Ethnic religion

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Altar to Inari Ōkami at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. Shinto is the ethnic religion of the Japanese people.

An ethnic religion is generally defined by the ethnicity of its adherents, and conversion essentially equates to cultural assimilation into that ethnoreligious group. Ethnic religions are distinguished from religions that actively seek converts worldwide, regardless of ethnic affiliation.[1] In contrast, ethnic religions have (diasporas excluded) limited geographic scope, and membership is (by definition) determined by ethnic affiliation.[1]

Religion was a defining part of a nation's culture, along with language and customs. With the rise of the aggressively proselytizing religions that actively sought to cross ethnic boundaries, in particular Christianity and Islam, many of the established ethnic religions began to be polemically belittled as "pagan" (rustic), "heathen" (uncivilized) or shirk (idolatrous, polytheistic), kafirun (unbelieving). In the last 2,000 years, most ethnic religions have been supplanted or marginalized by either one of these two proselytizing religions: In Europe, for example, the indigenous Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, Norse, Greek and Roman ethnic religions were supplanted by Christianity. Accompanying colonial expansion, the same occurred later for the indigenous ethnic religions in the Americas and in Central and Southern Africa. Similarly, Islam replaced not only the traditional religions of the Arabs, but also supplanted the ancient Egyptian religion in Northeast Africa, and the Zoroastrianism of the Iranians. Less stridently, Buddhism, another (historically) proselytizing religion, contributed a moral and ethical framework to various ethnic belief systems in eastern Asia, and these are now considered variants of Buddhism. Some ethnic religions however remain numerically strong, for instance Hinduism of the Indians, Judaism of the Judeans/Jews, Shenism of the Han Chinese, and Shinto of the Japanese.

Over time, even non-ethnic (international) religions assumed local traits, or developed forms specific to a certain ethnic group. This has notably happened in the course of the history of Christianity, which saw the emergence of national churches with different ethnic customs such as Germanic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syriac, Greek, or Russian Churches. In this context, the term "ethnic religion" is sometimes also applied to a religion in a particular place, even if it is a regional expression of a non-ethnic religion. At the same time, expatriate communities often retain the customs of their homeland, and thus non-ethnic religions acquire ethnic characteristics, such as the Korean churches for immigrant Korean American Christians.[2] Even ethnic religions can fracture in this manner. For example, Hinduism is a collective term for the traditional beliefs and practices of the ethnic Indians (historically, "Hindu" and "Indian" are synonyms). But the Hindus in Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname consider themselves a distinct ethnic group, and thus insist on the qualifier "Caribbean Hinduism".[3]

Since ethnic religions were simply the religion for each ethnic group, most simply called it "religion" (or "belief" or "piety" or "way" or similar) and in that sense most ethnic religions did not historically have distinguishing names. In time they were sometimes named after the ethnic group itself (Hinduism, Shenism, Judaism, 'Ancient Egyptian religion' etc.), but sometimes also given derogatory names (e.g. Gabr).

A partly overlapping concept is that of folk religion referring to ethnic or regional religious customs under the umbrella of an inter-national religion (e.g. folk Christianity). does not include any of the numerically significant ethnic religions in its totals for "tribal religionists," or "ethnic religionists."

Traditional ethnic religions

The symbol of the Ndut initiation rite in Serer religion.
Indian devotees of Shiva in pilgrimage.
A typical Chinese local-deity temple in Taiwan.



Indigenous America


Cuman statue, 11th century, Ukraine

Revivals and reconstructions

Ancient West Asia and North Africa
Heathen altar for Haustblot in Björkö, Westgothland, Sweden. The big wooden idol represents god Frey (Ing), the picture in front of it goddess Freya (Walpurgis), and the small red idol god Thor.

Heathenism (also Heathenry), or Greater Heathenry, is a blanket term for the whole Germanic Neopagan movement. Various currents and denominations have arisen over the years within it.

Other Indo-European
A Romuvan ritual in Lithuania.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Hinnells, John R. (2005). The Routledge companion to the study of religion. Routledge. pp. 439–440. ISBN 0-415-33311-3. Retrieved 2009-09-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Chong, Kelly H. (1997). "What It Means to Be Christian: The Role of Religion in the Construction of Ethnic Identity and Boundary Among Second- Generation Korean Americans". Sociology of Religion. 59 (3): 259–286. doi:10.2307/3711911. JSTOR 3711911.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. van der Veer, Peter; Steven Vertovec (April 1991). "Brahmanism Abroad: On Caribbean Hinduism as an Ethnic Religion". Ethnology. 30 (2): 149–166. doi:10.2307/3773407. JSTOR 3773407.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>