While Folk Religion might not be as widely accepted by the modern, Western NeoPagan community as a stream of Pagan religion, we are grouping Folk Religion under Paganism because it seems to have similar ties. Indigenous and Folk Religions typically have a veneration of nature and include animistic beliefs and practices, as is the case with Pagan religions. They also often accept and embrace a wide array of gods and goddesses (polytheism) and are willing to accept and incorporate various religious streams into their practices. Folk Religions also often incorporate magic, divination, and mediums into their belief system. For these reasons, we feel Folk Religions are rightly categorized as “Pagan.”
Folk Religion itself is a wide catch-all term, so this article will be a bit different in format form the rest of those in our Religion Center. There are countless religious traditions within this heading, so instead of answering questions as to the beliefs ‘Folk Religion’ as a whole, we will focus on unifying questions that can connect the trends within this religious category.
What Is Folk or Traditional Religion?
Even a definition of Folk Religion is slippery. In a tribal context, Folk Religions typically exist outside of a larger religious tradition and are closely connected to a particular people, ethnicity, or tribe, embedded in a particular place. They are Folk Religions in the sense that they are ties to a particular folk culture and locale.
Folk Religion can also refer to the synthesis of popular beliefs and practices (often animistic and indigenous) with larger religious traditions, to explain and handle every-day problems and phenomena. Folk Religions are outside of strictly theological and liturgical forms of official religions and represent a combination of beliefs and practices.
What Are Unifying Practices, Philosophies, or Beliefs of Folk Religion?
- Typically no formal creed or sacred text.
- Often bring indigenous religious practices into another religion (often Christianity or Islam) and incorporate them with the beliefs/practices of the larger religion.
- Tend to be animistic, the belief that the supernatural is present within and affecting the physical realm. Particular cities or regions, have a particular embodied god, as do mountains, rivers, the sun and moon, and so forth.
- These spiritual forces have power over and impact human affairs, including health/sickness, success/failure, fertility, death, etc.
- Often employ divination, magic, or special religious rituals to understand the spiritual beings and forces at work and find a way to improve or remedy the situation.
- Often employ talismans or ascribe spiritual power to particular objects for protection or good luck. These objects could include crucifixes, relic, stones, crystals, feathers, etc.
- Often employ rituals to keep evil spirits or forces at bay, i.e. ward off demons, the Evil Eye, curses, etc.
- Ancestor worship/veneration is often incorporated.
- Embrace popular theophanies (like appearances of the Virgin Mary or another saint, for example) that originate within a larger religious tradition.
What Are Some Examples?
African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions and Australian aboriginal religions.
Ancestor worship, voodoo, shamanism, and Santeria.
Folk Islam, Folk Christianity and Folk Hinduism, in which native customs, rituals, and magical practices are employed alongside the larger religion. For example: Someone who is a practicing Christian who also maintains an altar to the family ancestors in his/her home.
At least 405 million people, or 6% of the world’s population are folk or traditional religionists today (PEW, 2012), so it’s a religious category well worth discussing. It is extremely difficult to measure Folk Religion because it is often not included on national religious surveys worldwide, even in regions of the world where they’re widely practiced. Further complicating this issue, the lines between Folk Religion and other religions are typically hazy; many Folk Religionists may self-identify with multiple religions or place themselves within a larger religious stream (Christianity, Islam, etc.).
PEW Research Center (2012, Dec. 18). “Folk Religionists.” The Global Religious Landscape.
Gailyn Van Rheenen. “Introduction to Folk Religion.” Missiology.org.
Wikipedia. “Folk Religion.”