# 4.4: Compactness, Differentiation, and Syncretism

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As noted in Chapter 3, in small-scale, nonliterate, tribal societies-so-called "primitive" or native cultures-only the ways of sacred rite and shamanic mediation are distinctly evident. Virtually all Native American traditions, for example, have both. The same is true for native African traditions, native Asian traditions, the native peoples of the Pacific, and Australian Aborigines. Most (secular) historians of religion hold that this is probably true as well for the earliest forms of religious life reflected in archaeological evidence around the world. We do occasionally see indications of the other ways in compact, relatively undifferentiated cultures but in such instances never as distinct ways of carrying on religious life that stand on their own apart from sacred rite and shamanic mediation. In any case, it seems clear that ways of being religious other than the ones a tradition starts with are able to emerge only as the tradition extends over time, geographic area, and population diversity, as those populations become literate (especially insofar as they develop a religious literature to any extent), and as the traditions are elaborated sufficiently to allow for diversity of expression and a more individualized form of religious life to develop. This suggests that sacred rite and shamanic mediation may be a kind of matrix or womb out of which other ways differentiate themselves. Historically this is certainly not true of all religions, taking each of them on their own. However, it appears that religions that did not begin with sacred rite and shamanic mediation emerged as the errant offspring of preexisting religions that did so begin and whose precedents in ways of being religious appear to have played an important role in influencing the shape of the daughter religions, at least by way of reaction.

An interesting case in which just such a "primitive" religious tradition has become differentiated in this way over time is Shinto, Japan's native religious tradition. It has by no means remained "untainted" by other religious influencesnotably Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and, to a lesser extent, Christianity, but it has retained much of its distinctive character despite this syncretism. Most of its sacred rituals (especially those associated with Shrine worship) are traceable to pre-Buddhist contact, and its shamanic elements remain vital in many rural areas (and in some suburban areas) to this day. Yet, partly through the stimulus and precedent of these other influences, there have emerged Shintoist expressions of each of the other ways (especially when some of the so-called New Religions of Japan are included as subtraditions or offshoots of Shinto): right action, devotion, mystical quest, and reasoned inquiry.19