Syncretism and religious market

Pino Lucà Trombetta, University of Bologna
(A paper presented at CESNUR 99 conference, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. Preliminary version.© Pino Lucà Trombetta, 1999. Do not reproduce without the consent of the author)


This text is based on some results of an inquiry on subjective religiosity and syncretism. Objective of the research was to analyse believing, feelings, worships, referred to the supernatural which express inside and outside the discipline and orthodoxy of Catholic church. Some results of the research will be used to test out some categories derived from the "paradigm of religious economy", and evaluate how this paradigm may contribute to a better understanding of religious syncretism in Italy [1].


Our research

Syncretism is usually assumed in Italian literature on Sociology of Religion as a synonymous of confusion and considered signal of distance from the orthodox religion -- in Italy this being identified with Catholicism. In this perspective "deviant" behaviours in the field of religion are described as a form of faint appurtenance to Catholicism or, more generally, as a loss of religious tension. The width of this area, where Catholicism is not the main point of reference and syncretism flourishes most widely is estimated -- following different Authors -- from about 50 to 70 % of Italian population.

Our research studies this area, without taking Catholicism as the principal parameter, trying to reconstruct syncretistic strategies as they emerge from empirical data. A questionnaire was distributed to 1,000 students of Emilia-Romagna (a rich province of Northern Italy) of last year of high school and university, with questions about their believing and worship. The sample is non scientifically representative of "young people". Anyhow, the aim was not to represent the Italian situation but, mainly, to reconstruct strategies and processes of resacralization in contemporary Italian "post Catholic" culture. From this point of view I think the results remain valid and may indicate future tendencies especially if we consider the young age and the high school level of the sample.

Advantages of the use of the paradigm of religious economy in the study of syncretism.

Theories based on the hypothesis of progressive secularisation of contemporary societies incline to consider syncretism as a confirmation of the decline of religion and shrinkage of religious tension. Pluralism itself is conceived as an evidence of the menace to the solidity of religious systems. These attitude makes almost impossible the study of syncretism in a positive way: as expression of interests for the supernatural that do not find a response in traditional churches. From this point of view the perspective of religious economy offers undoubted advantages.

First of all, pluralism and individual choices are considered as the condition of existence of religious field and not as a deviance from established orthodoxy. Applied to Italian context, characterised by decline of Catholic monopoly and growing pluralism of agencies and religious offers, this perspective allows to consider syncretism as consequence of the new opportunity believers have to achieve on the religious market what most corresponds to their needs and interests by rational strategies. In the words of Jannaccone, people make accurate "portfolio choices" in order to reduce risks, implicit in all investment in supernatural goods, and increase the hope of profit. Even choices in apparent contradiction or opposite, will appear rational, "since the risk is most effectively reduced by investing in assets that vary independently or even negatively" (1995, 288). Objective of the research on religious demand becomes, in this perspective, to enlighten the underlying logic of syncretistic constructions, rather than referring them to a "model" and measure the distance they take from it.

Furthermore, the researcher will not have the problem of evaluating the "quality" of the demand -- stating if it is really "religious", if there is enough tension between institution and individuals, etc.. In fact, for the new paradigm demand derives directly from the universal need of supernatural explanations: one could say that the quantity of demand is almost invariable in time but variable in the forms in which it expresses. Explanations that -- based on the hypothesis of the secularisation -- focus on the "reduction" and "loss of tension" of religious interest, are in fact incapable to perceive the new shapes and potentialities.

Finally, the paradigm of religious economy allows us to consider syncretism as a "potential demand" whose width corresponds to the part of needs of supernatural meaning that are not satisfied by a specific institution and present themselves on the market looking for offers able to satisfy them. It may be consequently considered as a situation of wait of new answers. The researcher may so focus on the global dynamic of demand and offer of "supernatural compensators" of whatever kind: religious or magic, coming from churches, sects, movements; and on the forms in which the interest for the supernatural manifests itself: full engagement in movements, recourse to esoteric experts or also simple attendance to media events and spectacles.

