Ethnic religions are those that are specific to certain ethnic groups and often originate from the culture or beliefs of that particular group.
Specific cultural and racial groups often practice their own unique religions, such as Indigenous faiths, African traditional beliefs, and various forms of Hinduism.
Rituals, which are a critical part of preserving cultural identity and passing down history from one generation to the next, often involve venerating ancestors, gods, or spirits that hold special significance for members of a particular ethnic group.
For example, some African traditional religions involve the worship of ancestors and nature and rituals such as offerings to them.
Similarly, Indigenous religions involve a deep reverence for the land and rituals such as offering food to the spirits of the land.
Simply, the main feature of ethnic religions is that they are practiced by a single, distinct cultural group and often have deep roots in their traditional beliefs and values.
Ethnic Religion Definition
Ethnic religions are deeply rooted and exclusive to particular ethnic or racial communities. They consider the culture, customs, convictions, and ideals of a specified group to create an incomparable faith system that reflects their cultural identity.
As a fundamental part of their cultural identity, these religions involve the veneration of local gods and goddesses, spirits, ancestors, and other supernatural beings, as well as rituals handed down through generations.
As stated by Nawareg (2002),
“…ethnic religion is a religion or belief associated with a particular ethnic group” (p. 290).
Not only does it stand as a pillar of their singular faith, but it also encompasses all aspects of prayer rituals, customary beliefs, and dogmas.
Marsh and Alagona (2020) state that ethnic religion is
“… a religion that is identified with a particular ethnic or tribal group and that does not seek new converts” (p. 135).
For example, an ethnic religion may be practiced by a particular community or tribe, such as the Roma in Europe or the Yoruba in West Africa.
Ethnic religions have their own unique set of rituals and beliefs that are specific to the particular culture and community.
So, in simple terms, ethnic religions are specific to a particular cultural or racial group and have deep roots in their traditional beliefs and values.
10 Ethnic Religion Examples
- Shinto: Shinto is Japan’s ancient traditional religion involving belief in numerous kami (spirits) representing natural forces that inhabit mountains, rivers, rocks, etc. Shinto practices focus heavily on ritual purity relating to food offerings at shrines called o-Mairi, where individuals can make prayers for success related to health issues, family matters, and so on (Köck et al., 2021).
- Zoroastrianism: Zoroastrianism is an ancient Persian religion founded by the prophet Zoroaster (also known as Zarathustra) around the 6th century BCE. The religion teaches monotheism, believing in one supreme God, Ahura Mazda, who represents truth, justice, and goodness. Zoroastrianism emphasizes the dualistic struggle between good and evil, with the ultimate goal of each individual being to choose the path of righteousness. Key practices include fire worship, daily prayers, and rituals such as the Navjote initiation ceremony (Min, 2010).
- Yoruba Religion: The Yoruba religion is the traditional belief system of the Yoruba people, primarily found in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. It is a complex system of myths, rituals, and beliefs centered around the worship of various gods and goddesses known as Orishas. Each Orisha is associated with a specific element, such as water, fire, or air, and has its own set of rituals and ceremonies. Key practices include divination, ancestor veneration, and using sacred objects like beads and drums (Geering, 2015).
- Santería: Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha or La Regla Lucumí, is an Afro-Cuban religion that combines elements of Yoruba religion, Roman Catholicism, and indigenous Caribbean traditions. This syncretic religion emerged during the transatlantic slave trade as African slaves in Cuba sought to preserve their religious beliefs while adapting to their new environment and the imposed Catholic faith. It is centered on worshiping Orishas, a pantheon of gods and goddesses, each representing different aspects of nature and human life. The practice of Santería involves rituals, ceremonies, divination, and offerings to communicate with and seek guidance from the Orishas (Lewis & Tøllefsen, 2016).
- Romuva: Romuva is a Baltic pagan religion primarily practiced in Lithuania, focusing on the worship of nature and ancestral spirits. Rooted in ancient Baltic traditions, it emphasizes the interconnectedness of all living beings and the reverence for the natural world. Rituals and ceremonies in Romuva often include offerings, prayers, and the celebration of seasonal festivals to honor deities and ancestors. The religion experienced a revival in the late 20th century, following Lithuania’s independence, as a symbol of national identity and cultural heritage (Lewis & Tøllefsen, 2016).
- Confucianism: Confucianism is an ethical and philosophical system originating in ancient China, based on the teachings of Confucius. Although not a religion in the traditional sense, it has a significant impact on Chinese culture, society, and religious life. Confucianism emphasizes the importance of moral character, social harmony, and proper conduct in daily life. Key concepts include filial piety, the Five Relationships, and the ideal of the “superior man” or “gentleman” (Geering, 2015).
- Hinduism: One of the oldest ethnic religions, Hinduism, originated in the Indian subcontinent. It is a complex belief system encompassing various traditions, rituals, and philosophies. Hinduism believes in the dharma (duty or cosmic law), karma (action and consequence), and the cycle of reincarnation. The religion is also polytheistic, meaning it worships a multitude of gods and goddesses, with the trinity of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Shiva (destroyer) being the most prominent (Min, 2010). Ethnic Hinduism is practiced in different parts of the world, such as Bali, where they mix hinduism with their local folk religions.
