousins (Ojibwe), I've never felt that the term was condescending or insulting.

Many of them are Christian, so definitely not polytheist, but with a little fudging the animism fits just fine and they use the term themselves.  At least with me, when discussing such things.  Some of them are university educated, as am I, and my major was Anthro and Ling.  I think I must have missed this connotation, as I did with 'dark ages' being considered offensive in scholarly circles.  I'm not always observant. Smiley

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« Reply #59: September 06, 2007, 11:18:00 pm »

it's puzzling to me why you would focus so strongly on a different context, without being clear that you wanted to shift the focus.

I'm puzzled too! I brought up the other context as a simple curiosity, to note only that most references to "animism" and "animists" I had found had been in the anthropological context (and that I had some qualms about the term in that context and so used different terminology). It wasn't meant to be a big thing, but it all sort of snowballed once the confusion over whether I was confusing polytheism with animism started.

My complete apologies if I hijacked this thread! It was never my intention.
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