Reporting on the New Syncretism


During my years in Egypt I often visited Coptic Orthodox churches. I have always enjoyed the atmosphere and liturgy in the churches and the dedication among faithful believers. However, I was often puzzled by the number of Muslim women (with headscarves) coming to that Christian church, and staying to pray for some time. What was really going on? Where they Christians in hiding, or was this something else?

Some Coptic Orthodox friends gave me an interesting explanation. They said the women were married but childless, and they were desperately praying to become pregnant. Coptic Orthodox churches were commonly known in that area to be special places to pray for fertility.

It turns out that the behavior I witnessed is not at all unusual. Muslims often participate in Christian festivals in honor of holy men and women from the past (called Mulids). Indeed, some of the women may well experience answers to their prayers, due to a (often very private) belief in Jesus as Christ or a Christian saint.

Local ‘folk religion’ practices around the world frequently feature customs and cultural traditions mixed with the theological framework of the ‘official’ religion. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are strongly monotheistic and make a strong claim of being the only true faith. Most other religions - particularly in Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka - have large parts of their population saying they adhere to more than one religion.

“More and more individuals confess to being partly Jewish and partly Buddhist, or partly Christian and partly Hindu, or fully Christian and fully Buddhist...In the wider history of religion, multiple religious belonging may have been the rule rather than the exception, at least on a popular level,” writes Catherine Cornille in the introductory chapter of “Many Mansions?: Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity”.

As the role of religion gains strength in societies worldwide, journalists also face a growing challenge of reporting on religious issues in societies where people say they believe more than one religion to be true.

U.S. religious landscape changes

According to a recent survey from the Pew Forum, one-third of Americans (35%) say they regularly (9%) or occasionally (26%) attend religious services at more than one place, and most of these (24% of the public overall) indicate that they sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own. Aside from when they are traveling and special events like weddings and funerals, three-in-ten Protestants attend services outside their own denomination, and one-fifth of Catholics say they sometimes attend non-Catholic services.

Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizeable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts, according to the December 2009 report.

Coverage of people claiming multiple faiths was the topic for a seminar with professor Ashis Nandy in New Delhi, India early February sponsored by The Media Project. Coming from a Christian background but not confessing any faith today, professor Nandy has studied the intricate patterns of religious beliefs in Asia for many years.

“36 communities in India say they have three faiths at the same time. Theologian and painter Jyoti Shahi once reported a survey carried out in Madras where, according to the official census, one per cent of the people are Christian. The same survey found that about 10 per cent of the population identified Jesus Christ as their personal god or isthadevata,” says Nandy.

He points out that religious extremists have thrived on syncretism. Many people fear their religion is not pure.

“Hinduism, Christianity, Islam were all initially a local faith. The emphasis was not on what you believed, but what you do to practice your faith (and this was often minimal.) But when people migrated, the religion became the “laptop” versions, since you cannot bring your village priest with you. You look for texts, and texts become important and normative,” says Nandy.

He then quoted Mahatma Gandhi: “I am a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian – and so are you!”

Multi-faith people are the rule in Asia

In several Asian societies multiple religious belonging is a rule rather than an exception, at least on the popular level. Indeed, the very expression "multiple religious belonging" - as it is understood in the West as two or more memberships in particular systems of beliefs and practices within bounded communities - is a misnomer in Asia.

In Asia, religions are considered not as mutually exclusive systems but as having specialized functions that respond to the different needs and circumstances in the course of a person's life. It is almost like a division of labor. Such is the case, for instance, with Shinto and Buddhism in Japan.

Quite often Asian people go to pray and worship in pagodas, temples, and shrines, without much consideration given to what religion these sacred places belong to, but depending on whether the local deity or spirit is reputed to grant a favor tailored to one's particular needs and circumstances.

In Asia one can speak of the “two eyes” of truth and reality, the east being one eye and the west the other. It could be said that western Christianity has tended to be rather "one-eyed" about truth and reality in the past. Nevertheless, multiple belonging in the West is becoming more prominent.

“It is quite common in the United States today to encounter people who practice aspects of several religious traditions and who profess to be essentially equidistant from these faiths”, Nandy said.

A new challenge for reporters

Journalists have yet to properly report on the new syncretistic trend among people in the US and around the world . Some theologians (particularly in Asia) have researched and discussed the issue, but journalists have many good questions still to explore, such as:

(1) Is any of the two or more faiths primary, and are the secondary faiths (or elements like reincarnation, etc.) incorporated into an overall framework?

(2) What are the core elements of this new syncretistic religion?

(3) How and where do people worship, in public or private?

(4) What are the rituals and texts?

(5) How do these new kind of believers relate to other faiths?

(6) Is the emphasis on what you do or what you actually believe?

Other questions will no doubt be added as interviews take place. But one thing is certain: The importance of religion in people’s lives has not diminished. The old faiths are facing real competition from a real mixture of ‘personalized beliefs’ as a new type of ‘folk religion’ in the 21st Century.