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Syncretism is the attempt to reconcile disparate— and sometimes opposed—beliefs and practices. It represents a blending of schools of thought and is often associated with establishing analogies between two or more discrete and/ or formerly separate traditions. Most studies of syncretism focus on the blending of religion and myths from different cultures.
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Syncretism, in its attempt to reconcile disparate beliefs and practices, can be seen from positive and negative perspectives. Viewed positively, syncretism seeks underlying unity in what appears to be multiplicity and diversity. It is common in many aspects of society and culture, including language, literature, music, the arts, technology, politics, social organization and kinship, and economics. Robert D. Baird asserted that the term syncretism contributes little to our understanding of world religions since what it seeks to describe is nearly universal. He suggested that the term “syncretism” should be replaced by the term “synthesis.” Other scholars— most notably the anthropologist Richard Werbner— have suggested that anthropologists restrict their use of the term to the study of religions. Werbner has since rescinded his position. Still other social scientists— notably Peter Beyer and Jonathan Friedman— have suggested that the term syncretism may prove extremely useful for understanding many aspects of culture and society, including social organization, material culture, and processes of localization and globalization.
Viewed negatively, syncretism is a contentious concept that has undergone many transformations. To religious leaders, syncretism often implies impurity and/or contamination and is associated with—but is not identical to—“eclecticism.” It is unlikely that any contemporary scholar or theologian would argue that processes of syncretism do not exist. Disagreements center on the word itself and on the history of its applications.
Classical Greek and Roman Concepts of Syncretism
The Ancient Greek prefix syn- means “with” and the word krasis means “mixture.” Thus, the term synkrasis meant “a mixture or compound.” The Greek words synkretismos and synkretizein do not appear in classical literature until the time of Plutarch (c. 46–after 119 CE). Plutarch utilized a political meaning of the term in an essay entitled “On Brotherly Love” (Peri philadelphias), which appeared as a chapter in his Moralia. In searching for the origin for the word “syncretism,” Plutarch claimed to have found an example of syncretism in the Cretans who reconciled their differences and came together in an alliance whenever they were faced with an external threat. He labeled this coming together as “their so-called syncretism.” Plutarch’s use of the term later gave rise to negative connotations—many of which were never intended by Plutarch. For Plutarch, syncretism was not only a testament to political expediency, but also had potential to foster sociability and brotherly love. On the other hand, he also saw it as the root of insincerity and impurity. It became synonymous with a lack of authenticity. Passages from Plutarch’s Moralia attest that the term “syncretism” was known in the first century CE. Unfortunately, there are few other examples of the term’s use during this period.
Although the word “syncretism” was not in common use among the ancient Greeks and Romans, the practice of syncretism seems to have been very common. It was central to both Greek and Roman political culture as well as Roman and Greek religions. In many respects, the commingling of religions was a direct result of Roman conquest, slavery, and forced migration. Franz Cumont (1956, 4), a historian of religion, speculated, “Who can tell what influence chambermaids from Antioch and Memphis gained over the minds of their mistresses?”
During the time of Alexander the Great (Alexander of Macedon 356–323 BCE), Hellenistic culture was itself a mixture, having blended Persian, Anatolian, Egyptian, and later Etruscan-Roman elements into an overall Hellenic framework. It is apparent that the syncretic gods of the Hellenistic period enjoyed wide favor among the Romans. Serpis, Isis, and Mithras were the most prominent among these deities. The goddess Cybele—as she was worshipped in Rome— was also highly syncretic.
In addition, pagan elements were incorporated into first-century Christianity. But—as with all religious syncretisms—not everyone agrees on the specifics. There are numerous and acrimonious debates with respect to “who, what, when, where, and why.” While a majority of classicists and New Testament scholars agree that syncretism has occurred within Christianity and is likely to continue, specific examples often give rise to heated debates.
The Romans—who saw themselves as the heirs to Greek civilization—identified Greek deities with members of the Etruscan and Roman pantheons. Interestingly, they accepted the Greek and Etruscan gods but rarely copied Greek or Etruscan rituals. Vague attempts to establish equivalencies between Roman, Greek, and Etruscan deities were seldom contested. But putative correspondences vary; for example, Jupiter was seen as a better equivalent for Zeus than the huntress Diana was an equivalent for Artemis. Classicists argued that Ares was not a good match for Mars. The Anatolian goddess Cybele— who was imported to Rome from her cult center at Pessinus—was identified as Magna Mater and given a matronly image that had been developed earlier in Hellenistic Pergamum. The Egyptian god Amun was borrowed from a Hellenized “Zeus/Ammon” after Alexander the Great’s quest for Amun’s oracle at Siwa. The Greek god Dionysus was imported into Rome as Bacchus, and the Anatolian Sabazios was transformed into the Roman deity Sabazius. Given these precedents, the Romans would have recognized few barriers to the worship of Isis or Mithras. Likewise, when the Romans first encountered the Celts and Teutonic peoples, they commingled these northern gods with their own gods, creating, among others, “Apollo Sucellos” (Apollo the Good Smiter) and “Mars Thingsus” (Mars of the War Assembly). As Charles Stewart and Rosalind Shaw have emphasized, attempts to explain syncretism by reference to perceived equivalencies and/or correspondences are often flawed. Equivalencies, they asserted, must be recognized by actors—and even when such equivalencies are recognized, they do not have to be accepted.
