In This Article Religions in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • Traditional Non-Christian Religions
  • Alternative Religious Trends

Latin American Studies Religions in Latin America
by
Frank Usarski
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0201

Introduction

This article, distinct from the strict chronological perspective of history of religions selected according to the heuristic ambitions of the systematic study of religions, refers to the research of the religious landscape of what is commonly known as “Latin America.” This expression refers to the part of the world that is located between 32 degrees north latitude and 54 degrees south latitude, and 35 to 118 degrees west longitude, and whose history is marked by the conquest and posterior settlement by the Spanish and Portuguese. While this specification is not binding, the crucial role of religion for the region’s past and present is without question. This is evident not only for ecclesiastical historians and theologians interested in the changing destiny of their long-standing, dominant church in the related countries. Archaeologists, ethnologists, and anthropologists are also fully aware of the omnipresence of what we in the early 21st century call “religion” in the life of indigenous peoples, who once inhabited their territories unhindered from colonial aspirations and Christian missionary campaigns. Furthermore, scholars with different disciplinary backgrounds are conscious of the enormous impact that the continuous influx of African enslaved people from the 16th century onward had on the religious landscape. The same is true for interdisciplinary research on immigrants from European countries, the Middle East, and Asia, who brought their beliefs and rituals to their new host societies. Developments since the 1960s have made the significance of religion in Latin America even more obvious. In particular, the dramatic growth of Pentecostal churches, benefiting from the conversion of individuals socialized as Catholics, has stimulated further academic research efforts by scholars who until then had been indifferent to such subjects. This overview reflects the empirical particularities of Latin America’s religious field and underlines the challenges that the selected phenomena represent for interdisciplinary, academic study.

The Study of Latin American Religions

For decades or—if one includes missionary accounts and ecclesiastical documents—even for centuries, the study of religions in Latin America has attracted theologians and representatives of nontheological disciplines such as anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. From the second half of the 1970s onward, Latin America witnessed the emergence of the study of religions as a separate discipline, which has significantly contributed to ongoing research activities. One expression of the collective research efforts is the emergence of reference works and auxiliary material.

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