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What Do Latin Americans Do When They Do Religion?

From Destination to Journey

Economic development, democratic governments, and a growing middle class have changed the spiritual realm in Latin America. Once dominated by Catholicism, today’s Latin Americans are migrating from one religion to another as they look for meaning and engage with superhuman powers. While there are many studies of the changing nature of Latin American religiosity, the majority of such studies have been centered on religious institutions.

It is for that reason that a research team of social scientists from Boston College, Universidad Católica de Córdoba (Argentina), Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (Peru), and Universidad Católica del Uruguay (Uruguay), with support from The John Templeton Foundation, have been working on a project that attends to religion in the lives of ordinary Latin Americans. Over the past three years of our project, our focus has been more on understanding the “religiousness” of Latin Americans than on understanding Latin American religions. We wanted to hear the voices of real people, voices found beyond the borders of religious institutions, as religious organizations do not necessarily provide a full picture of today’s spiritual landscape.

Of course personal, lived, religion is an untidy thing. It is a multifaceted mixture of beliefs expressed in everyday practices in which people engage both their bodies and their emotions. Often these practices are creatively adapted, modified, and blended by unique and particularly expressive ways by individuals. In light of these grounded realities, our research tried to make visible the parts of religion that scientific categories have made invisible and recognize that, in their daily lives, people may consider practice to be more important than beliefs, or they may make no distinction about where to practice religion, bringing it into both private and public spaces.

We employed qualitative techniques – in depth interviews and object-elicitations – to interview 240 individuals in three cities with shifting religious landscapes and different cultural histories: Lima, Perú; Córdoba, Argentina; and Montevideo, Uruguay. Our research investigates two main questions about religion in Latin America: What do Latin Americans do when they do religion? And, what do their practices tell us about contemporary religion in general?

What do they do?

Latin Americans do a lot of things when they do religion. From the expected prayers to watering plants, hiking in the mountains to psychological therapy, running on the beach to streaming a liturgy, praying with their phones to volunteering in secular organizations, from tattooing their bodies to reading, lighting candles, and preparing dinners. They do religious things everywhere, from the bathroom to the living room, during their commute and in the workplace. The classical distinction between private religious places and secular public spaces is blurred among our respondents. And we have found the same with regards to the idea of sacred time. Rather than reserving religion to particular times, our respondents do religion at any moment, whenever they feel the need or desire.

Contrary to the popular imagination of Latin Americans as religious monolith, dominated by Catholicism, our respondents are in close touch with religious “others” – mostly within their own families. A majority of our interviewees have frequent contact with persons that identify with a different religious tradition, an important change when compared with 50 years ago. However, even when that encounter triggered some interests in the “other” (we categorized interest as visiting places or participating in celebrations outside one’s affiliation), it hasn’t meant a dialogue. Most of the time they don’t engage, and in fact avoid talking about religion altogether. This combination of intermixing and silence is challenging for two reasons: 1) People don’t have spaces to talk about religion, and 2) despite its prevalence, they seem not to know how to handle religious difference.

With regard to how our respondents understand their own religious status, a majority experienced religion as a “work-in-progress.” Participants changed their religious identification (i.e., switching from Pentecostalism to ‘non-Affiliation’ for example), or to a different tradition within the same affiliation (i.e., switching from ‘Committed’ to charismatic Catholicism). This was such a prevalent experience that a significant minority of our respondents adjusted their identification during the interview process. It is certainly the case that Latin American religion is an existential journey more than a dogmatic or intellectual destination. People are on religious paths, and occupy certain “spiritual locations,” but they have not necessarily reached a “destination,” nor have they achieved dogmatic clarity. To be a believer, according to our respondents, means to have doubts. Indeed, people were quite comfortable talking about their doubts, a fact that challenges social approaches to religion that focus heavily on its intellectual rather than its practical aspects.

Another trend among our respondents is that they practice religion on their own terms. Individuals are their own religious authorities. In all three locales we found that mandatory religious rituals were seen to be hostile to the practice of self-discovery, at odds with what philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the ethics of authenticity.” Instead of doctrines or rituals, what is most important for a majority of our interviewees is the personalization of their religious experience. Religions provide them with symbols and narratives, but people use them to tell their own stories. This is not to say that communities are irrelevant, on the contrary, our respondents still find religious communities valuable and join them voluntarily. Most first personal religious experiences, in fact, happen in the context of a community and leave a lasting impact, for better or worse, on those who have them.

In the case of the lower classes, Latin Americans are pragmatic and attend the community most readily available to them. Whether it be Catholic or a Pentecostal temple, a non-confessional association, attending a Jehovah Witness celebration, or volunteering at a secular NGO, if they are in the vicinity of it, they will participate in that institution. Latin Americans of the lower class rarely leave their own neighborhood to seek religious experiences. Strikingly, this does not mean that lower class Latin Americans consider themselves as having dual affiliation, but rather it emphasizes the importance of convenience to their experience of religion.

What does Latin America tell us about religion in general?

Latin America is a context that has been either ignored or misunderstood by current debates about the transformation of the religious landscape. Scholars tend to think individuals practice a religion clearly distinguishable from any other, and that “practice” means attending church once a week, mostly on Sundays. Both of these are features of North Atlantic societies that have been normalized as a standard of universal religious practice. Consequently, there has been a lack of understanding religion by terms other than membership, church attendance, and intellectual agreement with a set of dogmatic principles – all conceptual tools were built to make sense of the North Atlantic situation and, therefore, are not necessarily useful to understand other cultural contexts. The relationship between religion and society is particular and peculiarly shaped in every case. In the Latin American case, this means that we cannot expect to describe Latin American religiosity using North Atlantic parameters.

Perhaps most importantly, this means that mainstream secularization theories do not satisfactorily account for the religious phenomena experienced in Latin America today, in part because those stories are told from the center and by the religious and secular elites. If we listen to different voices, we may well discover a very different story.

The multi-year, comparative study of Latin American religiosity we have embarked upon tells us that our subjects are their own religious authorities and yet, at the same time, that religious communities still matter. Our respondents have told us that their reality is soaked in transcendence, yet that they feel that they do not have spaces where they feel comfortable to talk about religion – not even in the churches. They have told us that they do not know how to handle the growing religious pluralization they are encountering increasingly frequently and in increasing proximity. And we have found that where you live matters for how, where, and whether you practice. All of these finding show us that, contrary to expectations, Latin American religiosity is far from monolithic. It is, in fact, more a work in progress than a fixed situation; a journey more than a destination.

Rev. Gustavo Morello, SJ, a native of Argentina, is associate professor of sociology at Boston College and the author of The Catholic Church and Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’. His current research, funded by the Templeton Foundation and done in conjunction with three Latin American Universities, explores the transformations of lived religiosity in urban Latin Americans. It will be one of the first comparative qualitative studies on religiosity in Latin America.

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Gustavo Morello

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