Introduction to Folk Religion


People are immensely religious.  Some follow orthodox Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.  Many more mix folk religion with their high religion.   Some Christians reverently worship God yet venerate saints and believe that certain relics have the power to heal.  Many Muslims say their confession of faith (the shahadah), "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet," several times daily but use it as a power phrase to counter the forces of the evil eye and to ward off jinn.  While a Buddhist believes that human desire must be subdued in order to enter nirvana, he also fears numerous spirits, which he strives to manipulate.  The Hindu accepts the high religious concepts of karma, reincarnation, and samsara yet believes that rakasas (evil spirits) and ancestors imminently affect life and, therefore, must be manipulated and controlled.  Traditional Chinese, who view the world as an interplay between yin and yang, also use divination to determine why a family member has become gravely ill. 


Definition of Folk Religion


Folk religions synthesize popular beliefs and practices, frequently animistic in nature, that are developed within cultures to handle every day problems.  In many contexts they co-exist within high religious traditions and sometimes even with secular humanism.  In tribal contexts (where people understand themselves to live in terms of an extended family, a clan, and a tribe having a distinct cultural heritage) folk religion frequently exists outside the fold of a major world religious tradition. 


Example of Linda


Folk religions are thus highly syncretistic.  Popular beliefs and practices are intertwined with those of high religion.  Linda, a member of the First Christian Church, practices Reiki therapy (the Japanese art of therapeutic touch) in my hometown.   I met Linda on the day that she decided to go public concerning her involvement with folk religion.  Her speech, given at an occult fair, was entitled “Can you be a Christian and a Psychic?  Yes!”  During her presentation, she led participants through a personality profile to enable them to ascertain whether they had the spiritual propensities to be clairvoyants, clairaudients, intuitives, or prophets.  She then equated these psychic abilities to the gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12. While believing in God and salvation in Jesus Christ on a cosmic level, Linda uses therapeutic touch and meditation on the everyday level to heal, relax, and rejuvenate both herself and her patients.


The Example of Julie


Folk religions may also stand apart from any major religious tradition (like in African Traditional Religions or other traditional tribal perspectives of the divine) but yet incorporate numerous items from many religions.   For example, I met Julie recently on an airplane and was intrigued by the books she was reading about power points and flows of energy.  In our conversation she described the altar in her house.  Around the circumference numerous crystals had been placed.  Within the circle three pyramids formed a triangle.  Statues of Buddha, Krishna, and Jesus, representing Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, stood between the pyramids.  In the background was a large cross.  A Bible, Koran, and Sutras were all placed among the images.  Julie considered that each of these elements radiated life energy which gave her both peace and power.  She had devised her own popular religion integrating forms of different world religions and interpreting them as power objects having what she called life energy.


Folk Religion and Animism


Folk religions tend to be high animistic.  Participants believe that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs. During times of disease, death, and drought, they must use divination to discover what beings and forces are impacting them in order to ward them off or employ their power.


Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen