Updated on 02/16/2024
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Colombia, a country rich in cultural and geographical diversity, hosts a fascinating blend of religious beliefs. Religion plays a significant role in the lives of many Colombians and has left an indelible mark on the nation’s history and culture.
Explore the history and importance of the various beliefs in this marvelous country.
A Historical Look at Religion in Colombia
Religion in Colombia has undergone many changes and transformations, as the arrival of new civilizations and knowledge led to a 180-degree shift in beliefs and practices. These changes were also reflected in the social and cultural life of the country’s inhabitants.
Early Religions in Colombia
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the first religions in Colombia were attributed to pre-Columbian indigenous tribes. Notable indigenous communities included the Muisca, who inhabited the Andean region, and the Tayronas in the Caribbean region, located in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
Most of these tribes were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped more than one god. Each culture had different beliefs, practices, and rituals in which they worshipped their gods. The figures they revered were related to spirits and nature. Some forms of religion were:
- Muisca Religion: The Muisca, who primarily inhabited the Andean region of present-day Colombia, worshipped various gods and spirits related to nature. Examples include Bochica, the civilizing god, Nemqueteba, the goddess of waters, the sun god Sué, and the moon goddess Chía. They performed rituals involving offerings and celebrations to appease these gods and maintain balance in the world.
- Tayrona Religion: The Tayronas, living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, believed in a supreme deity known as “Gauteovan,” the mother of the universe and all things that existed. They performed purification rituals and offerings at the mountaintops.
- Zenú Religion: The Zenúes, residing in the Montes de María region, practiced a polytheistic religion that worshipped multiple gods associated with agriculture and fertility. They conducted rituals and offerings to ensure good harvests and the well-being of the community.
- Amazonian Region Religions: In the Amazonian region of Colombia, several indigenous tribes had animistic beliefs involving the worship of nature spirits and ancestors. Shamans played a crucial role in communicating with spirits and in healing.
Religion in the Spanish Conquest
The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century marked a significant change in religion in Colombia, as Catholicism was introduced as the dominant religion.
Catholic missionaries from Spain entered these indigenous communities to convert them to Christianity.
With the creation of new cities in Colombia in the 16th century, such as Santa Marta, Cartagena, Pasto, and others, institutions were established for social control. Religious brotherhoods were responsible for ensuring that the established church norms were followed.
It is essential to note that, with these brotherhoods, Christianity was imposed violently and cruelly on indigenous peoples, black individuals who arrived as slaves and practiced the religion of their home country, and anyone else who did not believe in Christianity. Indigenous people who resisted conversion often faced punishments and reprisals.
In 1680, missions were conducted to preach to communities near cities, and the first chapels were built to indoctrinate those who lived there.
Evolution and Current State of Religion in Colombia
From the time of independence, some reforms were made to ensure that religion did not have a significant role in political and social decisions. With multiple governments passing, religious stability was not achieved, as some groups wanted a government aligned with the church, while others preferred a secular state.
In 1991, with the constitution of that year, Colombia became a secular state where freedom of worship is allowed. The state recognizes both Catholicism and other ancestral, tribal, African, and Christian religions equally.
While the majority of Colombians are Catholics, in recent decades, there has been growth in religious diversity in Colombia. This is due to the emergence of other religions, such as Protestantism, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, as well as an increase in the secularization of society.
Since 2019, according to a study by the World Vision organization, Catholicism has 57.2% of followers. On the other hand, Evangelical/Pentecostal churches have 19.5% of believers and are a group of constant followers.
People who consider themselves believers but do not belong to any religion represent 13.2% of the Colombian population, while the agnostic and atheist population represents 6.3% of Colombians.
On the other hand, there are other smaller religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Protestant church, and others, representing 3.8% of the population.
In Colombia, out of every 10 people, approximately:
- 6 are Catholic
- 2 are Evangelical/Pentecostal
- 1 believes but is not affiliated with any religion
Major Religions Practiced in Colombia
As we mentioned, in the last decades, religion in Colombia has diversified to a great extent. These are some of the most present religions in the country.
