Third conference of world religions
In many places religion has less to do with ritual than with identity. If a man is born into a Muslim family, for example, he will forever be identified as a Muslim and will most likely marry a Muslim regardless of how religious he is. In many cases it doesn’t matter whether someone is Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Jewish for this to be true.

Even though organized religions such as Christianity, Islam or Buddhism are regarded as the dominate religions, beliefs in magic, mysticism, superstition, spirits, shaman and myths remain strong. Villagers are particularly concerned about demons and spirits of the dead and believe they causes sickness and misfortune.

Villagers generally don't question the existence of God or spirits, they just believe in them. Many take precautions to protect themselves, their families and their homes from these spirits and demons. Many gods and spirits are associated with natural objects or forces: corn gods, earth devil, tree spirits.

Religious Radio in the Developing World

handing out radios in Afghanistan
In remote areas and in many parts of the developing world, the faithful rely on radio for sermons, Bible and Koran readings, seminary courses and other forms of religious instruction and communication. Robert Fortner, a specialist in religious broadcasting at the U.S. -based Media Research Institute, told the Washington Post, “In the developed world, many people find that radio is about the only mechanism that is available. They hang on to it in the way people hang on to a life that after a tsunami...These programs connect people to a world that otherwise they have no access to. They indicate to these folks that someone “out there” cares enough about them to prepare programs in their own language and speak to them about their own struggles.” [Source: Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post, October 8, 2007]

Christianity is the dominant but not only the only force in religious radio. Muslim stations broadcasts Koranic recitations, news and music. Hindus, Buddhists and members of other religions have their own broadcasts. In addition to their religious programing, religious broadcasters also often provide world news along with programs that deal with basic health and sanitation issues and family counseling. Many of the Muslim broadcasts are funded by governments in predominately Muslim countries and are oriented towards Muslims.

The spread of religious radio programming has been made possible by the deregulation of the airwaves and the growth of private radio. In Africa, for instance, according to the BBC, there were just two radio stations that were not state-owned in the 1980s; now there are at least 3,000. Since 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up, more than 2,000 private radio stations, many with religious broadcasts have emerged in the 15 former Soviet republics.

Christianity and Missionaries in the Developing World

In 1900, 80 percent of Christians lived in Europe and North America. In 2000, 60 percent lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with many in developing countries.

Evangelical baptism
Many villagers worship at a church and practice animists religions at home as a way of hedging their bets. They worships both Christian and animist gods, spirits and figures because they don't want to offend either religion and get sick or into trouble. "It won't do me any harm," one villager said. "And you never know."

Western missionaries remain very active in the developing world. Whether the put an emphasis on converting people to their religion or building schools, hospitals, clinics in places where these things often don’t exist often depends on the religious group or the individuals involved. Catholic missionaries are generally regarded as more culturally sensitive than their Protestant counterparts.

Missionaries, See Christianity

Evangelical Christians in the Developing World

Evangelical Protestants are one of the fastest-growing religious groups in the developing world. Their religion and beliefs in many cases were introduced by missionaries but now are largely spread by native followers.

Evangelical Protestants believe in miracles and faith healing and regard the scriptures, especially the New Testament, as more important than the church as an institution. They are known for having great pangs of guilt whenever the commit a sin and undergoing ecstatic experiences when they are filled by the holy spirit. Evangelical sermons are often of a hellfire and brimstone variety, with followers making testimonials, and speaking in tongues. Followers are also often aggressively encouraged to find and win new converts.


Christianity has traditionally been a proselytizing religion spread around the world by missionaries. This is based at least partly on the belief that the message of salvation was offered to everyone and this “Good News” (the meaning of “Gospels”) should be spread by everyone who has experienced it. Missionaries respond to the plea in Matthew: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” They also follow the example of St. Paul and St, Francis.

