Ethnic Religions

As humans spread across the globe, they formed cultural identities related to their surroundings. An essential element of these identities was and still is religion. The purpose of those earliest religions was to organize and codify spirituality; stories and legends provided abstract explanations for the natural world and people's relationship to it, while rituals, behavioral practices, and edifices helped reinforce a sense of shared identity. These religions, so inherently tied to particular cultures, are known as ethnic religions. 

Ethnic Religions Ethnic Religions

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Table of contents

    Ethnic Religions Definition

    Ethnic religions are usually practiced by a particular ethnic identity. Adherents usually don't feel the need to convert people of a different ethnic group to their faith, though many ethnic religions may still welcome interested outsiders.

    Ethnic religion: a belief system intrinsically tied to a particular ethnicity, culture, and/or geographic location and not usually meant to be universally applicable.

    Most religions that have come and gone in human history were ethnic religions. Religious beliefs typically developed within communities of people striving to make sense of their own particular landscape and their role in it. What we now call Greek myths were once the religious beliefs of the Greeks, just as Egyptian myths were once the religious beliefs of the Egyptian people.

    Difference Between Universalizing and Ethnic Religions

    Ethnic religions contrast with universalizing religions, faiths meant to be universally applicable to all people, regardless of their ethnicity or cultural heritage. Thus, adherents of universalizing religions may actively attempt to convert non-believers, a practice less common within ethnic religions.

    Today, the largest universalizing religions are Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Other prominent universalizing religions are Taoism, Confucianism, the Baháʼí Faith, Sikhism, and Jainism.

    It is perhaps important to note that universalizing religions often become incorporated into ethnic identities, especially if, through conversion, a universalizing religion supplants an ethnic religion. For example, over 90% of Filipinos identify as Christians. At the same time, the historical relationship between Punjabi Indians and Sikhism is so strong that the United States classified "Sikh" as its own ethnic group in 2020.

    Ethnic Religions, Difference Between Ethnic Religions and Universalizing Religions, Philippines Catholic, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A Roman Catholic Mass is held at a cathedral in Palawan, Philippines

    Ethnic religions and universalizing religions sometimes intermingle in a process called syncretism. Historically, this was common with Buddhism, because the nature of its theological and metaphysical tenets allowed it to easily mesh with pre-existing indigenous belief systems throughout Asia.

    Examples of Ethnic Religions

    There are thousands of ethnic religions. Some are widespread; others are confined to just one town or village. The table below shows the most prominent ethnic religions.

    ReligionAssociated EthnicityGeographic RegionNumber of Adherents
    HinduismDesiIndian sub-continent1.2 billion
    JudaismJewishIsrael; major global diaspora14.7 million - 20 million
    ShintoJapaneseJapan30 million - 120 million
    Chinese folk religionHanChina; major global diaspora300 million - 1 billion
    Vodun (Vodou/Voodoo)Fon, Aja, Ewe, HaitiansWest Africa, Haiti60 million

    Each of these is quite different. Some serve to underpin a traditional ethnic identity, while others have quite strict obligations.

    Other prominent ethnic religions include Tengrism in the Eurasian steppes, Bön in Tibet, and Odinala in Nigeria.

    Hinduism

    Hinduism emerged as a distinct religious tradition in India as early as 2300 BCE. Hindu deities include Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Brahmā, and Parvati. These are often said to be manifestations of a single divine essence, Brahman.

    Ethnic Religions, Examples of Ethnic Religions, StudySmarterFig. 2 - A small Hindu temple in a neighborhood in Sri Lanka

    Hinduism teaches that all living beings reincarnate after they die. The more righteous you are in life, the more favorable your reincarnation will be in your next life. Therefore, reincarnation is tied to dharma, moral behavior. Especially within India itself, Hinduism has been traditionally associated with a caste system, which disallows social mobility, assuming people will climb the caste ladder in their next life through dharma.

    With over 1.2 billion adherents, Hinduism is the largest ethnic religion in the world and the third-largest religion overall.

    Judaism

    Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people. Judaism as we know it emerged around the 6th century BCE in the Levant region but was practiced in some form for several centuries prior.

