Friday, April 6, 2012

I ponder folk religion

Have been giving some thought to folk religion, but as yet these thoughts are scattered and unfocussed. So forgive the bullet points, which represent a hodge podge of facts that I hope some day to weave together into a coherent essay.
  • Academic interest in folk religion seems to have begun in the German Lutheran church at the start of the 20th century, with a project to help ministers deal with the people in rural congregations, whose conception of the Christian religion was often radically different from the official doctrine preached by the clergy. So interest in folk religion first arose from an attempt, within organized religion, to narrow the understanding gap between pulpit and pew. [1]

  • Irish bishops at the Vatican, February 2010, discussing child abuse scandal
  • Last month, a Vatican delegation to investigate the church in Ireland noted with concern “a certain tendency, not dominant but nevertheless fairly widespread among priests, religious and laity, to hold theological opinions at variance with the teachings of the Magisterium.” [2]

  • The Vatican officials haven't publicly elaborated on what they are getting at here, so we can only surmise. I wonder if they have encountered folk religion and they don’t like it. 

  • I've noticed Catholic priests at Irish funerals habitually gloss over the existence of purgatory. See Why purgatory is no laughing matter. Could this be an example of what the Vatican officials object to? 

  • In the 18th and 19th centuries the Roman Catholic church in Ireland tried to stamp out wakes and the celebration of local saints days (“pattern days”) because these events entailed too much rowdiness and too little orthodoxy. [3]

  • Richard Dawkins has recently researched the views of “Census-Christians” in the UK. [4] He wanted to know to what extent adults recorded as Christian in the 2011 census believe, know about, practise and are influenced by Christianity. He found over a third almost never pray outside a church service, only 10% seek most guidance from religion in questions of right and wrong, just a third believe Jesus was physically resurrected, and half do not think of him as the Son of God. 

  • The definition of folk religion is a matter of debate, and I'm some way from feeling my way to a definition that satisfies me. Nor do I know whether “popular religion” is something else or just another term for the same thing.

  • The goddess Lakshmi
  • In “village Hinduism” there are many gods, one in the shape of a woman with many arms, another with the head of elephant and so on. But in √©lite Hinduism these so-called gods are just aspects of the Atman, the unknowable godhead of whom nothing can be said. According to the Christian writer Louis Cassels, it is rash to reach sweeping conclusions about Hinduism after reading the Hindu scriptures, since “a great gulf exists between the philosophical Hinduism that we encounter in these scriptures, and the popular Hinduism that is actually practiced in the villages of India. The latter always has been, and still is, a polytheistic religion that rises little, if at all, above the level of primitive idol-worship.” [5]

  • According to a recent New Scientist article, [6] theological incorrectness is seen across all cultures and religious systems. When asked in experiments to talk or think about gods' thoughts and actions in stories, religious people immediately and completely abandon theologically correct doctrines in favour of popular religion. Even if they have just affirmed and recited the theologically correct doctrines. The way they think and talk reveals that they see God as a superhero, not as the omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent ruler of the universe in whom they say they believe. 
I need to do some pondering on all these things.

[1] “Toward a Definition of Folk Religion” by Don Yoder in Western Folklore, Vol. 33, No. 1, [Jan., 1974], pp. 2-15. Preview.

[2] The Magisterium is a grand sounding term for the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic church. Report issued on 20th March, see Apostolic visitation calls for overhaul of Church in Ireland  (Catholic News Agency release 20 March 2012). The visitation was prompted by the child abuse scandal. 

[3] I got this from an evening class at University College Cork last autumn on Irish folklore. It was excellent but I attended by mistake! I thought it would be about tales of heroes long ago. 

[4] Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, Ipsos MORI Poll How religious are UK Christians? 

[5] What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By by Louis Cassels, 1965, Chapter 11: The Oriental Religions 

[6] “Natural Religion, Unnatural Science” by Robert N McCauley in New Scientist 2856, 17 Mar 2012, p 45.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff Pete, and I followed the link to your previous post about Purgatory (don't know why I didn't see it originally), which was also good (did you have your theological conversation with the priest?). In that though you show the difference (one of many probably) between you and Richard Dawkins. You're a nice chap so you chose not to challenge the faith of people who might find that faith comforting.

    I'm no apolgist for organised religions, but I do get annoyed by Dawkins' constant sniping, which seems very petty at times. The press release from his organisation (some self-aggrandising in the name of that too perhaps?) that you also reference is meaningless. It doesn't matter whether people who call themselves Christians are educated enough to know the order of the books in the New Testament, it doesn't matter whether they are as intelligent as he is and have the time to analyse the true meaning of the word Christianity, by their own definition (not mine, yours or Richard Dawkins) they are Christians. I haven't been to see Newcastle United for a few years but I still consider myself a Newcastle fan. Everyone who votes for a political party doesn't know the intricacies of that party's policies or its history. Silly examples I know but just making the point that his definition of "Christian" can't be imposed upon other people. My definition would be "a follower of the teachings (as we know them) of Jesus." Not necessarily all the teachings, surely all Marxists don't agree with every word HE said? So I could decide to call myself a Christian if I loved my neighbour as myself, turned the other cheek when someone was mean to me and loved my enemies - without ever believing the bits other people wrote about Jesus, and Richard Dawkins would have to lump it!