Syncretism is the formation of new religious ideas from multiple distinct sources, often-contradictory sources. All religions (as well as philosophies, system of ethics, cultural norms, etc.) possess some level of syncretism because ideas do not exist in a vacuum. People who believe in these religions will also be influenced by other familiar ideas, including their previous religion or another religion with which they are familiar.
Common Examples of Syncretism:
Islam, for example, was originally influenced by 7th century Arab culture, but not by African culture, with which it has no initial contact. Christianity draws heavily from Jewish culture (since Jesus was a Jew), but also bears the influence of the Roman Empire, in which the religion developed for its first several hundred years.
Examples of Syncretic Religion – African Diaspora Religions:
However, neither Christianity nor Islam is commonly labeled a syncretic religion. Syncretic religions are much more obviously influenced by contradictory sources. African Diaspora religions, for example, are common examples of syncretic religions. Not only do they draw upon multiple indigenous beliefs, they also draw upon Catholicism, which in its traditional form strongly contradicts these indigenous beliefs. Indeed, many Catholics see themselves as having very little in common with practitioners of Vodou
religions are also strongly syncretic. Wicca is the most well known example, consciously drawing from a variety of different pagan religious sources as well as Western ceremonial magic and occult thought, which is traditionally very Judeo-Christian in context. However, neopagan reconstructionists such as Asatruar are not particularly syncretic, as they attempt to understand the recreate Norse beliefs and practices to the best of their ability.
The Raelian Movement
might be seen as syncretic because it has two very strong sources of belief. The first is Judeo-Christianity, recognizing Jesus as a prophet (as well as the Buddha and others), the use of the term Elohim, interpretations of the Bible, and so forth. The second is UFO culture, envisioning our creators as extraterrestrials rather than non-corporeal spiritual beings.
Some categorize the Baha'i
as syncretic because they accept multiple religions contain aspects of truth. However, the specific teachings of the Baha'i Faith are primarily Judeo-Christian in nature. Just Christianity developed from Judaism and Islam developed from Judaism and Christianity, the Baha'i faith developed most strongly from Islam. While it recognizes Krishna and Zoroaster as prophets, it really doesn't teach much of Hinduism or Zoroastrianism as being Baha'i beliefs.
The Rastafari Movement
is also strongly Judeo-Christian in its theology. However, its black-empowerment component is a central and driving force within Rasta teaching, belief and practice. So, on one hand, the Rastas have a strong additional component. On the other hand, that component is not necessarily terribly contradictory to Judeo-Christian teaching (unlike the UFO component of the Raelian Movement, which depicts Judeo-Christian beliefs and mythology in a radically different context).
Labeling a religion as syncretic is frequently not easy. Some are very commonly identified as syncretic, such as the African Diaspora religions. However, even that is not universal. Miguel A. De La Torre objects to the label for Santeria because he feels Santeria uses Christian saints and iconography merely as a mask for Santeria beliefs, rather than actually embracing Christian belief, for example.
Some religions possess very little syncretism and thus are never labeled as a syncretic religion. Judaism is a good example of this.
Many religions exist somewhere in the middle, and deciding exactly where they should be placed in the syncretic spectrum can be a dicey and somewhat subjective process.
One thing that should be remembered, however, is that syncretism should in no way be seen as an legitimizing factor. All religions possess some degree of syncretism. It's how humans work. Even if you believe God (or gods) delivered a particular idea, if that idea was completely alien to the listeners, they would not accept it. Moreover, once they receive said idea, that belief can be expresses in a variety of ways, and that expression will be colored by other prevailing cultural ideas of the time.