When most people think of the origins of a religion, they assume it was handed down from deity as is. However, many religions were actually created by taking pieces of various religions and adapting them to fit a given framework, or by blending together two or more faiths to create a new faith that embraces the parent faiths’ doctrines. Not surprisingly, these two practices, eclecticism and syncretism, are not very well understood by many people.
To being, I will define the terms syncretic religion and eclectic religion. I define a syncretic religion as a religion which combines elements from two or more faiths. An eclectic religion is a religion comprised of bits and pieces of various religions; in some cases only the “best” pieces are used.
They sound a lot alike, but I don’t think they are. Syncretic religions tend to come about when people try to reconcile two or more faiths. It could be a blending of the faith of their homeland and the land where they now live (Vodoun, Santeria), or a blending of faiths practiced by their neighbours (Baha’I, Sikhism), or the blending of a newly introduced faith or set of ideals with an older faith or set of ideas (Shinto-Buddhism, Cao Dai). Eclectic religions, on the other hand, seem to develop from a personal search for spirituality–an attempt to find a way to contact the divine that works for the practitioner on a personal level; to obtain spiritual nourishment that they have not been able to find in established religions.
There are problems inherent in both methods. For example, a family of a mixed religion marriage may try to blend the two faiths. This can produce a sort of family syncretic religion where Yom Kippur, Christmas, Easter and Passover are all recognized. It may work well for the family, allowing each member to be exposed to both religions. However, there may be religious laws of the two parent faiths that forbid this type of blending. In this example, Jewish Halakhah forbids Jews to marry gentles who have not converted or to participate in mixed worship.
In eclectic religions, problems occur when practitioners take on the “spiritual tourist” mentality. It becomes easy for them to blend together the light and painless aspects of faiths, disregarding any deeper, more difficult issues. This can lead to eclectic religions lacking in spiritual depth, but heavy in “feel good” mentality.
The solutions to these problems are similar in both cases. In one word: research. When a practitioner attempts to blend faiths in a syncretic manner, it is important to fully understand what the important aspects of each faith are. One needs to be able to decide if the blending will cause one or more of the faiths to lose whatever it is that makes them work or forms its main doctrine. (This is why I am personally against the blending of Christianity and Wicca. Christianity’s idea of original sin, Satan, hell, and redemption through Christ alone doesn’t fit with Wicca in my opinion. I see nothing wrong with a Christian Pagan however–one who blends Christian doctrine with nature worship. Yahweh did make His creations the gardeners and stewards of the Earth.)
Research for an eclectic is similar. One needs to research the practices they are using to make sure they are being used in the right context. Calling on Circe to help in childbirth wouldn’t make sense, but calling on her to help conceive would. (One of Her domains is physical love. However, another goddess would probably serve this purpose better then Circe.) Solid research helps the practitioner to choose deities that are suited to their needs, or open themselves to hear the calls of deities who choose them, and to make the appropriate offerings and perform the appropriate rituals. One must also be wary of claims which contradict historical fact, and of claims that “this is the way our ancestors did it, so this is the way we must do it.”
The eclectic must produce a careful blending, not a mish-mash of contradictory or reserved spiritual practices thrown together because they appealed to the practitioners senses. Elements which make the spiritual quest meaningful are important, such as deity names and spiritual tools, but they must be used with respect. And, most importantly, spiritual depth must be preserved.
I think, as our society continues to change, we will see more and more personal religions. Some will take on a syncretic aspect, like in mixed religion families, and others will be more eclectic, especially among spiritual seekers. Both approaches meet a need that is left unfulfilled by “pure” religions in their own ways.