Cultural Religion Versus Scholarly Religion

If you explain a set of beliefs to a large crowd, you can be assured that in the absence of the expert they will form conclusions and opinions about their new religion that you didn't want them to form. So, is the 'religion' best described in terms of the beliefs and practices of the bulk of believers, or as the scholarly beliefs of the experts at the top? When the top priests disagree with the guys on the ground, which set of beliefs and practices is the 'real' religion? The problems involving the tussle between popular cultural forms of religion (low-brow religion) and intellectual faith (high-brow), have concerned scholars throughout history1 and made the discussions about religion complicated and sometimes conflictory.

1. Cultural Religion, Scholarly Religion

1.1. Culture Infuses Religion and is Often Independent and Resistant to Change

Cultural Religion also called popular2, grassroots, bottom-up, common, low-brow, folklore2 and the religion of the masses2. Includes popular practices and beliefs which are often adhered to despite what their "official" religion's doctrine states. In Hinduism: laukik.

Scholarly Religion also called clerical, official2, professional, top-down, intellectual2, and theological. The religion of the academics and scholars who devote time to studying it and is often quite radically different to the religion of the masses. In Hinduism: shastrik.

Organized religion is normally represented by an established body of professionals partially because these people very often have the greatest access to the mass media. But in an era now defined by globalisation, free expression and by access to the Internet, we know that almost every group of believers is more diverse than it appears from the outside. "Wherever we go, we will find that religious concepts are much more numerous and diverse than 'official' religion would admit" writes the sociologist of religion Pascal Boyer (2001)3. Another academic says "religion may be studied by referring to its established, official mode; it may be studied in its manifold popular varieties"4. The grassroots religion is frequently a mixture between common culture and a set of practices which have been called a 'religion' by others. Villages and counties can sometimes adopt a new religion and the only outward signs are that the shrines in the local places of worship get new figurines, or, the gods and spirits get new names and updated stories. The practices themselves are sometimes what the religion is, no matter the named theology that is placed on top of them to explain them. A top-down change will often fail to change the practices on the ground. Grassroots changes are hard to predict or control. Take Hinduism... the religion itself is a collection of folk practices, sayings, stories, traditions that we Westerners took to categorize under a single name5. Hinduism is a grassroots religion. Also take as an example the Reformation and other top-down attempts at changing the religious landscape in the UK; they nearly all failed, resulting merely in name-changes. Westerners (and Muslims themselves) often cannot tell the difference between cultural practices of the countries of origin, and the practices grounded in Islamic law. Without study, culture and religion are often confused even in Abrahamic religions that you might expect to be purely scripturally-driven.

Book CoverThe religious professionals in each religion will usually look down upon the manifestations of popular religion. They will often refer to them as a corruption of the true religion or as evidence of the ignorance or sinfulness of the mass of the people. The truth is somewhat more complex than this. Popular religious practices fill some of the needs felt by ordinary people - needs that the official religion ignores.

"The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach"
Moojan Momen (1999) [Book Review]6

In Max Weber's terms; prophets arise from grassroot individuals, with radical new ideas and emotions, whereas priests represent the scholarly, established and settled official doctrine (also charisma versus routinisation). Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse calls it 'imagistic' verses 'doctrinal' modes of religion7.

1.2. Examples from Ancient Babylon to the Christian Present8

1.3. What Seems New is Often Old Practices in a New Context

Here is an excerpt from "Nothing New: Religions Evolve From Previous Religions: 1.2. The Exposure to Fresh Audiences" by Vexen Crabtree (2007), where I explore the way in which culture and religion mix in new contexts:

Most new religions are presenting old religions in a new context and to a new audience.

Dr J. Gordon Melton (2004)11

Religion, or a subset of religious ideas, is sometimes moved from one culture to another. The Theosophists brought Indian spirituality to the West, interpreting it through a Western, formal framework, and changing its character. The strict, teacher-student, lifelong disciplines of the East were decimated into what is now known broadly as the New Age, as a large number of non-theologians took to it. This mix between one scholarly interpretation of religious beliefs and its interpretation within a new culture is typical of how new-seeming religions can emerge from old practices; but from a global historical perspective, the ideas themselves are not new.

... all religions have a tendency to use what has gone before and could therefore be called revived religions. As Irving Hexham points out, 'the thing that is 'new' in new religions is the context of their mythological idioms and their conscious use of images, practices and theories from anywhere [and indeed, any time] in the world' (Hexham and Poewe, 1997, p.162).

"Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age" by Joanne Pearson (2002)12

So religions, beliefs and practices often appear new because fans have taken them from one part of the world to another11 where they are unfamiliar. Once they blossom in a new location, they are re-interpreted according to the new cultural hosts' preconceptions and philosophical histories. This interplay results in religious concepts in an area sometimes becoming subservient to new-sounding religions:

Each of the world's major religions had its roots in a local primal religion, usually connected with a particular tribe or clan and a specific geographical location. Each tradition became more cosmopolitan as it diffused, encountering and incorporating other cultural forms along the way. [...] These roots did not disappear as the tradition changed over time but established the form that influenced each religion's later shape. [...] The major religious traditions often adapt to new settings through syncretism or co-optation: Chinese folk Gods became Buddhas and local African deities became Christian saints.

"Gods in the Global Village" by Lester R. Kurtz (2007)13

2. Who Should Define a Religion?

2.1. The Grassroots Practitioners Should Define the Religion

The beliefs of the majority of the adherents of a religion should define the core of the religion. Peoples membership in religions that have organised castes of religious professionals does not mean that the people's 'supernatural concepts are really organised by the messages delivered by these specialists'14. It doesn't matter what the academics say the tents of a religion are if it isn't what the bulk of the followers actually believe. As new understandings and developments spread amongst the adherents, then, such things become part of the religion. This is better than having clerics at the top invent new clever doctrines, and then forcing them on to the populace, as has happened so many times in the history of organized religions. Therefore, the cultural beliefs and practices of a religion ought to be considered the true religion.


2.2. Religions Need Protecting From Grassroots' Naivity

Mass rule has too many problems and implications for the religion as a whole. Fickle followers, en masse, can take up any number of fancy new beliefs, practice new fads, or reject chunks of the theology, but their blundering could easily make a quagmire of complex ideas and turn them into shallow, misunderstood slogans, rather than a coherent belief system. We saw the monotheists, such as Moses, emerge and preach a strict no-idols religion. But the same religion evolves, by mass consensus, to include the worship of a variety of saints and figures of saints, many of whom are merely pre-Christian personalities renamed in Greek, Latin or English, and given an updated martyrdom story. This is no way to search for the truth! The experts and the clerics should probably be the ones keeping things together and saying what is, and what isn't, part of the religion.

2.3. The Experts and Clerics Should Guard the Religion

Theology can be complicated. It requires more than merely choosing to believe, but, it involves the careful working out of the philosophies and intricacies of what beliefs really mean. So many beliefs that are held by the mass populace make little sense, and many of them actually go against what a religion should stand for. The guardianship of a religion against frivolous and trendy beliefs must be taken upon the shoulders of those who have committed time and study to the tenets and history of the religion. That way, policy declarations will be carefully checked against existing doctrine to make sure no contradictions or falsehoods emerge. The beliefs of the original founder(s) of the religion can only kept alive through the vigilance of such scholars, and therefore these clerics should have the final say on what, exactly, the religion is.

2.4. The Experts and Clerics Probably Shouldn't After All

The final say is that the experts and clerics of a religion should probably not be given the reigns. Over and over throughout history, they have trotted down the path to an ever-harsher and ever-stricter doctrine. That is what happened as the Pauline-Cappadocian Christians took over Christianity in the fourth century, and wiped out all the wonderful diversity that comprised early Christianity in the first three centuries such as the Ebionites, Gnostics and Arians. The symptom of an ever-tightening opening of understanding afflicts most religions that come to ruled by theocrats; it then takes the emergence of 'prophets' (Weber) to describe visionaries who break the mould and force the religion into schism in order to expose new understanding. This is an all-too-familiar history of the world's organized religions.

Another shortfall is that as the clerics embrace dogmatism and change becomes taboo, the religion ceases to react to new information. It ossifies, and then comes into increasing conflict with science and with the changing morals of society. Religions need to be adaptable, and that, most the time, means that those 'of understanding' are normally the ones holding the doctrine back, until eventually the whole religion is discredited. No, unfortunately religions should not be the preserve of the clerics.

2.5. Pragmatism: Defining Religions According to What is Useful

We have eliminated all those who would contend to define a religion. The masses need to be held in check to guard against rampant fads and shallow understandings, but, the clerics tend to choke a religion through increasingly narrow interpretations of its truth.

When defining whether a religion is best understood as the majority of believers do, or as the academics do, there is no clear line to tread. The path of most outsiders is to call all forms, high and low, the same thing. So, a 'Christian' is both a layman who calls himself a Christian but can't recite more than a verse or two of scripture let alone explain the complexities of the Trinity, and the same name applies to the religion of the Latin and Greek speaking acolytes. It gets confusing when they start espousing opposite doctrines. The pragmatic answer is to merely speak of the religion in the plural. There are Buddhisms, Christianities, Hinduisms5 and Islamic religions. This also takes into account the fact that many religions have been completely re-conceived since their inception.

