General Essay on the Religions of Latin America

The first contingent of humans arrived in North America from Asia during the glacial age which began some 40 thousand years ago. From North America they entered Central America sometime between 13 000 BCE and 7500 BCE spreading from there to South America.

Relatively little is known about the inhabitants of Latin America during this period since our knowledge about them is based solely on excavations. However, despite the early arrival of people in Central and South America it was not until 2000 BCE that the first permanent villages showing some kind of social organisation appeared, leading to the formation of high civilisations and social stratification such as the Olmecs that flourished around 1300 BCE or the Mayas that appeared in the first millenium BCE.

The settlements in Latin America varied immensely from one place to another. While societies such as the Inca of the Andes and the Maya, Olmec and Aztec of Central America developed a high level of culture, others kept a rather tribal structure. Generalisation about these cultures is, therefore, problematic.

In spite of these differences it is possible to identify certain common characteristics in both high civilizations and tribal societies such as animism, a cult of ancestors and continuity between religion and political power. In some societies the mediation between the supernatural and the natural was done through a hierarchically organized body of priests, in other societies a more democratic kind of shamanistic practice was stronger.

In the sixteenth century the Portuguese and the Spanish conquered Latin America and prohibited the native religions and imposed on them Catholicism. This imposition of Catholicism by Europeans on the indigenous peoples generated various revolts that in some cases took the form of messianic movements. Others, unable to fight, accepted the new religion or, in some cases dressed their old beliefs with the clothes of the conquerors. In the case of the high civilizations, despite their destruction, many cults, particularly those less related to religious formalities, continued to survive in some form some, some of which can be found even to the present day.

With the Advent of black slavery in the first half of the 16th century, Africans brought with them their tradition and cults. Because of the prohibition of African religious practices by the political authorities, the African cults ended up by syncretizing with Catholicism, the region's indigenous traditions and, later on, with other religions that were transplanted to Latin-America. Such is the case with Candomblé de caboclo, which combined African and indigenous practices, and Umbanda which combined Afro, indigenous and other traditions. Some cults and traditions brought by the slaves may have gone through adaptation without syncretization. Such is the case of Candomblé that claims purity, or the Malê cult (brought by islamized groups) that did not survive for very long.

The oppression of black people, even after the abolition of slavery, towards the end of the nineteenth century, led to the development of groups of resistance that saw in their return to Africa the only way to salvation. From these kind of groups was born the Rastafari movement. This movement is characterised by the belief salvation for black people lies in the repatriation of blacks to Africa.

An important relatively recent development within Latin American religious life has been the transplantation of Protestantism into Latin American soil in the 19th century. A consequence of this has been the decentralisation of Roman Catholic power. Until very recently Roman Catholicism was the religion of the state and could be imposed over every one who was subjected to the state. However, as a result of emigration from Europe, Asia and other regions the imposition of a single tradition on people has become increasingly impractical and unacceptable. The growth of democracy in the region has fostered greater religious tolerance. Today Latin America is a place where very different religions coexist. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, adherents of East Asian traditions, as well as new religions and the remains ancient traditions, are all a part of the religiously diverse life of the continent.


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