Shamanism is considered one of the oldest belief systems in the world. It was prevalent and practiced in many communities around the world — until organized religion came.
So I wanted to find out — can shamanism be practiced alongside religion?
I got in touch with world-renowned shaman Rudá Iandê, and several experts in the field of shamanism, and there was a clear consensus — shamanism doesn’t restrict the following of another faith or religion.
But to understand how to two can work side by side, we need to first understand how shamanism itself is different from religion.
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Is shamanism a religion?
A quick Google search of the word “shamanism” will bring up results stating that shamanism is a “religious belief” or a “religious practice”.
But the reality is that shamanism doesn’t follow a set scripture as most organized religions do. There’s no one central body that governs and dictates how shamanism should be practiced.
Shamanism centers itself around spiritual beliefs — which don’t restrict you from still following another faith, like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or Judaism.
And although it’s widely considered one of the oldest religions in the world, many who follow shamanism highlight how it is fundamentally different from organized religion.
As Brazillian shaman Rudá Iandê explains:
“Shamanism is a path to realign our consciousness with the intelligence of life that resides in our cells. While religions have dogmas, shamanism is an individual path. Nobody will tell you what to do or not. In this sense, Shamanism is the opposite of religion. It’s a path of self-knowledge where you’ll learn to hear your own voice and unlock the wisdom that resides in your nature.”
And if you look back through the history of shamanism, spiritual healers were present across the world — Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa, long before the religions we know today came about.
Although their beliefs around shamanic healing and spirituality would have had things in common, their rituals would have differed. One cross-cultural study of three different shamans, two from different parts of Mexico and one from Haiti, showed that their core beliefs were strikingly similar.
Their differences were in how they practiced shamanism — for example, whether alcohol or other substances were used to achieve trance states and using different types of herbs and medicines.
And even today, shamanism continues to evolve.
The core beliefs in the study of human nature and our connection with this world and the spiritual world remain, whilst the physical rituals depend on the cultural practices of the country.
Shamanic Energy Alchemist and owner of Living Moon Meditation, Michele Lefler explains that:
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“A religion is a system of beliefs centered around the worship of one or more deities, often with a central creed and/or text. Shamanism is not a religion because it does not have these central tenets of what constitutes a religion. Shamanism does focus, however, on spirituality, and that is infused with various world religions.
“Because all cultures have some form of shamanism in their history, all religions have deep-rooted shamanic practices. Sadly, this is misunderstood in our modern society because our culture has become divorced from the earth-based practices we sprang from. There is, however, nothing inherently anti-religion (any religion) about shamanism. Many shamanic practitioners today are practicing members of various religions.”
Is the sharing of spiritual beliefs enough for shamanism and religion to be practiced side by side?
There doesn’t appear to be an issue — Lefler is an example of how the two, religion and shamanism, can be practiced together. She is both Jewish and a shamanic practitioner.
Can you practice shamanism and other religions at the same time?
Iandê answers the question with:
“Shamanism is about freedom. It’ll never restrict your choices.”
Because shamanism isn’t a set of rules or beliefs to follow, there’s no reason you can’t practice shamanism and follow a religion.
Whether it’s well-received or not depends on the individual.
Author Hyapatia Lee has studied for decades with medicine men and women from across the US, Canada, Australia, and the islands of Guam and Hawaii. She has experienced both welcoming and skepticism towards the idea of mixing shamanism and religion:
“I have met many shamans who incorporate the Christian belief system into their work. I have seen healings where things are done “in Christ’s name” and met people seeking healings that specifically request a blending of our cultures.
“I have also met many traditionalists in Native American medicine, or shamanism, that say “to honor the religion of our oppressors is to dishonor our ancestors” and refuse to include such phrases and customs in their work.”
She continues to explain that it’s very much a personal choice, and it comes down to the individual and their faith, so the degrees to which shamanism is practiced alongside a religion varies.
And if the question is reversed — do the major religions accept shamanism?
The truth is, religion within itself is incredibly complex.
Some people follow scriptures down to the very last word, whilst others take a more spiritual approach. Not to mention all the people in between.
So whilst shamanism is open to being practiced alongside other faiths, the same might not always be true for religion.