Theologians will tend to take the side of the 'professionals', and stick to the more formal, written, codified forms of religion. They will consider other elements, not discussed in literature, to be anomalies, sinful, and mistaken. Anthropologists on the other hand, will usefully examine the actual practices of the people on the ground, and will therefore sometimes report that a religion of a local area is one thing, while theologians say it is another. This is the pragmatic approach to describing religions in action.

3. Soka Gakkai: All Believers Excommunicated by the Shoshu Priesthood15

The Soka Gakkai is a perfect example of the extent to which a religion can be split along cultural and academic lines. The Soka Gakkai is the organization of the largest group of lay believers of Nichiren Buddhism; the priesthood is called the Nichiren Shoshu. The lay believers relied upon texts produced by the Priesthood. "In the early 1990s, the relationship between the priestly sect and the lay organization hit a new low. Amidst accusation and counter-accusation, some of which involved legal proceedings, the Soka Gakkai was excommunicated en masse by the current High Priest of Nichiren Shoshu, Nikken. The vast head temple at Taiseki-ji underneath Mount Fiji, used by priests and lay members from all over the world but financed by the Soka Gakkai, has been torn down by Nichiren Shoshu. [...] The rhetoric of the Soka Gakkai subsequent to the split has tended towards militarism. A 1994 newsletter article headed 'Victory to the Soka Gakkai', for example, talks of winning 'a total victory' and 'defeating the Nichiren Shoshu Priesthood'"16.

4. The Indomitable Market of Magic, Versus Religious Professionals

4.1. Magic as a Grassroots Phenomenon

It is generally not worth trying to define magic (or religion), but it should suffice to say here that it includes things like good luck charms, fortune telling, astrology, mediumship etc. The historian Prof. R. Hutton reports about magical practices in his book on modern Paganism, noting how the whole arena of magic is scorned by clerics within most organized religions. Scholars who have studied magical practices concur; Anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse calls it the 'imagistic' mode of religion, contrasting it to the 'doctrinal' top-down form of religion7. Although Hutton (1999) points out that many modern-day pagan practices involve things that look suspiciously Christian, Davies (2009) points out that at their inception, these Christian-seeming elements were adoptions and maskings of pre-Christian cultural paganism:

Book CoverIt is obvious that many [charms] - perhaps the majority - are Christian in character. They quote from the Bible, or appeal to the Trinity, or to Jesus, or to saints. In most cases, to be sure, they are using the trappings and symbols of Christianity with little regard to what churchmen would have regarded as its essence; the Bible, for example, is regularly treated as a magical object in itself. [...] This is, however, a large part of what popular Christianity had always been about, and, something that had caused learned and devout members of the faith to teat their hair at intervals ever since the time of the Church Fathers.

"The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft"
Ronald Hutton (1999)17

Book CoverOver the next few centuries Church authorities from across the Christian world issued repeated warnings. In 694, for instance, the Council of Toledo issued an edict stating 'it is not permitted for altar ministers or for clerics to become magicians or sorcerers, or to make charms'. [...] The medical manuals known as leechbooks, which were produced by the clergy or monastic communities of late Anglo-Saxon England, are a good example. They were based principally on classical medicine but also contained spells for healing and protection. [...] Some of the charms were Christianized versions of pagan healing verses. [...] It was the context in which they were recorded and used, and by whom, that determined whether they were considered acts of sinful magic or pious devotion. For the common people such distinctions were largely irrelevant.

"Grimoires: A History of Magic Books" by Owen Davies (2009)18

The tugs of war between professional religionists at the top, and grassroots believers at the bottom, is a worldwide phenomenon. Take Daoism, a 2400-year old atheist Chinese religion has to do with cause-and-effect in a cosmic sense. The masses mix it with a multitude of superstitions, as Prof. Partridge reports:

Book CoverDaoism as a religion has, over many years, absorbed many 'folk' beliefs as well as aspects of Buddhism and Confucianism. Consequently, there is much to do with spirits, sorcery, exorcism, fortune-telling, the promotion of amulets and talismans and geomancy. For example, a common form of geomancy that has, in recent years, become very popular in the West is feng shui (wind and water).

