Religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. It is contrasted by the idea of multiple religious belonging and polytheism, respectively.
This can occur for many reasons, and the latter scenario happens quite commonly in areas where multiple religious traditions exist in proximity and function actively in the culture, or when a culture is conquered, and the conquerors bring their religious beliefs with them, but do not succeed in entirely eradicating the old beliefs or, especially, practices.
Religions may have syncretic elements to their beliefs or history, but adherents of so-labeled systems often frown on applying the label, especially adherents who belong to "revealed" religious systems, such as the Abrahamic religions, or any system that exhibits an exclusivist approach. Such adherents sometimes see syncretism as a betrayal of their pure truth. By this reasoning, adding an incompatible belief corrupts the original religion, rendering it no longer true. Indeed, critics of a specific syncretistic trend may sometimes use the word "syncretism" as a disparaging epithet, as a charge implying that those who seek to incorporate a new view, belief, or practice into a religious system actually distort the original faith. The consequence, according to Keith Ferdinando, is a fatal compromise of the dominant religion's integrity. Non-exclusivist systems of belief, on the other hand, may feel quite free to incorporate other traditions into their own.
In modern secular society, religious innovators sometimes create new religions syncretically as a mechanism to reduce inter-religious tension and enmity, often with the effect of offending the original religions in question. Such religions, however, do maintain some appeal to a less exclusivist audience. Discussions of some of these blended religions appear in the individual sections below.
Classical Athens was exclusive in matters of religion. The Decree of Diopeithes made the introduction of and belief in foreign gods a criminal offence and only Greeks were allowed to worship in Athenian temples and festivals as foreigners were considered impure.
On the other hand, Athens imported many foreign cults, including those of Cybele and the Thracian goddess Bendis, and in some cases this involved a merging of identities: for example, Heracles, who had traditionally been regarded as a mortal hero, began here and elsewhere in the Aegean world to be identified as a divine (Olympian) figure, perhaps under the influence of Eastern counterparts like the Tyrian Melqart.
Syncretism functioned as a feature of Hellenistic Ancient Greek religion, although only outside of Greece. Overall, Hellenistic culture in the age that followed Alexander the Great itself showed syncretist features, essentially blending of Mesopotamian, Persian, Anatolian, Egyptian (and eventually Etruscan–Roman) elements within an Hellenic formula. The Egyptian god Amun developed as the Hellenized Zeus Ammon after Alexander the Great went into the desert to seek out his oracle at Siwa.
Such identifications derive from interpretatio graeca, the Hellenic habit of identifying gods of disparate mythologies with their own. When the proto-Greeks (peoples whose language would evolve into Greek proper) first arrived in the Aegean and on the mainland of modern-day Greece early in the 2nd millennium BCE, they found localized nymphs and divinities already connected with every important feature of the landscape: mountain, cave, grove and spring all had their own locally venerated deity. The countless epithets of the Olympian gods reflect their syncretic identification with these various figures. One defines "Zeus Molossos" (worshipped only at Dodona) as "the god identical to Zeus as worshipped by the Molossians at Dodona". Much of the apparently arbitrary and trivial mythic fabling results from later mythographers' attempts to explain these obscure epithets.
The Romans, identifying themselves as common heirs to a very similar civilization, identified Greek deities with similar figures in the Etruscan-Roman tradition, though without usually copying cult practices. (For details, see Interpretatio graeca.) Syncretic gods of the Hellenistic period found also wide favor in Rome: Serapis, Isis and Mithras, for example. Cybele as worshipped in Rome essentially represented a syncretic East Mediterranean goddess. The Romans imported the Greek god Dionysus into Rome, where he merged with the Latin mead god Liber, and converted the Anatolian Sabazios into the Roman Sabazius.
The degree of correspondence varied: Jupiter makes perhaps a better match for Zeus than the rural huntress Diana does for the feared Artemis. Ares does not quite match Mars. The Romans physically imported the Anatolian goddess Cybele into Rome from her Anatolian cult-center Pessinos in the form of her original aniconic archaic stone idol; they identified her as Magna Mater and gave her a matronly, iconic image developed in Hellenistic Pergamum.
Likewise, when the Romans encountered Celts and Germanic peoples, they mingled these peoples' gods with their own, creating Sulis Minerva, Apollo Sucellos (Apollo the Good Smiter) and Mars Thingsus (Mars of the war-assembly), among many others. In the Germania, the Roman historian Tacitus speaks of Germanic worshippers of Hercules and Mercury; most modern scholars tentatively identify Hercules as Thor and Mercury as Odin.
