Popular Religiosity

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.

The second difference is that official religiosity is transmitted by the mechanisms of socialization within each religious institution, such as formal instruction or catechesis. Popular religiosity, on the other hand, is transmitted by cultural forms that are received in the process of socialization. The third difference is that while official religiosity contains the five elements mentioned above – beliefs, rites, forms of organization, ethical norms, and feelings about the divine – it does not give each the same value. Popular religiosity, especially in syncretic religions, adapts the inherited religious system to its own interests and cultural reality. It pre serves some elements of the system and eliminates others. It reinterprets certain elements, adding new meanings or changing the original meaning. This process is different in different contexts, although there are some similarities. Thus there is no popular religiosity strictly speaking in denominations that practice some form of excommunication for members who do not observe the established norms. Such is the case for Adventists, Mormons, and many confessions of North American evangelism. Finally, the relation between official and popular religion is marked by the complex history of a religious tradition.

Social sciences analyze popular religiosity in Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and other Christian denominations. The focus here, however, will be on Catholic popular religiosity, which has been studied extensively in recent decades and is very widespread. It is the religion of the majority in Latin America and of large sectors of Catholic Europe and its former colonies in Africa and Asia. It also exists in the United States with the increasing Hispanic immigration. Much of what is said about Catholic popular religiosity can be applied to the popular religiosity of other traditions.

Catholic popular religiosity is a complex social and religious fact which has been described rather more easily than it has been interpreted. Social scientists, depending on their different disciplines (anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, philosophy of religion), analyze this religiosity as ”people speaking to God,” in other words, as people communicating with a divine mystery that is beyond them. Theologians, however, analyze it as ”God speaking to people,” in other words, they consider popular religiosity to be an expression of Christian revelation. In attempting a definition, six key questions will be considered here. How should Catholic popular religiosity be defined? How do human societies function? What is the founding experience and what are the key concepts in the vocabulary of popular religiosity? What are the common traits? How is popular religiosity different from magical behavior? How does popular religiosity influence social and political change?

Defining Catholic Popular Religiosity

The concept is not easy to define because, despite its apparent uniformity, there is a great diversity of popular religious forms, and also because a definition frequently involves a value judgment. Indeed, some consider popular religiosity to be an expression of true faith and proof of the strong roots of the Catholic Church in two regions that formed medieval Christendom and modern American Christendom, respectively (Brading 1991). Others see it as a refuge of ancient syncretism and modern religious alienation. However, many students of Catholic popular religiosity consider it to be the way that the great majority of people express themselves in order to give a sense of transcendence to their lives. This is the case in Latin America and the other areas mentioned above where the people define themselves as Catholics despite their very limited institutional formation. This results from the limited attention given by the church because of a shortage of clergy, while in other sectors of society it is due to the growing secularization of public life. It is a case of the great majority not seeking more religious attention and being content with ”being religious in their own way.”

There are three other characteristics in defining Catholic popular religiosity. Firstly, popular religiosity is a culture in the anthropological sense of the term. This means that it is a way of seeing life and constructing the world. Like any other culture, it is transmitted from generation to generation, but in this case trans mission takes place not so much by catechesis as by a socialization process full of popular devotions.

Secondly, popular Catholicism forms different subcultures according to the social, economic, and historical framework of the human group experiencing it. These human groups include indigenous and African peoples, who retain characteristics of their ancestral cultures. Other such groups are small rural farmers and fringe populations of cities that resulted from recent rural to urban migration. There are also middle class sectors and the bourgeoisie. From this it is obvious that such religiosity is not the prerogative of the poor, but of poorly catechized majorities. If the majority of these people are poor, it is because the majority of Latin Americans are poor; and the poor find in popular religiosity their own way to live their faith and to express their social solidarity.

