Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The countries from Afghanistan to Japan have been influenced by Buddhism, Islam, and to a lesser extent Christianity. The region also has small numbers of Baha'is, Jews, and Parsees. At the same time, regional religions that have gained international prominence remain significant in Asia: Jainism, Shintoism, Sikhism, and Taoism. In addition, however, Asia has been noted among social scientists for its popular religiosity, sometimes called "little traditions."

Folk Traditions

Folk religions take two forms: as distinct religions (East Asia) and as popularized versions of world religions (South and Southeast Asia). Chinese Folk Religion, in its present form dating back to the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), includes elements traceable to prehistoric times (ancestor worship, shamanism, divination, a belief in ghosts, and sacrificial rituals to the spirits of sacred objects and places) as well as aspects of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Buddhist elements include believing in karma and rebirth, accepting Buddha and other bodhisattvas as gods, and using Buddhist meditational techniques. The Confucian influence is the concept of filial piety and associated practices. The numerous gods are organized into a hierarchy headed by the Jade Emperor, a deity borrowed from Taoism. Important annual rituals reflect their origin in an agrarian way of life (e.g., a harvesttime festival) but have been given new or additional meaning to accord with the ancestral cult or Buddhism. The religion is not centrally organized and lacks a formal canon. Rituals take place before home altars or at temples, which have no fixed congregations. Adherents vary considerably in belief and practice. Generally, folk religionists are fatalistic yet believe that one's luck can be affected by pleasing ancestors or gods, by locating graves and buildings in places where vital natural forces are located (geomancy), and by balancing opposing forces (yin, yang) within one's body (Wee 1977, Freedman 1974).

In Korea, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism have influenced the elite, while a folk religion has existed among the common people that resembles Chinese Folk Religion. However, unlike the Chinese case, most Korean spirit mediums are women, a vestige from a time when female deities dominated the folk religion. The Japanese have been influenced by Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Buddhism and Shintoism have separate organizations, buildings, festivals, and religious specialists. Thus one can speak of Japanese religions that individuals blend in different ways but not of a distinct Japanese folk religion (Smith 1974).

Indonesia is an example of Asian countries where syncretic religions have been dominant. On Java, nearly everyone identifies with Islam, but most people practice Agama Jawa , Javanese religion, or Javanese Islam (Geertz 1960). This form of religion is a mixture of animistic, Islamic, and to a lesser extent Hindu elements (at one time, Java was under the control of local Hindu rulers). Those who practice Javanese religion call themselves Muslims. The label is not meaningless. Such people, among other things, will believe in Allah, accept Muhammad as a prophet, and believe in heaven and hell. In addition, Javanese religionists employ animistic rituals, such as ceremonial meals commemorating a person's transition to a new stage in the life cycle or important moments in the life of the village (slametan , the rituals of which reflect animistic beliefs), consult dukun (magicians capable of controlling the impersonal force that exists in all things), and use their own numerology to ensure that actions are synchronized with natural processes. The counterpart to Javanese Islam in southern Asia is "popular Islam" (Hassan 1987). In a somewhat similar manner, one can speak of Burmese, Sri Lankan, and Thai Buddhism.

New Religious Movements

The "new religions" of Asia are syncretic forms that include elements from the local folk tradition and may include elements from non-Asian religions but are dominated by the major Asian traditions—Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Sufism, and Taoism. While such religions are quite visible in Indonesia (e.g., Subud), Singapore (e.g., the Red Swastika Society), South Korea (e.g., Tonghak, the Unification Church), Taiwan, and Vietnam (e.g., Cao Dai), they are numerically significant only in Japan (e.g., Tenrikyo, Soka Gakkai), where perhaps a quarter of the population belong to new religions (Ellwood 1987).

The Japanese groups include religions dating as far back as the early part of the nineteenth century. Unlike more traditional groups, the new religions evangelize and focus on the individual rather than the household or the community. However, new religions retain features of the folk tradition; each group is identified with a shamanesque figure, and rituals are meant to help practitioners attain this-worldly goals such as health and wealth. Depending on the group, elements of Confucianism, Buddhism, or Shintoism will be part of a new religion.

As far as can be determined, adherence to animistic and folk religions are declining everywhere, while new religions are holding their own or growing (Barrett 1982). The syncretic forms of the world religions, such as Javanese Islam, are being replaced by purified versions of these same religions (see, e.g., Tamney 1980). Davis (1991) has suggested that new religions are evolving into purely modern forms of religion. These changes result from the less frequent use of magic in modernizing societies. The decline of folk and syncretic religions also may reflect the desire to belong to a universal religion, which is competitive in global society—a desire that leads to preferring a form of religion that is not culture-bound in any specific sense. An intriguing question is why new religions in Korean and Chinese societies have been relatively unpopular.

See also Buddhism, Islam

Joseph B. Tamney


D. Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1982)

W. Davis, "Fundamentalism in Japan," in Fundamentalisms Observed , ed. M. E. Marty and R. S. Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991): 814-824

R. S. Ellwood, "New Religions in Japan," in The Encyclopedia of Religion , ed. M. Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987): 410-414

M. Freedman, "On the Sociological Study of Chinese Religion," in Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society , ed. A. P. Wolf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974): 19-42

C. Geertz, The Religion of Java (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960)

R. Hassan, "Religion, Society, and the State in Pakistan," Asian Survey 27(1987):552-565

R. J. Smith, "Afterword," Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society , ed. A. P. Wolf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974): 337-348

J. B. Tamney, "Modernization and Religious Purification," Review of Religious Research 22(1980):208-218

V. Wee, Religion and Ritual Among the Chinese in Singapore , Master's thesis, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore, 1977.

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