The definition of animism as “belief in spirits” was a concept originally devised by early anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, first used in his Primitive Culture (1871) in reference to the beliefs of indigenous peoples who venerate or ascribe subjectivity to nonhuman things and animals. Tylor regarded such worldviews which included nonhuman agents— whether stones, birds or ancestor spirits—as the “primitive basis of religion,” from which evolved polytheism, then monotheism. Tylor’s analysis has been discredited by the refutation of such evolutionary theories of human society and culture, as well as postcolonial critique of what now seems a ghastly way of analyzing societies. Nevertheless, Nurit Bird-David has shown how this understanding of animism has been pervasive in common parlance (1999: S67-8). While the focus here is the “new animism,” the colonial origins and implications of the term continue to be relevant.
“New animism” is characterized as belief in a world “full of persons, only some of whom are human, and [that] life is always lived in relationship to others” (Harvey 2005: xi). The “new animist” worldview of the personhood of the nonhuman world is seen as an alternative to the dualism of modernity (stemming from the legacies of both Christianity and industrialization), an alternative that should be embraced in the face of environmental crisis. The concept of the new animism is found in a number of anthropologists’ writings on indigenous cultures, such as those of Irving Hallowell, Nurit Bird-David, Philip Descola, Tim Ingold and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (see Graf 2012). It is also prevalent in Pagan discourse: in the introduction to his 2013 collection Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Graham Harvey (2013: 2) describes how this concept of personlike relations with nonhuman “nature” kept cropping up in his postdoctoral research and involvement in contemporary Paganism. The new animism is also related to the “material turn” in critical theory, known as “new materialism”; in thinkers such as Bruno Latour (2005), Martin Holbraad (2011) and Jane Bennett (2010), we see the agency of matter and material objects.