Finally, popular Catholic religiosity, like any other religious system, is formed by a group of beliefs, rites, organizational forms, ethical norms, and feelings about the divine. Indeed, popular Catholics believe in God, the saints, and demons. They go to church for baptism, first communion, funeral rites, and marriage. Matrimony is a cultural ideal even though many do not get married in church. People participate in the feasts of patron saints, the most common celebrations in the whole of Latin America. There are also massive pilgrimages to sanctuaries of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. Popular Catholics, as censuses reveal, are conscious of belonging to the church. They participate in associations and other traditional forms of religious organization. They usually respect priests and religious. In the majority of Latin American countries there is no anticlericalism, despite the church’s importance in public life. Finally, popular Catholics have deeply religious feelings and accept Christian values in spite of the absence of doctrinal instruction.

Popular Religiosity as a Culture

Anthropology has always asked three big questions about religion. How is religion born and how does it develop? What does religion do for society? What does religion mean for the believer? Anthropologists of religion have usually asked the first two questions because of their obsession with origins and because of the functional interest that developed after the failure of the study of origins. However, the third question is the most important and the one that has produced the most studies. Evans Pritchard (1956) was the first to pose the question, later restated and answered by Geertz (1973) in a systematic form. For him religion works as a ”perspective,” i.e., as a way to see life and construct the world. There are different perspectives (commonsense, scientific, aesthetic, and religious), which are complementary and can be used simultaneously to study a single event. Each one studies a different aspect of reality.

Popular religiosity acts like a culture, not only because it transmits socialization and communicates subjective certainty about the majority religion in Latin America, but also because it generates in the popular Catholic states of mind and peculiar motivations, and because it offers an answer to the problem of the meaning of life. Indeed, such religiosity provides its followers with psychological strength to accompany them and motivation to guide them in what they do. These dispositions are deep, penetrating, and lasting. They give stability to popular experience and form what is usually called the religious feeling of the people. This feeling seems to be based on faith in a just, provident, and nearby God, and also in the saints who manifest themselves in difficult moments, in dreams or otherwise, to save the situation.

The religious feeling also seems to be based on the concept of the world as cosmos, where everything is wisely ordered by God, and on the necessity to worship with prayer, feasting, and so on. This religiosity provides its followers with an appropriate worldview. Such religiosity may seem to have little value because it gives an important place to certainrites, like the sacramentals or secondary religious symbols such as crosses, crucifixes, holy cards, statues, rosaries, holy water, and blessings, and to religious symbols which are marginal for the church, and also because it preserves residues of indigenous and African traditions that are somewhat incoherent. Its real importance lies not in its beliefs or rites but in the role that these play in helping to solve the problem of the meaning of life. With this popular Catholic worldview, many Latin Americans convert the daily threat of chaos – the unexplainable, the unendurable, and evil in general – into cosmos – the whole universe which is beautiful, ordered, predictable, friendly, understandable, God’s masterpiece. Thus they develop a basic social personality that is more secure than that of higher social classes or of more developed countries that have lost the religious meaning of life.

Founding Experience and Key Concepts

One of the principal elements of popular religiosity is the experience that founds it and that in some way orders all its beliefs, rites, organization, feelings, and ethical norms. Every religion and every spirituality within a religion starts from a manifestation of the sacred (hierophany), which conditions it. Although popular Catholics, like other Catholics, admit the Bible, the sacraments, the healing of the Holy Spirit, and so on, they consider the saint, such as the visible image of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a saint from the Catholic calendar, to be their founding hierophany, and this image explains all their popular religious behavior. All over Latin America and especially in the lower economic sectors, people learn from their earliest childhood that the saints venerated in the local church, in their own houses, and in strategic places in the city or in the countryside are somehow alive. They listen to prayers directed to them, and are pleased by feasts and promises. They give blessings, perform miracles, and send punishments. Such early socialization usually has its concrete manifestation for each person in one particular saint to which that person is devoted. It might be the local patron saint or some other image of Christ or the Virgin Mary in the region he or she visits on a pilgrimage. Thus eight concepts – devotion, saint, miracle, blessing, punishment, promise, feast, and pilgrimage -make up the ”generating words” of popular religious experience.

