Syncretism happens when two different religious, cultural, or political traditions blend and form something new. It is not to be confused with multiculturalism, which is more of a “tossed salad” of cultures and ideas. In multiculturalism, individual cultures and ideas are intact – they coincide with each other. Syncretism is more of a “melting pot.” It takes two or more concepts and repositions them as one innovative idea. The “new idea” contains clear elements of the original concepts. Syncretism is evident in every culture, religion and in politics.
Types of Syncretism
Syncretism can be seen in almost everything we come in contact with daily from clothes to food to what’s on TV. It’s generally broken down into these three categories: religious, cultural and political.
Have you ever wondered what the Easter Bunny and decoration of eggs had to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus? Or, what does Santa Claus, gift giving, and other so-called commercialized Christmas traditions have to do with the birth of Jesus? Nothing of course, but these are examples of religious syncretism.
When the Catholic church tried to win over followers of Paganism, they found that many Pagans were resistant to give up their gods and ancient practices. Instead of using force, the church decided to use appropriation by renaming the Pagan holidays and symbolism to reflect Christian themes. Examples of Christian celebrations with pagan roots are Easter, Christmas and Halloween.
Christianity is not the only religion to use syncretism. It’s evident in all religions across the world. There’s Indonesian Muslims that combine Islam with their native cultural and religious traditions, the mix of Shinto and Buddhism traditions in Japan and hints of Babylonian mythology in the bible’s old testament.
Chances are you come into contact with cultural syncretism daily with food. Before the arrival of Columbus to the New World, vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, chilies and maize corn were unknown in the Old World. These plants spread worldwide and make their home in the recipes of other cultures. The United States, being a nation formed by immigrants, is an excellent example of cultural syncretism. Decades of the blending of cultures is evident in the food and music that is considered “Amercian.” Asian Tacos, Mexican Pizza and Jazz are all examples of the blending of multiple cultures to create something new.
Syncretism in politics is taking a neutral political position by combining elements from both the left and right (liberal and conservative) to achieve a goal of reconciliation. An example of this is the “Third Way”, a political movement in which the development of business is balanced with the needs of society. In the 1990s “Third Way” was proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and American President Bill Clinton during their terms. This alternative option was rationalized as a bridge between socialism and capitalism. The goal was to remove the unjust elements of capitalism by providing social welfare for the whole.
Syncretism occurs for many reasons, from immigration to military conquest to marriages. Bringing two cultures together and finding ways to blend new customs into their own is the beauty of syncretism.