Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Ed. David A. Leeming, Kathryn Madden, and Stanton Marlan. New York: Springer, 2010.

A Modern Tool: Tylor

“Animism is not a religion, it is a theoretical construct that attempts to explain a wide range of religious beliefs and practices. It is a modern concept, a by-product of the theoretical dualistic division between subject and object, grouping together religious beliefs that breach or confuse that division. Originally defined as the erroneous attribution of life or soul to inanimate objects by primitive people, “animism was developed as a major category in “primitive” religions, a “minimum” definition of natural religion by E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) in his 1871 book Primitive Culture. Today a “new animism is developing along quite different, more ecological lines.

Traditional beliefs grouped under this concept originally included the view that a person’s or animal’s shadow, breath, blood, liver, heart, or eye holds their soul. Animals have souls, and all of the earth and sky is full of souls, Some are re-incarnated ancestors, some are friendly spirits, some are hostile ghosts. One’s shadow-soul could be devoured by a crocodile. Eating an animal’s liver could transfer some of that animal’s qualities to you. Animals or things seen in dreams or visions are believed to have souls. At the moment of death, the eerie experience of seeing a life turn into a corpse suggests to many the departure to an afterlife of a soul (anima) that once animated, or gave life to the body. A tree may be seen as requiring placation before it can be cut, since it has a soul. Stones and gems may have souls. Ghosts and spirits of the dead are believed to populate the world and need magic, sacrifices or food to keep them alive or satisfy their potentially dangerous tendencies, such as revenge for a wrongful death. The ontological sources of the world, such as “Mother Earth or the origin of a species of life may be perceived as souls in the world. Tylor contrasts animism, in which the soul is the origin of life, with materialism, in which matter is the origin of existence (Tylor, 1871, I: 453).

Evolution of Religion

Tylor argued that animism is the childish, primitive, lower, savage origin of all “higher” religions, in his scheme of the evolution of religion from an amorphous animism through more differentiated polytheism to anthropomorphic monotheism, all at war with science. R. R. Marrett, in his 1909 The Threshold of Religion, argued that an even earlier phase of undifferentiated “preanimism or “animatism (similar to electricity) that preceded animism. This reductive evolutionary scheme, promoted by others, such as Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, was often implicitly or explicitly seen as part of the August Compte’s 1822 positivist attack on religion as an early phase of illusory beliefs he called “fetishism, that theoretically faded away in the triumph of rational modern science. Arnold van Gennep in 1909 called it “dynamism.


Tylor and others presented their schemes as “laws of science, but they were heavily laden with metaphysical assumptions. When Tylor speaks of animism as “extranatural interference and causeless spontaneity” (Tylor, 1871, I: 3), he assumes that we know completely what nature is, and what it excludes. When he speaks of “inanimate objects, he is picturing the world through the Cartestian lens of the subject/object metaphysic. Speaking of “cause, he assumes that this is a universal principle that is omni-explanatory, and religion is a cognitive error. This is heavy-duty metaphysics, inflated by the narrow horizons of nineteenth-century positivist confidence in science. It is a nexus of a major ontological feud between archaic cultures and modern industrial society. Believing that souls inhabit the world outside human minds is essential to “animism, and believing that NO souls inhabit the world outside the human mind is essential to the scientific worldview.

Attempting to make sense of the reports from cultures newly discovered by European global travelers, Tylor’s theory of animism did explain, for example, that funeral rites requiring the deaths of the wife, weapons, food, and servants of a powerful man, had some crude form of reason and practical value. Within their worldview, all these souls [animae] were going to heaven to serve their master’s soul. But to Tylor this kind of reason was finally subjective superstitious nonsense to be disposed of by the presumed progress of new scientific knowledge and more advanced races higher morality that respects human life.


Tylor was Oxford’s first Professor of Anthropology when he retired in 1909, but his assumptions were soon eclipsed by more functional anthropology, which stressed social functions of religion rather than evolutionary progress, and psychoanalytic psychology, which saw the unconscious and symbolic side of archaic religions, rather than the early rational, practical side.

