When one faith is just not enough

Syncretic altar at Umbanda temple. Photo © Victoria Rodner 2019.
Syncretic altar at Umbanda temple. Photo © Victoria Rodner 2019.

Jesus stands at the top of the altar. Much like the Christ Redeemer statue that keeps a watchful eye over the city of Rio de Janeiro, Jesus stands high above the congregation with his arms spread wide, casting his blessing over all of us. Despite the familiarity of this (Christian) scene, the array of other figurines that share this sacred space with Jesus are somewhat less familiar: Indigenous Amazonians with lush headdresses, an elderly black man who sits hunched over in a wicker chair, a Bahianan woman dressed in white, a beautiful sea-maiden with long dark hair and adorned with shells and pearls, a sensual gypsy woman wearing a flamenco-skirt in red and black, a devilish character armed with a menacing pitchfork and even – yes, a good old American cowboy! While this compilation of deities in a single religious setting may seem somewhat bizarre, it is, in fact, quite common in Brazil, where religious syncretism has shaped the religious marketplace.

Syncretism is understood as the mixing of elements of different religions and spiritual practices in the creation of new belief systems. Brazil demonstrates this vividly, with the syncretism of traditional religions (such as Catholicism) with local, indigenous belief systems, Western concepts of mediumship, and African religions which migrated to the country during the slave trade. Looking beyond the religious medley here on display, in our research we turned our attention to how consumers navigated these rich, religious offerings.

What we found was, much like the religions themselves, Brazilian consumers also are the product of a fusion of different beliefs and practices. Indeed, pay close attention and you will see clues of their fluid religious identities: a crucifix medallion is coupled with Afro-Brazilian beaded necklaces (or guias) that symbolise the spirit-forces of orixá deities, a Ganesh t-shirt reveals Catholic-themed tattoos. Here, we observe the rise of the syncretic consumer. For these religious consumers, one faith is no longer enough and as they navigate the country’s richly varied religious scene, these consumers look to complement their anchor religion with other faiths.

In fair Brazil, where we lay our scene, 90% of the population declare some religious affiliation and one in three have changed faith at least once. The faithful in Brazil do not feel bound to the religion that they inherit (usually Catholicism), but instead feel free to move around the various religious options available. To understand this religious consumer transit, that is, the movement of actors across different faiths with the simultaneous practice of various religious beliefs, we examined four popular faiths in Brazil: Pentecostalism, Spiritism and two forms of Afro-Brazilian religions, Candomblé and Umbanda. The data was informed by 17 syncretic consumers who demonstrated different forms of mobility in the religious marketplace, this was supplemented by our extensive ethnographic observation and immersion into the field.

A Typology of Transiting Consumers

Previous studies on religious consumers have tended to assume stable, singular and exclusive preferences, so that an individual is an adherent to one faith at a time. This is odds with our data which shows that our syncretic consumers transit between faiths regularly, often consuming them in parallel. By conceptualising four types of religious transits our paper explains some of the dynamics of consumer mobility to understand how consumers can move between seemingly competing – and theologically incompatible – faiths.

  • Tourist consumers will fleetingly tap into alternative religions as a means of complementing their core belief system. Unlike previous studies on religious tourism where tourists are usually non-practicing consumers who travel to sacred sites to experience spiritual healing, the consumers in our study demonstrate a tourism of other religions in parallel to their own faith. Tourists are often in search of celestial solutions for their earthly problems, including issues with finances, work, love, health, or any other personal problem. This form of religious consumption therefore tends to be ephemeral and short-lived. We see this tourism encouraged and enabled by a marketplace replete with customised services.
  • Migrant consumers are more conservative in that they move from one faith to another in a more permanent fashion i.e. conversion. This is, of course, a form of religious mobility which has been widely studied. Our study, however, shows how migrants may in fact start their transit as tourists, for instance testing the new religion, or different denominations of that same religion, before then deciding to migrate to the new faith.
  • Unlike tourists, who pass through religions only fleetingly, and migrants who settle permanently, sojourner consumers remain in a given religion for an extended period before then moving onto a different belief system or an alternative form of transit.
  • Lastly, shuttle consumers practise two or more religions in parallel. This is the most unconventional form of religious consumers and also the most overlooked in the literature, however shuttles were the more prevalent type of religious consumers in our dataset. Borrowing our metaphor from the shuttle device used in looms to weave the weft thread across the fixed strings in a continual to and fro motion, shuttle consumers weave rich patterns into the fabric of their religious identity thanks to their multifarious consumption. Shuttles are therefore in constant flux, maintaining a constant movement between their religions and experiencing them in parallel. Unlike tourists or sojourners, shuttles define themselves as loyal adherents to all their dual (or more) faiths, demonstrating high levels of commitment.

Multiple Religiosity: A Way Forward?

In foregrounding the transiting nature of the religious consumer, we allow for a more processual understanding of religious identity. While much of the religious literature discusses syncretic religions, our introduction of a shuttle consumer points to the syncretic consumer who, as befits the postmodern marketplace actively navigates between various market offerings to create their own personalised religious package. Rather than this religious mobility resulting in the shattering of previous identities, as suggested in the literature, we show how religious consumers can build a rich, multi-layered religious identity which helps them navigate their complex realities.

By drawing on theories of religious capital, which hold than an individual’s accrual of knowledge, expertise, credentials and taste can be transferred to other settings, our study foregrounds the flexibility (rather than rigidity) of this resource in enabling this multifarious religious consumption. This is made possible by the religious leaders themselves; in highlighting shared rituals, discourses and practices, they downplay any cognitive incongruences to allow for easy, market-mediated accessibility and expect – at times even encourage – movement of consumers around the religious marketplace, thereby ensuring a plentiful stream of consumers. For instance, in the altar described above we get a sense of Christian familiarity, despite it being in an Afro-Brazilian temple. Rather than competing with one another, we see how some religions are presented as complementary, yet still differentiated. This moves us beyond the Western sociological idiom, which historically presumed stable, singular religious identities, reproducing the rigidity inherent to conversion. Our data shows no radical break or shift from one fixed identity marker to another, rather, the transits are often subtle. For the moment, this form of pluralistic religious consumption seems to be limited to emerging economies, however enabling religious transits could be a way forward for churches that are stagnating in the more mature markets of the Global North.

Read the original research article: Rodner, V.L. & Preece, C. (2019). Consumer transits and religious identities: towards a syncretic consumer. Journal of Marketing Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2019.1601124

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Victoria L. Rodner

Victoria L. Rodner

Victoria L. Rodner is a Marketing Lecturer at the University of Stirling. Her research interests include branding narratives, consumer behaviour, institutional change, value creation, the visual arts market, the impact of the macro-environment on industry, emerging markets, and qualitative research methodologies with a special interest in Grounded Theory and Constructivism.

Chloe Preece

Chloe Preece

Chloe Preece is a Senior Lecturer in marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research interests focus on socio-cultural aspects of contemporary production and consumption, mainly focusing on the arts and creative industries.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.