Such identifications and equivalencies may stem from a Hellenic practice of identifying deities of disparate mythological traditions with their own. When proto-Greeks—whose language would later become classical Greek—first arrived in the Pelonnesus over two thousand years ago they encountered localized nymphs and divinities already associated with important geographical features such as mountains, groves, caves, and springs—each of these geographical features had its own locally venerated deities.
Syncretism from the Renaissance to the Present
The term “syncretism” fell into disuse from the time of Plutarch to the time of the Renaissance. It was reborn with Erasmus (1466?–1536) and his reading of Plutarch. Erasmus modified the term “syncretism” in his Adagia (Adages)—first published in 1517—with reference to the coherence of dissenters despite their myriad philosophical and theological differences. Syncretism, for Erasmus, represented agreement among peoples with seemingly different beliefs and ideals. In a letter to Melanchthon dated 22 April 1519, Erasmus specifically referenced the Cretans (borrowing from Plutarch) as an example of the adage “Concord is a mighty rampart.” Nearly a century later, in 1615, David Pareus of Heidelberg urged Christians to adopt what he called “pious syncretism” in opposition to the Antichrist, but few seventeenth-century Protestants seriously considered compromises that might bring about the ultimate reconciliation of Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church. In the seventeenth century, Calixtus (1586–1656) sought to reconcile the various Protestant denominations with each other. He was ridiculed by Calovius (Abraham Calov, 1612–1686) for being an advocate of “syncretism.”
Nonpejorative connotations of the term “syncretism” began again in the eighteenth century with the publication of Dennis Diderot’s Encyclopedie, which contained entries on “Eclecticisme” and “Syncretistes, Henotiques, ou Conciliateurs.” Although Diderot published two separate entries, he equated syncretism with eclecticism and portrayed syncretism as the concordance of eclectic sources.
Throughout the nineteenth century, overt syncretism in folk beliefs was seen as a strong indication of the cultural acceptance of an alien and/or earlier tradition. Nevertheless, it was also recognized that “foreign” cults may survive or infiltrate other religions without an official, authorized syncretism. By the end of the nineteenth century, identities were no longer predicated on the existence of continuous and immutable cultures, and the concept of syncretism came to the forefront largely because it blurred local distinctions— a characteristic that made it useful for rulers of multicultural populations. At the same time, the rejection of syncretism, that is, antisyncretism in the name of purity and/or orthodoxy, helped to generate and legitimize a strongly felt desire for cultural unity. Contemporary celebrations of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween offer many telling examples of syncretism in practice. This is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Romans adopted pagan Yule traditions that eventually made it into Christmas celebrations (Christmas trees, Yule logs, and the like), and Roman Catholics in Central and South America have integrated a large number of elements that are taken from indigenous Latin American and North American religious traditions. It is of interest that religious leaders who oppose syncretism almost always express their opposition in terms of personal piety.
A number of so-called new religious movements like Reverend Moon’s Unification Church or L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology have openly embraced syncretism, while others—Christian fundamentalism and Islam are perhaps the most dramatic examples—have rejected syncretism as a devaluing of precious, genuine religious and cultural truths and distinctions. Examples of intense syncretism can be found in Romanticism and in various other “new religions” like mysticism, occultism, theosophy, paganism, and New Age. In the fine arts, the eclectic aspects in postmodernism are abundantly apparent.
Generally, the term “syncretism” has been positively regarded by social scientists. Yet Stewart and Shaw report that there is growing uneasiness with the term among anthropologists who have been influenced by postmodernism. Other anthropologists have devoted their attentions to showing that syncretism is not inevitable. It is possible, they contend, for two groups to live in close proximity and largely ignore each another. For this reason, scholars find it both necessary and informative to examine syncretism with respect to relations of power. In Syncretism and the Commerce of Symbols, Goren Aijmer dramatically shifted the direction of research by asking, “Under what specific conditions do people in any one group pay attention to the cultural symbols of another group?” (1995, 27). Often, it seems that syncretism has been most intense whenever inequality between cultures has been the most pronounced. Equally important, war, conquest, colonialism, trade, migration, and intermarriage bring syncretism to the forefront. Race, gender, age, and social class are also factors. Scholars must examine the relationships between global and localized syncretisms. Are two or more religions influencing one another equally or is one dominating the rest? How does syncretism relate to issues of entrepreneurship and to theories of modernization?
