Folk Religion

In religious studies and folkloristics, folk religion, popular religion, or vernacular religion comprises various forms and expressions of religion that are distinct from the official doctrines and practices of organized religion. The precise definition of folk religion varies among scholars. Sometimes also termed popular belief, it consists of ethnic or regional religious customs under the umbrella of a religion, but outside official doctrine and practices.

The term “folk religion” is generally held to encompass two related but separate subjects. The first is the religious dimension of folk culture or the folk-cultural dimensions of religion. The second refers to the study of syncretisms between two cultures with different stages of formal expression, such as the melange of African folk beliefs and Roman Catholicism that led to the development of Vodun and Santería, and similar mixtures of formal religions with folk cultures.

Chinese folk religion, folk Christianity, folk Hinduism, and folk Islam are examples of folk religions associated with major religions. The term is also used, especially by the clergy of the faiths involved, to describe the desire of people who otherwise infrequently attend religious worship, do not belong to a church or similar religious society, and who have not made a formal profession of faith in a particular creed, to have religious weddings or funerals, or (among Christians) to have their children baptised.


In The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, John Bowker characterized “folk religion” as either “religion which occurs in small, local communities which does not adhere to the norms of large systems” or “the appropriation of religious beliefs and practices at a popular level.”

Don Yoder argued that there were five separate ways of defining folk religion. The first was a perspective rooted in a cultural evolutionary framework which understood folk religion as representing the survivals of older forms of religion; in this, it would constitute “the survivals, in an official religious context, of beliefs and behavior inherited from earlier stages of the culture’s development”. This definition would view folk religion in Catholic Europe as the survivals of pre-Christian religion and the folk religion in Protestant Europe as the survivals of Medieval Catholicism. The second definition identified by Yoder was the view that folk religion represented the mixture of an official religion with forms of ethnic religion; this was employed to explain the place of folk religion in the syncretic belief systems of the Americas, where Christianity had blended with the religions of indigenous American and African communities.

Yoder’s third definition was that often employed within folkloristics, which held that folk religion was “the interaction of belief, ritual, custom, and mythology in traditional societies”, representing that which was often pejoratively characterised as superstition. The fourth definition provided by Yoder stated that folk religion represented the “folk interpretation and expression of religion”. Noting that this definition would not encompass beliefs that were largely unconnected from organised religion, such as in witchcraft, he therefore altered this definition by including the concept of “folk religiosity”, thereby defining folk religion as “the deposit in culture of folk religiosity, the full range of folk attitudes to religion”. His fifth and final definition represented a “practical working definition” that combined elements from these various other definitions. Thus, he summarized folk religion as “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside the strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion”.

Yoder described “folk religion” as existing “in a complex society in relation to and in tension with the organized religion(s) of that society. Its relatively unorganized character differentiates it from organized religion”.

Alternately, the sociologist of religion Matthias Zic Varul defined “folk religion” as “the relatively un-reflected aspect of ordinary practices and beliefs that are oriented towards, or productive of, something beyond the immediate here-and-now: everyday transcendence”.

Botánicas such as this one in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA, sell religious goods such as statues of saints and candles decorated with prayers alongside folk medicine and amulets.

Botánicas such as this one in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, USA, sell religious goods such as statues of saints and candles decorated with prayers alongside folk medicine and amulets.

Historical development

In Europe the study of “folk religion” emerged from the study of religiöse Volkskund, a German term which was used in reference to “the religious dimension of folk-culture, or the folk-cultural dimension of religion”. This term was first employed by a German Lutheran preacher, Paul Drews, in a 1901 article that he published which was titled “Religiöse Volkskunde, eine Aufgabe der praktischen Theologie“. This article was designed to be read by young Lutheran preachers leaving the seminary, to equip them for the popular variants of Lutheranism that they would encounter among their congregations and which would differ from the official, doctrinal Lutheranism that they had been accustomed to. Although developing within a religious environment, the term came to be adopted by German academics in the field of folkloristics. During the 1920s and 1930s, theoretical studies of religiöse Volkskund had been produced by the folklorists Josef Weigert, Werner Boette, and Max Rumpf, all of whom had focused on religiosity within German peasant communities. Over the coming decades, Georg Schreiber established an Institut für religiöse Volkskund in Munich while a similar department was established in Salzburg by Hanns Koren. Other prominent academics involved in the study of the phenomenon were Heinrich Schauert and Rudolf Kriss, the latter of whom collected one of the largest collections of folk-religious art and material culture in Europe, later housed in Munich’s Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. Throughout the 20th century, many studies were made of folk religion in Europe, paying particular attention to such subjects as pilgrimage and the use of shrines.

