Religion as a Sytem and Survival Mechanism

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For eons of time, humankind has indefatigably tried to explain his existence in the world and consequently led to the development of religion. Religion is a system of not only belief for him, but a survival mechanism. Religion serves to give hope to mankind in a manner that no other thing does, it is necessary that he feels part and parcel of a higher purpose. Unconventionally, animism refers to a theory of religion rather than a religion in itself. The theory was coined in E.B Taylor, who was an anthropologist. His theory was constructed on the argument that inanimate objects possessed souls as opposed to the common belief that only a supernatural being was ultimately responsible for the existence of the human race (Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature , 2005). His theory was further informed by the notion of European development, they had evolved from the most basic forms to the apex of success in science while the indigenous peoples of some parts of the world had been left behind in this evolution and were as a result referred to as primitive. This was evidenced by the progression of European peoples from polytheism to monotheism. Essentially, Taylor was initially interested in gathering data for his primitive animism work but his theory caught on and defined contemporary indigenous religions and its adherents.

In his book, The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man, John Lubbock cites that religion came into existence when human beings started attributing animation to inanimate objects. This however, was considered primitive or savage like in nature. Taylor goes further to explain that animism originated when for instance, indigenous peoples propensity to dream about dead relatives or ancestors insinuated that they still lived, only in a different form from theirs (Crowley, 2010). As a result, human beings formed a theory that spiritual souls existed in addition to a supernatural being. Taylor built his theory based on accounts from explorers, missionaries and colonial agents and therefore made the assumption that indigenous people animated inanimate objects. His most distinguished observation was drawn from the Zulu people of South Africa through the accounts of an indigenous Christian convert known as Mpengula Mbande. The Zulu typically had many dreams about their deceased ancestors and in particular, James Mbande, the converts brother, who was commonly referred to as a house of dreams. Although James was atypical of the rest of the Zulu, Taylor concluded that this validated his theory of animism. Interestingly, the Zulu queer habit of sneezing provided further evidence for his theory, he quipped that it was not just a mere act of sneezing but rather an obvious occupation and invasion of spirits (either good or evil) into their beings. Just like all beings, the Zulu attempted to explain their existence with the limited knowledge at their disposal, or rather, based on intuition (Guthrie, 2007).

Like many other theories, Taylors was based on many assumptions. Foremost, he overlooked the cultural and contextual aspects of the indigenous people and assumed that they only adopted notions of morality from interaction with higher forms of monotheistic religion such as Christianity. In solitude, the indigenous people were primitive and incessantly stupid. His theory would therefore be regarded as a scientific explanation of religion as it was based on observatory tendencies, such as attempting to expound on the materialism that had invaded Europe. Some anthropologists rejected the theory on the premise that it was formulated based on the commodity capitalism that was characteristic of North America and Europe. This built on the concept of fetishm that explained how indigenous people gave more importance to inanimate objects that were not considered valuable by the colonialists/missionaries. Therefore, contemporary animism is summed up as all that exists lives (Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature , 2005).

Dream time is a term coined in 1896 by F. Gillen. He constantly used it in his works to refer to the religious mythologies of the Northern aboriginals primeval. It was however popularized by William Edward Stanner from the 1970s. It is one of the animist frameworks upon which E.B Taylor based his works on. However, contemporarily, the term is used in anthropology to refer to the theory of cosmogenesis among the Australian Aboriginals. This phrase is primarily attributed to the Northern Arunta. This term is loosely used to collectively refer to the spiritual beliefs of the indigenous people of Australia. The Aboriginals did not believe that the world came into existence ex-nihilo but rather a creation of heroes who traversed formless land creating sacred sites. They therefore believe that the human spirit is connected to his environment, hence making all creation sacred.

Additionally, dream time had more to do with the establishment of a moral institution rather than the origin of the world and humankind. Quintessentially, they believed that one started dreaming before birth and continued to dream after death and therefore absolving themselves of the notion that life was only brought forth through the mother giving birth. The aboriginals taught virtue through abhorring vice, just like the Greek gods and anybody who questioned the dream time order was frowned upon. It is important to note that the cosmological beliefs among the natives of Australia varied. For instance, there many polytheistic religions before the onset of European influence in Australia. Summarily, they were strongly convicted of individuals with supernatural ability but whom they did not consider gods (Dean, 1996).

The aboriginals strongly believed in ancestral spirits and therefore believed that there was no singular god who distinguished between good and bad. These spirits manifested themselves in either fauna or flora and did not have personalized relationships with individuals with the exception of men who were considered intelligent. They also held in high regard, the intertwining nature of the spirit and human world. They therefore considered their entire life as a religious experience. Among some groups, there were specific songs that praised regeneration, life was a continuous cycle.

The Chumash are Native American people, who were mainly based in California. In contrast to the Aboriginals of Australia, they believed that the world was made of three layers namely: the sky, the world and the middle world, where they lived, and the water world. They placed great importance on supernatural creatures rather than individuals and as such, believed that the custodians of these worlds were the Great Eagle and a giant serpent. They also had a lot of oral myths about the how the world came into existence. For instance the creation myth which suggests that they were created from a seed planted by the earth goddess eventually, the people increased in population which forced them to migrate to mainland which was facilitated by a bridge built out of a rainbow by the earth goddess. They were united with nature in a spiritual sense and believed that everything created served a greater purpose. Unlike the aboriginals, theirs was matriarchal society that also accepted death as the end of life. Also in contrast to the Aboriginals who did not have a set of outlined virtues, the Chumash lived by three principles: Limitations, an individual was expected to accept themselves as they were and not be envious of their neighbour, Moderation which stipulated that one only too that which they required from the land and ocean, and compensation whereby an individual was expected to give possessions and affection wholeheartedly without expecting anything in return (The Chumash Indians- History and Legend, 2010).

In conclusion, man has always been curious to explain his existence and a result formulated many theories and myths that justify it. It only makes sense to him to believe that there is a greater cause than him (in the supernatural sense). With the animist theory, a subjective analysis is made based on observation of a few savages and their religion considered primitive in nature when in essence it attempts to more or less explain mans relation to nature just like any religion would.


BIBLIOGRAPHY Crowley, J. (2010). Animism: The Default Religion of the World . 2010 SGI National Conference , (pp. 2-4).

Dean, C. (1996). The Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime:Its History, Cosmogenesis Cosmology and Ontology . Victoria, Australia: Gamahucher Press.

Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature . (2005). Animism. London, United Kingdom.

Guthrie, S. (2007). Anthropological Theories of Religion. London: Cambridge University Press.

The Chumash Indians- History and Legend. (2010, January 13). Retrieved from Pine Mountain Club:



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