How religion plays a significant part in our lives – Guatemalan Culture
Anyone who is interested in Guatemalan culture will soon discover that religion plays a significant part in the daily life of our nation. And the statistics suggest a fairly straightforward picture. 50 per cent of our country identifies as Catholic, 37 per cent as Protestant, 11 per cent as having no religious affiliation, and 2 per cent as ‘other’.
But the reality is actually more complicated, and far more interesting. Just as in every other aspect of our cultural life, all of these religious traditions have blended together. The result is something uniquely Guatemalan.
So, here is my guide to religion in Guatemala. It’s useful to look at the three key religious groups in turn.
When the colonial forces arrived in Guatemala in 1519, they brought Catholicism with them from Spain. It was the dominating force in the country from the 1500s to the 1800s. I’ve posted more about Guatemalan history, here.
Today, Catholicism has the biggest religious following in the country, and is still hugely influential. During the colonial period it was the official religion of our country, but today religious freedom is a cornerstone of our independent state.
The Catholic church in Guatemala has long been seen as the defender of ordinary people. It hasn’t always been so popular however, particularly in terms of its relationship with government.
From time to time, different governments have tried to limit the power of the church. The civil war was also a particularly difficult time, and many priests were killed. As the number of Protestants has increased, the Catholic church has also tried to convert more people through its Charismatic Catholics movement.
The other major Christian religion in our country, Protestantism first arrived in the 1800s. Presbyterian Methodist and Baptist missionaries came to Guatemala to attempt to attract new followers, particularly among the Mayans. This was in part an attempt to curb the power of the Catholic church.
Protestantism – or at least an evangelical form of it – really took off in the 1970s however. When parts of our country’s highlands were stricken with earthquakes, many people converted to Protestantism thanks to the work of Christian aid agencies. More and more people also joined the religion during the years of our country’s terrible civil war in the 1980s.
It is impossible to talk about religion in our country without understanding the influence of Mayan traditions and beliefs.
A belief system that has existed in one form or another for over 2,000 years, Mayan religion today has fused with Christianity. Today, an increasing number of Mayan traditions are incorporated into regular Christian practice.
This process – known as ‘inculturation’ – has resulted in the kind of mixing of cultures seen at Catholic churches such as Santiago de Atitlan. In areas such as the Mayan Western Highlands, we see figures such as the Mayan deity Maximón playing an important role in religious life, alongside Christian figures.
Mayan religion is traditionally based around worshiping nature gods, but also included traditions such as blood sacrifice. Its most important text is the Popul Vuh: a book of mythology that is still venerated today. The book lends its name to the country’s greatest collection of Mayan artefacts in Guatemala City.
Religion in Guatemala today is the sum of many influences. Part Christian, part indigenous spiritual traditions, it is as rich and diverse as our country itself.
Interested in finding out more about Guatemalan art and culture? Read my rough guide here.