In the following pages I intend to verify the explicative capacity of some categories above mentioned: "portfolio choice", "potential demand". I’ll analyse the composition of religious demand in our sample of students -- its level of secularisation, new ferments and processes of conversion -- focusing on three themes at the core of syncretistic believing and worships: reincarnation, energetic conception of the divine, esoteric and magical interests.



We inquired the quality and intensity of the interest of our students for reincarnation with two questions: in the first one this assumption was presented in alternative to other hypothesis on the destiny of the soul.

TAB. 1: answer to the question: "after the death of the individual"

1. The soul is judged on the basis of behaviour in life
2. The soul reincarnates in other living beings
3. The Spirit rejoins the great collective Soul
4. Nothing remains of the man/woman
5. We can say nothing about the soul
6. I don’t care about this problem

We simplified the table as follows

TAB 2: : answer to the question: "after the death of the individual:"

Judgement of the soul (1)
Reincarnationistic positions (2, 3)
Agnosticism, indifference, non belief (4,5,6)

In other two questions we asked if one believed to have lived in the past or that will live in the future as reincarnated. Answers where as follows:

TAB 3: believes in reincarnation

Maybe yes
To have lived in the past
To be born again as reincarnated

The table above allows to select those who believe in reincarnation from those who are only interested to it. In the following table "believers" are those who answer "yes" at least to one of the two perspectives (past or future) "interested" are those who adhere only in probabilistic way ("maybe yes") to one or both perspectives.

Tab. 4: index of belief in reincarnation

non belief

The difference between the narrow area of "belief" and the wider one of "interest" points out one characteristic of contemporary attitude towards religious goods, consisting in choosing a wide range of hypothesis, even opposite, that do not exclude each other, rather than fully adhering in only one of them.

Confrontation of tables 2 and 4 shows a great variance between the belief in reincarnation expressed in opposition to other beliefs on the destiny of the soul (19,8%) and the interest emerging from the question which deals only with this theme (40,6%). This means that there is superposition or apparent contradiction in beliefs: some students declare to believe in reincarnation in alternative to other beliefs on the soul (Tab. 2), but don’t believe to have already lived or to be destined to be reborn as reincarnated (Tab. 4). Other students declare to believe in the Catholic doctrine of the judgement after death or to be "non believers" or agnostics or indifferent to the problem, but in the other question (Tab. 4) declare to believe or to be interested to reincarnation.

In order to enlighten the directions of subjective bricolage, the coherence and radication in this theme we have built an index that considers the answers of each person to the three questions above mentioned.

Next table distinguish exclusive positions -- not contradicted in the confrontation among the three questions -- and syncretistic positions where different beliefs superpose in the some subject.

TAB 5: beliefs on final destiny of man/woman

Judgement on the basis of behaviour in life
Reincarnation / non belief in soul
Non belief, indifference, agnosticism

In this table belief in reincarnation (non syncretistic) include those who believe without hesitation (tab. 4) and those who choose reincarnation in alternative to other beliefs and deem at least probable the hypothesis of having lived or to be destined to live again (they answer at least "maybe yes" to respective questions). In these cases there is something more than a superficial suggestion and we may suppose a reflection and search of new supernatural meanings that leads to a discrete coherence.

In conclusion, reincarnation seems to be a real belief only for a rate of about 16%, while a rate of almost 30% of our sample accept reincarnation as one hypothesis among others. These results seem to confirm the assumption of the differentiation of religious portfolio: some of the students try to get the maximum advantage from their choices reducing risk deriving from investing everything on one asset. Anyhow not all those who adopt this strategy seem to have the same tension to the supernatural.

The graphic below focuses on those who are "interested" to reincarnation and investigates different meanings that people attribute to the belief. Positions are assembled in three species: the Catholic doctrine, reincarnation; positions of non belief in the soul/agnosticism/indifference.

Graph. 1: composition of the belief in reincarnation

(only those who "believe" or are "interested" are considered here (45,2% of the students). The dark column indicates exclusive belief, the others indicate superposition of different beliefs)

In the great majority those who choose reincarnation don’t do it in an exclusive way, and choose, at the same time, the Catholic doctrine or sceptical positions. I would put attention on the fact that a rate of almost 40% of those choosing reincarnation seem to be, at the same time, little interested to a supernatural perspective for the soul and, in certain cases exclude it at all. We may give different explanations of this result; for instance, a refusal of the categories proposed in the questionnaire (soul, reincarnation) and a search of new forms in which to conceive survival after death. But I think that it should be correct to suppose that, at least a quote of those in which reincarnation coexists with agnosticism or non belief in survival of the soul are subjects substantially indifferent to supernatural destiny, who yield in a disengaged way to a gratifying suggestion.


