Common Elements of Religion

One of the hallmarks of religion is a belief in supernatural beings and forces.  They can take a variety forms, not all of which are found in every religion.  The beliefs usually fall into one of five categories: animatism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, animism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, ancestral spirits click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, gods or goddesses, and minor supernatural beings.


A belief in a supernatural power not part of supernatural beings is referred to as animatism.  For those who hold this belief, the power is usually impersonal, unseen, and potentially everywhere.  It is neither good nor evil, but it is powerful and dangerous if misused.  It is something like electricity or "the force" in the Star Wars movies.

Animatism is a widespread belief, especially in small-scale societies.  Among the Polynesian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced cultures of the South Pacific, this power is commonly known as "mana" click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  For them it is a force that is inherent in all objects, plants, and animals (including people) to different degrees.  Some things or people have more of it than others and are, therefore, potentially dangerous.  For instance, a chief may have so much of it that he must be carried around all of the time.  If he were to walk on the ground, sufficient residual amounts of his mana might remain in his footprints to harm ordinary people if they later stepped on them.  Volcanoes and some other places were thought to have concentrated mana and were, therefore, very dangerous.


A belief that natural objects are animated by spirits is animism.  The term comes from the Latin word for soul (anima).  This belief can take diverse forms.  Things in nature may all have within them different spirits--each rock, tree, and cloud may have its own unique spirit.  Alternatively, all things in nature may be thought of as having the same spirit.  This latter version of animism was characteristic of many Native American cultures.  In both forms of animism, the spirits are thought of as having identifiable personalities and other characteristics such as gender.  A belief in a powerful, mature, protective "mother nature" is an example.  The spirits may be benevolent, malevolent, or neutral.  They can be lovable, terrifying, or even mischievous.  They can interact with humans and can be pleased or irritated by human actions.  Therefore, people must be concerned about them and will try to avoid displeasing them.

Initially, animatism and animism may seem to be the same thing.  In fact both beliefs are often found in the same culture.  The difference, however, is that the "power" of animatism does not have a personality--it is an impersonal "it" rather than a "he" or "she" with human-like characteristics.  Spirits are individual supernatural beings with their own recognizable traits.

Ancestral Spirits

One special category of spirit found in the belief system of most cultures consists of the souls or ghosts of ancestors.  A belief in ancestral spirits is consistent with the widespread conviction that humans have at least two parts--a physical body and some kind of non-physical spirit or soul.  The spirit portion is generally believed to be freed from the body by death and continues to exist in some form.  Ancestral spirits are often seen as retaining an active interest and even membership in their family and society.  Like living people, they can have emotions, feelings, and appetites.  They must be treated well to assure their continued good will and assistance to the living.  

In China, ancestral spirits are often thought of as still being active family members.  They are treated warmly with respect and honor.  Traditional Chinese families in rural villages often set a place at feast tables for their ancestors as if they were still living.  If treated well, the ancestral spirits may help their living descendants have bigger crops, do better in business, or achieve other desirable goals because they are still interested in the well being of the family.


In European cultures, the spirits of dead ancestors are usually not thought of so kindly.  The dead and their spirits have been seen historically as dangerous.  They haunt the living and often do unpleasant, frightening, and unpredictable things.  Ghosts or spirits are feared and avoided because of the danger inherent in encounters with them.  This belief that the dead more likely than not will be malevolent is one of the reasons that Europeans have traditionally buried their relatives in cemeteries, which are essentially cities of the dead physically separated from the living.  It also accounts for the success of Hollywood's many haunted house movies.  Ghosts are stereotypical villains for people in European derived cultures.  In contrast, those cultures that believe ancestral spirits are helpful usually bury or store the remains of dead family members in or around the home to keep them close.  In some cultures, people eat parts of the body of dead relatives or mix their cremated ashes in water and drink it.  This mortuary cannibalism is intended to allow the dead to remain part of their living family.  For the Yanomamö and some other lowland forest peoples of South America, not consuming the ashes of their relatives would be extremely unkind and insensitive.

Gods and Goddesses

Most religions maintain a belief in powerful supernatural beings with individual identities and recognizable attributes.  These beings are usually thought of as gods or goddesses.  Another term for them is deities.  Like spirits, they have individual identities and recognizable attributes.  However, gods and goddesses are more powerful than spirits and other lesser supernatural beings--they can effectively alter all of nature and human fortunes.  As a result, they are commonly worshipped and requests are made of them to help in times of need.

Religions differ in the number of gods that their followers believe exist.  A  belief that there is only one god is referred to as monotheism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Judaism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, Christianity click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and Islam click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced are examples of monotheistic religions.  In contrast, a belief in more than one god is known as polytheism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Hinduism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced is a polytheistic religion.  

When there are many gods in a religion, they are typically ranked relative to each other in terms of their powers and their interests.  The supreme god is often an otiose deity click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  That is, he or she established the order of the universe at the beginning of time and is now remote from earthly concerns ("otiose" is Greek for "at rest).  As a result, otiose deities may be almost ignored in favor of lesser gods who take an interest in the everyday affairs of humans now.

The simple distinction between monotheism and polytheism may be deceptive.  The truth can be much more complex.  For instance, some scholars have argued that monotheisms, such as Catholicism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, are actually de facto polytheisms for many of the faithful.  From this perspective, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are prayed to for guidance and help as if they were minor gods themselves.  While the Christian God is considered all powerful, he is often not the one who is turned to by Catholics during life crises.  Perhaps, this is because he is essentially an otiose deity for them.  

Hinduism is also more complex than it may seem initially.  In India and Bali, Hindus can be observed fervently worshipping hundreds of different gods.  This fits the classic description of a polytheistic religion.  However,  since the many gods are only different manifestations of the supreme being, or Bhagavan click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, Hinduism can also be interpreted as a monotheism.  It all depends on whether you are talking to a rural peasant farmer or an educated priest.

Minor Supernatural Beings

Minor supernatural beings are not spirits, gods, humans, or other natural beings.  People do not pray to them for help.  Yet these beings have some supernatural capabilities.  In Western European folk tradition, leprechauns click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, elves click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and pixies click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced were minor supernatural beings.  They were human-like in appearance and personality but could do things that were beyond the abilities of humans.  Minor supernatural beings often have a "trickster" role.  That is to say, they fool people, do outlandish things, and disappear.  For instance, many rural people in Ireland in the past believed that elves steal boy children.  As a result, mothers clothed their young sons in dresses and let their hair grow long like girls to avoid their being taken.  Tricksters are frequently neither good nor bad.  They do what they want and are often trouble makers.  For the Indians of Western North America, coyote usually had such a trickster role in popular stories.  For instance, he would skillfully disarm powerful people with his words and then magically steal what they valued most when their guard was down.  In most cultures, tricksters are small, quick moving animals.  In India, the trickster is usually a mouse, and in Africa it is a spider.  Among the Native cultures of the Americas in which coyote did not fulfill the trickster role, it was usually a bird such as a raven.  Tricksters are still popular in the high tech, industrialized societies of the modern world.  However, we rarely make the connection with the tricksters of earlier traditions and other cultures.  For instance, the cartoon characters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are classic tricksters.  They are small animals that speak and act like humans and play unexpected, humorous tricks at the expense of others and usually avoid the consequences for themselves.


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This page was last updated on Sunday, December 11, 2011.
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