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Folk religion consists of ethnic or regional religious customs under the umbrella of a religion, but outside of official doctrine and practices. Folk religion has been defined 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. 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.
Chinese folk religion
Chinese folk religion or Shenism are 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. Shenism describes Chinese mythology and 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. "Shenism" as a term was first published by A. J. A Elliot in 1955.
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 can be defined as a branch of Shenism, since it sprang out of 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 adheres to Shenism 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.
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 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 which includes the Native Dravidian religion differs slightly 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 ("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.
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.
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