Syncretism consists of the attempt to reconcile differing beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. In paganism, it may refer to attempts to merge and analogize several originally distinct traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, and thus assert an underlying unity allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths.
Religious syncretism exhibits the 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.
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 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.
Historical examples of syncretismEdit
Syncretism in Ancient Greece Edit
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.
Syncretism and Judaism Edit
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 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.
Syncretism in the Roman worldEdit
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 Similarities between Roman, Greek, and Etruscan mythologies.) 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.
Syncretism in Christianity Edit
Nascent Christianity appears to have incorporated many Jewish and pagan cultural elements, through a process of "Christianization" or "baptizing" them to conform with Christian belief and principles, 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). Many scholars agreeTemplate:Fact with this syncretism in principle, though they may tendTemplate:Fact to label any specific example as "controversial". 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.
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.
Roman Catholicism in Central and South America has integrated a number of elements derived from indigenous and slave cultures in those areas 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. Catholic apologists nonetheless often argue against "cafeteria Catholicism", or the act of "picking and choosing" what one wants to believe or practice.
One can contrast Christian syncretism with contextualization or inculturation, the practice of making Christianity relevant to a culture.
Modern syncretic religionsEdit
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. 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, even elements of paganism.
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."
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.
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