Syncretism consists of the attempt to reconcile disparate or contradictory beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. The term may refer to attempts to merge and analogize 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.
Syncretism also occurs commonly in literature, music, the representational arts and other expressions of culture. (Compare the concept of eclecticism.) Syncretism may occur in architecture as well. There also exist syncretic politics, although in political classification the term has a somewhat different meaning.
The Oxford English Dictionary first attests the word syncretism in English in 1618. It derives from modern Latin syncretismus, drawing on Greek συνκρητισμός (synkretismos), meaning "Synchronization with Crete."
The Greek word occurs in Plutarch's (1st century AD) essay on "Fraternal Love" in his Moralia (2.490b). He cites the example of the Cretans, who reconciled their differences and came together in alliance when faced with external dangers. "And that is their so-called Syncretism."
Erasmus probably coined the modern usage of the Latin word (in his Adagia ("Adages"), published in the winter of 1517–1518) to designate the coherence of dissenters in spite of their differences in theological opinions. In a letter to Melanchthon of April 22, 1519, Erasmus specifically adduced the Cretans of Plutarch as an example of his adage "Concord is a mighty rampart".
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. 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 (intercultural competence), 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. Discussions of some of these blended religions appear in the individual sections below.
Syncretism functioned as an essential feature of Ancient Greek religion. Overall, Hellenistic culture in the age that followed Alexander the Great itself showed syncretist features, essentially blending of Persian, Anatolian, Egyptian (and eventually Etruscan-Roman) elements within an Hellenic formula. The Egyptian god Amun developed as the Hellenized Zeus Ammon after Alexander the Great went into the desert to seek out Amun's oracle at Siwa.
Such identifications derive from interpretatio graeca, the Hellenic habit of identifying gods of disparate mythologies with their own. When the proto-Greeks (peoples whose language would evolve into Greek proper) first arrived in the Aegean and on the mainland of modern-day Greece early in the 2nd millennium BCE, they found localized nymphs and divinities already connected with every important feature of the landscape: mountain, cave, grove and spring all had their own locally-venerated deity. The countless epithets of the Olympian gods reflect their syncretic identification with these various figures. One defines "Zeus Molossos" (worshipped only at Dodona) as "the god identical to Zeus as worshipped by the Molossians at Dodona". Much of the apparently arbitrary and trivial mythic fabling results from later mythographers' attempts to explain these obscure epithets.
In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud made a case for Judaism arising out of the pre-existing monotheism that was briefly imposed upon Egypt during the rule of Akhenaten. Aten, the disk of the sun in ancient Egyptian mythology, and originally an aspect of Ra, was chosen as the sole deity for Akhenaten's new religion. The "Code of Hammurabi" is also cited as a likely starting point for the Jewish Ten Commandments. Hammurabi was from the Mesopotamian culture that revered Marduk, among others. Judaism fought lengthy battles against syncretist tendencies: note the case of the golden calf and the railing of prophets against temple prostitution, witchcraft and local fertility cults, as told in the Torah. On the other hand, some scholars hold that Judaism refined its concept of monotheism and adopted features such as its eschatology, angelology and demonology through contacts with Zoroastrianism.
In spite of the Jewish halakhic prohibitions on polytheism, idolatry, and associated practices (avodah zarah), several combinations of Judaism with other religions have sprung up: Jewish Buddhism, Nazarenism, Judeo-Paganism, Messianic Judaism, Jewish Mormonism, Crypto-Judaism (in which Jews publicly profess another faith and privately celebrate Judaism), and others. Until relatively recently, China had a Jewish community which had adopted some Confucian practices.
The Romans, identifying themselves as common heirs to a very similar civilization, identified Greek deities with similar figures in the Etruscan-Roman tradition, though without usually copying cult practices. (For details, see Interpretatio graeca.) Syncretic gods of the Hellenistic period found also wide favor in Rome: Serapis, Isis and Mithras, for example. Cybele as worshipped in Rome essentially represented a syncretic East Mediterranean goddess. The Romans imported the Greek god Dionysus into Rome as Bacchus, and converted the Anatolian Sabazios into the Roman Sabazius.
The degree of correspondence varied: Jupiter makes perhaps a better match for Zeus than the rural huntress Diana does for the feared Artemis. Ares does not quite match Mars. The Romans physically imported the Anatolian goddess Cybele into Rome from her Anatolian cult-center Pessinos in the form of her original aniconic archaic stone idol; they identified her as Magna Mater and gave her a matronly, iconic image developed in Hellenistic Pergamum.
