Modern Christianity, along with other dominant religions (though I know very little about any world religion besides Christianity – and even then I don’t know that much), is a monotheistic religion. If you attend a church service in the United States then you are likely to hear about a single tripartite deity who controls the world. The deity is omnipotent and omniscient, yet allows humans a level of autonomy and free will, for reasons human mortals cannot understand. At the same time, however, modern Christianity, as you may hear it described on a typical Sunday in the United States, also has many dualist characteristics. The religion claims to be purely monotheistic, with frequent denouncements of false idols such as money, the Dallas Cowboys, or other spirit gods (like the gods of traffic lights who shine their green lights upon us – or punish us with red lights at every intersection when we are running five minutes late), yet still manages to violate it’s own monotheistic principals.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the incredible ability for humans to create religious organizations and institutions that simultaneously hold and violate ideas of monotheism, dualism, polytheism, and other structures. Harari writes,
“The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.”
Syncretism is an amalgamation of beliefs and belief structures formalized into a religious framework, as described in the passage above. But syncretism really isn’t that different from anything else we may come to believe. I consider myself a pretty rational person, but I have conflicting and contradictory beliefs in terms of personal responsibility. I have even gone so far as to believe in two different forms of personal responsibility based on reference points. I think we should view ourselves as responsible for our life outcomes, while viewing everyone else basically as a victim of circumstances and luck. This ensures that each of us individually works hard and does our best to reach our goals and be successful, while looking at others in a sympathetic light, giving them a pass for bad behavior and seeing them as deserving of a helping hand. These two beliefs contradict each other, but just as Christianity demonstrates, there is no reason opposing and contradictory beliefs cannot be tied together in an influential manner.
The truth is that humans and our societies are complex and we don’t understand society by thinking in terms of statistical chance and variation. When someone yells at a an employee of a company when being told to pull their mask up over their nose, we assume that there was a personal and individual reason for why the mask-averse individual yelled at the employee. We don’t see it as simple statistical chance that some amount of people are generally disagreeable, won’t have enough coffee on a given day, will have lost something important while running late, and will be short tempered when told to fix their mask. We don’t do a good job holding statistical chance in our minds and instead view causal explanations, even when chance and randomness may be the better perspective. In the end, we pull a lot pieces together in how we understand the world, and those pieces may narratively work together, but may not be the best rational fit together.
Syncretism is the result of an amalgamation of different narratives with individual perspectives and experiences as they relate to religious beliefs. We have different experiences and interactions with the world which manifests in different ways of explaining and interpreting the world. We fit all these contradictory and complimentary understandings into larger frameworks, fudging the edge when necessary and adopting beliefs that are convenient and consistent with the narratives that support our experiences. The result is a worldview and belief system that seems jumbled together, like a monotheistic religion where an all powerful deity allows an antagonistic lesser deity to run amuck . This normally isn’t a problem of human existence, but rather a feature that allows us to come together with various shared beliefs for cooperation and trust among a diverse group of individuals and experiences.