Tylor did see that animism survives in modern times, both in indigenous people’s tribal customs, such as sun-worship and divination, and in “higher cultures superstitions, such as medieval witchcraft, spiritualism, and games of chance. He believed, as did many, that contemporary “savage practices are survivals from archaic times, so they allow us to reconstruct past animism. But Tylor was generally criticized for seeing archaic religions as too intellectual and rational, rather than emotional and intuitive.

After René Descartes proclaimed “I think therefore I am, which helped shove previous intuitions of “ani-mist soul in the world aside as subjective irrationalities, these intuitions were sometimes happily dismissed as superstitions, and sometimes retained as mystical phenomena. The Romantics kept open a peek at soul in the world. Nineteenth-century Spiritualists maintained communion with what they saw as departed souls still in the world.

In the shadow of apparently triumphant industrialism, some contemporary indigenous people still hold to the archaic ontology when they say things such as “that mountain has spirit … ask Mother Nature to spare you some meat … worship the land, the ground and the stars and the skies, for they are the ones that have spirits. They are the mighty spirits which guide and direct us, which help us to survive” (Trimble, 1986: 24-47). Some cultures, as in Asia, still believe that eating a shark’s fin, rhino’s horn, or tiger’s penis, for example, can transfer some of that animal’s soul – aggression or sexuality – to you at dinner. “Bush meat from African monkeys is still prized at some European restaurants. This demand is the source of ongoing bloody damage to wild animals. Children’s teddy bears, pets, and toys, people’s homes and home towns may be said to have souls. Such enduring childish or “primitive practices indicate that the nineteenth century evolutionary scheme that attempted to leave “animism in the dust of developing rationality in technological cultures was not as triumphal as some believed.

One might detect elements of animism in major religions. Anthropomorphism in general contains elements of animism, seeing generalized numinous powers as persons. In Christianity, the incarnation of Christ could be seen anthropomorphically as an embodiment of the religious instinct. Seeing certain literalist beliefs as the Devil may be seen as animist. Seeing gods as fathers, mothers, animals, or any earthy form may be seen as a form of animism. Statues, icons, and paintings, dancers, and all the many ways that spirituality is embodied may be seen as animism today. The Eastern Orthodox Christians have made a refined distinction in their debates about the presence of the divine in icons. The “essence of God cannot be known in an icon, but the lesser “energy of the divine may be felt. Giving spirits “spirit houses as in Indonesia, or setting out rice balls as food for ancestors in a domestic shrine in Asia is animist. Animism survives, however refined, today, but not without continuing opposition.

Depth Psychology

Modern depth psychology has also edged toward the perception of souls in the world. On the one hand it helped rationalism strip the world of soul with its important theory of “projection. This theory describes well how we all see out in the world what is actually rooted in unconscious dynamics. Sigmund Freud borrowed this concept from nineteenth-century culture, where theatrical Camera Obscurae at carnivals frightened people with tricks making pictures or actors seem to be spirits hovering in a dark room (Bailey, 1988). Similarly the “magic lantern (now called the “slide projector) was widely used by traveling performers to astonish and frighten people across Europe (Bailey, 1986). Ludwig Feuerbach used the concept in 1841, saying; “The personality of God is nothing else than the projected personality of man. (Die Persoenlichkeit Gottes ist die entausserte Persoenlichkeit des Menschen.) (Feuerbach,1957: 226).