Devotion to the saint is a form of faith, not intellectual but trusting. It establishes a deep relationship between the saint and the person devoted to the saint. The person devoted to the saint is confident that the saint will always be there to help when needed. This relationship starts almost always for cultural reasons; for example, the saint has been venerated for many years in the family or the saint is the patron saint of the town. The relationship becomes more personal as the saint blesses or performs miracles for the devoted person. This devotion leads to familiar expressions such as ”Mi Negrito” (Saint Martin de Porres) or ”Mi Santa Rosita” (Saint Rose of Lima). This familiarity is made possible because the image is visible and the devoted person can and frequently does touch the image. But there is also an aura of respect because the saint belongs to the realm of the sacred and can punish.

How the devoted person sees the saint is a reinterpretation of what a saint is for in Catholic theology. In Catholic theology, saints are Christians who have died and have been canonized by the church because of their heroic virtues. Canonization is a long process, after which the saint can be honored publicly in the Catholic liturgy and considered to be an intercessor. He or she is also a model of good conduct. However, for the popular Catholic, the saints are visible representations (statues or paintings) of canonized saints, people who are not canonized, and people who probably never will be canonized. The saints also include representations of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and the cross of Jesus in their different avocations. Many popular Catholics venerate the saints, choosing them from the calendar to be intercessors with God, but they do not take them as models to imitate because they are unaware of their history. A survey conducted in different towns revealed that people were ignorant of the biographies of the saints represented in baroque panels before whom they prayed or placed flowers and candles. But that does not detract from the importance of the saint. Even though the saint does not provide a role model for conduct, he or she still acts as a myth and represents Christian virtues (help for the needy, goodness, closeness to God, kindness and compassion for those who are suffering). Thus the saint is an inspiration and motivation to live a good Christian life.

Many popular Catholics live in a world of miracles narrated in pious literature. The miracle is visibly represented in votive offerings in churches and shrines. The people devoted to the saint claim that the saint continues to perform miracles today. However, they are not referring to miracles in the strict theological sense of a wonder that can be explained not by science but only by the direct intervention of God. Miracles in the popular sense do not go beyond the laws of nature, only beyond the people’s limited possibilities. The people are limited by their low level of formal education, poor medical and sanitary conditions, structural poverty, and lack of savings for emergencies. In such cases people approach the saint and ask for a miracle. For a person devoted to the saint, it is not so important to know the cause that produced the event considered miraculous. The people know that God governs through created things and through the free actions of other people. People give a religious interpretation to the events that occur, and that is where they find the action of the saint. This religious interpretation denies neither the commonsense interpretation nor the scientific interpretation. It is an interpretation on another level of reality where God acts and uses natural forces and the free actions of others to obtain the desired results. Each miracle strengthens the faith of the devoted person and multiplies the possibility of further miracles.

Saints do not always perform miracles. Sometimes they give simple blessings which give security and peace to the devoted. In this there is another reinterpretation of Catholic theology. In Catholic theology a blessing is a sacramental, a sacred sign established by the church, somewhat like the sacraments established by Christ. To ask for a blessing is to implore divine help in different moments of life. Holy water is a sacramental that is very common in Latin America. For the secularized world, holy water borders on superstition. For popular Catholics, holy water is an easy way to get close to God and to be free from life’s dangers. A blessing is a frequent religious resource which, when used, charges the religious images and other religious symbols with sacred energy. Although the blessing usually expresses faith in the providence of God and in the intercession of the saints, it is quite possible for it to degenerate into a manipulation of the sacred independently of personal faith.