Psychologist and author Dr. Jennifer B. Rhodes has worked personally and professionally alongside shamans and traveled extensively during her spiritual journey. She believes that:
“Shamans respect all as part of their spirituality but religion does not always share that worldview. It’s an ancient battle for power that is coming up for review and I hope people see that both spirituality and religion are needed for humanity. Religion honors our history of masculine energy by devoting our heart to a higher power and spirituality helps us remain grounded and connected to the earth and our purpose in life.”
Rhodes makes an interesting point here — both spirituality and religion are needed for humanity. One doesn’t necessarily need the other, you can be a religious person but not spiritual, or a religious and spiritual person.
Just as you can be a spiritual person with or without a religion.
She continues to talk about the role of the shaman:
“A shaman’s job is to work with the client wherever they are – not to filter information through a religious lens. It is usually the religious client that has a problem with the shaman and not the other way around.”
To understand the relationship that religion and shamanism have had over history, let’s have a brief look into its influences and struggles with Christianity and Islam:
Shamanism and Christianity
With the spread of Christianity, many traditional tribal or nomadic beliefs were lost. Through forced conversations, the destruction of sacred places, and a campaign of demonization against shamans, many communities were unable to continue with their spiritual practice.
Details of how the Russians were keen to stamp out shamanism date back to 1700. They used their Christian dominance to indoctrinate the population and would persecute those who tried to continue their traditional practices.
But that doesn’t mean shamanism was completely forgotten.
More recent studies have found that in the Inuit communities in Northern Canada, shamanism plays a role in their beliefs, steeped deeply in their cultural traditions, even though most Inuit identify as Christian.
Sadly, many in the Inuit community stay quiet about their cultural links to shamanism. It’s not surprising when for many years shamans were labeled witches and often punished with death if caught practicing their traditional beliefs.
But as we’ve already discovered, following a religion and shamanism can go hand in hand, but it depends very much so on the individual.
There are those within Christianity who incorporate shamanism into their practices, and those who still feel uncomfortable entering into that realm. As we mentioned earlier, you can be religious but not spiritual.
And then some would argue that spirituality is at the heart of Christianity. As Rhodes says:
“While Christians do not like to discuss it, both Jesus and Mary Magdalene were healers and shamans. Thus the distinction between shamanism and religion only comes from the religious side and has been an ancient attempt at suppressing indigenous healing practices that honor the divine feminine connection to nature.”
We’re now at a time where shamanism can be freely explored by most, alongside their religious beliefs. What that means for Christianity and shamanism, time will tell as people continue to adapt and evolve in their faith.
Shamanism and Islam
You might not think the two go hand in hand, and in many ways, Islam and shamanism are completely different.
Yet there are sects of Islam, one in particular called Sufism, that hold similar accounts of rituals and practices very similar to those in shamanism.
Sufism is a mystical form of Islam. Followers of the faith believe in purifying the soul and they use spirituality as a way to build a closer relationship with God.
As shamanism was passed down from generation to generation, not all of its influences were suppressed by the spread of Islam.
Many hung on to their cultural beliefs and their connection to the spiritual world, continuing to perform rituals and healing ceremonies even with their new Islamic faith in the mix.
There have been studies into how Mongolian shamanism may have influenced Suffi beliefs in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as nomads from both countries seemingly intertwine their cosmic beliefs with Islam.
But whilst Sufism may share some beliefs inherited or combined with shamanism, the two main denominations — Sunni and Shia — hold firmly to their religious scripts, leaving little room for shamanic beliefs to be adopted alongside.
Now, this article has only touched on the history and influences shamanism and religion have – with there being many layers within each religion, and different shamanic practices around the world, it’s a considerable study.
But if there’s one thing we can take away, it’s that shamanism is compatible, and open, to be practiced alongside a religion.
As Milana Perepyolkina, founder and author of Gypsy Energy Secrets, shares her experiences of practicing shamanism:
“In every religion and in shamanism there are spiritual people and not spiritual people. A spiritual person in every religion and in shamanism accepts and celebrates other religions. A spiritual person recognizes that there are many paths leading to God or the Great Spirit. As someone who practices shamanism and other religions, and as someone who had two memorable near-death experiences, I saw that we are all one and the path of spirituality does not matter.”
What does matter is the freedom to be able to practice spirituality alongside religion, as an integral part of it, or without religion.
And, the experts we’ve spoken to alongside the research included are examples of how you can follow a faith with all your heart and still believe in the oneness of the universe and your connection to it.