Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs, while blending practices of various schools of thought. Syncretism involves the merging or assimilation of several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, thus asserting an underlying unity and allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths. Syncretism also occurs commonly in expressions of arts and culture (known as eclecticism) as well as politics (syncretic politics).
The English word is first attested in the early 17th century, from Modern Latin syncretismus, drawing on Greek (synkretismos), supposedly meaning "Cretan federation", but this is a spurious etymology from the naive idea in Plutarch's 1st-century AD essay on "Fraternal Love (Peri Philadelphias)" in his collection Moralia (2.490b). He cites the example of the Cretans, who compromised and reconciled their differences and came together in alliance when faced with external dangers. "And that is their so-called Syncretism [Union of Cretans]". More likely as an etymology is sun- ("with") plus kerannumi ("mix") and its related noun, "krasis," "mixture."
Erasmus probably coined the modern usage of the Latin word in his Adagia ("Adages"), published in the winter of 1517-1518, to designate the coherence of dissenters in spite of their differences in theological opinions. In a letter to Melanchthon of April 22, 1519, Erasmus specifically adduced the Cretans of Plutarch as an example of his adage "Concord is a mighty rampart".
Overt syncretism in folk belief may show cultural acceptance of an alien or previous tradition, but the "other" cult may survive or infiltrate without authorized syncresis nevertheless. For example, some Conversos developed a sort of cult for martyr-victims of the Spanish Inquisition, thus incorporating elements of Catholicism while resisting it.
Some religious movements have embraced overt syncretism, such as the case of melding Shint? beliefs into Buddhism or the amalgamation of Germanic and Celtic pagan views into Christianity during its spread into Gaul, the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia. Indian influences are seen in the practice of Shi'i Islam in Trinidad. Others have strongly rejected it as devaluing and compromising precious and genuine distinctions; examples of this include post-Exile Second Temple Judaism, Islam, and most of Protestant Christianity.[further explanation needed]
Syncretism tends to facilitate coexistence and unity between otherwise different cultures and worldviews (intercultural competence), a factor that has recommended it to rulers of multi-ethnic realms. Conversely, the rejection of syncretism, usually in the name of "piety" and "orthodoxy", may help to generate, bolster or authenticate a sense of uncompromised cultural unity in a well-defined minority or majority.
Religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. This can occur for many reasons, and the latter scenario happens quite commonly in areas where multiple religious traditions exist in proximity and function actively in a culture, or when a culture is conquered, and the conquerors bring their religious beliefs with them, but do not succeed in entirely eradicating the old beliefs or (especially) practices.
Religions may have syncretic elements to their beliefs or history, but adherents of so-labeled systems often frown on applying the label, especially adherents who belong to "revealed" religious systems, such as the Abrahamic religions, or any system that exhibits an exclusivist approach. Such adherents sometimes see syncretism as a betrayal of their pure truth. By this reasoning, adding an incompatible belief corrupts the original religion, rendering it no longer true. Indeed, critics of a specific syncretistic trend may sometimes use the word "syncretism" as a disparaging epithet, as a charge implying that those who seek to incorporate a new view, belief, or practice into a religious system actually distort the original faith. Non-exclusivist systems of belief, on the other hand, may feel quite free to incorporate other traditions into their own. Keith Ferdinando notes that the term "syncretism" is an elusive one, and can apply to refer to substitution or modification of the central elements of a religion by beliefs or practices introduced from elsewhere. The consequence under such a definition, according to Ferdinando, can lead to a fatal "compromise" of the original religion's "integrity".
In modern secular society, religious innovators sometimes construct new religions syncretically as a mechanism to reduce inter-religious tension and enmity, often with the effect of offending the original religions in question. Such religions, however, do maintain some appeal to a less exclusivist audience. Note the Living Church in Soviet Russia and the German Evangelical Church in Nazi Germany.
According to some authors, "Syncretism is often used to describe the product of the large-scale imposition of one alien culture, religion, or body of practices over another that is already present." Others such as Jerry H. Bentley, however, have argued that syncretism has also helped to create cultural compromise. It provides an opportunity to bring beliefs, values, and customs from one cultural tradition into contact with, and to engage different cultural traditions. Such a migration of ideas is generally successful only when there is a resonance between both traditions. While, as Bentley has argued, there are numerous cases where expansive traditions have won popular support in foreign lands, this is not always so.
The modern, rational non-pejorative connotations of syncretism date from Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie articles: Eclecticisme and Syncrétistes, Hénotiques, ou Conciliateurs. Diderot portrayed syncretism as the concordance of eclectic sources.
The Christian faith is inevitably assimilated in terms of the existing structures of thought of its adherents, whatever their culture. Nevertheless, there are points at which the worldview of any people will be found to be incompatible with central elements of the gospel; if conversion to Christianity is to be more than purely nominal, it will necessarily entail the substantial modification of the traditional worldview at such points. Where this does not occur it is the Christian faith which is modified and thus relativised by the worldview, and the consequence is syncretism. [...] The term 'syncretism' [...] is employed here of the substitution or modification of central elements of Christianity by beliefs of practices introduced from elsewhere. The consequence of such a process is fatally to compromise its integrity.