Romans were familiar with the concept of syncretism because from their earliest times they had experienced it with, among others, the Greeks. The Romans incorporated the originally Greek Apollo and Hercules into their religion. They did not look at the religious aspects that they adopted from other cultures to be different or less meaningful from religious aspects that were Roman in origin. The early Roman acceptance of other cultures religions into their own made it easy for them to integrate the newly encountered religions they found as a result of their expansion.
Gnosticism is identified as an early form of syncretism that challenged the beliefs of early Christians. Gnostic dualism posited that only spiritual or invisible things were good, and that material or visible things were evil. Orthodox Christians have always insisted that matter is essentially good, since, as they believe, God created all things, both spiritual and material, and said that it was "very good". Simon Magus appears as one of the early proponents of Gnosticism, and is considered by some as one of its founders. He was denounced by many Church authorities, including Peter himself, and is regarded by some as the source of all heresies.
In the first few centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus, there were various competing "Jesus movements". The Roman emperors used syncretism to help unite the expanding empire. Social conversion to Christianity happened all over Europe. It became even more effective when missionaries concurred with established cultural traditions and interlaced them into a fundamentally Christian synthesis.
Syncretism must be distinguished from assimilation, the latter of which refers the Church's ability to incorporate into herself all that is true, good, and beautiful in the world. This idea was present in the early Church, as we read in the Second Apology of Justin Martyr: "Whatever things were rightly said among all men," says Justin, "are the property of us Christians". The Church has assimilated many (though not all) of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. Augustine of Hippo is remembered for assimilating the ideas of Plato, while Thomas Aquinas is known for doing so with the ideas of Aristotle. In his essay on the development of Christian doctrine, John Henry Newman clarified the idea of assimilation.
In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud made a case for Judaism arising out of the pre-existing monotheism that was briefly imposed upon Egypt during the rule of Akhenaten. The Code of Hammurabi is also cited as a likely starting point for the Jewish Ten Commandments. Some scholars hold that Judaism refined its concept of monotheism and adopted features such as its eschatology, angelology and demonology through contacts with Zoroastrianism.
In spite of the Jewish halakhic prohibitions on polytheism, idolatry, and associated practices (Avodah Zarah), several combinations of Judaism with other religions have sprung up: Messianic Judaism, Jewish Buddhism, Nazarenism and Judeo-Paganism. Several Jewish Messiah claimants (such as Jacob Frank) and the Sabbateans came to mix Kabbalistic Judaism with Christianity and Islam. Until relatively recently, China had a Jewish community which had adopted some Confucian practices.
"Oneness of being does not mean that the created universe is God, for God's Being is necessary while the universe's being is merely possible, that is, subject to non-being, beginning, and ending, and it is impossible that one of these two orders of being could in any sense be the other; but rather, the created universe's act of being is derived from and subsumed by the divine act of creation, from which it has no ontic independence and hence is only through the being of its Creator, the one true being. So Wahdat-al-Wujud or Oneness of Being entails that nothing exists except Allah, His attributes, His actions, and His rulings, while created being, as manifest to us, cannot be identified with His entity or attributes but only with His actions and rulings: the world, as it were, is pure act, while Allah is pure Being. In short [Wahdat-al-Wujud] is not pantheism, because the world is not Allah. Spinoza's definition in the Ethica of God as "simple substance" (pantheism properly speaking), has nothing to do with the experience of those who possess ma'rifa [gnosis]. Rather, the world's existence is through Allah, in Arabic bi Llah, the point under the Arabic letter ba' being both a point of ontic connection and a point of demarcation...The matter is between Lord (Rabb), and slave who is through Lord ('abd bi Rabb)".
Mainstream Tasawwuf does not present itself as a separate set of beliefs from the mainstream Sunni tradition; well-established traditions like Naqshbandi, Qadiri, Shadhili, and most others have always been part and parcel of normative Islamic life. No doubt some groups in the name of Sufism, just like in any religion, do espouse theologically unorthodox positions.
During Sufi presence in Bengal, Muslim–Hindu syncretism was a general trend, and Nabibangsha by Syed Sultan is an example of it. The book tells the lineage of the prophets of Islam. Apart from Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus Christ, the poet also describes Indian deities such as Brahma, Vishnu, Rama and Krishna.