Catholic baptism
Nearly all branches of Christianity have utilized missionaries in one form or another. These days most mainstream Protestant and Catholic missionary groups stick to operating social programs and helping the poor. Generally the groups that most actively proselytize are evangelicals. Many of the Evangelical get day jobs as engineers, English teachers and nurses and evangelize in their spare time.

Christian missionaries have helped bring education and medical care to remote parts of the world, helped preserve some culture that might have been swallowed up economic forces and assimilation and brought written languages to places that didn’t have one.

For a long time most missionaries were active in Latin America, where the battle for primacy was fought between evangelicals and Catholics, with the more adventurous going to Africa and the Communist world. In the last few decades there has been more of an emphases on reaching “unreached people groups” that include tribes in remote areas and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who have never been exposed to Christianity.

Modern technology, wealth, globalization and an endless supply of enthusiastic missionaries willing to travel to the ends of the earth and find those who have not heard the word have helped spread Christianity at an unprecedented rate. There is a wealth of material available on the Internet as well as was “Godcasting” sites for iPods.

Also See History

Christian and Church Radio

Radio is useful for ambitious priests and preachers and other religious people who want to get their message out and find an audience. Even in remote villages in Mozambique or the steppes of Mongolia, radio listeners can tune into sermons by J. Vernon McGee, a Texas preacher, on Jesus and Saint Paul. There are at least a dozen major international Christian radio network that operate in nearly all the world’s countries and broadcast in 360 languages. Most originate in the United States, which has more than 2,000 domestic religious radio stations. But others originate from Britain, Sweden and places like Chile and the Philippines.

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Aymara Christian praying in Bolivia
U.S.-based Trans World radio, a non-denominational Protestant network, is among the largest religion radio networks. With a budget of $40 million, raised through donations, it is broadcast in more than 200 countries. Trans World was broadcast to 2,800 stations globally in 2007, up from 1,600 in 2001. The Christian Broadcasting Network in Chesapeake Virginia produces foreign-language radio programs which are broadcast in many countries.

Some religion groups distribute $50 hand-crank radios with the help of local pastors. A handful of such radios can go a long way. Sometimes a single radio is all that is necessary to bring radio programming to a village. One Anglican pastor in a village in Mozambique told the Washington Post , “This brings more people to the church. Some people started going to church and gave up, and these programs convinced them to come back. Others have who have never been to church hear this and are convinced to become Christians.”

J. Vernon McGee is one of the world’s most widely-heard preachers. His program “Thru the Bible” is broadcast in 108 languages in 219 countries. Even though McGee died in 1988 his sermons have been kept alive by his followers and listeners who donate everything from pocket change to multi-million -dollar inheritances to keep the broadcasts going. The translations are often done by local preachers in the local languages and dialects. In some places McGee’s broadcasts are the only radio program available in the local language. A listener in Mozambique told Washington Post that McGee’s show is the only radio program he listens to. “It makes me feel good,” he said. “It explains things well. It gives us more than the Bible. It talks about how to live. It adds to what we are taught by our parents and our pastors. I learn about forgiveness. It teaches us to live better.”


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Thai Spirit House
Native religions are ones that are practiced on a small scale by particular families, tribes, communities and ethic groups. In the past they were quite common but now have largely been replaced or absorbed by larger, organized religions scuh as Christianity. Those that survive are likely to be found in remote places with relatively little contact with the outside world. Some native religions continues to exist in a form influenced by or incorporated into a more dominant religion. Many local gods and practices live on as saints or rituals within the Christian church.

Native religions vary a great deal from place to place and community to community but many of them have a large number of spiritual beings, such as tree spirits, mountain gods and ancestors, that are involved in wide range of activities. The human leaders are often healers or shaman who have the power to communicate with these spirits, often in another realm.

Native religions often have some kind of belief about the spirit possession of humans, which can cause diseases or some other malady or can be involved in a ritual, rite of passage or communication with another world. There is also some general recognition of evil, evil power and evil spirits and lessons and advice on how to deal with them through magic, faith or good deeds and behavior.