Likewise, when the Romans encountered Celts and Teutons, they mingled these peoples' Northern gods with their own, creating Apollo Sucellos (Apollo the Good Smiter) and Mars Thingsus (Mars of the war-assembly), among many others. In the Germania, the Roman historian Tacitus speaks of Teutonic worshippers of Hercules and Mercury; most modern scholars tentatively identify Hercules as Thor and Mercury as Odin.
Nascent Christianity appears to have emerged from many Jewish and pagan cultural elements, at least partially, whilst discarding theologically or morally incompatible elements. Note for example the strong connection between the thought of St. Augustine and Neoplatonic thought; and St. Thomas Aquinas' many citations of "The Philosopher" (Aristotle). Most scholars agree with this syncretism in principle. Medieval scholasticism engaged in prolonged and bitter debate over the place of pre-Christian classicism within the official Church teachings. Open Theists (a subset of Protestant Evangelicals) assert that Christianity by the 3rd and 4th centuries had incorporated Greek Philosophy into its understanding of God.
Syncretism did not play a role when Christianity split into eastern and western rites during the Great Schism. It became involved however with the rifts of the Protestant Reformation, with Desiderius Erasmus's readings of Plutarch. In 1615 David Pareus of Heidelberg urged Christians to a "pious syncretism" in opposing the Antichrist, but few 17th-century Protestants discussed the compromises that might affect a reconciliation with the Catholic Church: Johann Hülsemann, Johann Georg Dorsche and Abraham Calovius (1612–1685) opposed the Lutheran Georg Calisen "Calixtus" (1586–1656) of the University of Helmstedt for his "syncretism" (See: Syncretistic Strife.)
The modern celebrations of Christmas (as celebrated in the northern European tradition, originating from pagan Yule holidays), Easter (as celebrated in the eastern European tradition, with the incorporation of spring fertility rites) and Halloween exemplify details of Christian/pagan syncretism. Earlier, the elevation of Christmas as an important holiday largely grew out of a need to replace the Saturnalia, a popular December festival of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was notorious for keeping accurate records (they kept records in triplicate), and the decree from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled (polled for a census). The Early Christians would have been able to go to the place where the Romans kept those types of records and looked up the date when Joseph and Mary went to be enrolled, thus when Christ Jesus was born.
Roman Catholicism in Central and South America has integrated a number of elements derived from indigenous and slave cultures in those areas (see the Caribbean and modern sections); while many African Initiated Churches demonstrate an integration of Christian and traditional African beliefs. In Asia the revolutionary movements of Taiping (19th-century China) and God's Army (Karen in the 1990s) have blended Christianity and traditional beliefs. Traditional Catholics nonetheless often argue against "cafeteria Catholicism", or the act of "picking and choosing" what one wants to believe or practice.
The phrase "Syncretistic Strife" may refer to the theological quarrel provoked by the efforts of Georg Calixt and his supporters to secure a basis on which the Lutherans could make overtures to the Roman Catholic and the Reformed Churches. It lasted from 1640 to 1686. Calixt, a professor at Helmstedt, had through his travels in England, the Netherlands, Italy, and France, through his acquaintance with the different Churches and their representatives, and through his extensive study, developed a more friendly attitude towards the different religious bodies than the majority of his contemporary Lutheran theologians. While the latter firmly adhered to the "pure doctrine," Calixt tended not to regard doctrine as the one thing necessary for a Christian, while in doctrine itself he did not regard everything as equally certain and important. Consequently, he advocated unity between those who agreed on the fundamental minimum, with liberty as to all less fundamental points. In regard to Catholicism, he would have (as Melanchthon once would have) conceded to the pope a primacy human in origin, and he also admitted that one might call the Mass a sacrifice.
On the side of Calixt stood the theological faculties of Helmstedt, Rinteln, and Königsberg; opposed to him stood those of Leipzig, Jena, Strasburg, Giessen, Marburg, and Greifswald. Abraham Calov in especial opposed Calixt. The Elector of Saxony, for political reasons, opposed the Reformed Church, because the other two secular electors (Palatine and Brandenburg) were "reformed," and were getting more and more the advantage of him. In 1649 he sent to the three dukes of Brunswick, who maintained Helmstedt as their common university, a communication in which he voiced all the objections of his Lutheran professors, and complained that Calixt wished to extract the elements of truth from all religions, fuse all into an entirely new religion, and so provoke a violent schism. In 1650 Calov became a professor at Wittenberg, and he signalized his entrance into office with a vehement attack on the Syncretists in Helmstedt. An outburst of polemical writings followed. In 1650 the dukes of Brunswick answered the Elector of Saxony that the discord should not be allowed to increase, and proposed a meeting of the political councillors. Saxony, however, did not favour this suggestion. An attempt to convene a meeting of theologians was not more successful. The theologians of Wittenberg and Leipzig now elaborated a new formula, condemning ninety-eight heresies of the Helmstedt theologians. This formula (consensus) was to be signed by everyone who wished to remain in the Lutheran Church. Outside Wittenberg and Leipzig, however, it was not accepted, and Calixt's death in 1656 ushered in five years of almost undisturbed peace.