Visions of divinity

Similar conclusions can be drawn from analysis of those belief that identify the divine with the Nature, the Cosmos, the self.

We derived the personal conception of divinity from two questions. The first was: "In your experience, or in the world, do you recognise a sacred dimension (religious, cosmic, supernatural?) whatever it is? and if you do, where is its core?"

answer are shown in the following table

TAB. 6: answer to the question: "(if you recognise a sacred dimension) where is its core?"

In God Almighty
In the Cosmos, in Nature
in myself
Other (paranormal, spirits, etc.)
I don’t recognise a sacred dimension

In another question we asked our students to choose among different conception of God derived from well known traditions:

1. biblical and Catholic ("God

TAB. 7: answers to the question: "God is"

Almighty and Creator
Identifies with the Nature, the Cosmos
Invention of man
nothing can be said on God
I don’t care about

From the two tables above we derived an index of belief in God as Cosmic Energy.

(analytic steps to the following table will be shown in a more detailed version of this text)

TAB. 10: beliefs in "God as Energy diffused in the Cosmos, in Nature, in the self "

Belief: 2 homogeneous options in the questions above mentioned
Interest: only 1 option
Non belief in God as Energy: 0 option

If we focus attention on those who are at least interested for this conception of the divinity, we realise that the widest part does not accept it in an exclusive way, but as an option that lives together with others: with the personal view of Catholicism or with positions of indifference or atheism: in a relativistic attitude in sharp contrast with the tradition of the Church and with a coherent materialism. Furthermore, if we consider the composition of this bricolage, we shall observe that many of those who declare in one of the two questions mentioned to believe in the divine Energy in the Cosmos or in the self , declare also, in the other question to be agnostic or non believers in God, in whatever form represented. (they answer: "God is invention of man"; "we can say nothing about"; "I don’t care" or declare not to recognise any sacred dimension in their live or in the world).

Graph. 3: composition of the belief in God as Cosmic Energy (only those who manifest at least interest are considered here: 37,1% of the total)

The propensity, for those adopting the cosmic vision, to associate it to atheistic positions must not be automatically considered as manifestation of little interest for the theme of the divine. Alternative possibility have been proposed. In some cases one might suppose the influence of "oriental" spirituality that conceives God with recourse to concepts as "Empty", "Nothing", that, translated in the Catholic theology and in the common sense language appear similar to atheism (Gauchet, 1985, 294-295). One might also underline the tendency of "post-secular" spirituality to sacralise the material world discovering in categories of atheism itself metaphysical meanings (Berzano, 1994,10 ff.). And, of course, we may explain this diversity of positions within the same subject as a portfolio choice.

I would suggest that, as we saw above speaking of reincarnation, at least for a part of the students, this form of syncretism might show a faint interest for the theme of the divine made up with a vision that borders with materialism (god = nature).


Esoteric beliefs

Another context in which I shall verify the composition of new beliefs concerns some themes often integrated in the spiritual perspective of New Age

TAB. 11: rates of adhesion to some "parallel" beliefs

Maybe yes
Possibility to make paranormal action with power of the mind
Humanity has experimented contacts with E. T.
Signs of the Zodiac influence personality
Possibility to contact the dead by spiritualist séance
Existence of evil eye

Interest for each of the themes appear high even it is expressed mainly in the form of probability ("maybe yes) and is manifested by more than 50% in the cases of paranormal, astrology, E. T.

In our research we went further single belief and asked ourselves how much esoteric -- as a system of beliefs and worships referred to the supernatural -- influences religious imagination. For this purpose, we built an index dividing subjects on the basis of their global investment in esoteric goods. At the highest level are those who answer "yes" to two or more of the question of the above table (believer): we may assume that they have greater expectations and consider esoteric as an integrated an coherent system of supernatural explanations. In a middle level (curiosity) are those who adhere to two or more beliefs but in a probabilistic way ("maybe yes"). At the lower level (sensibility) those who believe, in any form, to only one theme.