The key German word “entausserte” translates “exter-nalization, not “projection, but Feuerbach’s English translator George Eliot used the term “projection. So when Freud adopted the concept in 1895 (the same year that the movie projector was invented by Edison and others), “projection became a strong psychoanalytic image for withdrawing soul from the world, while it helped patients discover their inner lives rather than imagine their souls only in the world. While a healing concept, it also helped strip the world of animism and soul.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud opened psychology up to the meaningfulness of the unconscious psyche as a healing factor, and the importance of symbolic language for psychology, but he retained key elements of nineteenth-century materialism, such as the subjective interiority of the psyche, dynamics such as projection, and the view of religion as an infantile illusion. In psychoanalysis, the transference/counter-transference relation in therapy has evoked much heated debate about the presence of crude, infantile, refined, or even transcendent presences in the analytic container. Some see it as a necessary element in therapy, others do not. Some allow for it to become actively erotic, others do not. But it is at least analogous to animism in its unconscious perception of psychological and spiritual dynamics in the analyst-client interaction field, sometimes infantile, sometimes shadowy, but rarely missing in such an intimate alliance, for it provides an externalization of key unconscious dynamics to be worked out, as animism does in religion.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung adopted many of Freud’s psychoanalytic discoveries, such as the meaningfulness of the unconscious psyche, but rejected Freud’s focus on sexuality as central, and his denigration of religion. He also opened his “archetypal depth psychology, however hesitantly, a step further toward “animism.” First, Jung developed his theory of the collective unconscious, which moved psychology out of a narrow subjectivism. This expanded the psyche into a deeper and wider sense of soul in the human community and history. He also elevated mythology to a symbolic language of the collective unconscious, giving traditions such as alchemy a positive meaning denied since the Enlightenment. He also showed how myths and dreams echo each other, both coming from the collective unconscious. A key therapeutic practice is to take the motifs of a dream (e.g., virgin girl) and search for parallels in archaic myths (e.g., Virgin Mary), thus amplifying and externalizing its meanings with historical and anthropomorphic depth.

After Jung’s transforming near-death experience in 1944 (Jung, 1961/1971), which opened him to a more cosmic sense of the soul’s journey, Jung became even more mystical and worked on uncovering the deeper meanings of traditions such as alchemy. The ancient and medieval alchemists wrote about transforming base materials such as lead into treasures such as gold, and Jung realized that they were talking in code language about their own soul transformations, for example, transforming depression and death into a treasure, the “philosopher’s stone. These were in part “projections from their inner lives onto outer matter, but Jung tread closer to “animism and religion. In the alchemist Khunrath he reads: “It is the Aqua Permanens, eternally living. The “radical moisture” is animated … by a fiery spark of the World-soul, for the spirit of the Lord filleth the whole world.” (Jung, 1963, CW XIV: para. 50).

Jung concluded his extensive alchemical explorations with the term “mysterium coniunctionis, meaning: “Everything that happens, however, happens in the same ‘one world and is a part of it. For this reason events must possess an a priori aspect of unity, though it is difficult to establish this by the statistical method” (Jung, 1963,CW XIV: para. 662).

Although Jung sought to retain his Kantian subject/ object epistemology and his role as scientific psychologist rather than theologian, toward the end of his life he repeatedly tip-toed across the border between subjectivist psychology and a mystical sense of the oneness of the world (unus mundus) that allowed for a refined “animism and religion.

Jung also saw many archetypal constellations, as between parents and children, as forms of participation mystique, Lucien Levy-Bruhl’s term for Jung’s sense of the wholeness of archetypal collective attractions, repulsions, and identifications as with tribe, society, religion, or nation. “The all-embracing womb of Mother Church is anything but a metaphor, and the same is true of Mother Earth, Mother Nature, and ‘matter in general (Jung, 1963, CW X: 64-71).

One form this paradoxical struggle took was Jung’s concept of synchronicity, or “meaningful co-incidence. outside the narrower laws of causality, such as extrasensory perception, clairvoyance, or precognition. Once a patient was discussing a dream of a golden scarab (a symbol of rebirth), and at that moment, a very similar scarabaeid beetle (rose-chafer) flew to the window (Jung, 1963, CWVIII, 843).

