Popular Religion

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Author: Charles H. Long
Editor: Lindsay Jones
Date: 2005
Encyclopedia of Religion
From: Encyclopedia of Religion(Vol. 11. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 10
Content Level: (Level 5)

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POPULAR RELIGION. Every society exhibits divisions and segmentations based upon the classification of its members and their activities, functions, and relationships (e.g., sex, work, knowledge, etc.). However, it was long a universally common assumption that the meaning of any institution within the society, or the meaning of the society as a whole, was the privileged province of the upper, or elite, levels of the society. Indeed, the idea that social meaning could be gained from any other level, especially the lower levels of the social structure, is a relatively new notion. The setting forth of the notion that a positive and necessary knowledge of society could be gained from its lower levels defined this strata as a locus of interpretation, meaning, and value.

The idea that the positive meaning of a society is represented by the "common people," "the folk," or the peasants may be seen as an expression of "cultural primitivism," the dissatisfaction of the civilized with the quality and style of civilization and the expression of a desire to return for orientation to the archaic roots of the culture. This "discovery of the people," to use Peter Burke's apt phrase, began in the latePage 7325  |  Top of Article eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Europe. The philosophical justification for this orientation can be seen in the writings of Giovanni Battista Vico (1668–1744) and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803). Probably more than any others, these two thinkers represented new theoretical approaches to the nature of history, religion, and society. They distinguished the notions of the "populari" and "the volk" as the basis for an alternate and new meaning of humanism apart from the rationalizing and civilizing processes set in motion by the European Enlightenment.

The discovery of two new and different forms of societal orders—one outside Europe (the so-called primitives), the other internal to European cultures (the peasants and the folk)—was prompted, in fact, by a search for origins. The search was in some senses antithetical, and in other senses supplementary, to the meaning of the origins of the West in the biblical and Greek cultures. The discovery that the archaic levels of human culture and society had an empirical locus in existing Western cultures became the philosophical, theological, and ideological basis for the legitimation of these new structures of order in modern and contemporary societies.

The notion of popular religion has to do with the discovery of archaic forms, whether within or outside Western cultures. It is at this level that the meaning of popular religion forms a continuum with both primitive religions and peasant and folk cultures in all parts of the world. This continuum is based upon structural similarities defined by the organic nature of all of these types of societies rather than upon historical or genetic causation.

Primitive and peasant-folk societies are, relatively speaking, demographically small. The relationships among people in these societies were thought to be personal in nature. Underlying all modes of communication is an intuitive or empathetic understanding of the ultimate nature and purpose of life.

This is what Herder meant by "the organic mode of life," an idea given methodological precision by the social philosopher Ferdinand Tönnies, who made a typological distinction between communities ordered in terms of Gemeinschaft and those expressing a Gesellschaft orientation to life and the world. Gemeinschaft represents community as organic form; Gesellschaft is society as a mechanical aggregate and artifact. A similar distinction is made by the anthropologist Robert Redfield when he describes pre-urban cultures as those in which the moral order predominates over the technical order. The moral order, in this interpretation, is the common understanding of the ultimate nature and purpose of life within the community. The notions of the organic nature of community (Gemeinschaft) and the primacy of the moral order lead to different meanings of the religious life in primitive and folk or peasant cultures as compared to societies in urban Gesellschaft orientations. Furthermore, the relationship or the distinction between the religious and the cognitive within the two kinds of societies differ.

While it can be said that religion is present when a distinction is made between the sacred and the profane, the locus of this distinction in primitive and folk-peasant cultures is a commonly shared one. There is a unified sense of those objects, actions, and sentiments that are sacred, and those that are profane. The religious and the moral orders tend to be synonymous; thus, the expression of religious faith on the ordinary and extraordinary levels of these cultures form a continuum. The extraordinary expressions are those that commemorate important punctuations of the temporal and social cycles (e.g., a new year, the harvest and first fruits, birth, marriage, and death). The ordinary modes are expressed in the customs, traditions, and mundane activities that maintain and sustain the culture on a daily basis.

One of the goals of the early studies of folk, peasant, and popular cultures was to come to an understanding of the qualitative meaning of religion in human cultures of this kind. Attention was focused on the meaning of custom and tradition, on the one hand, and upon the qualitative meaning and mode of transmission of the traditional values in cultures that were not predominantly literate.

The two early innovators, Herder and, especially, Vico, had already emphasized the modes and genres of language of the nonliterate. Vico based his entire philosophical corpus on the origin and development of language, or, to be more exact, of rhetoric. By the term rhetoric Vico made reference to the manner in which language is produced as a mode of constituting bonds between human beings, the world, and other beings outside the community. Closely related to Herder's philosophy of culture and history is the work of the Grimm brothers in their philological studies of the Germanic languages. Their collection of fairy tales, Märchen, and folktales represents the beginning of serious scholarly study of oral traditions. In the work of the Grimms, the first articulation of the relationship between genres of oral literature and modes of transmission are raised. This relationship is important, for, given the presupposed organic form of nonliterate societies, the genres of transmission of ultimate meaning, whether ordinary or extraordinary, defined a locus of the religious. The romantic notion (present in Herder and in the theologians Friedrich Schleiermacher and Paul Tillich), namely, that religion is the ultimate ground and substance of culture, underlies the importance given to transmission, manifestation, and expression of this form of culture as religion. Religion is thus understood to be pervasive in society and culture, finding its expression not only in religious institutions, but in all the dimensions of cultural life.

