Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

Living Edition
| Editors: David A. Leeming

Ethnic Religiosity

  • Abbas AghdassiEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27771-9_200223-1


The interaction between ethnicity and religiosity has various psychological implications, often absent in the literature. If a believer’s mentality filters religious practices through ethnic lenses, this could affect the understanding of fellow co-religionists coming from different ethnic backgrounds. It is important to know how ethnicity and religiosity converge and diverge in various circumstances. Ethnicity shows a more uninformed approach toward personal behavior, while religiosity highlights a more informed approach. Ethnic religiosity combines uninformed and informed actions and refers to a mental state in which ethnic practices of a particular group are translated as an authentic version of religiosity. This entry reviewed definitions of ethnicity, religiosity, and their probable interaction(s) in different situations, and concluded that prioritizing ethnicity (which perhaps avails the psyches of the lay members of a religious tradition) signals an unintentional approach toward uninformed religiosity.


Scholars from different backgrounds proposed definitions of ethnicity. In almost all categories, affiliation or identification of a person in/with a group defines their ethnic lines. Identification could entail a subjective stance while affiliation might highlight an objective stance. Isajiw (1993), for instance, argued that understanding ethnicity required a knowledge “of several other concepts, particularly those of an ethnic group and ethnic identity” and that “Ethnicity itself is an abstract concept which includes an implicit reference to both collective and individual aspects of the phenomenon.” To other scholars, ethnicity remained a more complex issue that had tight relationships with power, neglecting which “will be a model of ethnicity which is as trivial as it is one-sided” (Jenkins 1994). He concluded his remarks by adding that “Unless we can construct an understanding of ethnicity that can address all of [the] ethnicity’s facets and manifestations, from the celebratory communality of belonging to the final awful moment of genocide, we will have failed both ourselves and the people among whom we undertake our research.”

Three major classic schools proposed views on ethnicity: (a) primordialism, which emphasized an ascribed status of a person’s bloodline; (b) constructionism, which, as the name suggested, emphasized dynamic constructs in a social environment; (c) instrumentalism, which emphasized the usefulness of an ethnic layer for an individual. An integrated approach suggested combining all the three schools (see: Yang 2000, pp. 39–56). Despite the complexities highlighted by scholars like Jenkins, ethnicity may be understood as the product of social construct, ancestry, and utility (Yang 2000, p. 60).


Several scholars used religiosity interchangeably with spirituality, which might be due to the significant overlap between the two concepts (Mattis 2000). Glock and Stark suggested five elements of religiosity, i.e., ideological, intellectual, ritualistic, experiential, and consequential (1965). De Jong et al. (1976) “identified six dimensions of religiosity: belief, experience, religious practice, religious knowledge, individual moral consequences, and social consequences.” Cornwall et al. (1986) suggested six dimensions based on “three general components: religious belief, commitment, and behavior.” Needless to mention that most of the categorizations relied on operational definitions, which offered a mixture of substantive and functional meanings (see: King and Hunt (1972) in Bellu and Fiume 2004). Of note is that the above studies did not discuss the state of informed-ness or un-informed-ness of ethnicity and religiosity among the affiliate members.

Ethnic Religiosity

Ethnic religiosity has sometimes been regarded as an “immigrant religiosity,” or a “metropolitan religiousness,” based on which Dumont classified its manifestation into five categories: “religion as the conveyor of (ethno-)cultural bridging, religion as an instrument of socio-cultural integration, religion as an engine of non-adaptation, religion and cultural-religious syncretism, and religion as guardian of the culture of origin.” (Dumont 2003). The concept of “ethnic religion” has also been proposed to discuss how religion might become a symbolic tool for belonging to an ethnic legacy (Hervieu-Léger 2006). Some have used ethnic religiosity interchangeably with “religious ethnicity” (Zenner and Avruch 1997). Obviously, the two concepts offer different connotations. While “ethnic religiosity” emphasizes ethnicization (and hence validation) of a particular way of religiosity, “religious ethnicity” shows how religious behaviors could influence ethnic groupings.

Occasionally, ethnic religiosity has been equalized with “cultural religion,” which was perhaps first used by Demerath to argue that cultural religion “involves a label that is self-applied even though it is not self-affirmed. It is a way of being religiously connected without being religiously active. It is a recognition of a religious community but with a lapsed commitment to the core practices around which the community originally formed. It is a tribute to the religious past that offers little confidence for the religious future” (2000). He later argued that cultural religion was “an identification with a religious heritage with no religious participation or a sense of personal involvement per se” (Demerath 2003, p. 59). The core argument in Demerath’s view highlighted a nominalism, in which a name suffices for a person religiously. Cultural religion relaxes with a name while emphasizing no practice.

Implications of Ethnic Religiosity

Ethnic religiosity refers to a state in which a believer’s mentality filters religious acts through ethnic lenses, thus providing an ethnicized version of understanding toward the authenticity of religious practices of other co-religionists. Put it differently, ethnic religiosity is an uninformed state of assuming one’s ethnic religious acts more authentic compared to that of other fellow co-religionists of other ethnic backgrounds. Takim, for instance, reported some minority Muslim groups in the USA found their religious acts more Islamic compared to that of other practicing members (Takim 2009). Interestingly, both minority groups of Muslims, in this case, belonged to the same tradition in Islam, and they only differed in their ethnic backgrounds.

Revisiting Deremath’s “cultural religion” framework, one could notice that an informed state of religiosity means not taking a self-position for granted, or not to assume one’s position as the ultimate truth. Theoretically, an informed state of religiosity could mean any scholarly attempts, which might involve re-/searching for what a person does ethnically. An uninformed state of religiosity could manifest a version of religiosity that does not have much religious content or, ironically, could be atextual, acanonical, or even sacrilegious. Here, ethnicity, through which religiosity renders, eases such practices as more authentic.

Of note is that cultural religion follows an inclusive approach in which a name (e.g., being Muslim), and not the practice, suffices as an umbrella for the people to identify with a religion, and with one another. Yet, for ethnic religiosity, the mechanism is exclusive. A person’s ethnic practices, and not the name, authenticate their religiosity and automatically label other ethnicities as less authentic. Followers of ethnic religiosity favor their ethnic practice as the most orthodox style of practice. In this manner, co-religionists of other ethnic backgrounds stand outside the circle of orthodoxy, and would normally become otherized, if not alienated.

Ethnic religiosity stems from validating religious beliefs through an ethnic prism. Ethnicity, an uninformed state, validates religious deeds. Ethnic religiosity, in this manner, stands against scholarly religiosity. Thus, fellows in an ethnic group would always assume their orthodoxy in terms of behaviors and deeds. With ethnic religiosity, practice is present; yet, it normalized itself through ethnic mentalities, which simply otherizes other religious practices that occur outside of one’s ethnic enclave.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Theology and Islamic StudiesFerdowsi University of MashhadMashhadIran