TAB. 12: index of belief in esoteric as a system of supernatural explanations

non belief

More than 80% of young people interviewed believe or think probable one or more of the proposed themes. This result explains the success of the many initiatives and offers coming from agencies of every kind: movement, sects or, in wider scale, agencies of the cultural industry, offering those themes in a spectacular and disengaged form, typical of mass consumption.

The following graphic underlines the difference between the great mass of people ready to adhere in a generic way to themes out of the ordinary and the reduced rate of about 25% that lives esoteric as a coherent system, an alternative way to explain the world an human destiny. Probably in this last case there is authentic search of supernatural explanations and a greater readiness to practise some congruent experience. The graphic gives an indication of this readiness (20%): young people who spent time and/or money in magic or esoteric experiences (they made at least once in the year before one of the following experiences: consult of magicians, astrologers, card readers, parapsicologi; participation to spiritualists séances or other groups or organised esoteric movements.

Spiritual profiles

The analysis of the composition of interests in reincarnation, cosmic views of the divine, esoteric and magic, shows that part of religious demand is highly secularized, bordering with positions of indifference for the supernatural, agnosticism, even of explicit non belief (in God, in survival after death). Supernatural appears, in these cases, consisting in vague, abstract entities not implying any engagement and, mainly in the case of esoteric and magic, confused with the desire of entertainment and spectacle than a research of supernatural explanations.

This situation might be -- as assumed by paradigm of religious economy -- the ideal situation for the emergence of new offers and new religions: if we consider religion as an universal need of man, we shall conclude that the expression of such need in a pale and worldly way screens the waiting of vigorous compensations that take the place left from traditional ones. Yet, we now that the rise of a new religion is a very long process that may last centuries (Stark, 1997). From this point of view even the little rate of 0,5% of students who declared to take part in non Catholic religious groups might indicate future evolutions that, unfortunately, we shall not be able to verify in the rest of our life.

In the following pages I’ll consider only short term scenarios and point out some aggregations of beliefs and symbols signaling the existence of nucleuses of new supernatural meanings. They are mostly private attitudes that do not express in full adhesion to movements, but testify anyhow, a research and exploration outside the tradition.

Analysis of reconstruction of supernatural meaning requires a reconsideration of the category of syncretism. In Italian sociological research on religion "syncretism" is often used as a synonymous of contradictory mingling of heterogeneous contents -- an attitude that may be attributed to an unconscious homage to theological thought, which perceives free associations as a menace to the integrity of religious system. Even the theory of religious portfolio assumes that individual choices are contradictory; but in an opposite way: while for traditional theory syncretistic heterogeneity manifests decline of interest in religion and shows the effects of secularization, in the portfolio perspective the same behavior is explained as a rational choice of individuals interested in religion, but aiming to compensate risk, in a pluralistic market, by choosing opposite assets.

Results of our research, anyhow, show another interest operating -- in some subjects -- in syncretistic choices: the interest to build supernatural meanings which appear "coherent", that is to say more or less adherent to a recognizable tradition. From this point of view the metaphor of financial market might appear partial if we do not include among interests at stake also cognitive ones. What is true in the financial market -- subjective indifference towards the assets in portfolio provided their combination maximizes gains and reduces risk -- is only partially true in the religious market. Here we observe a parallel interest to organize choices in order to build a "system" which might furnish explanations and compensations needed in a particular period of life.

In our research we went further the simple ascertain of differentiation and tried to understand if there were a "cognitive logic" by which subjects choose religious goods. We saw that in some cases options or behaviors are in a certain measure organized inside a more general "profile" from which the individual draws his inspiration. This means that they derive sense from the position they have in the subjective profile: the same elements examined -- reincarnation, energetic divine, esoteric -- may signify faint and superficial curiosity, or be the pillar on which an alternative vision of the supernatural is built. Even if cognitive interests have not the same intensity in all subjects, I think that they should be taken in more consideration in the analysis of religious demand, paying attention to the global subjective "profile".