Catholicism is the predominant religion in Colombia, with a long-standing presence in Colombian culture since the Spanish conquest and colonization. However, this population is diminishing due to the arrival of new religions that better align with Colombian preferences and because fewer young people want to engage in religious matters.
It is essential to understand that Catholicism is a denomination of Christianity that gained widespread acceptance due to its influence on the politics and beliefs of society.
Christianity is a monotheistic religion, meaning that it worships a single God. This doctrine is based on the teachings of Jesus and his Gospels. It came to Colombia through the branch of Catholicism, but now has various denominations present in the country.
Protestantism is one of the branches of Christianity based on the Protestant Reformation. This reform emerged as a form of opposition to the abuses and malpractices of the Catholic Church.
While Protestantism is not a religion, it includes denominations such as Presbyterianism, Puritanism, Calvinism, Lutheran churches, Anglican churches, Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists. Protestantism itself does not encompass other religions but represents a variety of traditions within Christianity.
This group is the second most significant in Colombia, with numerous churches throughout the country.
Evangelical Christianity in Colombia dates back to colonial times, as one of the early forms of Protestantism in the country. This movement experienced various stages of growth, including the migration of foreign evangelical individuals and religious freedom allowed by the government in its constitutions.
From the 20th century onwards, there was a diversification in evangelicalism with a variety of denominations and movements, from Lutheran churches to Pentecostals. The most important Pentecostal churches in the country are the Assemblies of God, the Four Square Church, and the United Pentecostal Church of Colombia. Currently, this doctrine has a large number of followers and communities throughout the country.
Agnosticism in Colombia arises from religious pluralism, i.e., the diversification of beliefs in the country. This ideological current emerges from different doubts and questions about the existence of a God and the functions of the church, as well as conflicts and corruption that lead to a loss of credibility in the church and faith.
People who identify as agnostics are indifferent to the presence of a divine or supernatural being like God, due to a lack of evidence or ways to prove its existence. Agnostics, not belonging to any particular belief, do not have celebrations or significant dates.
Atheism, like agnosticism, emerged from doubts about the existence of God during the independence era, with an increase in the diversity of religious and philosophical perspectives. Due to this, Colombian thinkers and intellectuals began to express doubts about religion and the role of the Catholic Church in society.
This ideological current is frowned upon in Colombia, especially in rural areas, due to religious customs that have been entrenched for centuries. However, some atheist movements discuss rights and promote science and critical thinking.
Other Minority Beliefs in Colombia
Some religions are practiced to a lesser extent because they are followed by minority populations, but they are important at a cultural level because some of them leave an ancestral and historical heritage in Colombia.
Despite religious purification by the Spanish during the conquest period, many traditions and customs of indigenous tribes have persisted to this day.
Although part of this population has converted to Catholicism and other Christian beliefs, others still adhere to the religion of their culture. Their beliefs include a worldview of nature, worship of deities and spirits, and religious syncretism.
In these communities, shamans and spiritual leaders are crucial for communication with the spiritual world and the performance of ancestral rituals.
Religions from Afro-descendant cultures have also survived since the colonial period. These religions are important as they reflect the spiritual and cultural heritage of Afro-Colombian communities, most of whom are descendants of people brought to the country during the slavery era.
Some prominent Afro-Colombian religions and belief systems include Santería and Palenque, originating from the town of San Basilio de Palenque. Instruments like the marimba and currulao music are used in their rites to celebrate and honor the dead.
Islam arrived in Colombia in the mid-19th century with the arrival of a Muslim population, but the small number of settled people prevented the transmission of the values of this religion. However, in the 20th century, continuous migration allowed the creation of Islamic prayer spaces.
Initially, Sunni population arrived, but over time, Shia and Sufi communities also settled. Currently, each community has gathering places throughout the country to celebrate their important dates, where they also teach topics about Arab and Muslim culture to followers and the curious alike.
According to the Confederation of Jewish Communities of Colombia, Colombia has approximately 6,000 Jews in major cities such as Bogotá, Cali, Barranquilla, and Medellín. They arrived from the 1920s onwards, mainly from countries like Poland, Germany, and Romania.