The genres of the folktale, folk song, art, and myth became the expressive forms of popular religion. The investigation of poetic meaning and wisdom, and of metaphorical, symbolic expressions, emerged as sources of the religious sentiment in the traditions of popular religion. The initial "discovery of the people" as a approach to the interpretation of culture and society and as a new form of human value was made under the aegis of intuitive methods within literaryPage 7326  |  Top of Article studies and from the perspective of a speculative philosophy of history. Once serious scholarly attention was given to the data of the popular, certain ambiguities were noted. The original discovery of the people was based, by and large, on a contrast between the popular and the urban, or the artificiality of the urban mode as a form of civilization. In this sense, the popular represented the archaic and original forms of culture; it was its roots. However, the meaning of the popular could not be limited to the conservative, value-retaining, residual, self-contained unit of a society or culture. One of the basic elements in the meaning of a popular cultural tradition was the mode of its transmission, and it was precisely this element that allowed the meaning of such a tradition to be extended beyond that of the nonliterate strata of society—the rural peasants and the folk.


Critical investigations of the meaning of popular culture and religion from the disciplinary orientations of the anthropology and history of religion, and from the sociology of knowledge, revealed a wide variety of the forms of popular religion. From the anthropological and historical perspectives, one is able to delineate and describe the characteristic modes of experience and expression of religion at the various levels of the cultural strata, and to show the dynamics of the interrelationships of the popular forms with other cultural strata. The sociology of knowledge provides an understanding of the genesis, contents, and mode of thought and imagination present in popular religion, and demonstrates how various strata within a social order participate in the values, meanings, and structures of popular religion.

Though scholarly, disciplinary approaches led to a more precise definition of the popular and to a critique of the original meaning of the popular and popular religion, such studies also brought about a proliferation of different meanings and interpretations of popular religion. Of these, the following seven are the most significant.


Popular religion is identical with the organic (usually rural and peasant) form of a society. The religious and moral orders are also identical; in this sense, popular religion is closely related to the meanings of primitive and folk religion. This is the original meaning of popular religion as the religion of folk and peasant culture. Though the distinction between the folk and peasant religion and the religion of the urban areas is clear-cut in the industrial periods of all cultures, such a distinction does not rest simply on this basis. In the feudal periods of various cultures, this distinction is more pronounced in relationship to certain practices and in the hierarchical structures of the society. Within feudal structures, the upper classes participated in and controlled a form of literacy that was confined within this group. In various cultures, this meant access to an orientation of religious meaning revolving around sacred texts. In China, for example, there appeared Confucian classics; in India, the Sanskritic literary tradition; in Christianity, the Bible, and so on.

The limitation of the modes of literacy suggest that though there are authoritative sacred texts, they are situated in a context that is often dominated by illiteracy and oral traditions. The line of demarcation between the culture of literacy and that of the oral traditions is seldom clear-cut. In many cases, the traditions of literacy embody a great deal of the content, form, and style of the oral traditions of the peasants and the folk. Prior to the universalization of the modes of literacy in many cultures, the prestige of literacy was to be found in the belief in, and regard for, the sacred text, which itself was believed to have a magical, authoritative meaning in addition to the content of its the particular writings. The written words of the god or gods (the authoritative text) resided with, and was under the control of, elites within the culture.

Another characteristic of folk-peasant societies is that they define the lives of their members within the context of a certain ecological niche (agricultural, pastoral, etc.), and the modes and genres of their existence are attached to this context by ties of tradition and sentiment. The group and the ecological structure thus define a continuity of relationships. The sentiment and the moral order of communities of this kind are synonymous with the meaning of their religion. In agricultural peasant and folk cultures, the rhythms of the agricultural seasons are woven into the patterns of human relationships and sociability. The symbols and archetypes of religion are expressions of the alternation and integration of the human community, the techniques of production, and the reality of the natural world. In most cultures this type of popular religion carries the connotation of religion as ab origine and archaic. Robert Redfield has suggested that the folk-peasant mode of life is an enduring structure of human community found in every part of the world. As such it is not only an empirical datum of a type of human community, but may also represent an enduring source of religious and moral values.


Popular religion as the religion of the laity in a religious community in contrast to that of the clergy. The clergy is the bearer of a learned tradition usually based upon the prestige of literacy. Another type of popular religion is notable in religious communities where literacy is by and large limited to the clergy. The clergy carries out the authority of the tradition through the use of religious texts. The laity may memorize and repeat certain of these texts in worship and rituals, but they are not in possession of the instruments and institutional authority of sacred literacy. Both clergy and laity may participate in and honor other traditions that arise from the life of the laity. Such traditions are those related to the sacralization of agricultural seasons and worship centered around the cults of relics and saints, holy persons, pilgrimages, and so on.

