The religious life of ordinary people who are not primarily oriented toward their religion as it is presented by its formal history, but who know and practice it as it is communicated and performed on family, village, or popular levels.
In traditional societies, folk religion is generally associated with peasant societies, but in the modern world many of its characteristics can be found among working-class and other ordinary people in urban societies. Here it is often called popular religion.
Two fundamental features of folk religion are, ﬁ rst, that it is primarily “cosmic” rather than historical in perspective, and second, that it is chieﬂ y passed on orally, through the words and examples of family, community members, and local-level spiritual leaders, whether shamans, evangelists, priests, or others.
Cosmic orientation means that folk religionists generally have little sense of history beyond living memory save as it is encoded in myth, but think more of how religion ﬁ ts into their seasonal cycles and local geography. If they are agriculturists, festivals of planting and harvest are important. For all people in temperate climates spring and midwinter celebrations are very common. Even if the people ofﬁ cially belong to a religion with a historical orientation, like JUDAISM or CHRISTIANITY, the seasonal aspects of festivals with a theoretically historical origin, like PASSOVER, CHRISTMAS, Mardi Gras, and CARNIVAL, or EASTER, and the timeless aspects of the occasion, are likely to become central in practice. (This is why the snow and Santa Claus features of Christmas, and the rabbit and spring elements of Easter—a Christian holiday named after an AngloSaxon GODDESS of spring—are so prominent in folk or popular Christianity.) The geographical bearing of folk religion is perhaps more pronounced in some traditions than others; it means a tendency toward venerated holy places, like sacred mountains, trees, waterfalls, shrines, and PILGRIMAGE places that are accessible to ordinary people—like Mount Fuji in Japan or the famous grotto at the shrine of the Blessed Virgin MARY at Lourdes in France.
A related characteristic of folk and popular religion is emphasis on religious marking of the individual’s life cycle. BAPTISMS, conﬁ rmations, BAR/BAT MITZVAHS, weddings, childbirths, personal SAINTS’ days, and funerals, or the equivalents in various traditions, are likely to be extremely signiﬁ cant family or even community events, entailing perhaps great preparation and expense. The key occurrences of personal life thus blend into occasions that keep community identity alive. RITES OF PASSAGE into adulthood are ways for a community to perpetuate its own life; burial rites for the deceased become ways for the family and community to rebond and reafﬁ rm their continuity after the loss.
Oral transmission, another fundamental feature of folk religion, means that folk religion is learned ﬁ rst of all through the words of people one knows locally and face to face, rather than through much study or in the way the religion is known by its literary sources or elites, its BRAHMINS or bishops. Folk FAITH is acquired in many ways—from parents, other family, peers, community example, festivals, services, lodges, INITIATIONS, local clergy and wise-women—but mainly in bits and pieces, rather than as a logically coherent whole. As popular religion becomes modern and urban, media like radio, television, and massmarket books or magazines may be added to the means of transmission, so that shamans become television evangelists. Very important, because of folk religion’s living out of the present rather than out of history and institutionalization, is a leader’s capacity to manifest direct and visible spiritual power, or immediate impressive credentials. Like a shaman, she or he should exhibit special charisma and preternatural-seeming states of consciousness; or like a priest, the ability to mount imposing and mysticseeming services or ceremonies. Some very important religious leaders like the Japanese Buddhist prophet NICHIREN and the founder of M ETHODISM, John WESLEY, have managed successfully to bridge the gap between folk and institutional religion, and on a lesser scale so have many local priests and pastors.
Folk religion generally is quite open to belief in MIRACLES and immediate demonstrations of supernatural power, both good and bad. Miracles of HEALING and divine protections are commonly acknowledged, as is belief in negative WITCHCRAFT or comparable uncanny EVIL. Omens, amulets, divination, VISIONS, voices, signs, and MAGIC may be taken seriously.
Oral transmission does not mean that people who maintain a folk religion are necessarily illiterate. But reading is done in a different way. In folk-religion versions of scripture-oriented faiths like Christianity or ISLAM, the BIBLE or the QUR’AN may play an important role, to be read, believed, chanted, venerated. Yet they are not read or understood as they would be by a scholar of the faith’s great institutions of learning, but in a direct way, without historical perspective. The scripture is really another sign, amulet, miracle or source of miracles—the greatest of all.
While often passive so far as social or political change is concerned, folk religion can rouse itself to become the voice of the common people and so to produce movements that intend major social change or even revolution, whether moral, social, or political. From out of the very nature of folk religion, such movements are likely to be cosmic, present-oriented, under visionary charismatic leadership, full of belief in miracles and expecting to be conﬁ rmed by miraculous signs and victories, up to and including direct divine intervention. But even if frustrated, folk religion movements like that of JOAN OF ARC can change the course of history.
Folk religion and its modern popular religion version, with all their color and festivity, remain important in the contemporary world.