Rituals often hold great importance in native religions. They are often used in healing and to symbolize important natural and life-cycle process such for planting, harvesting, coming of age, marriage or a funeral. Myths, legends and oral traditions also hold a high place and are used to answer the big question of life, explain their beliefs, record history and pass down information from one generation to the next.

Magical Thinking

Muslim Sufi Dervish in Ecstatic
Excitement Piercing his Cheek (1878)
Magical thinking---beliefs by individuals that their thoughts and beliefs can produce a desired outcome--- are very common, scholars say. There seems to be an evolutionary and physiological explanation: that beliefs in special powers can provide a lift in particularly stressfully situations and help one deal with the wears and tears of everyday life, though the idea should not to be confused with religious beliefs which incorporates large questions about morality, existence, community and history.

In series of experiments performed by Harvard and Princeton psychologists in the summer of 2006 , well-educated adults were asked to watch a blindfolded player play an arcade basketball game and visualize success for the player. Unknown to the subjects was that the game was rigged and the players could see through the blindfold and practiced extensively to make the shot. When asked on a questionnaire if the observers had some impact on the player success many said yes. Subjects responded similarly in an experiment using voodoo dolls on people that feigned headaches and when asked if their actions affected the result of the 2005 Super Bowl.

Princeton’s Emily Pronin, the leader of the study told the New York Times, “The question is why did people create this illusion of magical power? I thinks in part it’s because we’re constantly exposed to our own thoughts---they are most salient to use--- and thus we are likely to overestimate their connection to outside events.

Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months when they create imaginary worlds while playing. By age three they know the difference between fantasy and reality but still believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have given up on Santa Claus and their beliefs about magic and reality are as clear cut as when they are adults. Some social scientists believe that this is when they start thinking about religion and faith. Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, told the New York Times, “The point at which the culture withdraws support for belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer. The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing makes things come true, and they’re just losing faith in the efficacy of that.”

Shaman and Traditional Healers

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Bedik Diviner
Many villages and towns still have shaman. They come in several varieties. Some light a few a candles and say a few prayers after they are paid with a bottle of strong sugar cane liquor. Some tell fortunes by throwing beans, coins, pieces of grain or some other method. Others are brought in for major rituals.

At one time healing priests were members of the elite class. Today they are treated with respect by elders, but often ignored by the younger generation. Sometimes they are very poor.

Villages healers are often the main source of medical care. They sell herbs, act as doctors and pharmacists. and provide treatment in places where there aren't enough Western-style doctors. Many villagers have more faith their in local healers and folk medicine than they do modern medicine, and only visit a real doctor as last resort.

Healers use divining stones to diagnose patients ailments, then treat them with massages, chants, exorcism rituals and prayers and prescribe powders, herbal remedies, animal parts, teas and poultices that purportedly cure everything from gout to baldness.

Faith healing is also very common among the poor. "When you are middle class and you get sick, you first think of a doctor," one Baptist minister told Newsweek. "When you are a poor person, the first thing you think of is a miracle."


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Burmese nat (spirit) Bo Bo Gyi Sule
Animism refers to the collective worship of spirits and dead ancestors rather than individual gods. Derived from anima , the Latin word for soul, it was coined in 1871 by Edward Taylor to describe a theory of religion. Animism and ancestor worship are often closely linked. Animism is not the worship of animals.

Animism emphasizes a reverence for all living things. Many animists believe that every living thing and some non-living ones too---even trees and insects and things like special rocks and landscape formations---have a spirit. Commonly these spirits merge with other spirits such as a common river or forest spirit and a general life spirit. Some spirits are conjured up before a tree is chopped down or food is eaten to appease them. Others are believed to be responsible for fighting disease or promoting fertility. Animist spirits are often associated with places or objects because they were thought to live close by.

Many anthropologists believe that animism developed out of the belief in some cultures that natural spirits and dead ancestors exist because they appear in dreams and visions. Other anthropologists speculate that the idea of spirits developed among early men out of the concept that something alive contains a spirit and something dead doesn’t, and when something alive dies its spirit has to go somewhere.