Another meaning of this kind of popular religion stems from a society in which literacy is not confined to the clergy or elite. The laity may have access to certain authoritative or quasi-authoritative texts without being in possession of thePage 7327  |  Top of Article power of normative interpretation and sanction of these texts. They therefore interpret these texts in their own manner, according to their own needs and sensibilities. A notable case of this kind of popular religion is the account given in The Cheese and the Worms (1980) by Carlo Ginzburg of the Italian miller Domenico Sandella (nicknamed Menochhio), a literate peasant who created and thought through an entire cosmology radically different from that of the church authorities. In other cases the clergy may create for the laity popular religious literature of a devotional or catechismal nature that takes on the forms of a more pervasive popular culture of the laity. This can be seen in the adaptation of archetypes from the authoritative tradition to a popular structure: for example, the popularization of Guanyin in Buddhist literatures, and the local and popular traditions concerning Kṛṣṇa among Hindus. In another example, Christmas (the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ), which developed from older, popular (pagan) traditions, has been adapted to the popular cultures and economies of modern societies.


Popular religion as the pervasive beliefs, rituals, and values of a society. Popular religion of this type is a kind of civil religion or religion of the public. It forms the general and wide context for the discussion of anything of a religious nature within the society. Two studies of Greek religion may be used to illustrate this point. Martin P. Nilsson, in his Greek Folk Religion, described the religion of the countryside, the folk-peasant religion of ancient Greece. Jon D. Mikalson, in his Athenian Popular Religion, treats Greek religion not in terms of class structures, nor through a distinction between the rural and the urban, but rather concentrates on the views and beliefs that were a part of the common cultural experience of the majority of Athenians during the late fourth and fifth centuries CE. Mikalson goes on to point out that one of the most important sources for this type of popular religion was the orations presented in law courts, where the orators addressed juries that numbered from five hundred to twenty-five hundred or more Athenian male citizens.

Similar forms of popular religion are found in all cultures where the religious substratum of the culture radiates into, and finds explicit expression—or vague nuances and derivations—in the formation and processes of public institutions other than those dedicated to specific religious ceremonials. As such, this form of popular religion provides a generalized rhetoric and norm for the meaning and discussion of religion within the context of the culture in which it is found. In most cases the meaning of this kind of popular religion is expressed in terms of a dominant religious tradition that has had a profound and pervasive influence upon the culture. For example, in the Western world, one could speak of Christendom or biblical orientations; in India, of the Sanskritic language and cultural traditions; in China and other parts of the Far East, of the Confucian and Buddhist traditions; and, in Islamic countries, of the Islamic tradition. In each case a specific religious orientation has so informed the cultural life that it has become the "natural" and normative language of religion in general, and the secular forms of cultural life as well give expression to their origins in that religious tradition.

Of particular interest in this regard is the discussion surrounding the issue of "civil religion" in the United States since the end of World War II. This discussion has come to the fore in many democratic societies due to the growing democratization and secularization of the processes and institutions within societies of this kind. The case of the American republic is an extreme example of this problem because, as a nation-state, it is not philosophically based upon an explicit or implicit meaning derived from either an archaic or aboriginal religion, nor upon any meaning of a named, empirical religion. Neither did the nation's founders find it necessary to come to terms with the religion of the original inhabitants of the land as the Spanish did in Mesoamerica and South America. The notion of "God" or "Nature's God" is used as an analogue for an archaic principle of founding, but its connotations remain vague; thus, specific religious groups interpret this principle in their own manner in accord with the principle of religious freedom in the United States. However, this same meaning is not limited to its interpretation by specific religious groups; it is also evoked and given extensive interpretation in the speeches of prominent political, judicial, and public figures, and in documents of the nation's history. Sidney E. Mead (1963) and Robert N. Bellah (1967) have shown how the symbolic interpretations of the meaning of the "God of the Republic" in the rhetoric of American presidents have attempted to define—and persuade the citizenry of the United States of—the public religious and moral meanings and implications of the American Republic.


Popular religion as an amalgam of esoteric beliefs and practices differing from the common or civil religion, but usually located in the lower strata of a society. Popular religion in this form more often than not exists alongside other forms of religion in a society. Reference is made here to the religious valuation of esoteric forms of healing, predictions of events not based on logical reasoning, and therapeutic practices that have an esoteric origin and may imply a different cosmology than the one prevalent within the society as a whole. In most cases the practitioners and clients have not eschewed the ordinary modes of healing and therapy; the esoteric beliefs and practices are supplementary, representing a mild critique of the normative forms of this kind of knowledge and practice in the society at large. This form of popular religion is present in industrial societies in practices such as phrenology, palm reading, astrology, and in the accompanying esoteric, "metaphysical" beliefs. The pervasive nature of this kind of popular religion may be noted by the fact that in almost all of the larger cities of industrialized countries, every major newspaper and magazine finds it necessary to carry astrological forecasts or some other symbolic mode that appeals to an alternate interpretation of the world.


Popular religion as the religion of a subclass or minority group in a culture. Particular classes defined by their ethnicityPage 7328  |  Top of Article or by an ideology or mythology associated with their work (e.g., miners, blacksmiths, butchers, soldiers, etc.), form another mode of popular religion. In most cases such groups do not represent foreign communities residing in another culture, but pose the problem of "otherness" or strangeness for people outside their communities due to their racial type or occupation. These groups are, nevertheless, integrated into the social structure as a necessary ingredient of a common cultural ideology and its functioning; they constitute "a part of the society by not being a part of it." In most traditional cultures of the world, certain occupations, such as mining or blacksmithing, represent this meaning. They are restricted to certain places of residence within the villages and they in turn have their own rituals and alternate understandings of the nature of the cosmos. While the role and function of such occupations is understood by the rest of society, and is felt to have a place in its general cosmology, they nevertheless form the basis for an alternate understanding of the nature of society. Examples of the ethnic and racial meaning of this form of popular religion may be seen in the history of the Jews within Christendom or the religions of African Americans in the New World.


