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  The word animism (from Latin anima, ‘spirit’) was coined by the English anthropologist E.B. Tylor (1832 - 1917) to describe the religions of preliterate ‘tribal’ societies where the religious community was coterminous with the ethnic community. (Tylor was an expert on Central American society.) As he saw it, the predominant characteristic was the attribution of a soul or spirit to inanimate objects such as rivers, trees and mountains, and religion was directed to placating these spirits and those of the ancestors.

Tylor saw animism as the first stage of the education of the world, from which the higher religions and modern Western ‘enlightened’ civilization have progressed. Borrowing the ‘three stages’ theory of , A. Comte (1798 - 1857), he divided the human race into the ‘savage’, the ‘barbarian’ and the ‘civilized’; the implication was that it was the duty of the ‘civilized’ members of the species to enlighten the others and bestow the benefits of modern technology on them. It was the theory of evolution imported into the study of religion.

Tylor\'s theory of the gradual evolution of religion had a pernicious effect on Western perception of tribal religion, reinforcing the effects of racism and colonialism. There is no evidence of a progression from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ in religions. Many religions contain so-called ‘primitive’ elements, and ideas such as taboo are found in one shape or form in most religions. Because of the pejorative associations of the word ‘animism’ it is usually replaced nowadays, in discussion of the faiths of the indigenous peoples of Africa, the Americas, Australia and elsewhere, with terms such as ‘traditional religion’ or ‘tribal religion’. EMJ CL KMcL



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