Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The concept of "folk religion" has at least four possible emphases, reflecting the place of origin of its use.

Most frequent scholarly usage probably occurs in northern Europe. As the Volk refers to the ethnic nationality, and draws upon its corporate memory of tribal invasion (unsubjugated by Rome), so folk religion in this context refers to a traditional, and largely continuing, widespread and public acceptance of the Christian religion. In Scandinavia, the Baltic states, and Nordic countries generally, as well as in many of the German Länder and Swiss cantons, it allows minimal churchgoing to be combined with maximal infant Baptism, adolescent confirmation, and adult payment of the church tax. This "social anthropological" approach is particularly appropriate for the study of religion, not least in Europe, where identity may be voluntary but is inherited. Persons who express this form of religiosity are sometimes referred to as "sociological Christians."

In Japan, the meaning of folk religion is similarly basic but is more individualistic or, at most, familial. It refers to that congeries of private beliefs or, more accurately, actions that individuals perform, which may be seen either as attempts to manipulate the course of events or as "enacted prayers" in connection with them. Scholars elsewhere may dismiss such activities as magic, intended to coerce the divinities, or as superstitions, wasting resources, but Japanese students credit them as religious in nuce : neither more, nor less. This history, or phenomenology of religion approach, can be seen as a Japanese contribution toward the nonnormative study of the wider religious spectrum.

North American scholars, when discussing folk religion, seem to have in mind either those customs imported by eastern European immigrants or the customs of post-Columbian Latin America. In either case, the emphasis is initially upon their survival. However, it increasingly acknowledges the possibility of their revival—although as cultural, rather than either as dynamically religious or as holistic, phenomena. Such a "cultural anthropological" approach has the potential of relativizing not only cultures but also culture.

In Britain, the term folk religion was used in the 1970s, mainly by Church of England clergy, to refer to members of the population who made "occasional" use of the Offices (baptisms, weddings, funerals) of the Church, in connection with such "occasions" as birth, marriage, and death. A disparaging attitude was sometimes shocked to discover that the request for such Offices was nonetheless serious for being singular. The dismissive attitude, however, was often adopted as a defensive stratagem: to obtain a place on the corporate agenda for that which, at that time, was belittled by both cleric and academic. When this approach is properly pastoral, it allows for the vicariousness of both events and persons: for the "coinherence" of that which is also distinct.

Certain common elements can be discerned behind these four emphases. Thus folk religion refers to the ways in which people within socioreligious groupings and traditions, especially at the level of the household, relate to their local and immediate environment, both natural and social. Indeed, a sea change in the study of religion (and society) can be gleaned from the place occupied by "folk religion," both in general and in its particular forms, in Eliade's 1987 Encyclopedia of Religion , compared with its complete absence as an entry in Hastings's 1918 Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics .

Edward I. Bailey


D. Clark, Between Pulpit and Pew (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)

I. Hori, Folk Religion in Japan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)

G. Mensching, Structures and Patterns of Religion (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976)

F. Musgrove, Ecstasy and Holiness (London: Methuen, 1974).

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