Popular religion as the religion of the masses in opposition to the religion of the sophisticated, discriminating, and learned within a society. This is a variation on the difference between the laity and the clergy in hierarchical and traditional societies. Reference is made in this form of popular religion to a meaning of the masses that is the product of democratic polities and industrialism. Whereas in the older, traditional, hierarchical societies, the clergy and the laity both possessed traditions, the modern definition of "the masses" implies the loss of tradition and canons of value and taste, which are now defined in terms of a privileged class order of the elite who have had the benefit of special education. Alexis de Tocqueville's comments on the meaning of democracy in America imply that democracy and mass culture are synonymous. The form of popular religion will tend to express the existential and ephemeral concerns of the mass population at any moment of its history.


Popular religion as the creation of an ideology of religion by the elite levels of a society. From the very beginning of the study of popular culture and religion, the discovery, meaning, and valuation of "the popular" was undertaken by elites within the society. Especially with the coming of industrialization and the rise of the nation-state, the provincial traditions of the peasant and rural folk within a culture had to fall under the political and ideological meanings of larger generalizing and centralizing orders of the state and its bureaucracy. To the extent that the ideological meaning of the rural and peasant cultures served the aims of the state, it was promoted as the older, traditional meaning of the state deriving from its archaic forms. Popular culture and religion in this mode was invented and promoted by the state through folklore societies, museums, and by the promotion of historical research into the past of the society. On the basis of a genuine and authentic folk and peasant tradition of culture and religion, a new meaning of the popular forms is now embraced and supported by the state.

Given this variety of forms and meanings of popular religion, it is appropriate to ask what is the common element in all of them. There are two common elements. First of all, "the popular" in any of its varieties is concerned with a mode of transmission of culture. Whether the group be large or small, or whether the content of the religion be sustaining or ephemeral, "the popular" designates the universalization of its mode of transmission. In peasant and folk situations, this mode of transmission is traditionally embodied in symbols and archetypes tht tend to be long-lasting and integrative. In modern industrial societies, the modes of transmission are several, including literacy, electronic media, newspapers, chapbooks, and so on. Such modes of communication bring into being a popular culture that is different from, but may overlap with, other social strata within the culture. Due to the intensity of these forms of communication, the content of the forms of popular culture is able to change quickly. It is not, however, the content that is at the fore here, but the type of cognition afforded by the modes of transmission. Given the intensification of transmission and the ephemerality of content, this form of popular religion and culture is semiotic—it is embedded in a system of signs rather than in symbols and archetypes.


The meaning of popular religion presupposes an understanding of the nature of culture that is capable of making sense of differences and divisions within the totality of any culture. Furthermore, the notion of culture must allow room for the meaning of religion as one of the primary modes of transmission of the cultural tradition.

Clifford Geertz's description (1965) of religion as a cultural system is one of the most adequate understandings of culture as a mode of transmission. His definition is as follows: Religion is (1) a system of symbols that acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in people by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with an aura of factuality so that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. This notion of religion as a cultural system enables one to understand how religion is the expression and transmission of a conception of the reality of the world, and it is clear that such a powerful and pervasive notion must of necessity imply a mode of transmission.

If this notion of religion as a cultural system is seen in relationship to Robert Redfield's analysis of the divisions and distinctions within a cultural system, a basis for the meaning of popular religion within a cultural milieu is established (Redfield, 1955). Redfield makes a broad distinction within a culture between what he calls the "great tradition" and the "little tradition." The great tradition is that of the learned elite and often the ruling class, while the little tradition is that of the large classes and groups of the lower classes. His combination of these two theories provides an understandingPage 7329  |  Top of Article of the meaning of popular religion from the point of view of culture as a whole. However, in all parts of the world, due to industrialization and modernization, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define the meaning of culture in these terms. Whereas political power may continue to reside in an elite ruling class that has hegemony over many forms of cultural expression, the modes of transmission, through literacy and electronic media are so intense that the distinction between the elite and the lower class as well as between the urban and rural milieus fail to mark a line of demarcation that is true to social reality. From this point of view, the modes of communication and transmission have as much or more to do with the integration and wholeness of the culture as the content of symbolic clusters or ideological meaning.

Considerations of this sort raise issues regarding the locus and meaning of religion in contemporary industrialized societies. Because of the intensity of transmission, the content of what is transmitted tends to be ephemeral; thus, the notion of religion as establishing powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations is shifted away from content and substance to modes of experience. Popular religion is thus no longer defined in terms of sustaining traditions, but in the qualitative meaning of the nature of experience. Thus, in attempting to describe popular religion in modern societies, the investigator may undertake research in a wide variety of media where members of the culture express their experiences, such as television, radio, and newspapers; and in occurrences such as sports and recreational events, political activities, and so on. Seen from this point of view, the popular approximates some aspects of the older and original notion of "popular" as the peasant-folk and organic meaning in a society. In the peasant-folk, organic society, the mode of transmission were relatively slow, and thus the content of the transmission predominated, allowing for the comprehension of the symbolic content to consciously and unconsciously inform the life of society. In modern industrial societies, transmission is almost universal throughout the society, but the content is no longer the bearer of organic and integrative form.