In the Americas, the study of folk religion developed among cultural anthropologists studying the syncretistic cultures of the Caribbean and Latin America. The pioneer in this field was Robert Redfield, whose 1930 book Tepoztlán: A Mexican Village contrasted and examined the relationship between “folk religion” and “official religion” in a peasant community. Yoder later noted that although the earliest known usage of the term “folk religion” in the English language was unknown, it probably developed as a translation of the German Volksreligion. One of the earliest prominent usages of the term was in the title of Joshua Trachtenberg’s 1939 work Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. The term also gained increasing usage within the academic field of comparative religion, appearing in the titles of Ichiro Hori’s Folk Religion in Japan, Martin Nilsson’s Greek Folk Religion, and Charles Leslie’s reader, the Anthropology of Folk Religion. Courses on the study of folk religion came to be taught at various universities in the United States, such as John Messenger’s at Indiana University and Don Yoder’s at the University of Pennsylvania. Although the subject of folk religion fell within the remit of scholars operating in both folkloristics and religious studies, by 1974 Yoder noted that U.S.-based academics in the latter continued to largely ignore it, instead focusing on the study of theology and institutionalised religion; he contrasted this with the situation in Europe, where historians of religion had devoted much time to studying folk religiosity. He also lamented that many U.S.-based folklorists also neglected the subject of religion because it did not fit within the standard genre-based system for cataloguing folklore.

The term “folk religion” came to be increasingly rejected in the 1990s and 2000s by scholars seeking more precise terminology.

Problems and critique

Yoder noted that one problem with the use of the term “folk religion” was that it did not fit into the work of those scholars who used the term “religion” in reference solely to organized religion. He highlighted the example of the prominent sociologist of religion Émile Durkheim, who insisted that “religion” was organized in order to contrast it with “magic”. Yoder noted that scholars adopting these perspectives often preferred the term “folk belief” over “folk religion”.

A second problem with the use of “folk religion” that Yoder highlighted was that some scholars, particularly those operating in the sociology of religion, used the term as a synonym for ethnic religion (which is alternately known as national religion or tribal religion), meaning a religion closely tied to a particular ethnic or national group and is thus contrasted with a “universal religion” which cuts across ethnic and national boundaries. Among the scholars to have adopted this use of terminology are E. Wilbur Bock.

The folklorist Leonard Norman Primiano argued that the use of “folk religion”, as well as related terms like “popular religion” and “unofficial religion”, by scholars, does “an extreme disservice” to the forms of religiosity that scholarship is examining, because – in his opinion – such terms are “residualistic, [and] derogatory”. He argued that using such terminology implies that there is “a pure element” to religion “which is in some way transformed, even contaminated, by its exposure to human communities”. As a corrective, he suggested that scholars use “vernacular religion” as an alternative. Defining this term, Primiano stated that “vernacular religion” is, “by definition, religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand, interpret, and practice it. Since religion inherently involves interpretation, it is impossible for the religion of an individual not to be vernacular”.

Kapaló was critical of this approach, deeming it “mistaken” and arguing that switching from “folk religion” to “vernacular religion” results in the scholar “picking up a different selection of things from the world”. He cautioned that both terms were “ideological and semantic load[ed]” and warned scholars to pay attention to the associations that each word had.

Folk Religion in China

Folk Religion in China

Chinese folk religion

Chinese folk religion is one of the labels used to describe the collection of ethnic religious traditions which have historically comprised the predominant belief system in China and among Han Chinese ethnic groups up to the present day. Chinese mythology includes the worship of shen (spirit, god, awareness, consciousness) which can be nature deities, Taizu or clan deities, city gods, national deities, culture heroes and demigods, dragons and ancestors.

Chinese folk religion is sometimes categorized with Taoism, since over the centuries institutional Taoism has been attempting to assimilate or administrate local religions. More accurately, Taoism emerged from and overlaps with folk religion and Chinese philosophy. Chinese folk religion is sometimes seen as a constituent part of Chinese traditional religion, but more often, the two are regarded as synonymous. With around 454 million adherents, or about 6.6% of the world population, Chinese folk religion is one of the major religious traditions in the world. In China more than 30% of the population follows Chinese popular religion or Taoism.