The strife broke out afresh in Hesse-Kassel, where Landgrave William VI sought to effect a union between his Lutheran and Reformed subjects, or at least to lessen their mutual hatred. In 1661 he had a colloquy held in Kassel between the Lutheran theologians of the University of Rinteln and the Reformed theologians of the University of Marburg. Enraged at this revival of the syncretism of Calixt, the Wittenberg theologians in vehement terms called on the Rinteln professors to make their submission, whereupon the latter answered with a detailed defence. Another long series of polemical treatises followed. In Brandenburg-Prussia the Great Elector (Frederick William I) forbade (1663) preachers to speak of the disputes between the Evangelical bodies. A long colloquy in Berlin (September 1662 to May 1663) led only to fresh discord. In 1664 the elector repeated his command that preachers of both parties should abstain from mutual abuse, and should attribute to the other party no doctrine which was not actually held by such party. Whoever refused to sign the form declaring his intention to observe this regulation, was deprived of his position (e. g. Paul Gerhardt, writer of religious songs). This arrangement was later modified, in that the forms were withdrawn, and action took place only against those who disturbed the peace. The attempts of the Wittenberg theologians to declare Calixt and his school un-Lutheran and heretical were now met by Calixt's son, Friedrich Ulrich Calixt, The latter defended the theology of his father, but also tried to show that his doctrine did not so very much differ from that of his opponents. Wittenberg found its new champion in Ægidius Strauch, who attacked Calixt with all the resources of learning, polemics, sophistry, wit, cynicism, and abuse. The Helmstedt side was defended by the celebrated scholar and statesman, Hermann Conring. The Saxon princes now recognized the danger that the attempt to carry through the "Consensus" as a formula of belief might lead to a fresh schism in the Lutheran Church, and might thus render its position difficult in the face of the Catholics. The proposals of Calov and his party to continue the refutation and to compel the Brunswick theologians to bind themselves under obligation to the old Lutheran confession therefore remained unimplemented. On the contrary, the Saxon theologians were forbidden to continue the strife in writing. Negotiations for peace then resulted, with Duke Ernst the Pious of Saxe-Gotha especially active towards this end, and the project of establishing a permanent college of theologians to decide theological disputes was entertained. However, the negotiations with the courts of Brunswick, Mecklenburg, Denmark, and Sweden remained as fruitless as those with the theological faculties, except that peace was maintained until 1675. Calov then renewed hostilities. He now attacked not only Calixt, but also and particularly the moderate John Musæus of Jena. Calov succeeded in having the whole University of Jena (and after a long resistance Musæus himself) compelled to renounce syncretism. But this was his last victory. The elector renewed his prohibition against polemical writings. Calov seemed to give way, since in 1683 he asked whether, in the view of the danger which France then constituted for Germany, a Calixtinic Syncretism with "Papists" and the Reformed were still condemnable, and whether in deference to the Elector of Brandenburg and the dukes of Brunswick, the strife should not be buried by an amnesty, or whether, on the contrary, the war against syncretism should be continued. He later returned to his attack on the syncretists, but died in 1686, and with his death the strife ended.
The Syncretist Strife had the result of lessening religious hatred and of promoting mutual forbearance. Catholicism thus benefited, as Protestants came to better understand and appreciate it. In Protestant theology it prepared the way for the sentimental theology of Pietism as the successor of fossilized orthodoxy.
Some scholars regard Islam as incorporating syncretically from other religions, particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Muslims do not regard this as syncretism, as they see Islam as a completion of divine revelations from Jewish and Christian prophets. It is a fundamental tenet of Islamic faith to believe in the consistency of message in the revelations from one God through many messengers to their people (Quran 2:285) and claims to be the revitalization of the original pure teaching of Allah. In traditional Islamic belief, the Bible and Torah, over time, however, these revelations eventually became corrupted because of the lack of written manuscripts, serial translations from one language to another, or simply forgotten.