The Barghawata kingdom of Morocco followed a syncretic religion inspired by Islam (perhaps influenced by Judaism) with elements of Sunni, Shi'ite and Kharijite Islam, mixed with astrological and heathen traditions. Supposedly, they had their own Qur'an in the Berber language comprising 80 suras under the leadership of the second ruler of the dynasty Salih ibn Tarif who had taken part in the Maysara uprising. He proclaimed himself a prophet. He also claimed to be the final Mahdi of Islamic tradition, and that Isa (Jesus) would be his companion and pray behind him.
Indian and Far Eastern religions
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Buddhism has syncretized with many traditional beliefs in East Asian societies as it was seen as compatible with local religions. Notable syncretization of Buddhism with local beliefs includes the Three Teachings, or Triple Religion, that harmonizes Mahayana Buddhism with Confucian philosophy and elements of Taoism, and Shinbutsu-shūgō, which is a syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism. The religious beliefs, practices, and identities of East Asians (who comprise the majority of the world's Buddhists by any measure) often blend Buddhism with other traditions including Confucianism, the Chinese folk religion, Taoism, Shinto, and Korean shamanism. Before and during World War II, a Nichiren Shōshū priest named Jimon Ogasawara proposed the blending of Nichiren Buddhism with Shinto.
Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in ancient India have made many adaptations over the millennia, assimilating elements of various diverse religious traditions. One example of this is the Yoga Vasistha.
The Mughal emperor Akbar, who wanted to consolidate the diverse religious communities in his empire, propounded Din-i-Ilahi, a syncretic religion intended to merge the best elements of the religions of his empire. Satpanth is considered as syncretism of Ismaili Islam and Hinduism.
Meivazhi is a syncretic monotheistic minority religion based in Tamil Nadu, India. Its focus is spiritual enlightenment and the conquering of death, through the teachings. Mevaizhi preaches the Oneness of essence message of all the previous major scriptures - particularly Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity - allowing membership regardless of creed. Meivazhi's disciples are thousands of people belonging once to 69 different castes of different religions being united as one family of Meivazhi Religion.
In China, most of the population follows syncretist religions combining Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and elements of Confucianism. Out of all Chinese believers, approximately 85.7% adhere to Chinese traditional religion, as many profess to be both Mahayana Buddhist and Taoist at the same time. Many of the pagodas in China are dedicated to both Buddhist and Taoist deities.
The traditional Mun faith of the Lepcha people predates their seventh century conversion to Lamaistic Buddhism. Since that time, the Lepcha have practiced it together with Buddhism. Since the arrival of Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century, Mun traditions have been followed alongside that faith as well. The traditional religion permits incorporation of Buddha and Jesus Christ as a deities, depending on household beliefs.
One can contrast Christian syncretism with contextualization or inculturation, the practice of making Christianity relevant to a culture: Contextualisation does not address the doctrine but affects a change in the styles or expression of worship. Although Christians often took their European music and building styles into churches in other parts of the world, in a contextualization approach, they would build churches, sing songs, and pray in a local ethnic style. Some Jesuit missionaries adapted local systems and images to teach Christianity, as did the Portuguese in China, the practice of which was opposed by the Dominicans, leading to the Chinese rites controversy.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari argues in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) that syncretism is pervasive in Christianity, saying that "In fact, monotheism, as it has played out in history, is a kaleidoscope of monotheist, dualist, polytheist and animist legacies, jumbling together under a single divine umbrella. The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in the polytheist saints, and in animist ghosts." (page 223)
Syncretism did not play a role when Christianity split into eastern and western rites during the Great Schism. It became involved, however, with the rifts of the Protestant Reformation, with Desiderius Erasmus's readings of Plutarch. Even earlier, syncretism was a fundamental aspect of the efforts of Neoplatonists such as Marsilio Ficino to reform the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1615, David Pareus of Heidelberg urged Christians to a "pious syncretism" in opposing the Antichrist, but few 17th-century Protestants discussed the compromises that might affect a reconciliation with the Catholic Church: Johann Hülsemann, Johann Georg Dorsche and Abraham Calovius (1612–85) opposed the Lutheran Georg Calisen "Calixtus" (1586–1656) of the University of Helmstedt for his "syncretism". (See: Syncretistic controversy.)
Catholicism in Central and South America has been integrated with a number of elements derived from indigenous and slave cultures in those areas (see the Caribbean and modern sections); while many African Initiated Churches demonstrate an integration of Protestant and traditional African beliefs. The Catholic Church allows some symbols and traditions to be carried over from older belief systems, so long as they are remade to fit into a Christian worldview; syncretism of other religions with Catholicism, such as Voudun or Santería, is condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the subsequent devotion to her are seen as assimilating some elements of native Mexican culture into Christianity.