Paradoxical as it may seem, punishments attributed to the saint increase the devotion of the people just as much as miracles and blessings. Through these punishments, the saint ceases to be a simple benefactor and becomes a demanding and jealous friend who does not like to be forgotten. These punishments are the reverse of miracles. If they are considered to be fair, a religious interpretation is given to the misfortune. Some social scientists think that punishments have their roots in pre Hispanic religions whose gods demanded human sacrifices in some extreme cases, and also in colonial preaching that insisted on the punishments of God as described in the pages of the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 19, Isaiah 26 and 40). Even though some popular Catholics have this Old Testament vision of misfortune, many say that they deserve it for their sins. Thus punishments reinforce the relationship between the saint and the people devoted to the saint, more than the ”silence of God” in the secular world. In spite of the masochistic interpretation of punishments by scholars who reduce religion to its psychological aspects, the popular devoted person seems to prefer punishments because they prove that the saint is watching over them. They show the saint’s concern just as much as miracles and messages in dreams.

A counterpart of devotion to the saints is found in promises. They may seem interesting because they are often associated with requesting favors. Thus many popular Catholics promise to wear a habit, make a pilgrimage to a shrine, fast, or make some other sacrifice if the saint grants them some favor. They may seem to be transferring to a religious world the social relationships of human societies. But such interpretations forget that the promises of devoted people do not always have a utilitarian motive. Many studies and surveys among different groups of popular Catholics attest to this. Promises express the sacred character of the commitment, something like religious vows in institutes of consecrated life. They are one of the most consistent forms of expressing devotion to the saint.

The most frequent form of expressing devotion to the saint is celebrating the saint’s feast day. The patron saint’s feast is an opportunity to venerate the saint, ask for the saint’s inter cession, and give thanks. But functional anthropology discovers other functions. The first is integration.  The feast brings everybody together: the inhabitants of the town and the rural farmers who are relatively scattered outside the town. It also brings back those who were forced to leave the area to seek their fortune elsewhere. Dead ancestors, who are more alive in the popular mind than in more modern circles, are also part of the feast. They started the feast and kept it going during their lifetime. The second function is that of social prestige accorded to those who take care of the different tasks related to the feast. This prestige is present in the more traditional communities which maintain the ”system of jobs” (a progression in which people ascend to jobs that are more costly and have more responsibility) in a way that redistributes power and riches. The jobs tend to impoverish the richest members of the community, because they pay the expenses out of their own pocket (the food is free for the people). This tends to create a more egalitarian society. In any case, if the jobs are assumed by very rich people who spend a lot of money for the benefit of everyone, it legitimates economic differences in the town in the eyes of the poor est. The third function is that of collective relief from the harsh life of the town, an imaginary return to ”the beginning of time” when everything was festive. All this happens in a world that seems to have preserved the genuine sense of what a feast is.

Quite similar to the feast is the pilgrimage. According to Eliade (1959), for a religious people time and space are not homogeneous. There are hierophantic moments and places. Feasts are based on sacred time, holy moments, the liturgical cycle that recalls the events of the history of salvation, or the cycle of the feasts of the saints that recalls the triumph of the saints over death. In a similar way, the pilgrim age is based on sacred space, holy places. All over Latin America there are sacred places where Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints have manifested themselves in different ways. This manifestation is then narrated in a legend or myth which becomes part of the oral tradition of the place. The structure of these myths is very similar: a critical situation, especially of a very poor person, then the miraculous intervention of the saint who comes to the rescue. Then the word gets around and people start coming to see the miraculous saint. Pilgrimages in Latin America have elements that are pre Hispanic and others that are Spanish. Pre Hispanic elements are taken from the developed cultures of Mexico and Peru and from other cultures in search of ”the land without evil.” Spanish elements include ”the road to Saint James” to visit the tomb of the apostle who is said to have evangelized Spain and to be buried in Galicia, despite dying in Jerusalem. This pilgrimage is a sign of collective identity. In general, a pilgrimage is full of religious symbols, beginning with the long walk to a place that is difficult to access. This is a kind of exodus to get to a promised land. Then there are the other religious symbols such as springs to purify the soul and body, the multiplication of miracles, the wearing of habits, the promises that are being kept by making the pilgrimage, making the pilgrimage in the form of a procession, religious songs and dances, tears, and deep emotions. In addition to all this, like the feast, the pilgrimage is a focal point of social, political, and economic relations in the region where the shrine is located.

