Folk Religion

Chinese dragon, symbol of Chinese culture and ...

Chinese dragon, symbol of Chinese culture and Chinese folk religion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Folk religion consists of ethnic or regional religious customs under the umbrella of an organized religion, but outside of official doctrine and practices. Don Yoder has defined “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.”

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 religion associated with major religions. There is sometimes tension between the practice of folk religion and the formally taught doctrines and teachings of a faith. In other cases, practices that originated in folk religion are adopted as part of the official religion. 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.

Aspects of many, but not all, folk religions include:

Popular theophanies, and similar phenomena like Marian apparitions, originating outside the formal liturgy and hierarchy of the faiths in question.

Magical Thinking
Protective qualities ascribed to religious objects like a particular copy of the Bible, Voodoo pouches, a crucifix, stones, crystals, eagle feathers, or any other “power” object.   belief in traditional systems of magic (hoodoo, voodoo, pow-wow, Benedicaria, Palo Monte, Anito, Santería and Catimbó)  rituals to ward off the Evil Eye, curses, demons, witchcraft, etc.

Folk Christianity
Further information: Christian mythology, Folk Catholicism, and Christianity and Neopaganism Botánicas such as this one in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts sell religious goods such as statues of saints and candles decorated with prayers alongside folk medicine and amulets.

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; Christianity defined “in cultural terms without reference to the theologies and histories.”

Folk Islam
Further information: Islamic mythology, Druze, Alevi, and Alawi

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”, (Ridgeon, 2003) in contrast to orthodox or “High” Islam (Gellner, 1992; Malesevic et al., 2007). 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” (Chelkowski et al., 1988)
veneration of saints
incorporation of animistic beliefs

Folk Hinduism

The case of Folk Hinduism lies slightly different from “Folk Islam” or “Folk Christianity”, as the term Hinduism itself was coined in the 19th century as an umbrella term for all folk religion practiced in India. But today, “Folk Hinduism” (also Indian Folk Religion or Popular Hinduism) may still be distinguished from “high” forms of Hindu philosophy, or mystical or ascetic forms. Folk Hinduism is emphatically polytheistic.


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