The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has created controversy by disciplining pastors for syncretism when they participated in multi-faith services in response to the 9/11 attacks and to the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut, on the grounds that merely sharing a worship setting with other faiths was in error.
In the Latter Day Saint movement, doctrine from previous dispensations as recorded in the LDS canon are considered official, though it is accepted that ancient teachings can be warped, misunderstood, or lost as a result of apostasy. While it does not officially recognize doctrine from other religions, it is believed that truth in other sources can be identified via personal revelation.
Catholicism in South Korea has been syncretized with traditional Mahayana Buddhist and Confucian customs that form an integral part of traditional Korean culture. As a result, South Korean Catholics continue to practice ancestral rites and observe many Buddhist and Confucian customs and philosophies. In Asia the revolutionary movements of Taiping (19th-century China) and God's Army (Karen in the 1990s) blended Christianity with traditional beliefs.
The Bahá'ís follow Bahá'u'lláh, a prophet whom they consider a successor to Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Krishna and Abraham. This acceptance of other religious founders has encouraged some to regard the Bahá'í religion as a syncretic faith. However, Bahá'ís and the Bahá'í writings explicitly reject this view. Bahá'ís consider Bahá'u'lláh's revelation an independent, though related, revelation from God. Its relationship to previous dispensations is seen as analogous to the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. They regard beliefs held in common as evidence of truth, progressively revealed by God throughout human history, and culminating in (at present) the Bahá'í revelation. Bahá'ís have their own sacred scripture, interpretations, laws and practices that, for Bahá'ís, supersede those of other faiths.
Caribbean and Afro-American
The process of syncretism in the Caribbean region often forms a part of cultural creolization. (The technical term "Creole" may apply to anyone born and raised in the region, regardless of ethnicity.) The shared histories of the Caribbean islands include long periods of European Imperialism (mainly by Spain, France, and Great Britain) and the importation of African slaves (primarily from Central and Western Africa). The influences of each of the above interacted in varying degrees on the islands, producing the fabric of society that exists today in the Caribbean.
The Rastafari movement, founded in Jamaica, syncretizes vigorously, mixing elements from the Bible, Marcus Garvey's Pan Africanism movement, a text from the European grimoire tradition, the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, Hinduism, and Caribbean culture.
See the modern section for other Caribbean syncretisms.
Recently developed religious systems that exhibit marked syncretism include the African diasporic religions Candomblé, Vodou and Santería, which analogize various Yorùbá and other African deities to the Roman Catholic saints. Some sects of Candomblé have also incorporated Native American deities, and Umbanda combined African deities with Kardecist spiritualism.
Hoodoo is a similarly derived form of folk magic practiced by some African American communities in the Southern United States. Other traditions of syncretic folk religion in North America include Louisiana Voodoo as well as Pennsylvania Dutch Pow-wow, in which practitioners invoke power through the Christian God.
Unitarian Universalism also provides an example of a modern syncretic religion. It traces its roots to Universalist and Unitarian Christian congregations. However, modern Unitarian Universalism freely incorporates elements from other religious and non-religious traditions, so that it no longer identifies as "Christian."
The Theosophical Society, as opposed to Theosophy, professes to go beyond being a syncretic movement that combines deities into an elaborate Spiritual Hierarchy, and assembles evidence that points to an underlying (or occult) reality of Being that is universal and interconnected, common to all spirit-matter dualities. It is maintained that this is the source of religious belief, each religion simply casting that one reality through the prism of that particular time and in a way that is meaningful to their circumstances.
Universal Sufism seeks the unity of all people and religions. Universal Sufis strive to "realize and spread the knowledge of Unity, the religion of Love, and Wisdom, so that the biases and prejudices of faiths and beliefs may, of themselves, fall away, the human heart overflow with love, and all hatred caused by distinctions and differences be rooted out."
Thelema is a mixture of many different schools of belief and practice, including Hermeticism, Eastern Mysticism, Yoga, 19th century libertarian philosophies (i.e. Nietzsche), occultism, and the Kabbalah, as well as ancient Egyptian and Greek religion.
The Unification Church, founded by religious leader Sun Myung Moon in South Korea in 1954. Its teachings are based on the Bible, but include new interpretations not found in mainstream Judaism and Christianity and incorporates Asian traditions.
- Folk religion
- Interfaith dialogue
- Religious pluralism
- Religious toleration
- New religious movement
- Multiple religious belonging
- Afro-Brazilian religion
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