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Religion is a system of beliefs that explains what happens in the world, justifies order, and (usually) prescribes certain behaviors. In Latin America, the Spanish and Portuguese imported and spread Catholicism, the predominant religion, starting with the voyages of Columbus in 1492. The belief in and practice of Christianity gradually replaced the native belief systems; at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Catholicism itself faced challenges from a new wave of proselytizing and conversion by several Protestant missionary groups operating in the region.

Before the Spanish arrived, tremendous religious diversity marked the region, but animistic, polytheistic, and ancestor worship systems predominated. In tribal societies, every man and woman might feel themselves to have some level of shamanic ability; in large, imperial complexes, there were elaborate systems of priests, temples, and religious specialists, including cloistered women such as the acllas of the Inca. Tribal hunter-gatherers found spiritual life in every living thing, while agriculturists often worshiped their ancestors at special tombs belonging to specific lineages. In the Andes, some groups mummified or otherwise preserved the dead so that their remains (or the representation of their remains) might take an active role in ritual observance. The living believed it was their duty to care for and reverence their ancestors, sacrificing to them in return for fertility and health.

Andean religion also included many aspects of geomancy, or the recognition of sacred places; throughout the Americas, buried offerings and astronomical alignments marked important places, whether temples, palaces, or naturally occurring mountain peaks or streams. In central Mexico under the Mexica (Aztecs or Nahuas, following James Lockhart, a scholar dedicated to their study), individual lineages had patron deities. Professional groups such as the merchants also reverenced specific gods.

Before the rise of the Mexica, Mesoamericans worshipped many different gods, with the rain god as one of the most important. With their rise to power, the Mexica began to call Painting of Our Lady of Guadelupe, artist unknown. Catholicism, with its pantheon of saints, is the predominant religion of Latin America. Our Lady of Guadelupe, the Mexican incarnation of Mary, mother of Jesus, is an important figure to Latin Americans and the patron saint of the Americas. © THE ART ARCHIVE /PINACOTECA VIRREINEL MEXICO CITY /DAGLI ORTI themselves the people of the sun and to encourage the worship of their own totemic deity, Huitzlipochtli, or the humming-bird on the left, whom they believed had led them from obscurity to greatness. Similarly, the Inca claimed to be the sons of the sun and daughters of the moon, making the imperial religion a form of ancestor worship. They promised that service to the Inca would bring to the vanquished, and those who joined the empire peacefully, protection and subsistence, especially in times of natural disaster or crisis.

Belief in and participation in their cults explained the creation of the dominant group and justified the domination of the dominated. The relationship between humans and the gods was often portrayed as one of mutual nurturance that could take benign form, as when the ancestors brought fertility to their descendants in return for offerings, or more frightening forms in which hungry deities preyed upon hapless humans. In Mesoamerica, long traditions of blood sacrifice to the gods could take the minor form of a few drops of blood from a pierced earlobe sprinkled on a piece of paper or could reach the horrific extremes of the Mexica, who sacrificed hundreds and perhaps thousands of war captives in public ceremonies. According to the claims of the priests and warriors, these sacrifices were necessary to nourish the sun, and without them, the sun would cease to exist and the world would end. Because brave warriors were the preferred sacrificial victims, the Mexica expanded the empire and fought ritualistic wars (of flowers) to secure prisoners for sacrifice, a belief system that turned humans into tribute. By the arrival of the Spanish, both Mexica and Incas believed that their ruler was a divine successor of the sun and his government a reflection of supernatural will.

Catholic priests accompanied the conquerors and explorers and began the task of conversion. Orders such as the Franciscans and Jesuits established missions on the frontiers. The acceptance of the new faith meant a repudiation of the native belief systems and identities. It involved learning a new language, moral code, religious pageantry, and folkways. Despite some sincere efforts to teach Christianity to the native population, progress was slow. Conversion became more complicated as large numbers of black slaves were imported to work in domestic service, on plantations, and in mining. They came from various African groups or tribes, each with its own language and religious traditions. Over the years, close interaction between natives and Africans and their offspring, all affected to a greater or lesser extent by Catholic doctrines, led to religious syncretism. The fusion of beliefs and rituals gave rise to distinct religions, such as Voudou, Santeria, and Rastafarianism, that continue to be practiced in the early twenty-first century.

The Catholic Church, however, played a large role in colonial life. Because the colonial administration was weak, the church became an important partner in governing. Its roles included educating the youth, especially males and sons of the native nobility; organizing charitable institutions such as hospitals; keeping vital statistics on baptisms, marriages, and deaths; communicating important messages to the populace from the crown and its representatives; and banking—lending capital to property owners for investment and conspicuous consumption. It became a rich and influential institution, despite intrachurch struggles between the secular clergy and the regular orders over mission fields and politics.

After independence was won from Spain, the creole elite split into conservatives and liberals. One of the issues of contention was the status of the Catholic Church. The liberals wanted religious toleration and secularization of some of the church's roles. The conservatives wanted Catholicism to be the official and—in some times, places, and among certain groups—the only religion. In Mexico, conflict over the issue resulted in war and, indirectly, foreign intervention. Tolerance eventually became the order, and new groups with other religions established themselves.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the dominance of the Catholic Church has been challenged. Starting in the second half of the twentieth century, liberation theology, an interpretation of the Bible meant to portray Christ as a social activist and empower the poor, threatened the conservative clerical power structure. A second, even greater threat was the proliferating numbers of non-Catholic groups growing in size and importance. In the cities there were sizeable groups of Jews and Muslims. But Protestant evangelical groups such as the Pentecostals (which experts proclaimed the largest and fastest growing denomination) vastly outnumbered these. Membership of these groups grew from 200,000 in the 1920s to more than 50 million at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

By the year 2050, some predict, the majority of Latin Americans will be Protestants. In countries such as Guatemala and Brazil, the population was 30 percent Protestant in the early twenty-first century, with membership growing at more than 7 percent per year. Some of the reasons given for this phenomenal rate of growth are the use of radios and television to spread the word, the emphasis on family, and help in finding work and raising the standard of living.

Susan Elizabeth Ramirez

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