Development of religious ideologies in Latin America

By Zeeba T. Hashmi

Mayan Calendar


Religion has always been primary for man’s  spiritual needs.  It defines the society and in some cases, provides the role model for the lifestyle.  To some people, it makes sense of  things to them.  The way they perceive religion is different from the perception of religion of others, and it varies geographically.  But one thing that everyone shares in their religious beliefs is their link with the spiritual world.

For example in Latin America, the religious diversity is very remarkable.  It appears to be a melting pot of people’s ancient beliefs, that is still  merged with Christianity there today.  To them, religion provides a rationale to explain the culture and the social system, and gives people a sense of loyalty and helps them in participating in both the natural and the social world around them.  The religions in Latin America today are the result of many European disruptions  in their ancient animistic religious beliefs.

The dominant group in Latin America is Roman Catholicism, and a significant numbers are also protestant. There are also some Jewish Hispanics, who are the descendants of Ashkenazi Jews , who arrived from Europe and settled mainly in Argentina during the 2nd      World war.  There’s also a unique way of blend of the old Aztec beliefs and the Catholicism, known as the Syncretism.  Hispanics syncretise the Roman Catholicism and African or Native American rituals and beliefs.  The examples are Santeria, which is a set of related religious system that combines with the traditional Yanoba beliefs (traditionalAfrican rituals brought to the Americas by the African slaves), in which a particular day is dedicated to a particular saint and festivals are held to honor him.  This is much   common in Cuba and Puerto Rico.  Orixas, a ritual to celebrate the sea goddess brought by the African slaves, is still in practice in Latin America. Umbanda, a combination of the catholic beliefs and the power of the spirits to influence one’s life, is also practiced by some in Brazil.  Guadalupism, (devotion toward the lady of Virgin Mary of Guadalupe) in which The Virgin Mary is often contrasted by an old Aztec goddess, Tonantzin (goddess of earth, mother of gods, and protector of humanity).

Why does Latin America still hold to the ancient rituals and perform those  side by side their Christian faith? To understand this, it is very important that we take a look at the ancient religious beliefs of the ancient Latin world.  The ancient beliefs were based on the animistic faith.  Because people were heavily dependent on the forces of nature to help them cultivate and grow crops (corn being their principle crop and associated with sacredness even today). They started symbolizing different forces as deities and gods who would be controlling nature for them.  This also led to sacrifices and rituals that would guarantee more power to their deities.

Paleo-Indians 40,000—10,000BC: They were the roaming nomads, living on subsistence resources.  They were totally dependent on nature.  Once the domestication started, the animistic beliefs started to take proper form, especially during the Archaic period (8000—2000BC). That’s when they started experimenting with ceramic figurines.  From this period, a lot of these figurines were female with exaggerated breasts and genitals.  This shows the power of women, and  acknowledges the need for reproduction. As the communities developed and expanded, they experienced a change, which also brought new dimensions to their religious beliefs.

The rise of the theocratic states and the belief system (2,000 BC-200AD) was marked by the expansion of the ideological, economic and political arenas. It also marked the emergence of cults dedicated to the major deities.  During the Classic Period(200AD—900AD), the communities were now ruled by the divine hereditary kings.

With a formal rule, came the formal furnishings of the religious systems there.  This period is marked by cultural achievement of astronomy, mathematics,  calenderics, writing (it was limited to the elite class only) sculpture, mural painting, sophisticated ceramic art and unified religion and political authority.

Around AD 850-AD1521, the era was marked by political turmoil and warfare.  The Aztec empire was consolidated and there was a general decline in the arts, engineering and statecraft.

With the arrival of the Spanish, the harmony of the belief system in the Americas was disrupted dramatically.  For the Conquerors, it was a mission to convert the Indians to Christianity, whereas for the Natives it was hard to accept the change because their belief system, which was animistic in nature and had been followed for thousands of years was totally different for the new belief.  It was a clash of civilization for both the Spaniards and the Indians, and the clash in religion meant a change in their societal norms.

However , in order to lessen the gap between two very different religions, some of the  elements of the Indian religion were adopted to make it more comprehensible to the locals.  That’s one of the reason why Virgin Mary of Guadulope(shown as a native in images)took place of Tonantzio.  They also still keep their rituals alive today, and that’s why we find so much diversity in the religions there, because people have still not let go of their ancient beliefs.  Jesus Christ has taken place of the sun god, the reason why he’s shown coming from the sun, and Virgin Mary, taken the place that of a moon goddess, the reason why she’s always shown on a crescent.  The diversity that we see in Latin America today is due to a number of factors that happened at the time of the conquests.  People had been mobilizing from their milpas into the cities.  This resulted in the urban poverty. It still is taking place in the modern world, and with this mobilization also comes their need for instant gratification.  They’re looking for liberation from poverty, hunger and disease, thus this has also given rise to “Theology of Liberation”.  People are always  in need of their spiritual gratification, and for that reason they rely on gods to justify their existence.

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