What is popular religiosity?

OK, so what is popular religiosity and why is it important that we know what it is? Well, first let me print a couple of quotes that will help you begin to understand it. You need not read the quotes to understand the posts that will come out after this one. [Warning: the quotes are heavy going.] Today I am only going to print the quotes. Tomorrow I will begin working with the idea.

The first quote is from a Roman Catholic theologian writing about the coming of Catholicism to the Philippines:

If religiosity is the cultural embodiment and manifestation of faith, then Catholicism in the lowland Philippines is basically expressed in two forms of religiosity: official and popular Catholicism. The first derives from an external dissemination of the Christian message by missionaries from the West and is still in the main understood and expressed in terms of European culture, while the second comes from the active reception or appropriation of Catholic Christianity by the natives of the islands.

The second quote is a definition from the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology:

Religion refers to a system of beliefs, rites, forms of organization, ethical norms, and feelings about the divine which help human beings to transcend and make sense of life. Popular religiosity is the equivalent of the religion of the common people, or popular piety, the way common people live their religion. It contrasts with official religiosity, which characterizes the specialists and the elites. There are several differences between these two kinds of religiosity (see Dupront 1987). The first difference is that official religiosity considers the foundational hierophany, or manifestation of the sacred, to be very important. The more complex religious systems have specialists who analyze the contents of the original sacred mysteries and consider them as something to be preserved and protected. On the other hand, popular religiosity pays attention to ritual practices and how to obtain help from divine beings. For example, in Buddhism, specialists discuss Buddha’s thoughts on nirvana and the value of religious silence to assure transcendence, while the common people take part in rites honoring Buddha in order to obtain favors in day-to-day life. . .

All I want you to catch today from the quotes are two concepts:

  • Whatever you believe (in the area of religion), whether you are Christian or not, needs to work itself out in real life. How it gets worked out will vary from culture to culture, from region to region, from social class to social class, etc. That is called “religiosity.” While religiosity is used almost as a swear word in popular American Christian culture, it is actually a legitimate word that speaks to the outworking of a religion into real life.
  • There are two types of religiosity:
    • Official religiosity – the more formal aspect of religion. For instance, a Southern Baptist worship in southern Peru has some distinct differences from a Southern Baptist worship in the southern USA. A Roman Catholic Mass in southern Peru has some distinct differences from a Roman Catholic Mass in Boston. Yet both are approved by their appropriate hierarchies. More than that, an American Southern Baptist would consider the Southern Baptist worship in southern Peru to be both valid and appropriate. The same would be true of the Roman worship. Official religiosity includes the theology and the approved practices of a religion.
    • Popular religiosity – the religion of the people in the pew. For instance, in the USA, there was a fad to wear WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets for a while. Those bracelets were not formally approved by any denomination. They were not part of the official religiosity. They were popular religiosity. Popular religiosity involves the beliefs and non-approved practices of a religion.

Please note that official religiosity and popular religiosity need not be opposed to one another, but they may be. Let me give you two examples. The first are the WWJD bracelets. They were not opposed to the official religiosity in any way, nor did the official religiosity oppose them. The second are the self-crucifixions that are found in certain parts of the Philippines during Holy Week. Those are opposed to the official religiosity, and opposed by the official religiosity. Are you getting the drift?

OK, that is the heavy going for today. Tomorrow, we will start looking a little closer at these ideas, and, hopefully, a little more practically.


  1. John M. says

    In general would you say that popular religiosity is more concerned with external demonstrations of faith or piety and with the functions of getting favor from your particular deity; while official religiosity is more focused on attitudes and behavior that promote some sort of deepening one’s faith or transcendence?

    • says

      Not really. For instance, let a priest celebrate a liturgy regularly in which he always leaves out a mandatory part and see how quickly the official religiosity smacks him down. 😆

  2. Bernard Ronato says

    Official religiosity is said by God. James 1:27, says, ‘Religion that is pure before our Father, is this: to visit the lonely in their pain, and to keep ourselves from this planet’ s corruption.’

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