The notion of an organic social order, whether defined as a primitive, peasant, or folk culture, often implies complete equilibrium, integration, and stasis in a society. This is hardly ever true: All societies exhibit divisions and segmentations of various kinds, and these are often expressed in religious terms. They may be seen in the religious meanings defined by gender as well as in the gradations of the types of religious knowledge wherein certain types of esoteric or secret knowledge is held by an elite, and a more public and general religious meaning is present in the society at large. A good example of this is given in Marcel Griaule's account of the knowledge of Ogotemmêli, the old Dogon sage. The knowledge held by Ogotemmêli has a correspondence to the public meaning and symbols of Dogon religion, but his knowledge is more profound and possesses a metaphysical dimension. This type of knowledge and these types of human beings are found in many traditional societies.

A similar situation is present in societies where shamans possess a different and superior knowledge to that of ordinary persons. Where differences of thought and social structure exist, there is always the possibility for a tension among and between social divisions and/or modes of thought; these tensions at any moment may lead to the expression of novelty, thus causing changes in the society as a whole.

In addition to internally induced changes in organic societies based on differences of thought or social divisions, change may also arise from certain pervasive rituals. The rite of initiation is especially conducive to the influx of new religious orientations and changes in the social order. Initiation is that ritual concerned with the creation of new human beings. It introduces the initiand into the human community through the religious experience of the world of sacred beings in mythic times. Often in initiation rituals, the candidate is made to experience a regression to a time before creation and then to ritually imitate the archetypal stages of the first creation. The ability to imitate, re-create, or renew the cosmos is a possibility present in every initiation ritual, and this experience may become the basis for social change within the society. The notion that there can be a new mode of being is the basis for radical change in this religious ritual.

There is hardly any knowledge available on the expression of initiation leading to broad societal change in non-European societies prior to the coming of the Europeans; however, initiation cults of this kind in pre-Christian European cultures attest to their implications for changes in the societal order. The Greco-Oriental mystery religions posed an extreme tension between the public religious cults of the Hellenistic period in their expression of a deeper and more personal experience of sacred realities.

The preponderance of the data regarding the relationship between popular religion and social change has come primarily from religious traditions defined by their geographical extension in time and space, where the religious tradition has become synonymous with a cultural tradition (e.g., Hinduism, Islam, Christianity). These traditions cover a wide variety of forms of social divisions and thought. As such, the tensions among and between them are many, and are much more intense. It is in such traditions that the distinctions between the organic structure of society and the elite ruling class is most pronounced. Exchanges of thought and experience between these two major structures of society may occur in ritualized forms such as the festival, carnival, and pilgrimage. These ritual forms allow for a lessening of the social divisions, and for the communication and integration of modes and styles of life that are not governed by the everyday power defined by the political and social differences between the two groups. Not only do such rituals permit the relaxation of social differences, they allow for the interchange of vital knowledge between the two groups. M. Bahktin shows how these particular ritual forms have led to the creation of specific literary genres among the elite and literate members of the culture, especially as this is related to the carnivalPage 7330  |  Top of Article and the festival. Literary critics have long attested to the effect of the ritual pilgrimage on the literary imagination. E. Le Roy Ladurie, in his work Carnival in Romans (1979), has shown how the carnival provided the setting for revolutionary activities of the peasants and townspeople. Daniel L. Overmyer has described a similar situation in the White Lotus sect and the school of Luo Qing (1443–1527) in China in the sixteenth century (Overmyer, 1976).

Movements and actions of this kind from the popular strata of the society have been called "pre-political" by Eric J. Hobsbawm (1959). By this he means that the people have not found a specific form of political ideology in which to express their aspirations about the world. While this may be true in most cases, such aspirations expressed in religious terms, and it is on this level of expression that unique dimensions of the meaning of popular religion emerge. In a manner reminiscent of the initiation structure of primitive societies, peasant and folk societies express a new self-consciousness of their solidarity through archaic symbols drawn from the genres of their lives and from a reinterpretation of the traditional religion. In many cases, symbols and teachings of the traditional religion are understood in a more literal manner, expecially as these symbols and teachings express renewal and change, the end of one order and the beginning of a new one. Banditry, outlawry, and other actions that violate the social order are permitted in the revolutionary milieu, for they are sanctioned by what Victor Turner has called the liminal state, which forms the context of the revolutionary activity. This state is a regression to chaos on the level of society.

Two major types of religious personages appear in popular religious movements of this kind: the prophetic figure and the outlaw. The prophet as a religious personage is not unique to the situation of popular religion. In most cases, figures of this sort are a part of the traditional teaching of the culture. From the stratum of popular religion, the meaning and role of the prophet is enhanced as the critical and condemnatory voice of the people against the abuses and injustices of the ruling and elite class. It is the prophet who relates the existential situation of the people to primordial religious depths forged from the life of the people and a new interpretation of the religious tradition.

The outlaw is the heroic religious figure in popular revolutionary religious movements. The archetypal outlaw is the one whose banditry establishes justice within the society; the outlaw takes from the rich to give to the poor. Myths and legends of the outlaw, such as Robin Hood in England, Janosik in Poland, Corrientes in Andalusia, or Finn in Irish and Scottish tales, abound.