Common Traits in Catholic Popular Religiosity

Despite its great diversity of beliefs, rites, and organization, popular religiosity is fairly similar throughout Latin America. Hispanic immigrants to other places have brought their saints with them and have common traits that can be summarized as follows.

Sociological. Catholic popular religion is transmitted by the process of socialization more than by catechesis. It is part of Latin American culture. There are highly visible examples of such Catholicism, such as the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico. This sociological character is a strong point of Latin American Catholicism and proof of the success of the first evangelization in an era when religion was a public rather than a private affair. Such Catholicism influences many Latin American cultural patterns in transition rites, feasts, and even in mentality, which can be observed in the way people talk.

Sacral. Popular Catholicism, especially in the lower classes, involves a vision of reality that is sacral, not secular like modern technical civilization. According to this sacral vision, the saints and other sacred beings are felt directly in the life and history of human beings. As a result of this way of seeing reality, many popular Catholics occasionally adopt a somewhat fatalistic attitude toward certain social problems and seem more interested in preserving a world they see as “cosmos” than in making “history.”

Syncretic. Popular Catholicism often reinterprets official Catholicism, adding to or changing its meaning according to the experience of the people in its different subcultures. Adding to its meaning implies that popular Catholicism, besides its religious functions, has other functions in the sociological, psychological, economic, or political orders. This is observable in the patron saint’s feast with its systems of jobs. Changing its meaning implies, especially for indigenous people, attributing to certain Catholic rites the meaning of their ancient beliefs. An example would be the way some rural farmers in the Andes and in Central America offer mass for the dead, not to “free” the dead from punishment for their sins but to ”free themselves” from the return of the dead to bother the living (”leave us in peace” instead of ”rest in peace”). Another way of changing the meaning of official Catholicism is to make it magic.

Emotive. Many popular Catholics have a deep religious lived experience even though they know little about the dogmas, rites, and norms of the church. Such experience is related to the religious practice of calling on God and the saints in extremely difficult situations. Its principal moments are the feast, the pilgrimage, and the life cycle of one’s own family (birth, marriage, and death). In addition, the harsh economic conditions of many popular Catholics in Latin America often make religious beliefs and practices an emotional ”sedative,” instead of being a moment to question and adjust one’s own attitudes.

Ritualist. Popular Catholicism gives much importance to rites, because religious socialization is carried out mainly through rites. This explains why the religious lived experience of popular Catholics is so rich in emotions and activities, and so poor in theological formulas; so rich in mythical content, and so poor in historical content. This ritualism in popular Catholicism can lead the less educated to see the rites as absolutes. This requires an effort to remove their magic element and ensure that the rites are seen as means and not ends. But this should not involve eliminating rites, as has been done in certain sectors of the church following secularist lines. No religion can exist without rites.

Mythic. Popular Catholicism contains myths about the origin and end of humanity and about different hierophanies, especially the apparition of patron saints and historical events that are rationalized in a religious way. In addition, there are certain popular Catholic rites, such as the ”payment to the Pachamama” performed in August in the Andes of Southern Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, which is a rite to thank Mother Earth for her harvests (pacha means ”earth,” mama, ”mother,” in the Quechua language). This ceremony is based on mythical knowledge and expresses a view of reality that is not so much scientific or historical as symbolic of the personal and cultural experience of the Andean farmers. However, when the true meaning of myth is lost, certainrites and beliefs can assume a false historical or scientific dimension.