    Judaism teaches that one God (Elohim or YHWH) was responsible for the creation of everything. God formed a covenant with the Jewish patriarch Abraham: in exchange for worship and obedience to laws and customs, God would protect the Jews and make them multitudinous.

    There are about 15 million ethnic Jews, but the religious practice of Judaism amongst Jews varies widely. Some strictly adhere to traditional Jewish law, while others may only celebrate major Jewish holidays. There are numerous Jewish denominations for every level of stringency.

    Haredi Jews follow Jewish laws so strictly that many practitioners segregate themselves from wider society as much as possible. Meanwhile, Reform Jews prioritize ethics and inclusion over tradition and laws.

    Although Judaism is not a universalizing religion, it is an exclusive religion, holding that it alone is true relative to other religious systems. As such, Judaism typically attracts more converts than other ethnic religions.

    Shinto

    Shinto, also called Kami no Michi ("the Way of the Kami"), is the native religion of Japan. Shinto revolves around reverence toward the kami, deities said to inhabit everything in Japan, including trees, rocks, houses, and streams. Besides these animist kami, Shinto has a pantheon of major deities such as Amaterasu and Inari. Many significant figures from Japanese history, such as Emperor Meiji, have been enshrined as kami as well. Entrances to most Shinto shrines are marked by torii gates, ubiquitous features of the Japanese landscape.

    Ethnic Religions, Shinto, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Torii gates mark entrances to Shinto shrines throughout Japan

    When Buddhism arrived in Japan, Shinto and Buddhism became so syncretic that it's now almost impossible to fully untangle them in Japanese culture. It was not until the Meiji era (1868-1912) that serious attempts were made to recodify Shinto and Buddhism as two separate religions.

    Serious Shinto practitioners number no more than a third of the Japanese population. However, Shinto's central role in modern Japanese society is reinforcing traditional—and often, secular—Japanese culture. Coming-of-age ceremonies, local festivals, national holidays, and New Year's Day are all celebrated at Shinto shrines. Additionally, Shinto spiritual practice can be as simple as praying at a shrine or buying a protective talisman (called an omamori). In this regard, around 70-95% of Japanese people practice Shinto to at least some extent.

    Chinese Folk Religion

    Chinese folk religion is a term describing the collective traditional religious beliefs of the Han. These beliefs and practices are very broad, including everything from feng shui and worship of local gods to ancestor worship, acupuncture, martial arts, and traditional medicine. Historically, Chinese folk religion was also intertwined with the Mandate of Heaven, a concept proscribing divine authority to the Chinese Emperor.

    Feng shui ("wind-water") is a Chinese spiritual practice in which individuals seek to balance their energy (qi) with their surroundings. An imbalance of qi leads to misfortune; a balance of qi brings prosperity and happiness. Harmony can be achieved through purposeful architecture, urban planning, and interior design, which allow for the proper flow of qi.

    Though largely considered a pseudoscience in the West, feng shui is increasingly popular in Western interior design and construction.

    The intertwining doesn't stop there. Chinese folk religion is syncretic with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism; many Han may practice two or more of these religions interchangeably. Additionally, while Chinese folk religion is mostly associated with Han culture, it also incorporates elements of shamanism, especially in Manchu areas of northeastern China.

    Vodun

    Vodun (also known as Voodoo or Vodou) is a term for the collective traditional religious beliefs and practices of West African ethnic groups such as the Fon, Aja, and Ewe.

    According to Vodun beliefs, spiritual beings known as vodun, led by the creator goddess Mawu-Lisa, inhabit and control nature and human society. One beseeches the vodun for aid through complex rituals requiring the use of fetish objects. Almost anything can serve as a fetish, from animal body parts to common household objects; this is because, in Vodun, there is little to no distinction between the mundane and the divine.

    Catholic missionaries drew parallels between the Vodun pantheon and the panoply of Christian saints. Therefore, Vodun is often practiced syncretically with Christianity (particularly Roman Catholicism) by African diasporic populations in Haiti and the US, where the religion morphed and is more commonly called Voodoo or Vodou. A similar religion, Santería, is practiced syncretically with Roman Catholicism by Afro-Cubans in Cuba and the US.