The religious meaning of renewal of the world is a prominent theme of popular revolutionary movements. Within Western religious traditions, this theme is derivative of the religious symbol of the Messiah, whose coming announces the destruction of the old world or the radical renewal of the world. The world will be reversed—turned upside down—thus there will be a redress of all wrongs. These millennial expectations are not only goals of a movement; they pervade all the activities of its followers, allowing for a reordering of psychic structures as well as opening up the possibility of a new social religious order on the level of popular religion.


With increasing rapidity and intensity since the late fifteenth century, the Western world—through exploration, conquest, and military and economic exploitation—brought the non-European world under its modes of communication through the structures of the modern industrial system. The Western systems of economics and communications were the bearer of Western forms of religious mythology and ideology, often characterized by millennial hopes. From this point of view, the West became the center of the world; the other areas, the peripheries. In other words, the West took over the role and function of the ruling elite, with other parts of the world playing the role of the older peasant or folk societies.

There has been a religious response to this hegemony of the West in almost all parts of the world. In many cases, a new elite comes into being in the colonized countries, imitating the structures and forms of the Western center. This, in turn, creates a new form of the popular—the traditional religion of the indigenous culture becomes a popular religion and must reorder itself in relationship to the power and authority of the new, indigenous elite. The situation does not simply create a tension of opposition. The religious and ideological meaning of the West will inform, in varying degrees, the whole of the society, and the reordering of the indigenous tradition will represent an amalgam of the older indigenous forms and a reinterpreted Western religious tradition. New meanings of popular religion will emerge in this context. Making use of the communication systems of the Western colonizers, many of these movements will move beyond the provincial confines of their local culture in one of their modes. A notable example is the universal influence and acceptance of African American music in almost all parts of the world. Walter J. Hollenweger has argued in his work The Pentecostals (1972) that this form and style of religion represents a global phenomenon, an alternate and critical response binding together religious communities in all parts of the world.


While religious institutions exist on the popular, folk, and peasant levels of culture, the meaning of religion is not centered in the segmented religious institution. Because of the nature of these kinds of societies, religion is more often diffused throughout the forms of societal life. Given the various forms and modes of popular, folk, and peasant societies and communities, it is too much to say that religion is identical with the totality of the community. However, almost all aspects of the communal life are capable of expressing the religious life. This bibliography thus covers those works dealing specificallyPage 7331  |  Top of Article with popular religion as well as the wider range of the forms of popular, folk, and peasant communities.

History of the Study of Popular Religion

For interpretations of the philosophical impact of Giambattista Vico and J. G. Herder, Isaiah Berlin's Vico and Herder (London, 1976) is the best introduction. See also The New Science of Giambattista Vico, translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca, N.Y., 1948). Commentaries on the writings of Vico are found in Donald Phillip Verene's Vico's Science of Imagination (Ithaca, N.Y., 1981) and in Vico: Selected Writings, translated and edited by Leon Pompa (Cambridge, U.K., 1982). For Herder, see Frank E. Manuel's abridged edition of his Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (Chicago, 1968). Interpretive studies of Herder are H. B. Nisbet's Herder and the Philosophy and History of Science (Cambridge, U.K., 1970), G. A. Wells's Herder and After (The Hague, 1959), and Frederick M. Barnard's Herder on Social and Political Culture (1969). For a short and illuminating essay on the impact of the Grimm brothers on the study of modern literature, see William Paton Ker's Jacob Grimm, Publications of the Philological Society, vol. 7 (Oxford, 1915). A highly critical study of the Grimm brothers' method and scholarship is found in John M. Ellis's One Fairy Story Too Many (Chicago, 1983).

The best history of the study of folklore in Europe is Giuseppe Cocchiara's The History of Folklore in Europe, translated by John N. McDaniel (Philadelphia, 1981). Peter Burke's Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (New York, 1978) is historically oriented but is more systematic than historical. Older works such as Stith Thompson's The Folktale (1946; reprint, New York, 1979) and Alexander H. Krappe's The Science of Folklore (1930; New York, 1962) are still valuable. They should be supplemented by Alan Dundes's The Study of Folklore (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1965) and Richard Dorson's Folklore and Folklife (Chicago, 1972).

Some of Max Weber's works bear on certain problems of popular religion; see especially The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons (London, 1930); The Sociology of Religion, translated by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston, 1963); The City, translated and edited by Don Martindale and Gertrud Neuwirth (Glencoe, Ill., 1958); and From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Oxford, 1946). From an earlier sociological school there are the works of Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Association, translated and edited by Charles P. Loomis (London, 1955), and William Graham Sumner's Folkways (Boston, 1907). Much can still be learned from Ernst Troeltsch's The Social Teaching of the Christian Church, 2 vols., translated by Olive Wyon (1931; Chicago, 1981), as well as from Joachim Wach's Sociology of Religion (Chicago, 1944). Wach's work remains the only sociology of religion written by a historian of religions and is thus valuable for that reason. Clifford Geertz's informative essay "Religion as a Cultural System" can be found in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, edited by Michael Banton (New York, 1966), and in Reader in Comparative Religion, edited by William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt (New York, 1965).

Regional Studies of Popular Religion

Numerous publications have been devoted to popular, folk, and peasant religions around the world. Without attempting to cover all areas of the globe, I offer here a sampling of works that are valuable for their contribution to theory as well as for their descriptive detail.