Despite being heavily suppressed during the last two centuries, from the Taiping Rebellion to the Cultural Revolution, it is currently experiencing a modern revival in both Mainland China and Taiwan. Various forms have received support by the Government of the People’s Republic of China, such as Mazuism in Southern China (officially about 160 million Chinese are Mazuists), Huangdi worship, Black Dragon worship in Shaanxi, and Cai Shen worship.

“Shenism” is a term was first published by AJA Elliot in 1955 to describe the form used in Southeast Asia.

Philippine mythology

Philippine mythology is a body of myths, tales, and superstitions held by Filipinos (composed of more than a hundred ethnic peoples in the Philippines), mostly originating from beliefs held during the pre-Hispanic era. Some of these beliefs stem from pre-Christian religions that were specially influenced by Hinduism and were regarded by the Spanish as “myths” and “superstitions” in an effort to de-legitimize legitimate precolonial beliefs by forcefully replacing those native beliefs with colonial Catholic Christian myths and superstitions. Today, some of these precolonial beliefs are still held by Filipinos, especially in the provinces.

Folk Christianity

Main article: Christian Mythology 

Folk Christianity is defined differently by various scholars. Definitions include “the Christianity practiced by a conquered people”, Christianity as most people live it – a term used to “overcome the division of beliefs into Orthodox and unorthodox”, Christianity as impacted by superstition as practiced by certain geographical Christian groups, and Christianity defined “in cultural terms without reference to the theologies and histories.”

Folk Islam

Main article: Islamic Mythology 

Folk Islam is an umbrella term used to collectively describe forms of Islam that incorporate native folk beliefs and practices. Folk Islam has been described as the Islam of the “urban poor, country people, and tribes”, in contrast to orthodox or “High” Islam (Gellner, 1992). Sufism and Sufi concepts are often integrated into Folk Islam.

Various practices and beliefs have been identified with the concept of “folk Islam”. They include the following:

  • belief in traditional magic systems and ecstatic rituals
  • the use of shrines and amulets
  • veneration of saints or jinn, as in the Gnawa cult
  • incorporation of animistic beliefs

Folk Judaism

Main article: Jewish Mythology

In one of the first major academic works on the subject, titled Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, Joshua Trachtenberg provided a definition of Jewish folk religion as consisting of ideas and practices that whilst not meeting with the approval of religious leaders enjoyed wide popularity such that they must be included in what he termed the field of religion. This included unorthodox beliefs about demons and angels, and magical practices.

Later studies have emphasized the significance of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to the many Jewish folk customs linked to mourning and in particular to the belief in hibbut ha-qever (torture of the grave) a belief that the dead are tortured in their grave for three days after burial by demons until they remember their names. This idea began with early eschatalogical aggadah and was then further developed by the kabbalists.

tranquility, peaceful scenery

Tranquility, peaceful scenery

Raphael Patai has been acknowledged as one of the first to utilize anthropology to study Jewish folk religion. In particular he has drawn attention to the important role of the female divine element, which he sees in the goddess Asherah, the Shekhinah, the Matronit, and Lilith.

Writer Stephen Sharot has stated that Jewish popular religion in common with other forms of folk religion, has a focus on the apotropaic, or thaumaturgical, i.e. it is used to assist in protecting the individual from sickness, and misfortune. He emphasizes that while Rabbinical Judaism dealt with orthodox Jewish ritual, and halakah, magicians claimed to use unorthodox magical rituals to help people in everyday life. He points to the example of a relatively professionalised type of magician being the ba’al shem of Poland, who beginning in the 16th century thrived with the popularity of practical kabbalah in the 18th century. These ba’al shem promised to use their knowledge of the names of god, and the angels, along with exorcism, chiromancy, and herbal medicine to bring harm to enemies, and success in areas of social life such as marriage, and childbirth.

Charles Liebman has written that the essence of the folk religion of American Jews is their social ties to one another, illustrated by the finding that religious practices that would prevent social integration -such as a strict interpretation of dietary laws and the Sabbath- have been abandoned, whilst the practices that are followed -such as the Passover seder, social rites of passage, and the High Holy Days- are ones that strengthen Jewish family and community integration. Liebman described the rituals and beliefs of contemporary Jewish folk religion in his works, The Ambivalent American Jew (1973) and American Jewry: Identity and Affiliation.

In sociology

In sociology, folk religion is often contrasted with elite religion. Folk religion is defined as the beliefs, practices, rituals and symbols originating from sources other than the religion’s leadership. Folk religion in many instances is tolerated by the religion’s leadership, although they may consider it an error. A similar concept is lived religion, the study of religion as practiced by believers.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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