Folk Religions

by A. Scott Moreau and Mike O’Rear

Previously, we wrote about Religions on the Web (October 2002). In this installment, we will focus more closely on what are called folk or popular religions.

We live in an age in which religion has been thrust into the spotlight on a regular basis. From fundamentalists and their actions to the arguments against gay marriages to the growth of Majority World Christianity, stories about religion are seen regularly in news outlets around the world. Previously, we wrote about Religions on the Web (October 2002); however, in this installment, we will focus more closely on what are called folk or popular religions. As many missionaries have discovered, adherents of a religion often may not even know the formal teachings of their religion—but they do know the local beliefs and practice locally-based rituals. It is these local beliefs and practices—which typically blend local beliefs and practices with the formal beliefs and practices (and may even contradict them)—that missionaries must learn to understand and address if they want to reach people for Christ.

In trying to organize the results of our search, we found five major sites that offer a variety of quality materials on folk religions. You will find resources from all five of these sites in every category we discuss below. The first such site is the Network for Strategic Missions KnowledgeBase (NSMKB;,1 which offers almost eighteen thousand articles on just under three thousand topics.

The second major site is The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (, which “attempts to bring together in a single-volume compendium a state-of-the-art summary of the insights gained by the principal social sciences of religion: anthropology, psychology, and sociology.” Next comes The Internet Sacred Texts Archive (, which offers “online books about religion, mythology, folklore, and the esoteric” from formal and folk religions around the world.

The fourth is Wikipedia (, the public-developed, web-based encyclopedia. Finally, because so much of folk religious practice needs to be seen and heard to be understood, there are selected videos from YouTube (

As is often the case, we found more resources than we have space to discuss here. We invite you to browse to the page we’ve set up ( and explore for yourself the types of resources that will help you better understand the people among whom you serve. Bear in mind that the sites we link to offer helpful and quality information, but not necessarily from a Christian perspective, and that by linking to them or the content they provide, we are not endorsing the perspectives presented. 

Folk Religions in General
A Google search for “folk religion” yields 723,000 results, some of which are helpful introductions to the topic. A more focused search using Google resources entails exploring the same term (in quotes) on Google Scholar ( and Google Books (, which yield 7,690 books, citations, and articles, and 1,950 books, respectively. Although most of the results are not accessible unless you have subscriptions to significant databases, even without a subscription you can access so much content that you could easily spend the next year simply working your way through it. Because we are not aware of anyone who has the time to do this, we’ve picked out some sources that will give you a general understanding of folk religions before you start the process of digging deeper for the things you have to face in your part of the world.

The BBC H2G2 (“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) describes itself as “an unconventional guide to Life, The Universe, and Everything.” In wiki fashion, H2G2 “is an encyclopedic project contributed to by people from all over the world.” Their “Religions, Beliefs, Doctrines & Practices” page ( has more than 150 articles related to religions, including many of interest for the study of folk religions. The Big Religion Chart ( “is an attempt to summarize all the complexities of religions and belief systems into tiny little boxes on a single, quick-reference comparison chart” for over forty religions—including many folk religions. It offers quick access to bite-sized information by topic (from history to the texts) as well as external links for more information. It is paralleled by the table on (, which links to over sixty religions, many of them folk systems. Rather than giving information by topic, this table provides links to the relevant religion section (if it exists) on ten major sites (from to Internet Sacred Texts Archives). This makes it easy to explore multiple sites on the same religion.  

Missiologist Gailyn VanRheenen’s site “Communicating Christ among Folk Religionists” ( offers several helpful general resources, including the entire text of Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts (available in print through William Carey library), additional articles, links to other sites, and two bibliographies. The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization provides two helpful articles: David Burnett’s paper “Spiritual Conflict and Folk Religion” ( and Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 11, “Christian Witness to New Religious Movements” (

The final resource we highlight in this category is the Network for Strategic Missions KnowledgeBase. Under the general topic of “Folk Religions” ( there are fifteen general articles on folk religions from journals such as EMQ, International Bulletin of Mission, Missiology, Sacred Tribes and World Pulse.2 These are articles of a broader nature introducing the idea of folk religions rather than articles on specific folk religions. To find more specific articles, click on one of the twelve subtopics. The other general topic related to folk religions is “New Religious Movements (NeRMs)” (, which has eleven introductory or general articles from similar journals and ten subtopics for those who need to narrow their search to a particular geographic focus or subtopic.

Asian Folk Religions
When you consider that almost all of the world’s religions can be found across Asia, it should not be surprising that Asia has the greatest variety of folk religious practices of any continent. In fact, we could easily devote an entire page on MisLinks just to the folk religions in Asia. In addition to the resources found in the five major sites discussed above, we limit our listings to one general paper (Lausanne Occasional Paper 16: Christian Witness to Traditional Religionists of Asia and Oceania; and a sampler of resources on folk religions in China, Japan, and Korea, as well as folk Hinduism and folk Islam.