In our research subjects were grouped on the basis of their position towards some fundamental dimensions of religiosity: declaration of religious appurtenance; form of belief in God; in Christ; frequency of Mass; frequency of confession. Three profiles emerged: Catholic, those answering "orthodoxy" on all themes; "non believer", answering coherently to the same questions rejecting religious options; "syncretistic", including all those who are not Catholic or "non believers". "Syncretistic" include all those who show some interest for the supernatural (belief in some form of divinity, feeling to be believer, frequency of Mass, etc.) but don’t live this interest fully inside the religion institution.

TAB. 13: rate of interviewed on the basis of their spiritual profile

Non believer

The table shows that syncretistic religiosity interests about half of our sample of students: people who satisfies their supernatural needs totally or partially outside the Catholic church. We shall analyse now intensity and direction of such interests, referring mainly to New Age culture in which themes above mentioned converge and have a fundamental role.

In order to measure influence of New Age spirituality we shall consider if and how these themes join in the same individual. The assumption is that choosing more than one theme means greater interest and active search of new religious meanings. In the following graphics, subjects are divided by spiritual profile and by the tendency to accept three, two, one or none of the themes mentioned.

Graph. 5

Number of individual influenced by New Age spirituality in different profiles

Graph. 6

Influence of New Age spirituality in different profiles

Graphic 5 shows that in almost half of the sample heterogeneous signification is present (two or more of New Age themes are chosen). But it is the analysis of spiritual profiles that allows to deepen the significance of these syncretistic constructions. Recourse to "alternative" supernatural is much less intense in those who appertain to a strong profile. Hard influence (acceptance of three themes) is almost not existing in Catholics, and has a low rate in non believers; furthermore, the great majority of these two groups (about 70%) is not really interested to alternative truths: they don’t accept or don’t articulate them, in search of new configurations of the supernatural (graph. 6).

Quite different is the case of "syncretistic": subjects interested in the supernatural dimension who don’t identify in the Church or in any other religious institution, and have greater need of new anchorage. They show a more than double attitude to symbolic reinterpretations (graph. 6): two third of them are surely attracted by New Age cosmology (only one third in the other groups). Furthermore, if we consider the area of most intense influence (three themes accepted) we find a significant minority (33% of syncretistic) for which we may conclude that the new spirituality is an important -- maybe the main -- reference in supernatural representations. Convergence on themes at the core of alternative spirituality in people who have slacken their ties with the institution may be considered a form of "conversion" -- even if only internal, intellectual and often non confirmed by other dimensions of religiosity as worship, explicit sense of appurtenance, etc.


Religious demand

If we assume that potential demand is equivalent to the one expressed by believers more or less far from the Church (unchurched), here defined as syncretistic, we should conclude that part of it comes from subjects actively searching new forms in which represent the sacred and the supernatural. Another part is more difficult to define: it appears equally far from Catholic orthodoxy, from a coherent non believing, from new offers expressed by New Age spirituality. It is possible, of course, that someone in this group is actually engaged in the search of other forms of spirituality not examined in this text: but this should not change the substance of the argument. We may so conclude that for an important rate of our syncretistic, beliefs and worship cohabit without any effort of establishing an order or a hierarchy.

This may be seen as a model of religious portfolio: the most different or contradictory the assets in portfolio, the greatest the protection from risk involved in any supernatural asset. Yet, I would remind what has been said about the composition of syncretism in beliefs in reincarnation and energetic divine: a large part of those adopting them also adopt atheistic or indifferent positions on the supernatural. Hence, I think legitimate to pose the question if this kind of demand might be still considered "religious" or if, at least part of it, is a screened form of non belief. And if, people expressing this kind of syncretistic attitude should be ready to activate their interests in presence of plausible institutionalised offers. In other words, if we must consider whatever interest for the supernatural as a "potential religious demand".

I don’t pretend to answer definitely and think that research might be deepened on this point. Yet, I’ll make two considerations intending to evaluate the explicative potentiality of the concept of "potential religious demand" mainly in the Italian context. The first one is generic and concerns the influence of worldly mythologies on religious demand.