    Cultural Appropriation and Closed Religious Communities

    Many of the practitioners of ethnic religions would have no problem with someone from a different ethnic group observing, participating in, or even converting to their religion. However, in some cases, ethnic communities may interpret cross-ethnic spiritual practices as a form of cultural appropriation, the undue adoption of a cultural practice by an outsider group.

    Since the 1970s, cultural appropriation has been a particular concern for some Native American groups, as many of their traditional beliefs and practices were appropriated by Western New Age spiritual movements.

    Some ethnic-religious groups are closed communities. This means they are not open to outsiders. The Druze in Syria and Lebanon, who practice a monotheistic faith called Druzism, are an example. Druzism isn't open to converts; interfaith and interethnic marriage is forbidden. There are around a million Druze worldwide.

    Diffusion of Ethnic Religions

    Because most ethnic religions don't seek converts, the most common way they spread is through migration, voluntary or otherwise. The spread of ethnic religions through migration is a form of relocation diffusion.

    Immigrants from India to the US, for example, are likely to bring Hindu practices with them. Judaism can be found globally because conquests, subjugation, and persecution in southwest Asia and Europe created a scattered global diaspora of Jews. Similarly, Vodou is prominent in the African diaspora in Haiti, because most Haitians descend from slaves taken from West Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries.

    Ethnic Religions, Diffusion of Ethnic Religions, Touro Synagogue, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest extant Jewish synagogue in the US

    Some ethnic religions spread through cultural exchange in a process called contagious diffusion. For example, early Buddhist scriptures reference members of the Hindu pantheon such as Brahmā. Thus, as Buddhism spread throughout Asia, people in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, China, Japan, and elsewhere frequently incorporated Hinduism and/or Hindu deities into their own religious practices and beliefs.

    Ethnic Religions in the US

    The largest ethnic religion in the US is Judaism, practiced by 1.5-2% of the population. About 0.5% of the United States identifies as Hindu, while traditional Native American religions are practiced by around 0.3% of the population.

    Ethnic Religions, Ethnic Religions in the United States, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Ethnic religions are practiced by about 2.5% of Americans

    Religions like Shinto, Tengrism, and Druzism are not widely practiced in the US. Other ethnic religions, like Vodun, Bön, or Chinese folk religion, may not be properly recorded or represented due to their syncretic nature.

    Overview of Ethnic Religions - Key takeaways

    • An ethnic religion is a religion intrinsically tied to a particular ethnicity, culture, and/or geographic location and is not usually meant to be universally applicable.
    • Ethnic religions are distinct from universalizing religions, meant to be universally applicable to all people rather than a particular ethnicity.
    • Major ethnic religions are Hinduism, Judaism, Shinto, Chinese folk religion, and Vodun.
    • Ethnic religions commonly spread through migration and cultural exchange, rather than religious conversion.
    • In the US, about 2.5% of the population practices ethnic religions.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ethnic Religions

    What are the five main ethnic religions in the world? 

    Five of the most prominent ethnic religions in the world are Hinduism, Judaism, Chinese folk religion, Shinto, and Vodun. 

    What do you mean by ethnic religion?

    An ethnic religion is a religion that is intrinsically tied to a particular ethnicity, culture, and/or geographic location and is not usually meant to be universally applicable. 

    What are examples of ethnic religions and in what countries are they found? 

    Hinduism is the world's largest extant ethnic religion. It represents the indigenous religious beliefs of the Desi peoples of the Indian sub-continent, though due to cultural exchange and immigration, Hinduism is also practiced by Indians throughout Europe and North America and by non-Desi peoples in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, and elsewhere.

    What's the difference between universalizing and ethnic religions? 

    Universalizing religions are not developed out of a sense of ethnic identity, but are rather religious concepts meant to be universally applicable to all people. As such, adherents of universalizing religions may seek to convert others. 

    What is an example of an ethnic religion? 

    Shinto is the ethnic religion of the Japanese people and is practiced at least somewhat by around 70-95% of the population.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following best describes religious syncretism? 

    Which of the following ethnic religions has the largest global population? 

    Which of the following is NOT considered an ethnic religion? 

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