Religion News Service
May 7 2015 by Cathy Lynn Grossman
(RNS) In her Georgia home, Tammy Bloome says her rosary to SantaMuerte, a skull-faced version of the Grim Reaper in woman’s garb.
In Maryland, Sonia Doi gathers with her fellow spiritists — mostlywomen — to discuss the philosophical vision of reincarnation.
Folk religions such as Santa Muerte and spiritism are thriving aroundthe world, often powered by women as followers — and leaders.
A new Pew Research study projecting the growth of world religions foundthat in 2010 about 405 million people (roughly 6 percent of the world’spopulation) identified with folk or traditional religions without formalcreeds, sacred texts and institutional structures.
Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam, historically all led by men, orthe philosophies of the East such as Buddhism where male scholars and monksdominate, folk religions — so close to village or tribe or ancestry — are oftenpracticed and led by women.
Santa Muerte expert Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies atVirginia Commonwealth University and author of a book on the Mexican folkreligion, “Devoted to Death,” calls it “the fastest-growing New ReligiousMovement in the Americas,” with more than 10 million followers.
“Across the board in Latin America, you find disproportionate femaleparticipation in all religions, but in the folk religions there is more room,more space for women to exercise positions of authority,” said Chesnut.
Chesnut estimates 90 percent of Santa Muerte devotees live in Mexicoand the U.S., and he notes on his website, The Skeleton Saint, that SantaMuerte is moving into Europe, where an academic conference on the folk religionwas held last fall in the Netherlands.
Santa Muerte, the signifier of “holy death,” has a bad reputation,however, thanks in part to cameo roles in the hit TV series “Breaking Bad.”
She has been represented as the patroness of drug runners, not, asChesnut maintains, “the protectress of narco-violence victims.”
When the Los Angeles Times profiled the Santa Muerte temple in LA, itdescribed the folk religion as taking on a more virtuous cast, “like the Virginfor people on the edge.”
They may be marginalized by poverty, shattered families, undocumentedimmigration status or sexual orientation. Or they may be turning to SantaMuerte as a love goddess, someone they don’t find in Latin America’s prevalentCatholic culture, said Chesnut.
In 2001, when a Mexican quesadilla vendor put a life-size effigy ofSanta Muerte in front of her house in a barrio, people began spontaneouslymaking offerings of flowers and tequila and praying for health, help, evenlegal protection, said Chesnut. Soon, another Santa Muerte follower, EnriquetaVargas, began performing baptisms and weddings and displaying the world’stallest Santa Muerte statue.
Now, said Chesnut, Santa Muerte has become the “multitasking miracleworker of Mexico,” with followers appropriating prayers and practices from theprevalent Catholic Church, even a variation on the rosary, to honor her.
Catholic officials, who call her the satanic face of a blasphemouscult, loudly and frequently condemn the practice. But this hasn’t stemmed thereligion’s growth. In the U.S., there are two Santa Muerte temples in LosAngeles, and others are under construction in New Orleans and Houston. Thepioneer in New York City is a transgender Mexican, Arely Vazquez, who holdsSaturday services and throws a massive fiesta every August.
Tammy Bloome plans to be there this August.
Bloome, 44, a food manager of a truck stop, shares one characteristicwith many other Santa Muerte followers: She sees herself as a “disenfranchisedCatholic.”
Divorced and remarried outside the Catholic Church, she left it behindwhen priests refused to baptize her children. When she lived for three years inGuatemala, she discovered Santa Muerte “because she accepts people no matterwhat they are, who they are — maybe even in spite of who they are.”
“I believe she intervened in my life,” said Bloome. “And I like thatour saint is a woman, one who is second only to God.”
When she says a Santa Muerte rosary and lights candles at her homealtar, “I believe something responds to the energy put out there.”
In Brazil, another major center of folk religion, Chesnut estimatedthat 70 percent to 80 percent of the leaders of Afro-Brazilian religions suchas Candomble and Umbanda are women. So, too, are many of the educated, whiteBrazilian followers of spiritism, an import from late 19th-century Europe.
Brazil has 3 percent of the world’s folk religion followers, and censusdata there finds that 58 percent of the followers are women, said ConradHackett, lead demographer and author of the Pew study.
Spiritism was founded by a Frenchman, Allan Kardec, and popularized inBrazil by prolific writer Chico Xavier. It teaches that the path to moral andintellectual perfection is through successive reincarnations, each improving onthe one before.
Sonia Doi describes this as a science-based viewpoint that answered allthe questions she had as a Catholic child growing up in Brazil and later areligious seeker exploring other faiths.
”Since I was small, I always had the perception that there is somethingelse,” Doi recalled. What she finds in spiritism is a religion based on Jesus’moral teaching, a philosophy of moral guidance and a scientific explanation ofthe spirit world that makes sense to her, said Doi, 65, a physician andpresident of both the U.S. and International Spiritist Medical Associations,which promote knowledge about the connections between body and spirit.
“Our mission is to spread the knowledge that we are spirits. I believewomen by nature are more sensitive. That makes the women a little more open andmore attracted spirituality in general,” said Doi.
In China, where the government allows only five official religions,most say they have no faith. But folk religions, which technically are notpermitted, have the highest market share of religious identity (21.9 percent),according to the Pew study.
However, sociology professor Fenggang Yang, director of the Center onReligion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, said polls underestimate thetrue numbers because researchers allowed people to choose only one religion andfew would list something practiced in secret.
“If you are born in a village with many gods you belong to that folkreligion community,” he said. “You can be both a Christian and a follower of afolk religion.”
As Chinese society becomes “more individualistic and independent,” manywomen and young people are choosing traditions such as feng shui, with itsemphasis on personal harmony with one’s environment, he said.
But living folk traditions with spiritual rites and practices forhealing thrive underground in cities and countryside, hidden from officialnotice.
“Most of these are still village-centered indigenous folk religionswhere women tend to take the lead,” said Nancy Chen, a professor of medicalanthropology at University of California Santa Cruz. “Any time there arerituals of ordination or recognition, the institution becomes intertwined withpatriarchal hierarchies.”
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