Spirits and Unhappy Ancestors

Many animists believe that every living thing, even trees and insects, have a spirit. Commonly these spirits merge with other spirits such as a common river or forest spirit and a general life spirit. Animists also believe many non-living things such as rocks and water possess spirits. Among the important supernatural forces are aloof spirits that dwell in the mountains, rivers and the sky; and the evil spirits, often the forest-roaming souls of the dead ancestors who for one reason or another are not at peace.

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Thagyamin Nat
Animists believe that things like weather and disease are caused by spirits. They also believe that the deceased become spirits that can bring bad fortune or good fortune depending on how they are treated when they were alive and when they are dead.

Unhappy dead ancestors are greatly feared and every effort is made to make sure they are comfortable in the hereafter. Accidents and illnesses are often attributed to deeds performed by the dead and cures are often attempts to placate them. In some societies, people go out of their way to be nice to one another, especially older people, out of fear of what they might do when they die.

Almost every aspect of the life of some ethnic minorities revolves around making sure that spirits are happy and placated. A lot of time is taken up making sure the hundreds of different spirits that occupy the hills and the forest are fed and cared for.

Ritual life takes many forms. Pigs, chickens and buffalo are sacrificed to appease ancestors and ghosts; trees are not cut down because it might offend the forest spirits; and spirits are consulted with shaman and divining methods to determine harvest times and control animals and the weather. During times of trouble special attention is devoted to spirits--- needs and making sure spiritual forces are in balance.

Unhappy ancestors blamed for causing bad things are appeased and honored with prayers and special ceremonies. Sometimes property and possessions are still believed to belong to the dead. Before a piece of property or a family possession is sold, the dead are consulted often with the help of a shaman.


Animal sacrifices are held by some ethnic minorities to help sick relatives, assure that good spirits watch over their children, and appease the spirits at healing ceremonies, weddings, house christening and births. In ascending order of importance, chickens, dogs, pigs and water buffalo are all sacrificed. A small ceremony to cure a cold may require only one chicken while the wedding of the son of a chief might result in the sacrifice of many water buffalos. Occasionally, a pig is sacrificed for no other reason than because people are hungry for meat.

In a sacrifice, the spirits only take the spirit of the dead animal, which means that animal itself, including the meat, the ears, nose and tail, eyelashes and hoof slivers, are divided among the villagers. The Thai government used to have a tax on sacrificed animals which some tribes skirted by claiming the animal accidently hung itself, and they had no other choice but to slaughter it.

Animist Rituals and Art

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U Nu 1959 nat ceremony
Masks and costumes are commonly used by members of animist tribes during dances and ceremonies. Often they represents a particular spirits, and when people put them on they becomes possessed by those spirits. People who wear masks ands costumes often have to go through an initiation ceremony before they are allowed to wear them. The secrets of the costumes have traditionally been jealously guarded, especially by men from women and children. Ceremonies with masks and costumes date back to the Stone Age.

Some scholars speculate that the painting was developed by ancient hunters to kill the spirits of the animals to make them less formidable during the hunt and to prevent the spirits from coming back to haunt the hunters after the animals was killed.


Shaman are people who have visions and perform various deeds while in a trance and are believed to have the power to control spirits in the body and leave everyday existence and travel or fly to other worlds. The word Shaman means "agitated or frenzied person" in the language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia.

Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman seek the help of spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with deceased ancestors.

Shaman are generally poor and come from the lower social classes. Sometimes their spiritual power is seen as so great that they need to be separated from society. In the past, it is believed, almost all villages had a shaman and they were members of a caste that passed their traditions down from generation to generation. Some shaman are afraid to reveal their secrets because they believe that after they pass on their secrets they will die.