The Jewish community is Zionist, adhering to established religious traditions and festivities. Colombian Jewry is organized into nine communities throughout the country, represented under the Confederation of Jewish Communities of Colombia, and is part of other international Jewish organizations.
Buddhism began to be practiced in Colombia in the second half of the 20th century. The arrival of Buddhism in Colombia is largely associated with the immigration of people of Asian origin who settled in the country. It also began to be practiced due to the influence of the armed conflict, in which affected individuals were seeking peace and spiritual refuge.
It is essential to highlight that Buddhism in Colombia is not homogeneous and encompasses various Buddhist traditions and schools, such as Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Theravāda Buddhism, among others. Buddhist groups and centers offer teachings, meditation practices, and spiritual activities for those interested in exploring this religious and philosophical tradition.
Impact of Religion in Colombia: Shaping Lives and Culture
For an extensive period, religion has played a fundamental role in the decision-making processes of Colombian society.
As a consequence, Colombians have embraced religious beliefs that have become deeply rooted traditions, affecting many aspects of their lives, including how they behave in society and in cultural, political, and even academic domains.
Catholic values have been ingrained in the education of Colombians for generations. This is evident in the philosophy of various educational institutions, such as schools and universities. Some of the country’s most prominent Catholic institutions include the Javeriana University, San Bartolomé Major College, Catholic University, Rosario University, and the Minuto de Dios University.
Similarly, schools in Colombia include the subject of religion, taught from primary to high school. This subject covers topics such as biblical events and the importance of God in society. However, an increasing number of schools are opting out of this subject.
Politics and Civil Society
The Catholic Church in Colombia has also had an impact on politics and civil society during the conquest, independence, and in the different political constitutions created throughout history.
It has been present in the formation of political parties, such as the MIRA party and the Colombia Justa Libres party, which have some religious foundations. Even in public institutions like the National Police, religious aspects are found. For example, their motto is “Dios y Patria” (“God and Country”, in English).
Influence on Laws and Legislation
One of the most significant legislations in Colombia has been the transition to a secular state, where there is freedom of worship. This change was not only due to religious diversity but also to mitigate persecutions and condemnations of people with different ideologies.
Cultural Identity and Values
Religion in Colombia has influenced the identity and behaviors of its inhabitants, as aspects such as the Bible and the commandments are taken into account in shaping the personality and conduct of children. This influence is not only seen in identity but also in customs.
For example, followers of Christian religions often consider things like body modifications (piercings and tattoos, or surgeries), participation in parties, and extramarital sexual relations disrespectful or against religion. These religions do not always approve of behaviors that might be considered normal by society at large.
Many Colombians practice the Catholic religion in their daily lives, participating in masses, prayers, and other religious practices. It has even permeated the language. Therefore, it is very common to hear expressions like “Dios lo bendiga” (“God bless you”), “Dios le pague” (“God pay you”), “Dios quiera” (“God willing”), or “vaya con Dios” (“go with God”).
Family and Marriage
Traditional Catholic values have influenced normalized attitudes towards marriage, divorce, and family, promoting stability and family unity. Of course, non-traditional family structures, such as homosexual ones, are not well-received among believers.
Art and Culture
Catholicism has been a significant source of inspiration for art and culture in Colombia. The architecture of churches and cathedrals, religious music, and artistic representations are some examples.
Religious influence in architecture is most notably reflected in various buildings around the country, such as the Sanctuary of Las Lajas in Ibagué, the Israeli mosque in Bogotá, Abou Bakr Alsiddiq, the Primate Cathedral of Colombia, or the Salt Cathedral in the municipality of Zipaquirá, which are visited by both local residents and foreign tourists.
Celebrations and Festivities
In the Catholic religion, multiple saints and events have their holidays on the national calendar. These are celebrated through festivals and fairs in various municipalities throughout the country, including parades, horseback rides, religious processions, and concerts with mainly local artists.
Among the most important festivities are Holy Week, the Feast of the Virgin of Candelaria in Popayán, the festivities of the Virgin of Chiquinquirá in Boyacá, processions of the Virgin of Carmen, the San Pacho festivities, among others.