Jung’s critics call these explorations “‘mysticism, and in them one might see elements of animism. The later Jung did acknowledge that he stretched the boundaries of modern science. However, the many mysteries in areas such as physics subsequent explorations of dark matter have become the topics of postmodern questioning of the certainty of science, for which Jung was a precursor. Moreover, Jung never lost his strong ego and ability to step back and analyze the mysterious depths of soul-in-the-world that he uncovered.

James Hillman

Of Jung’s successors, James Hillman pressed forward the issue of soul-in-the-world farther. In Revisioning Psychology, Hillman devotes an entire chapter to “Personifying or Imagining Things, where he criticizes the subjectivist view of defensive projections “out there being withdrawn back “in here” and seen as merely fictional or imaginary, understandable only for the irrational: children, primitives, or the insane. This metaphysical assumption pervading psychology he challenges and instead seeks to “penetrate the interior realm of animism. For we are in search of anima, or soul” (Hillman, 1975: 3). This metaphysic is the real defense, he argues, against the psychic power, not as allegories under the rule of reason, but of vital, autonomous animated images. Against this religious and psychological literalism, he urges being in the world and experiencing it as a psychological field. The ancient Greeks did this when they personified the psychic forces in culture such as Fame, Insolence, Timing, Hope Ugliness, Friendship, Modesty, Mercy, Peace, and in the world as Dawn and Night. This poetic language is necessarily mythological, but must be rescued from its rationalist prison and released to free the soul to experience the vitality of the inner and outer worlds. Hillman says: “Subject and object, man and Gods, I and Thou, are not apart and isolated each with a different sort of being, one living or real, the other dead or imaginary. The world and the Gods are dead or alive, according to the condition of our souls” (Hillman, 1975: 16).

While these worlds of Night and Hope are within us, we also live within them. The epidemic of depression in our society, Hillman says, may well be not simply personal problems, but feelings of collective grief and helplessness about the way industrial society has ravaged the world with pollution: “I know now that a great deal of the depression I suffered in Los Angeles was due to the effect of the smog…(1992: 82).” Avoiding literalism, we must also see through varieties of soul-in-the-world to the deep mysteries that they disclose, the one collective world below the ordinary particulars of life – the anima mundi -soul of the world. This is a de-literalized, radical, and highly refined form of the old “animism.”

Thomas Moore

Thomas Moore is another archetypal therapist in the Jungian tradition who presses forward the phenomenon of soul-in-the-world. In Care of the Soul he says: “Our felt relationship to things in a soul-ecology “wouldn t allow us to pollute or to perpetrate ugliness. We couldn t let a beautiful ocean bay become a sewer system for shipping and manufacturing because our hearts would protest this violation of soul” (Moore, 270). Anima mundi, he says, is not a “mystical philosophy requiring high forms of meditation, nor does it ask for a return to primitive animism (Moore, 281). In involves simply a cultivating and feeling the arts of life with depth – art, music, food, and gardens. This shift is needed to care for our souls more fully, to balance the one-sided rationality that industrial society demands.

In The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, Moore goes further and explores “enchantment, as when one walks in the woods and feels transported by the wonder and may even imaginally feel the inward voices of the trees and waterfalls speaking. From the farm spirit to garden paradises, Moore urges industrial societies to re-awaken ancient songs in the heart of nature spirituality to head off our ecological suffering with a radically new openness to the mysterious and enchanting depths of nature.

Many other thinkers are exploring these same themes from various angles. Martin Heidegger offers a powerful and influential new ontology of Being-in-the-world (dasein). Jane Goodall has shifted animal studies toward accepting the souls of animals rather than behaviorally treating them as machines. Graham Harvey is writing about a new animism, as Animism: Respecting the Living World. Thomas Berry is exploring a Universe Story that integrates theology and nature. The old animism was a way of clearing the world for industrialism of the very soul that the new animism is re-awakening, but as it develops, the new animism will engage in a dialogue with science and religion that will change both.