Kohkan Sasaki, an expert on shamanism in Asia and professor at Komazawa University, told the Daily Yomiuri, “I think shaman tend to be females in societies where women are suppressed or discriminated against as an inferior gender. By associating themselves with the gods women are able to balance their power with men in such societies.”

Persian Dervishes

Shaman, Medicine Men and Sorcerers

Shaman are different from priests in that they go into trances. They are also regarded as different from “medicine man," magicians who manipulate magical materials; "herbalists," doctors who uses plants with certain properties to cure patients; "Sorcerers," medicine men who practice black magic; and "witch doctors," sorcerers sought by people who are thought to be cursed or bewitched.

In some societies, mediums are people who got into trances and hurt themselves in some way’slicing their tongue, burning themselves or poking a hole through their cheek---as they attempt to cure a sick person.

At one time healing priests were members of the elite class. Today they are treated with respect by elders, but often ignored by the younger generation.

Shaman Rituals and Techniques

Huichol shaman in Mexico
Shaman use various techniques to put themselves into trances: taking hallucinogenic drugs, asphyxiating themselves, and/or being taken over by hypnotic drums, dance rhythms or chants. When in a trance they have visions, speak in strange voices or languages, communicate with dead ancestors, gods, demons and natural spirits, and receive instruction from them about how to help the person who has sought the shaman's help. Maybe the patient has broken a taboo, offended a spirit or ancestor or lost his soul.

The shaman then carries out ritual directed a the particular problem that often involves communicating with the demon making the person sick and defeating or controlling him or seeking the help of a friendly spirit who will make the patient well again. Sometimes foreign objects are removed from patient's body in a symbolic ritual in which the object is sucked in and spit or vomited out.

People in shaman societies often believe that illnesses occur when the soul leaves the body and they are caused by certain events, witchcraft, unhappy spirits and ancestors, and/or problems within an individual's inner soul. These people often believe that if the soul remains out of the body for too long the patient dies. Shaman help patients to overcome their illnesses by calling on spirits to help the patients to get in contact with and bring back their souls.

Modern shaman are employed as exorcists, prophets, fortune-tellers, medicine men, healers and interpreters of dreams. Some write down messages they receive for the dead while in a trance. Some light a few a candles and say a few prayers or tell fortunes by throwing beans, coins, pieces of grain or some other method after you buy them a bottle of locally-made liquor. Others are brought in for major rituals.

Before rituals, the shaman often fast for a day or two. During the ritual they often don’t touch any food passed that is offered to the spirits, but help themselves to cupfuls of homemade liquor. It is generally thought that gods and spirits generally only take the spirit of the food and drink offered them. What remains is consumed by participants in the ritual.

Becoming a Shaman

Chinese manuscripts with Shaman texts
Shaman can be both men and women. Many are women. Traditionally, they have not chosen to become shaman but rather had shamanism thrust upon them. The process of becoming a shaman usually follows five steps: 1) a break with life as usual; 2) a journey to an "other world;" 3) dying and being reborn: 4) gaining a new vision: 5) and emerging with a deep sense of connectedness and purpose.

Most shaman begin their careers with a life-threatening illness, during which time they embark on a spiritual journey and communicate with the gods, spirits and ancestors that become the source of their powers. After recovering from the illness, they go through a long period of training, characterized by fasts and hardships and instruction from senior shaman that climaxes with a long period of isolation in which the shaman goes without food and experiences more visions.

One shaman told the anthropologist Zoe Avstreih: "While I was eating, a voice came and said, 'It is time: now they are calling you.' The voice was so loud and clear that I believed it and I thought I would just go where it wanted me to go....As I came out of the tepee, both my thighs began to hurt, and suddenly it was like waking from a dream...I was very sick. Both my legs and both my arms were swollen and my face was puffed up." [Source: Path of the Shaman by Zoe Avstreih]