"Encyclopedia of New Religions" by Christopher Partridge (2004)19

The method of dealing with these hostile forces often, at the popular level, took the form of magic or sorcery. This is the kind of method which the Atharva Veda reflects; it is probably for this reason that these hymns were only grudgingly accepted by the guardians of the Vedic tradition as a part of the Vedas20. M. Bloomfield, commenting on the significance of the Atharva hymns and charms, writes: 'the broad current of popular religion and superstition has infiltrated itself through numberless channels into the higher religion that is presented by the Brahman priests, and it may be presumed that the priests were neither able to cleanse their own religious belief from the mass of folk-belief with which it was surrounded, nor is it at all likely that they found it in their interest to do so.'21

"Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil" by Trevor Ling (1997)22

Most varieties of official religion disapprove of, or even forbid, recourse to talismans, spells, charms and other forms of magic. They are also against necromancy, astrology and other occult practices. Yet, in almost every society, these elements can be found in popular religion. [...] People regard these popular elements as an integral part of the religion and they are thought to derive their power and efficacy through the spiritual forces of the religion. For example, in most Muslim countries, amulets are worn as a magical protection against danger. These amulets usually contain verses from the Qur'an, which is considered to be the source of their power. Such practices persist despite the prohibition against them in the official religion.

"The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach"
Moojan Momen (1999) [Book Review]6

In history puritanical reforms would sweep the land every so often, instigated by religious professionals' anxiety over the general populace's petit fascinations. "The Causes of Satanism and other Alternative New Religious Movements" by Vexen Crabtree (2014) argues that such needs will always need to find an outlet. Other authors such as the sociologist of religion Bryan Wilson (1966) have argued that by suppressing magical thinking, some organized religions have suppressed the very instincts that allow people to believe in religious ideas at all23.

4.2. Western European Christianity Went Too High-Brow

Christianity has waned in most of Europe. As its popular, common roots have disintegrated it has left a gap in British culture for magical thinking. This waning was partially because Christianity has remained for a century or two, an entirely high-brow affair. As Christianity in Western Europe has become dry, all those masses who belonged to the cultural version of Christianity, 'unchurched', have now largely lost their way. In the UK "between 1979 and 2005, half of all Christians stopped going to church on a Sunday"24. This gap has been steadily filled by the growing Occult, New Age and Pagan movements. These are some of the most liberal religious movements it is possible to imagine, and yet their own 'professional' elements, the organizers and writers, have divided magic into 'low' and 'high' along familiar cultural-religion and scholarly-religion lines:

One of the specifically modern characteristics of [magic] is the label of 'low magic', devised by the 'high' magicians of the occult revival. They used (and use) it to denote all those practices that [...] were not part of their self-consciously learned tradition. In particular, such activities belonged to the world of popular belief and custom [and] practical remedies for specific problems.

"The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft" by Ronald Hutton (1999)25

5. Conclusions

Religions are combinations of two elements. Firstly, the grassroots practices and cultural norms of the lay believers. And secondly, the high-brow theologizing and intellectualization of the religious professionals. When academics try to categorize and define religion, they often get caught up arbitrarily with just one type26. The two forms of a religion often struggle against each other. Folk practices are resilient to top-down declarations of what is or isn't supposed to be part of a religion, and often reforming popular beliefs results only in name-changes and other surface changes, leaving underlying practices more or less as they were. When academics codify the religion they often fail to account for - or completely ignore - the practices of the laypeople. When documenting a religion we cannot rely only on the testimonies of the masses, who might en masse be taken in by fads, nor rely only on the definitions of the professionals, academics and clerics, who only represent a small portion of believers. Therefore the only pragmatic route is to consider religions to be pluralities and umbrella terms.

The grassroots of a religion is nearly always a combination of beliefs and practices from multiple historical sources. Magical thinking, ritualistic habits and popular beliefs all tend to survive within a culture even though its official religion may change. On the other hand, the formal and scholarly religion of clerics and religious professionals is complex, more complete and resilient to change. Theology is demanding to study and is frequently very convoluted because the religion's scholars debate the weakspots and difficult spots of the tenets and work out complex philosophies to circumvent them. The more difficult the area of study of a religion, the more maze-making its scholars will do in attempts to explain irrationality. But the more complex and difficult the intellectual aspect of a religion, the more the lowly masses will fail to comprehend or implement it, and the bigger the divide will be between the cultural and scholarly versions of the religion. A religion is always a contradictory mix of both what the leaders say the religion is, plus what the mass of the actual followers do and believe.

By Vexen Crabtree 2013 Jan 26
(Last Modified: 2015 May 16)
Second edition 2008 Sep 28
Originally published 2005 May 28
Parent page: Human Religions

References: (What's this?)