African Folklore, edited by Richard M. Dorson (New York, 1972), covers most of the genres of folklore in Africa. Two sections, "Traditional Narrative" and "Traditional Ritual," are especially relevant to the notion of popular religion. Ruth Finnegan's Oral Literature in Africa (London, 1970) is a highly controversial work. She makes a strong argument for the literary nature of oral literature and finds many interpretations by anthropologists and folklorists wanting because they fail to appreciate the literary character of this form of literature. She devotes a chapter to religious poetry, but she confines the meaning of religion to a very conventional usage. Jan Vansina's Oral Tradition, translated by H. M. Wright (Chicago, 1965), is a thorough working out of the problems and methods involved in using oral testimony as historical data. The data for his work are the traditions of the Kuba. This work has bearing on the relationship between the modes of transmission and the nature and meaning of the knowledge that is transmitted.


Cornelis Ouwehand's Namazu-e and Their Themes (Leiden, 1964) is important for the light it sheds on the reception and alternate interpretations of events on the folkloric levels of Japanese society. Especially in the case of catastrophic event, on the folkloric levels there is the appearance of a kind of savior figure as a motif of the understanding of these events. Ichori Hori's Folk Religion in Japan, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Alan L. Miller (Chicago, 1968), is the best general study of the forms and structures of folk religion in Japan. Studies in Japanese Folklore, edited by Richard M. Dorson (Port Washington, N.Y., 1963), covers the folk traditions of various classes of workers and is one of the best studies of the traditions of workers. Michael Czaja's Gods of Myth and Stone (New York, 1974) is a thorough study of the mythic and religious significance of certain forms of fertility symbols and rituals in Japan; it is informed by sophisticated methodology.

Ancient Greece

Of the many works in Greek religion, I mention only three, the classic study of N. D. Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, new ed. (Baltimore, 1980), Martin P. Nilsson's Greek Folk Religion (New York, 1961), and Jon D. Mikalson's Athenian Popular Religion (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1983).


Most studies of popular religion in Europe are to be valued as much for their detailed content as for their theoretical approach and methodological contributions. Marc Bloch's Feudal Society, 2 vols., translated by L. A. Manyon (Chicago, 1961), is a pioneer work in focusing on the entire range of the cultural reality of the feudal period. Two representative works dealing with the amalgam of religious traditions in Europe are Albert B. Lord's The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., 1960) and Gail Kligman's Calus: Symbolic Transformation in Romanian Ritual (Chicago, 1981).

Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process (New York, 1978), Power and Civility (New York, 1982), and The Court Society (New York, 1983), all translated by Edmund Jephcott, demonstratePage 7332  |  Top of Article the social behavior patterns and psychological attitudes that define the processes that create the class and value orientation of the ideology of civilization. Similar processes, but directed from a centralized governmental center, are described in Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen (Stanford, Calif., 1976). A detailed account of popular culture in France is found in Robert Muchembled's Popular Culture and Elite Culture in France, 1400–1750, translated by Lydia Cochrane (Baton Rouge, 1985). One of the most prolific and brilliant scholars of popular religion and culture in France is the Annales historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. His works include Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, translated by Barbara Bray (New York, 1978); Carnival in Romans, translated by Mary Feeney (New York, 1979); and The Peasants of Languedoc, translated by John Day (Urbana, 1974). Religion and the People, 800–1700, edited by James Obelkevich (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979) is a good survey of some important themes in the study of popular European religion. One of the essays in this volume, Lionel Rothkrug's "Popular Religion and Holy Shrines," has been followed up in Rothkrug's Religious Practices and Collective Perceptions: Hidden Homologies in the Renaissance and Reformation (Waterloo, Ont., 1980). The importance of this work lies not only in the detailed description of such phenomena as the cult of Mary on the popular level but equally in the way it raises the issue of the forms of perception and knowledge that stem from certain modes of religious apprehension. Concrete historical detail is given to issues of the sociology of religious knowledge that are discussed more abstractly by Georges Gurvitch in The Social Frameworks of Knowledge, translated by Margaret A. Thompson and Kenneth A. Thompson (Oxford, 1971). Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms, translated by John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, 1980), an account of the cosmology of a sixteenth-century Italian miller, is fast becoming a classic of popular religion. Miriam Usher Chrisman's Lay Culture, Learned Culture: Books and Social Change in Strasbourg, 1480–1599 (New Haven, Conn., 1982), shows the impact of printing and literacy on the various cultural layers of this period. William A Christian's Local Religion in Sixteenth Century Spain (Princeton, N. J., 1981), examines the spirituality of several towns in New Castile. A. N. Galpern's The Religions of the People in Sixteenth-Century Champagne (Cambridge, Mass., 1976), undertakes a similar investigation of this area. The Pursuit of Holiness in Late Medieval and Renaissance Religion, edited by Charles Trinkaus and Heiko A. Oberman (Leiden, 1974), contains essays covering almost all aspects of late medieval and Renaissance religion. Of particular interest is part 2, "Lay Piety and the Cult of Youth." James Obelkevich's Religion and Rural Society: South Lindsey, 1825–1875 (Oxford, 1976), deals with the churching of agrarian laborers by the Methodist Church. It goes far in showing the interaction of the lower classes and the middle and upper classes as this is related to the form and structure of the religious institution. There is, finally, a beautifully written book by the folklorist Henry Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone (Philadelphia, 1982). In this study of a rural community in Ireland, the author demonstrates in his research the moral meaning of this kind of community. While there is no one chapter or section devoted to religion, the entire work reflects the religious orientation of a small Irish village. The closest one comes to an explicit meaning of religion is in part 8, "A Place on the Holy Land."