- Judaism: Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish people, originating in the ancient Near East. It is based on the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and the Talmud, a Jewish oral law and traditions collection. Judaism emphasizes monotheism, the belief in one God (Yahweh), and the covenant between God and the Israelites. Key practices include observing the Sabbath, adhering to dietary laws (Kashrut), and participating in religious festivals such as Passover and Hanukkah (Min, 2010).
- Jainism: A religious system originating from India, it has heavily focused on non-violence towards any living organism as an important philosophical virtue alongside principles like truthfulness, celibacy, refraining from stealing, etc. The ultimate goal for those adhering to this faith is achieving liberation from material life so they can pass on peacefully into their next reincarnated form (Geering, 2015).
- Sikhism: Founded by Guru Nanak in 1469 CE, it includes elements from both Hinduism & Islam, typically involving a strong devotion towards one god – Waheguru – whilst rejecting caste distinctions & idolatry. Sikh men typically cover their heads with turbans & refrain from shaving their beards/cutting their hair which symbolizes respect for oneself & commitment to respecting all creature’s life, no matter how insignificant they may seem (Min, 2010).
Universalizing vs. Ethnic Religions
Universalizing religions are those that seek to spread their message and teachings to people of all ethnic backgrounds, whereas ethnic ones are those with specific cultural ties and practices unique to a particular group or culture.
Universalizing religions such as Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism strongly focus on proselytizing and converting others to their faith (Johnson & Johnson, 2007).
They often actively seek out non-believers from different backgrounds, regardless of ethnicity, to bring more followers into the religion.
Such religions tend to emphasize belief in one god or higher power and moral codes, which may be interpreted differently for different cultures.
On the other hand, ethnic religions are usually practiced within a certain ethnic group due to cultural beliefs and values which connect them closely to their ancestral roots (Lewis & Tøllefsen, 2016).
These religions often involve the worship of local gods and goddesses, spirits, ancestors, and other supernatural beings, incorporating various rituals passed down from generation to generation through tradition as an integral part of cultural identity.
Examples include Indigenous Religions such as Native American spirituality, African Traditional Religions such as Yoruba or Akan, Hinduism in India, Chinese Folk Religion in China, Judaism in Israel, etc (Lewis & Tøllefsen, 2016).
So, the main difference between universalizing and ethnic religions is that the former seeks to spread its message to people of different backgrounds, while the latter is closely tied to a particular ethnicity and culture.
Diffusion of Ethnic Religions
Diffusion of ethnic religions occurs when these beliefs and practices spread to new areas and cultures. It is often due to people migrating to different parts of the world or contact between cultures during war or conquest (Cipriani, 2017).
For example, many Indigenous Religions that originated in North America were gradually adopted by European settlers who later merged these beliefs with their own Christian traditions over time. This is a key type of cultural diffusion.
Similarly, Traditional African Religions have become more widespread due to the large-scale movement of people from Africa to places such as South America and the Caribbean during the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Cipriani, 2017).
The diffusion of Hinduism has also had a major impact on global societies today. It was originally practiced in India, but it was eventually brought to Southeast Asia, East Africa, and other parts of the world through trade or colonization.
Finally, Judaism is another faith that has experienced diffusion throughout history due to the persecution of Jewish people or economic opportunities elsewhere.
It is now practiced not only in the Middle East but also in Europe, North America, and beyond by followers who may have varying degrees of adherence to its teachings depending on their backgrounds.
So, the diffusion of ethnic religions has had a major impact on the development of global societies due to human migration, conquest, and other forms of contact.
It has spread new beliefs and practices to different areas, often merging with existing traditions.
Ethnic religions play a significant role in the cultural identity of various communities worldwide.
These faiths are deeply rooted in the history, customs, and values of specific ethnic groups and often involve the worship of local deities, spirits, and ancestors.
For example, Hinduism in India, Judaism in Israel, Shinto in Japan, and African Traditional Religions such as Yoruba or Akan.
Ethnic religions provide a sense of belonging, continuity, and connection to one’s heritage and ancestry.
Although they may not be as widespread as universalizing religions, ethnic religions continue to shape the lives and beliefs of countless individuals, preserving cultural heritage and enriching the global tapestry of diverse spiritual traditions.
Cipriani, R. (2017). Diffused religion: Beyond secularization. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Geering, L. (2015). Tomorrow’s God. London: Bridget Williams Books.
Johnson, D., & Johnson, J. (2007). Universal religions in world history: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. McGraw-Hill Humanities.
Köck, S., Scheid, B., & Pickl-Kolaczia, B. (2021). Religion, power, and the rise of Shinto in early modern Japan. Bloomsbury Academic.
Lewis, J. R., & Tøllefsen, I. B. (2016). The Oxford handbook of new religious movements. Volume II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Marsh, M., & Alagona, P. S. (2020). AP Human Geography. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Min, P. G. (2010). Preserving ethnicity through religion in America: Korean Protestants and Indian Hindus across generations. New York University Press.
Nawareg, M. (2022). Strategic marketing. Los Angeles: Nebough.