In anthropology, the term “syncretism” is most closely associated with Melville J. Herskovits, who is best known for his research on the survival of African cultural traits among blacks in the Americas. Herskovits advocated an appreciation of what he called “syncretized Africanisms” and focused on various types of “acculturation” in order to address more general issues of culture contact. Again, there is need to recognize that acculturation (and syncretism) is not inevitable, and that all major world religions and cultures seem to be of composite origin.
Marked evidence of syncretism has been identified in New World religions such as Brazilian Candomble, Haitian vodun, and Cuban Santeria. These religions analogized various Yoruba and other African gods and selected Roman Catholic saints. Some Candomble leaders have incorporated the spirits of American aboriginal leaders like Sitting Bull and Black Hawk into their rituals. The most syncretic New World religion is perhaps Brazilian Umbanda, which combines African deities with a form of French spiritism attributed to Alan Kardec (1804–1869). In Brazil, French spiritism is also known as Kardecism or Kardecismo. Umbanda also incorporates local aboriginal spirits, African and Hindu deities, and North American aboriginal leaders.
Roger Bastide’s influential study The African Religions of Brazil attempted to account for syncretism by stressing historical processes like conquest and migration. He traced the various ways in which African, European, and aboriginal religions have come together in what he termed an “interpenetration” of civilizations. Rather than offering a psychological explanation, Bastide’s sociological approach focused on groups of people who were differentiated by sex, social class, and age. By contrast, Stephen D. Glazier’s research on of the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad focused on individual Baptist leaders and their practice of borrowing rituals from a variety of religious traditions but keeping these borrowed rituals separate in time and space. According to Glazier, one outcome of this process is a religion that is marked not so much by syncretism as by juxtaposition.
In South Africa, studies of syncretism have focused on independent churches. The earliest studies of African Independent Churches (AICs) were conducted by Christian missionaries, and the term syncretism was used in derogatory ways. Contemporary anthropologists— most notably J. Y. D. Peel—argued effectively that syncretism was not central to independent churches in South Africa because these churches represented reinterpretations of Christianity but never encouraged a mixture of Christianity and tribal elements.
It should be emphasized that authenticity and originality are not always dependent on the alleged purity and uniqueness of religions and vice versa, and that many so-called “original” religions—like the religions of Australian aborigines—are actually the result of a unique syncretism that has not occurred elsewhere. It is difficult to separate religion from the rest of culture. Scholars studying syncretism cannot specify their field of study in advance and must be sensitive to the ways in which people negotiate and redefine the boundaries of their ideas and practices. For example, since Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church has implemented a concerted program of “inculturation” whereby local communities were encouraged to apprehend the Christian message “on their own terms.” Is this, too, a type of syncretism? Shaw and Stewart pointed out that global religions—like Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam—have been able to effectively “standardize” their responses to syncretism. They suggested, for example, that antisyncretism within Islam can be seen as a standardized response to global capitalism, labor migration, and travel—not least of which is participation in the hajj. Shaw and Stewart also underscored the need to examine problems of agency, especially when agency is ascribed to religious traditions without reference to religious specialists. A difficulty is that when one ascribes agency to a religion, religions are portrayed as having their own dispositions like “free-flowing rivers.” Such is seldom the case.
At times, syncretism is largely intentional, while at other times it is largely unintentional. Whatever the case, there are always unexpected consequences. Syncretism sometimes proceeds from misinterpretations and radical misunderstandings; for example, Christian missionaries working among the Ewe in Ghana identified one Ewe deity, Mawu, as the Christian God and labeled all other Ewe deities as “devils.” An unintended consequence of this labeling was that the Ewe devoted a seemingly disproportionate amount of ritual time to honoring their “devils.”
It is imperative for scholars to chart the increasingly complex interconnections between syncretism, social change, and resistance. Stewart and Shaw concluded their study of syncretism by suggesting that the term be recast as the politics of religious synthesis. A major focus, they postulated, should be on antisyncretism and the antagonisms shown by agents who are largely concerned with the defense of religious boundaries.
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- Baird, R. D. (1971). Category formation in the history of religions. The Hague, The Netherlands: Mouton.
- Bastide, R. (1978). The African religions of Brazil: Toward a sociology of the interpenetration of civilizations. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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- Friedman, J. (1995). Cultural identity and global process. London: Sage.
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- Herskovits, M. J. (1947). Cultural dynamics. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- Lawson, E. T. (2003). Agency and religious agency in cognitive perspective. In S. D. Glazier & C. A. Flowerday (Eds.), Selected readings in the anthropology of religion: Theoretical and methodological essays (pp. 99–106). Westport, CT: Praeger.
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- Stewart, C., & Shaw, R. (Eds.). (1994). Syncretism/antisyncretism: The politics of religious synthesis. New York: Routledge.
- Werbner, R. (1994). Afterword. In C. Stewart & R. Shaw (Eds.), Syncretism/anti-syncretism: The politics of religious synthesis (pp. 212–215). New York & London: Routledge.