Overview of Popular Religion

dealing with informal or irregular religious practice

What do eggs and rabbits have to do with the Christian celebration of Jesus' resurrection? And why is the celebration referred to as Easter? What do charms against "the evil eye" have to do with Islam as it is practiced in its standard form? Why do southeast Asian Buddhists worship deities and deal with spirits when Buddha claimed that the main point of his religion was personal enlightenment? These religious expressions associated with Christianity, Islam or Buddhism are often termed "popular religion".

Popular religion can be defined as "what people actually do religiously" as opposed to the formal practices and accepted teachings of a particular religion. In other words, religious people do what they feel is helpful or meaningful to them-- both within their professed religious faith and sometimes outside of the group to which they belong.

Popular Religion takes many forms, but tends to exhibit certain core characteristics, such as:

Informal Expression. Popular religion may require very minimal organization and structure. Groups may gather for religious activity through social networking, personal invitation or cultural expectations. Leaders of an event are often not the officially recognized clergy, but may be “lay leaders” who specialize in the particular kind of event being practiced.

Diversity of Practice. Uniformity among worshipers is not expected in events. Tolerance for divergent expressions or points of view is valued precisely because the event may not be considered “standard practice”.

Individual Focus. The focus of popular religious experience is the individual. People may choose whether to participate in a particular event. Individuals may choose the extent to which they will participate, the roles which they will play and the groups they will affiliate with. There is usually a certain amount of freedom to move in an out of movements depending upon a person's stage of life or position within society.

Syncretism. Worshipers have the freedom to combine elements of the official religion with unrelated elements of other traditions. A familiar example of syncretism within Christianity can be seen in the popular expression of many Christmas celebrations. Santa Claus, the elves, reindeer and Christmas trees may be regarded as harmless fun alongside the more central celebration of the birth of Christ, but they have no distinctive Christian origins. Another example would the curandero / curandera tradition in Latin American Catholicism in which, alongside the practice of standard Roman Catholicism, people participate in shamanistic curing and exorcism originating in the religion of their Native American ancestors.

Fluidity. Popular religious practice is constantly changing with various combinations of orthodox and unorthodox elements. What may be common at a certain time or place may be very different in another context. In other words, worshipers feel free to change and adapt their practices to whatever needs or desires they perceive at the time.

Certain common philosophical concepts also accompany popular expressions of religion:

  • The concept of deity is often defined with great elasticity. Don't expect the term "God" to mean the same thing to everyone.
  • Human well-being and success are often the primary focus. Something may be considered "good" based on its perceived benefit to the worshiper or to humans in general.
  • Fate is considered to be a major factor in human destiny. People may makje certain choices, but their overall destiny is inescapable.
  • Good actions and motivation are the essence of religious merit. "Salvation" is attained through these meritorius actions.

All religions have popular expressions and forms. Some of these may be considered benign, while others are seen as dangerously compromising. Religious leaders constantly struggle with the issue of which battles are worth fighting and which are not. Even when an issue is determined to be crucial, there may not be much leaders can do to completely stop the practice. Perhaps the best that can be expected is for leaders to educate the faithful and draw clear boundaries outside of which worshipers may not step.

Michael Bogart


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