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Syncretism consists of the attempt to reconcile disparate or contrary beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term may refer to attempts to merge and analogise several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, and thus assert an underlying unity allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths.

It also occurs commonly in literature, music, the representational arts and other expressions of culture. Syncretism may occur in architecture as well. There also exist syncretic politics, although in political classification the term has a somewhat different meaning.

Overt syncretism in folk belief may show cultural acceptance of an alien or previous tradition, but the other cult may survive or infiltrate without authorized syncresis nevertheless. For example, some Conversos developed a sort of cult for martyr victims of the Spanish Inquisition, thus incorporating elements of Catholicism while resisting it.

Some religious movements have embraced overt syncretism, such as the case of the adoption of Shintō elements into Buddhism as well as the adoption of Germanic and Celtic pagan elements into Catholicism during Christianity’s spread into Gaul, the British Isles and Germany. Others have strongly rejected it as devaluing precious and genuine distinctions; examples of this include post-Exile Judaism and Islam.

Syncretism tends to facilitate coexistence and constructive interaction between different cultures, a factor that has recommended it to rulers of multi-ethnic realms. Conversely the rejection of syncretism, usually in the name of piety and orthodoxy, may help to generate, bolster or authorize a sense of cultural unity in a well-defined minority or majority.

Religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. This can occur for many reasons, and the latter scenario happens quite commonly in areas where multiple religious traditions exist in proximity and function actively in the culture, or when a culture is conquered, and the conquerors bring their religious beliefs with them, but do not succeed in entirely eradicating the old beliefs or, especially, practices.

Religions may have syncretic elements to their beliefs or history, but adherents of so-labeled systems often frown on applying the label, especially adherents who belong to revealed religious systems, such as the Abrahamic religions, or any system that exhibits an exclusivist approach. Such adherents sometimes see syncretism as a betrayal of their pure truth. By this reasoning, adding an incompatible belief corrupts the original religion, rendering it no longer true. Indeed, critics of a specific syncretistic trend may sometimes use the word syncretism as a disparaging epithet, as a charge implying that those who seek to incorporate a new view, belief, or practice into a religious system actually distort the original faith. Non-exclusivist systems of belief, on the other hand, may feel quite free to incorporate other traditions into their own.

In modern secular society, religious innovators sometimes create new religions syncretically as a mechanism to reduce inter-religious tension and enmity, often with the effect of offending the original religions in question. Such religions, however, do maintain some appeal to a less exclusivist audience.

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