The Druzes integrated elements of Ismaili Islam with Gnosticism and Platonism. Their practice of disguising themselves as followers of the dominant religion around them makes it difficult to distinguish belief from simulated belief.
The Bahá'ís follow Bahá'u'lláh, a prophet whom they consider a successor to Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster and others. This acceptance of other religious founders has encouraged some to regard the Bahá'í religion as a syncretic faith. However, Bahá'ís and the Bahá'í writings explicitly reject this view. Bahá'ís consider Bahá'u'lláh's revelation an independent, though related, revelation from God. Its relationship to previous dispensations is seen as analogous to the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. They regard beliefs held in common as evidence of truth, progressively revealed by God throughout human history, and culminating in (at present) the Bahá'í revelation. Bahá'ís have their own sacred scripture, interpretations, laws and practices that, for Bahá'ís, supersede those of other faiths.
The process of syncretism in the Caribbean region often forms a part of cultural creolization. (The technical term "Creole" may apply to anyone (regardless of race or ethnicity) born and raised in the region.) The shared histories of the Caribbean islands include long periods of European Imperialism (mainly by Spain, France, and the United Kingdom) and the importation of African slaves (primarily from Central and Western Africa). The influences of each of the above interacted in varying degrees on the islands, producing the fabric of society that exists today in the Caribbean.
See the modern section for other Caribbean syncretisms.
Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism in ancient India have made many adaptations over the millennia, assimilating elements of various diverse religious traditions. The Mughal emperor Akbar, who wanted to consolidate the diverse religious communities in his empire, propounded Din-i-Ilahi, a syncretic religion intended to merge the best elements of the religions of his empire.
Sikhism blends elements of Islam and Hinduism.
The Hindu teaching of Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar as embodied in the socio-spiritual organization Ananda Marga brings together the disparate branches of yoga for inner development, an ancient theory of social motivity and change, a theory of human and non-human welfare and intuitive insights into science with the aim to increase welfare on the planet.
Recently-developed religious systems that exhibit marked syncretism include the New World religions Candomblé, Vodou, and Santería, which analogize various Yorùbá and other African gods to the Roman Catholic saints. However, the Catholic Church condemns such syncretism. Some sects of Candomblé have incorporated also Native American gods, and Umbanda combined African deities with Kardecist spiritualism.
Unitarian Universalism also provides an example of a modern syncretic religion; it traces its roots to Universalist and Unitarian Christian congregations while at the same time freely incorporating elements from other religious and non-religious traditions.
Universal Sufism seeks the unity of all people and religions, as well as the ability to find beauty in all things. Universal Sufis strive to "realize and spread the knowledge of Unity, the religion of Love, and Wisdom, so that the biases and prejudices of faiths and beliefs may, of themselves, fall away, the human heart overflow with love, and all hatred caused by distinctions and differences be rooted out.
In Vietnam, Caodaism blends elements of Buddhism, Catholicism and Kardecism. Japanese syncretists founded several new Japanese religions (such as Konkokyo and Seicho-No-Ie) from the latter half of the 19th century onwards.
Thelema is a mixture of many different schools of belief and practice, including Hermeticism, Eastern Mysticism, Yoga, 19th century libertarian philosophies (e.g. Nietzsche), occultism, and the Kaballah, as well as ancient Egyptian and Greek religion.
In linguistic syncretism, one word-form serves two or more morphosyntactic functions. Some inflected words or word forms in some natural languages indicate (morphologically) a distinction in syntax, while some other words in the same language do not. For example in Russian, some nouns have different word forms (inflections) in nominative and accusative (kniga and knigu respectively) while some other nouns (pismo, pismo) inflect without a distinction. The former indicate a distinction in the Russian syntax while the latter hide that distinction.
The modern, rational non-pejorative connotations of syncretism date from Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie articles: Eclecticisme and Syncrétistes, Hénotiques, ou Conciliateurs. Diderot portrayed syncretism as the concordance of eclectic sources.
Other forms of syncretism not directly related to religion appear in the modern world as well: thus one can sometimes speak of cultural and/or social syncretism. Japanese culture after World War II and the moderate tendencies within Neo-Tribalism may serve as examples. The eclectic aspects of postmodernism represent an important contemporary example of cultural syncretism observable in much of the Western world. The socio-spiritual movement Ananda Marga, which originated in India in 1955, stems from a syncretic approach to the different strands of yoga, as propounded by its founder P.R. Sarkar. It has as its stated purpose "to help individuals achieve complete self-realization and to build a social structure in which the physical, mental and spiritual needs of all people can be fulfilled."