Chinese Religious Practices ( is part of the larger site Religion Facts ( This page gives a brief explanation of the scope of Chinese religious practices and then serves as a launch pad for articles on five particular sets of practices: (1) ancestor worship, (2) prayer, (3) longevity practices, (4) divination, prophecy, and astrology, and (5) Feng Shui (which at the time of our entry had not yet been posted).

Contemporary Papers on Japanese Religion ( is a collection of four recent multi-authored books on Japanese religion, including Festival and Rite in Japanese Life, New Religions, Folk Beliefs in Modern Japan, and Kami. Each collection has seven to eight chapters which are an invaluable collection for those wrestling with a variety of folk religious issues or new religions in Japan. A second good resource on Japan is the Encyclopedia of Shinto article “Folk Religion” (, which highlights twelve specific types of beliefs and practices and provides links to larger articles on each.

For Korea (and Russia), we link to the papers from the First Seoul International Consultation on Christianity and Shamanism, held June 25-30, 2000, in Seoul, Korea ( The consultation focused on the issues of Orthodox Christianity in relation to traditional religious shamanism in Korea (three papers) and Russia (four papers) with both a narrower scope (on the practitioners themselves) as well as a larger scope (shamanistic beliefs and practices).

The folk Hindu link is to the information provided in a city guide to Varanasi ( It has been noted by numerous scholars that the term “Hindu” encompasses not a single monolithic religion, but both a civilization as well as a collection of a huge variety of religious streams all under the same banner (see Richard 2004, 311). As our linked article notes, “It is difficult to draw a sharp line of distinction between popular Hinduism, the beliefs and practices of more or less Hinduized ‘external’ groups, and Indian tribal religion.”

For folk Islam, we provide two resources. First is the book Studies in Popular Islam  (published in 1939;, in which Samuel Zwemer writes about what he saw as the undertow (i.e., the folk religious reactions) of the rising tide of modernism and its secularizing impact on Islam.

The second folk Islam site is the Islamic Spiritual Warfare Prayer Ruqyah I (, first of a 4-part series dealing with issues of “the condition of the heart, the legitimacy of seeking medical treatment, types of sihr (magic), types of ruqyah, and forbidden forms of treatment for magic, jinn possession, and more.”

The last resource we highlight for Asia is Wikipedia. We chose one directory and five articles from it to represent the variety of Asian folk religions practices. The directory is of Asian Shamanism, and the articles are: Chinese Folk Religions, Folk Hinduism, Korean Shamanism, Sufism, and Malaysian Chinese religion. The category pages in Wikipedia link to subcategories and articles within the category. The Asian Shamanism category has one subcategory and eight articles within the category. Each article provides an extensive article, a bibliography, additional links to related Wikipedia articles, and a cross-listing to other categories that have a relationship to the category of the article. Wikipedia has no article on “Folk Islam,” so we linked to “Sufism” (, “the inner, mystical dimension of Islam” that is typically associated with folk Islam (Parshall 1983). 

Latin American Folk Religions
Latin America has numerous folk religions, ranging from Afro-Caribbean groups to indigenous Indian religions. General information about them can be found on New Religions Movements (NRMs) in the Americas ( and Religion in Latin America (

A particular help for those who want to read more is the bibliography on Religions of the African Diaspora ( For a Christian perspective, a great resource is “Lausanne Occasional Paper 17: Christian Witness to Traditional Religionists of Latin America & Caribbean” ( We also link to information on particular folk religious beliefs and practices. There are two links for each of three of the more prominent folk religions in Latin America. Santeria (literally, “way of the saints”) is a blend of Yoruba beliefs and Catholic elements. Our two sites are ( and the BBC religion and ethics Santeria page (

Umbanda blends Afro-Brazilian practices with European based spiritism (specifically Kardecism). The linked resources include the Overview of World Religions Umbanda page ( and the GeoCities Umbanda page (

Voodoo (there are various spellings, including Vodou, Voudoun, and Vodun), popularized in American media by people sticking pins in dolls and zombies, is an African religion that was brought to the Caribbean through the slave trade. Practitioners focus on guidance and protection of spirits through possession ceremonies. Our Voodoo links are to articles on BBC H2G2   ( and the Religious Tolerance site (

The last resource we highlight for Latin American folk religions is YouTube videos. We found five that offer helpful video clips (all are less than ten minutes long), including Behind The Enemy God: A Film About a Yanomamo Shaman (; Initiation with Ants (; Candomble ( Nbld3M); Santeria (; Umbanda Religion (; and Birth of Voodoo ( =xRt6CTb6riY). Three are segments from National Geographic videos (Initiation with Ants, Umbanda Religion, and Birth of Voodoo). We should warn you that some, like Initiation with Ants, realistically show things such as possession phenomena and pain that are part of the real nature of some folk religions practices. If you intend to use them in a public setting, be sure you have previewed them to decide whether they are appropriate for your audience, and so that you can let them know in advance what they are about to see.