Describing his journey into the other world the shaman said: "There was nothing but the air and the swiftness of the little cloud that bore me and those two men still leading up to where white clouds piled like mountains on a wide blue plain, and in them the thunder beings lived and leaped and flashed....Suddenly there was nothing but a world of cloud...there we were alone in the middle of a great white plain with snowy hills and mountains staring at us; and it was very still; but there were whispers." The shaman was then informed that he has been summoned to be taught. He was shown the history of his people, and instructed how to use herbs and finally awoke feeling healthy and reborn

Shaman Rituals

Pygmy shaman
During shamanist rituals shaman do things like sip powerful rice wine mixed with the feathers of a sacrificed chicken through a long straw and, after becoming intoxicated, chant rhythmically to accompaniment of a brass gong. After each series of chants more wine is consumed and the shaman goes into a trance.

While in a trance shaman attempt to communicate with dead, the gods, demons and natural spirits and make out the form and destiny of a person's soul and heal illnesses with this knowledge. Illnesses, the ethnic minority people, believed was caused by straying souls who became influenced by demons. The shaman's objective was to bring the soul back, a task that was usually performed while in an ecstatic trance.

Shaman from the Yi ethnic group in China are known as bimo . Held in the highest respect, they carry out sacrifices and perform healing rituals with incense and bowls of chicken blood while headmen are responsible for controlling ghosts with magic. Often bimo were the only people in a village who could read the sacred texts that included clan histories, myths and literature.

Ancestor Worship

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Home ancestor altar in Fujian, China
Ancestor worship involves the belief that the dead live on as spirits and that it is the responsibility of their family members and descendants to make sure that are well taken care of. If they are not they may come back and cause trouble to those family members and descendants.

Unhappy dead ancestors are greatly feared and every effort is made to make sure they are comfortable in the afterlife. Accidents and illnesses are often attributed to deeds performed by the dead and cures are often attempts to placate them. In some societies, people go out of their way to be nice to one another, especially older people, out of fear of the nasty things they might do when they die.

Some people attribute poor weather to unhappy ancestors, so prayers are said and special ceremonies are performed so the dead will use their influence to bring good weather and enough rain to produce a good harvest. Sometimes property is still believed to be in the procession of dead ancestors, and before a piece of property or a family possession is sold, the dead are consulted through special ceremonies.

Ancestor worship is perhaps the world's oldest religion. Some anthropologists theorize that it grew out of belief in some societies that dead people still exist in some form because they appear in dreams.

Ancestor worship is a strong cohesive force in primitive societies and one of the most widespread beliefs in primitive religions. Customs and traditions are passed down orally, without written records, there is no sense of history as we know it, and often myth and fact from the past become inseparable.

Superstitions and Ideas About Death in the Developing World

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Burning ghost money and yuanbao
at a cemetery
Many people in the developing world are very superstitious. When a baby is born his parents often take him or her to an astrologer or priest who predicts his future, using star charts and sacred books. The child's fortune is determined on the basis of what day and time he was born. The god that governs the day on which the child is born is the equivalent of his patron saint.

Many villagers consult shamans and fortunetellers before making business decisions, building a house or choosing a date for marriage or funeral. Villagers often believe far-fetched stories about baby-snatching foreigners, miracle-performing religious figures and invaders from other planets. Some anthropologists say villagers are so superstitious because they are poor and there is little else in their lives. Women are thought to be more superstitious than men.

Fortunetellers predicts the future using various methods. Evil spirits are kept out of houses and off the body with amulets and talismans. Some pharmacies still sell concoctions to drive off evil spirits already occupying houses.

Many villagers believe that everyone goes to heaven after the die and dying unmourned is worse than death itself. Funerals are often elaborate and expensive. The body is usually anointed and wrapped in a shroud by the women in the family, then placed in a bier and carried through town. Emotional outpourings are expected and often families hire mourners to create as big a spectacle as possible.

Often times the most colorful place in a village or town is not the market or park, but the graveyard. Some of the tombs are the size of houses. Other are elaborately decorated or painted in bright yellows, blues, reds and purples.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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