We know that the demand of ultimate significance is satisfied also in transcendence of the here and now, of reintegration of the unity of the person not implying the supernatural. The "world" that, as realm of profane, opposed by itself in the Christian and Catholic tradition to religion, has become today an autonomous source of "salvation", offering sacred goods and values for which it is worthwhile to spend the entire existence. On one hand, goods, religious in their origin -- peace, solidarity, brotherhood -- are worshipped "per se" independently from supernatural reference; on the other, private and immanent mythologies proliferate. Healing of body and mind, sport, music, star system are often consumed in ritual forms similar to religious ones: they offer support to identity and allow transcendence in collective symbols. The act of consumption itself is seen by some Authors as similar to mystical experience.

Even if there is not opposition between the need of transcendental meaning and consumption of mass mythologies, we should admit that these may represent for some people a succedaneum of religion: they may satisfy, even partially or in some periods of life, the need of ultimate sense and appurtenance. The challenge of modernity to religion did not result in the end of the need of sacrality, but in the twisting of that need towards worldly rituality that invaded territories of the psyche and of society, once under hegemony of religion. We might use, for describing such phenomenon the words of E. Morin (1974) who speaks of "colonisation of the soul" by the "mass cultural industry", or the category of "invisible religion" elaborated by T. Luckmann (1969) who saw in mythology of the individual and of his personal mobility the real religion of contemporary society.

I don’t think useful to mix up the two forms of compensation: worldly and supernatural. I just say that we should consider, in the analysis of religious demand, the influence on it of non religious mythologies. The possibility to find answers in the secular sacred does not eliminate the need of supernatural assets, but makes the choices relative to them less exclusive and dramatic. One can allow himself to choose only part or none of religious offers because in his "portfolio" of ultimate explanations there are also worldly, non religious goods. In some cases worldly goods may substitute substantially religious ones: this case does not concern only those who openly declare to be "non believer" or "indifferent" to religion. We might have also a "de facto" substitution: the subject refers to worldly ultimate aims, yet expressing disengaged curiosity toward some supernatural theme.

In this perspective, the number of people mainly looking for worldly compensations will be higher than estimated by the paradigm of religious economy: some of them express these interests in the traditional form of declared atheism or indifference, some in a syncretistic way. These subjects -- and, as we saw, even part of "non believers" (graph. 6) -- express anyhow a demand of supernatural transcendence, but, as it is subordinate, will probably remain disengaged, less disposed to activate in institutionalised offers. We might define it as a faint religious demand.

The second consideration concerns the difference between Italian and American religious context. Our research shows that subjective pluralism expresses mainly as multitude of spiritual attitudes, more or less far from tradition or polarised by alternative paradigms. Only in a minority there is practise of congruent rituality, while full adhesion to movements or institutions is quite exceptional. In spite of the presence of hundred of alternative offers, there is not a wide yearning for new appurtenance.

Italian pluralism lacks important elements that structured the American religious market. The idea that religious institutions operate in an open market is in Italy a quite new acquisition only partially realised on the juridical plane, while persists a large identification with Catholic Church, even if mostly cultural and not consequent in behaviours and believing. Furthermore, while in America plurality of denominations and of appurtenance reflects plurality of subcultures and ethnic identities, and may be used as defence minority’s right, in Italy such processes are very new, consequence of recent immigration and formations of ethnic minorities. On the contrary pluralism often assumed in the past the form of opposition between Catholicism and laic culture, religion and non religion. Non believing culture still has, in spite of the crisis of ideologies, a role in providing landmarks even in an ethic, ideal, spiritual sense.

Even if, in the long run, we register in Italy a convergence towards a pluralistic market on the American model, we may conclude that in the short run factors of diversity will prevail and have deep consequences on the religious demand: pluralism will remain mainly a subjective differentiation, a claim of autonomy and freedom from any discipline; less disposed to full conversion and institutional engagement.


1. Sarebbero molti i riferimenti in proposito. Ho in mente soprattutto gli ormai classici lavori di R. Barthes (1957), J. Baudrillard (1976), E. Morin (1974), e, per ciò che riguarda i presupposti teologici e teleologici del “consumismo”, G. Morra (1992), G. Baget Bozzo (1997).

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