African Folk Religions
Since the definition of folk religions is that practiced by local groups in ways that are detached from formal doctrinal oversight, it is understandable that many consider African Traditional Religions to be of a folk nature. A search for “African folk religions” (in quotes) on Google yields only seventy-three hits, with our MisLinks page at the top of the results! With that in mind, we focused our search on “African Traditional Religions,” for which a Google search (in quotes) yielded 20,500 hits.

The site at the top of the Google results was Chidi Denis Isizoh’s African Traditional Religion ( With over fifty links to selected topics, bibliographies, African diaspora religions (e.g., Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian), and specific religions such as Akan Cosmology and Symbolism (, Isizoh’s site provides access to a treasure trove of information. African Religion: Studies in Anthropology and Intercultural Philosophy ( is one component of the site that houses the writings and presentations of anthropologist Wim van Binsbergen, whose interests also include popular Islam in North Africa. Don’t be distracted by the background graphics and gaudy colors—the site offers solid information, although you might have to dig to access it.

The Annotated Bibliography of Internet Resources on African Traditional Religion (ATR; is very helpful in providing descriptions of and access to multiple ATR-focused web resources. A more extensive site is Africa South of the Sahara (, which lists and describes multiple sites related to African Religions. The best place to start is their topical guide on Religion in Africa (, which has eight topics from Africa Traditional Religion to South Africa: Religion. Each topic is a webpage with annotated links to resources. Finally, the Internet Sacred Texts Archive “African Religions” page ( offers African and diasporic sacred writings. They include fifteen books focused exclusively on Africa arranged within the sub-topics: South Africa, The Bantu, West and Central Africa, and Comparative. Most of the linked resources offer traditional myths and legends of African peoples. We also link to their Ancient Egypt page (, which connects to more than fifteen books on ancient Egyptian religious myths, beliefs, and practices.

Oceanic Folk Religions
From Hawaii to Australia, there are multiple traditional religions found across Oceania. We start this category with helpful information on three selected topics: Australian Aboriginal religions, Cargo Cults, and Maori (New Zealand) religion. Australian Aboriginal religions are treated as folk religions just as African Traditional Religions are. Aboriginal Religion and Ceremony ( offers a brief but helpful overview of significant beliefs; a more extensive introduction is in Australian Aboriginal Religion (

According to Apologetics Index site (, Cargo Cults are “any of the religious movements chiefly….in Melanesia that exhibit belief in the imminence of a new age of blessing, to be initiated by the arrival of a special ‘cargo’ of goods from supernatural sources.” The best short summary is given by BBC H2G2 ( Contemporary depictions can be found in “Cargo Cult Lives on in South Pacific” ( and “In John They Trust” (

There are numerous sites offering information on Maori religion. New Zealand in History ( provides an introduction to Maori traditions, as does Peter Lineham’s Publications in the Religious History of New Zealand ( Maori stories are found on Korero 0 Nehera (Stories of Old; The Overview of World Religions site provides two very helpful pages for other Oceanic folk religions. Polynesian Religions ( and Western Oceanian Religions ( both list the religions found in their respective areas along timelines with links to brief articles on each religion. Finally, the online Encyclopedia of Religion and Society offers a brief but helpful article on Cargo Cults (

Finding good resources on folk religions has provided us with a difficult challenge. The terminology is not standardized, there are a bewildering variety of beliefs and practices, and those who study religion are normally far more interested in the formal side than they are the folk side. Missionaries cannot afford to be that way, since they interface far more with regular people whose religious practices are based upon local beliefs and customs rather than universal ones. As usual, there are many more links—including an entire section on cults, sects, and new religious movements found in North America and Europe—than we have space to even mention here. We invite you to browse the page, and would love to hear from you as you find or develop helpful sites.

1. All URLs are assumed to start with http:// unless otherwise noted.
2. Articles from several of these journals are in the Premium section and require a subscription to view.

Parshall, Phil. 1983. Bridges to Islam: A Christian Perspective on Folk Islam. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

Richard, H. L. 2004. “New Paradigms for Understanding Hinduism and Contextualization.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40:3: 308-315.


A. Scott Moreau is editor of EMQ and a professor in the Intercultural Studies department at Wheaton College Graduate School (Wheaton, Ill.). His email address is, and the Wheaton Missions Department web address is

Mike O’Rear is the president of Global Mapping International (Colorado Springs, Colo.), which is dedicated to providing access to information for church and mission leaders, especially in the Two-thirds World. His email address is, and the GMI web address is

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events