Folk religion is basically made up of certain ethnic or regional religious traditions that practice under the guise of an established religion, but is outside the boundaries of official doctrine and practices. Folk religion’s indigenous or native beliefs are held all over the world, particularly in parts of South America, Africa, China, and Southeast Asia.
The largest folk religion in the world is the Chinese folk religion which has an estimated 400 million followers worldwide or about 6.6 percent of the world’s population. All folk religions combined have more followers than Buddhism or Judaism, claiming about 10 percent of the world population in total. Only Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism have more followers.
Despite being separated by many thousands of miles, several aspects of folk religion have certain features in common. Folk religion is heavily infused with magic and superstition, in particular what is called “sympathetic” magic—the belief that like forces influence like forces. This holds true even if they are not causally linked in any way directly or even obviously. An example of sympathetic magic is the idea that the movements of the stars and planets somehow influence or portend events or tendencies in the human experience. The popularity of astrology and psychics demonstrates that folk religion still exists, even in the Western world.
Interestingly, many components of folk religion have found their way into modern mega-religions including Christianity and Islam. For example, some of our Christmas traditions can be traced back to pagan origins, including a pagan feast preceding the advent of the birth of Jesus. At that time it was called the winter solstice. Further, the symbolic consumption of Jesus’ body and blood during the Catholic mass is considered by some as an example of sympathetic magic, whereby he who consumes the magical substance is imbued with some of the sanctity that comes from the divine persona.
Folk religion is employed also by combining some of its practices with those of mega religions. And in so doing, these practices are labeled as “folk Christianity” among Christian countries and “folk Islam” in those of Islamic nations. Without question, folk religion is considered a distorted, if not meaningless, practice of religion by lay people outside of the control of clergy or the supervision of theologians. As one would imagine, there is a certain amount of acrimony between the two.
Folk religion attempts in its own way to answer human needs for reassurance in times of trouble, and many of its rituals are aimed at mundane goals like seeking healing or averting misfortune. Several aspects or practices of folk religion are born from certain animistic or fetishistic rituals or ceremonies. This is inevitable simply because of folk religion’s ritualistic nature. Actually, the line is often blurry between the practice of folk religion and the practice of magic.
Remarkably, those who hold to the practices of folk religion are not even aware that their beliefs are distinctive from those of major official religions. Here are some examples that can be considered aspects of folk religion doctrine:
• belief in the Evil Eye
• rituals to ward off evil, curses, demons, witchcraft
• blessing of animals, crops, beer, wine, cheese
• fertility rites
• belief in traditional magic systems
• thanksgiving prayers, grace before meals and other domestic rituals
• veneration of ancestors and deceased family members, esp. in Christian, Jewish, or Islamic households
• some aspects of the veneration of various saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; Marian apparitions
• hoodoo, voodoo, pow-wow and Santería
• snake handling
• hex signs
• religious jewelry
• religious art in the home
• use of Bible, crucifix, other objects as talismans
• systems of interpretation of prophecy as it relates to the end times
Some of these practices are consistent with biblical Christianity, such as prayers of thanksgiving and systematic interpretation of biblical prophecy. Where folk religion departs from the Bible as the revealed Word of God, it should be rejected, and that would seem to be the vast majority of its doctrine and practices.