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Boyer, Pascal
(2001) Religion Explained. Hardback. Published by William Heinemann, Random House Group Ltd, London, UK.

Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. First published 2009.

Crabtree, Vexen
(2012) "Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline" (2012). Accessed 2016 May 14.
(2014) "The Causes of Satanism and other Alternative New Religious Movements" (2014). Accessed 2016 May 14.

Davies, Owen
(2009) Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. Hardback. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Droogers, André
(2011) Defining Religion: A Social Science Approach. This essay is chapter 14 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages 263-279).

Hinnells, John R.. Currently professor of theology at Liverpool Hope University.
(1997, Ed.) The Penguin Dictionary of Religions. References to this book simply state the title of the entry used. First published 1984. Published by Penguin Books, London, UK

Hutton, Ronald
(1999) The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. 2001 paperback edition published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Knott, Kim
(1998) Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Part of the Very Short Introductions series. 2000 reissue.

Kurtz, Lester R.
(2007) Gods in the Global Village. 2nd edition. Published by Pine Forge Press, California, USA. Was previously Director of Religious Studies at Texas and holds a master's in Religion from Yale Divinity School and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Chicago. Kurtz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas, USA.

Ling, Trevor
(1997) Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil. Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. First published 1962 by George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Mackenzie, Donald A.
(1915) Myths of Babylonia and Assyria. Produced by Sami Sieranoja, Tapio Riikonen and PG Distributed Proofreaders. Amazon digital edition.

Momen, Moojan
(1999) The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach. Published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. [Book Review]

Müller, Max
(1910) "Sacred Books of the East" compiled by Max Müller, published by the Oxford University Press, UK, between 1879 and 1910 in fifty volumes. In Ling (1997) p18.

Partridge, Christopher
(2004, Ed.) Encyclopedia of New Religions. Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.

Pearson, Joanne
(2002, Ed.) Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. Published by Ashgate, Aldershot, UK and The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.

Riis, Ole Preben. Professor of Sociology of Religion at Agder University, Kristiansand, Norway.
(2011) Methodology in the Sociology of Religion. This essay is chapter 12 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages 229-244).

Wilson, Bryan
(1966) Religion in Secular Society. Penguin Books softback first edition.


  1. Clark (2006) in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2006) 45(4):475-479. Blackwell Publishers. Prof. Clark is the guest editorial for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Lynn Schofield Clark is Assistant Professor and Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, at the University of Denver, 2490 S. Gaylord St., Denver, CO 80208.^
  2. The Penguin Dictionary of Religions entry for Popular Religion. Hinnells (1997).^
  3. Boyer (2001) ch.1 "What is the Origin?" p10. Added to this page on 2013 Jan 15.^
  4. Riis (2011) p231. Added to this page on 2014 Dec 30.^
  5. Kim Knott (1998) ch.9 "Hindu Dharma, Hinduism, and Hinduisms".^^
  6. Momen (1999) p387-9.^^
  7. Boyer (2001) p322-326. Added to this page on 2013 Jan 26.^^
  8. Added to this page on 2013 Jan 26.^
  9. Mackenzie (1915) location 249-51. Added to this page on 2013 Jan 15.^
  10. Boyer (2001) ch8. Why doctrines, exclusion and violence? p322-326. Added to this page on 2013 Jan 15.^
  11. Dr J. Gordon Melton in Partridge (2004) p10, foreword. Dr Melton is founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, California, USA.^
  12. Pearson (2002) Introduction p8. Added to this page on 2015 Aug 24.^
  13. Kurtz (2007) p174-5.^
  14. Boyer (2001) p322-326. Added to this page on 2013 Jan 26.^
  15. Added to this page on 2011 Jun 21.^
  16. Waterhouse, H. (2002) in Wolffe (2002) chapter 2 "Soka Gakkai Buddhism as a Global Religious Movement" p137-8. Added to this page on 2011 Jun 21.^
  17. Hutton (1999) ch 6 "Finding a low magic" p101.^
  18. Davies (2009) p12-30. Added to this page on 2011 Jun 21.^
  19. Partridge (2004) p217.^
  20. Müller (1910) volume 42, p. xxix.^
  21. Müller (1910) p. xlv f.^
  22. Ling (1997) p18. Added to this page on 2014 Dec 30.^
  23. Wilson (1966) p44.^
  24. See "Religion in the United Kingdom: Diversity, Trends and Decline" by Vexen Crabtree (2012).^
  25. Hutton (1999) chapter 6 Finding a low magic p84.^
  26. Droogers (2011) p272. Added to this page on 2015 May 16.^

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