Modern America

There are few general and systematic studies of American popular religion. For orientation to the issues of the meaning of "the people," "culture," "religion," and the national state in the American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville's classic Democracy in America, 2 vols. in 1, translated by George Lawrence and edited by J. P. Mayer (Garden City, N.Y., 1969), is still a very good orientation. H. Richard Niebuhr's The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929; New York, 1957) is one of the few works that raises the issue of the relationship of popular lower-class-strata religion to the founding of religious institutions in the United States. W. Lloyd Warner's The Living and the Dead (New Haven, Conn., 1959) is an anthropological interpretation of the major sacred and secular symbols in American society. The methodological point of view lends itself to the meaning of American religion from the perspective of popular religion. Sidney E. Mead's The Lively Experiment (New York, 1963) is a group of essays that touch upon the broader religious symbolic values of American cultural reality as the context for religious understanding.

Catherine L. Albanese's America: Religions and Religion (Belmont, Calif., 1981) is the first systematic attempt to deal with all the religious traditions in the United States in an integrated manner. As such it eschews the normativity of the mainline traditions as the basis for American religion, thus allowing for the meaning of popular religion to become an empirical and methodological ingredient in the study of American religion. See also Albanese's Sons of the Fathers (Philadelphia, 1976) for a discussion of the manner in which popular religion instituted and responded to the apotheosis of George Washington as the founding father of the nation.

Will Herberg's Protestant, Catholic, Jew (Garden City, N.Y., 1955) shows how denominational designations were used to define cultural modes of popular American religiosity. For a discussion of civil religion in the United States, see Robert N. Bellah's "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus 96 (Winter 1967): 1–21. Peter W. Williams's Popular Religion in America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1980) is excellent for data but lacks methodological sophistication. The later two works contain the best bibliographical sources for the many forms of popular religion in the United States.


Daniel L. Overmyer's Folk Buddhist Religion (Cambridge, Mass., 1976) is one of the few thoroughgoing discussions of folk Buddhism in China and is distinguished by its methodological astuteness. Popular Culture in Late Imperial China, edited by David Johnson, Andrew J. Nathan, and Evelyn S. Rawski (Berkeley, Calif., 1985), brings together several essays on popular culture of this period. Of special note are "Religion and Popular Culture: The Management of Moral Capital in the Romance of the Three Teachings" by Judith Berling, "Values in Chinese Sectarian Literature: Ming and Qing Baozhuan" by Daniel L. Overmyer, and "Language and Ideology in the Written Popularizations of the Sacred Edict" by Victor H. Mair.

Theoretical Studies

Almost all of the works cited above discuss theoretical issues, but there are, in addition, a number of valuable works writtenPage 7333  |  Top of Article from a purely theoretical orientation. Among them are three books by anthropologist Robert Redfield that have had great influence on the study of popular culture and religion: The Primitive World and Its Transformations (Ithaca, N.Y., 1953), The Little Community (Chicago, 1955), and Peasant Society and Culture (Chicago, 1956). Two works by Milton Singer are also recommended; although devoted to the Hindu tradition, they have much broader implications for many of the issues of popular religion and its relationship to urbanism and the great traditions: Traditional India: Structure and Change (Philadelphia, 1959) and When a Great Tradition Modernizes (New York, 1972).

Approaches to Popular Culture, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1976), is an illuminating group of essays that demonstrate the ambiguity and difficulty of clear definition of the meaning of popular culture. Of particular interest are "Popular Culture: A Sociological Approach" by Zev Barbu, "Oblique Approaches to the History of Popular Culture" by Peter Burke, and "The Politics of Popular Culture" by C. W. E. Bigsby. The political and ideological meaning of popular culture is also explored in Herbert J. Gans's Popular Culture and High Culture (New York, 1974).

Finally, for a group of essays discussing the meaning of social history in various historical contexts, see Reliving the Past, edited by Olivier Zunz (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1985).

New Sources

Berlinerblau, Jacques. "Max Weber's Useful Ambiguities and the Problem of Defining 'Popular Religion.'" Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69 (September 2001): 605–626.

Feuchtwang, Stephan. Popular Religion in China: The Imperial Metaphor. Richmond, U.K., 2001.

Marsh, Christopher. Popular Religion in 16th-Century England. New York, 1998.

Mikalson, Jon. Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy. Durham, 1992.

Samuel, Geoffrey, Hamish Gregor, and Elisabeth Stutchbury, eds. Tantra and Popular Religion in Tibet. Columbia, Mo., 1994.

Scribner, Robert, and Trevor Johnson, eds. Popular Religion in Germany and Central Europe, 1400–1800. New York, 1996.

Sharot, Stephen. A Comparative Sociology of World Religions: Virtuosos, Priests, and Popular Religion. New York, 2001.

Stahl, William A. "The Village Enlightenment in America: Popular Religion and Science in the Nineteenth Century." Sociology of Religion 62 (Fall 2001): 407–408.


Revised Bibliography

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424502481