Popular Religiosity and Magical Behavior

One characteristic of certain forms of popular Catholicism is its ability to change into magic or superstition. So far anthropology has not found definite criteria to distinguish magic from religion. But there have been some efforts in that direction, such as manipulation versus petition (Frazer 1959 [1922]), utilitarianism versus celebration (Malinowski 1954 [1948]), the individual context versus the communitarian context (Durkheim 1961 [1912]), and environmental control versus social control (Aberle 1966). These theories provide indicators that do not completely explain the magical or religious character of an event. But they line up on a continuum between a magic pole and a religious pole, and thus help to analyze the practices of popular Catholicism. According to these indicators, magic involves the following: practices to manipulate the sacred, practices that have only utilitarian objectives, practices that are conducted by a specialist who is marginal to the group, and practices that try to control certain moral or cosmic forces without any reference to personal behavior. On the other hand, religion involves the following: practices that express a petition to sacred powers, practices that are an end in themselves and are celebratory instead of being utilitarian, practices that are performed in union with the community, and practices that demand ethical behavior on the part of the people. But in analyzing a concrete phenomenon using these indicators, one cannot forget the symbolism of the events nor the analogy of their languages.

Popular Religiosity and Social Change

The social sciences have established several correlations between religious conduct and the socioeconomic category of social groups and have formulated some macro theories about the influence of religion in social change. For example, for Marx and Weber, religion could be a trap or a springboard for change. However, the relation between religion and social change so far has not been studied sufficiently. It is a question that has come into vogue since the fall of the regimes of Eastern Europe and the role that religion may have played in it.

As for popular religion, it seems to contain a certain political ambiguity. On the one hand, it appears apolitical because of its disincarnated spiritualism and because it maintains the status quo in its rites and beliefs, and without doubt the dominant groups have influenced its assimilation. Geertz (1973) observed that the religious perspective, which serves to resolve the problem of the meaning of life, can infiltrate and “color” other fields of human conduct. This is a result of religion being called to mind frequently. This seems to be the case for minority groups that offer a religious explanation for the socioeconomic differences in Latin America. But, on the other hand, popular Catholic religion has a real political dimension. This is because it helps people maintain their identity in transition rites and in the feasts of the patron saints. It also helps them preserve their own forms of organization, religious associations, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and so on, as well as labor unions and spontaneous organizations founded by external and internal emigrants. They find strength in the election of a patron saint, without forgetting that the associations  and  brotherhoods  and sisterhoods usually stand in opposition to the vertical structure of the church. Popular Catholicism cultivates in the people values of fraternal solidarity and equality of opportunities for all before God, in spite of the existence of structures of domination and marginalization in the Latin American world. Popular Catholicism has often been a source of mobilization and even of armed rebellion, as happened in the Cristero war in Mexico and other incidents in Latin America.


  1. Aberle, D. F. (1966) Religious-Magical Phenomena and Power, Prediction and Control. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 22:221-30.
  2. Brading, D. A. (1991) Orbe indiano: de la monarquia catolka a la republica criolla, 1492 1867. Fondo de Cultura Economica, Mexico City.
  3. Dupront, A. (1987) Religion popular. In: Poupard, P. (Ed.), Diccionario de las religiones. Herder, Barcelona.
  4. Durkheim, E. (1961 [1912]) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Collier, New York.
  5. Eliade, M. (1959) The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religions. Harcourt, New York.
  6. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1956) Nuer Religion. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  7. Frazer, J. (1959 [1922]) The New Golden Bough. T. H. Gaster. Criterion, New York.
  8. Geertz, C. (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books, New York.
  9. Malinowski, B. (1954 [1948]) Magic, Science, and Religion and Other Essays. Doubleday Anchor, Garden City, NY.
  10. Marzal, M. M. (2002) Tierra encantada. Tratado de antropologia religiosa de America Latina. Trotta, Madrid, and Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru, Lima.
  11. Otto, R. (1958 [1917]) The Idea of the Holy. J. W. Harvey. Galaxy, New York.

Back to Sociology of Religion