It’s commonly read from afar that Mexicans are very religious.. it’s about as equally common, after having been here a while, to conclude the exact opposite. A reckless and foolhardy criticism of Mexicans? Not at all the intention. A sense of superior devotion on the part of the writer over that of Mexicans?? Getting colder. It’s more a simple point regarding culturally driven perceptions. What often happens is that as outsiders, we come in and make the familiar rounds, through some Aztec or Mayan ruins, to some of the most prominent Catholic landmarks, wandering about and appraising their architectural and graphic splendor… and as we settle ourselves into our tranquil, vacational spheres, any reflection that occupies us is likely limited to how much history has passed in front of those impressive gigantic wooden doors at the cathedral’s entrance. In the end we go back home cherishing the images we picked up in our travels, and later, when we once again pick up the literature on Mexico, it all seems to coincide.
And why not? Mexican society and culture exudes religious symbolism.. from street names and birth names to imagery in public and private establishments; holidays and festivities in honor of saints and virgins, sometimes attracting literally millions.. just ask any Guadalajara native.. anywhere.. about October 12 and the ‘Virgen de Zapopan’. In February, small towns celebrating the Candelaria torment the living dead, clanging church bells and quaking with thousands of thunder flash fireworks (little.. anti-aircraft look’n bastards) simultaneously going off around midnight and 6 am for days on end. From Ash Wednesday to Easter, hardly a food vendor in the entire city will sell any meat besides seafood on Fridays. Very few are the homes throughout all of Mexico that do not display the image of the ‘Virgen de Guadalupe’. Cathedrals, basilicas, sanctuaries and expiatories are outnumbered only by the devotees who make the cross sign whenever they pass by one.. At first glance, it is indeed hard to escape the perception that Mexicans, generally speaking, are people of profound faith….
So what gives?
Well… composing any worthwhile reading in this modern era regarding the concept of religion seems futile to say the least. Getting through a discussion on the subject without snaggin’ your britches on any one of thousands of brainmushing clichés is an endeavor that I’ve come to think should be reserved only for those who think far too much for their own good. To aspire to outsmart religion, or at any rate to be the man who feels he’s above it all is no more appealing to me than being the one who’s so hopelessly buried in it that the light burning in his soul never actually merges with the light of day. Neither of these two types have much to offer in terms of discussion. But in a free-thinking society there is virtually no coherent consensus on what religion is, and even less so in trying to define a simple adjective like “religious”.
It should be supposed that this word “religious” (and for the sake of brevity, let’s just stick to Christianity for the entirety of this post) refers to a deep faith in and intense devotion to a) God – the Father, b) the teachings of Jesus Christ – the Son, and c) the teachings of primarily the New Testament of the Holy Bible, a compilation of accounts concerning the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and other letters written either about or by his apostles who, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, continued to spread the message of God’s purpose and gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Wow… I wonder if I could make a living marketing nutshells like that one? Or maybe I’m diving too deep into this? Perhaps the word “religious” simply means living by the golden rule, and never cursing at, defacing, or urinating on religious symbols.. or never cursing in general.. much less wasting our lives away pondering such trifling questions as to who, and on what date in history and under what circumstances was it decided that the use of the work ‘fuck’ was officially to be the mark of a wallowing infectious sinner. Perhaps “religious” means somehow making babies without ever having actually seen real live male or female genitalia, much less touched it with any extension of our own bodies except with the other.. ‘thingy .. down there’… and etcetera, and etc… and whatever else our dopey minds can come up with…
In the Christian world, most of us are more than familiar with this tedious, half-baked approach to godliness. Indeed, a large portion of “believers” are seen as, if not actually are, no more than adherents to a long list of philosophically cheap or bankrupt superstitions with no more divine origin than a toy from a cereal box. But to assume that any religion is born so shallow, or has always been meant to defy rational thought and behavior - is to be equally as shallow in your understanding of how history, politics, culture, and religion go together within the complex framework of human nature. No religion in the world, no matter Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Communism or any other, can escape the dilution of its original purpose imposed by such an unavoidable and unending clash of human factors. Roman Catholicism, rather than by any means being an exception to this, is a most exemplary case in point… and its Spanish turned Mexican version even more acutely so.
While North America was first colonized primarily by the English seeking to escape the Church (that it wasn’t officially Roman Catholic by that time makes no difference to the point being made here), the Spanish had already been colonizing Central and South America with motive to enrich the Church via the region’s wealth in silver and gold. This is significant. It means that the conquered natives of the central and the south, who themselves were very “religious”, were, by decree, not to be exterminated, but “converted”… Why? Bueno.. you think the Spaniards were willing to dig that crap out of the ground themselves? Evidently, slavery is okay as long as your master can convince you that your suffering on earth earns you greater rewards in heaven. Just how the Church managed to pull off such a massive conversion is one you should research on your own.. I’m likely in enough hot water already as it is. But even to this day, few are the households throughout the republic that don’t bear reference to it.. as it remains a centerpiece of religious devotion here. One thing is assuredly clear: It’s got nothing to do with the origins of Christianity.
To subtract this from Mexican history is a forfeiture of valid discussion on contemporary Mexican politics, culture, and society - which, despite the flavor of this post, I’m proud to be a part of, even if no more than as a long term visitor. Mexico’s greatest triumph and hope is its wealth of citizens who willingly and proudly confront the struggle to better themselves, their families, their neighborhoods and society at large, and possess the intelligence and heart to make it happen. Believe me. I’ve been here long enough to know firsthand. And it cannot be denied that religion has played a role in the nurture of these qualities. The things these people are up against, however - the poverty, the high crime rates, the literally choking corruption, and worst, the gut-wrenching reciprocity between the tramplers and those who somehow believe they can wring out a drop of inner peace for their acceptance of being trampled - are rooted also in the very power structures imposed so harshly upon Mexican society over the centuries in order to keep it “religious”… in order to keep Mexico’s greatest asset, its people, unconditionally devoted to the Church.
People here, like people anywhere, don’t generally appreciate any discussion or gesture that seems to scrutinize the very foundation of the tree that bears the fruit of their daily or weekly religious practices (so much for avoiding clichés). What’s upsetting to people in these situations is that they cannot explain, nor therefore defend, the foundation of their beliefs any more effectively than an apple can defend the tree on which it hangs from people with chainsaws.
Does an apple know when its tree has fallen, or does it just languish and rot? Does a religious follower, a living human with infinitely more potential than an apple, know when his or her religious activities no longer connect with the root that brought them into existence? If so, is there any solution? For an individual, perhaps. For a society, one must conclude it to be far from likely.
Some of us don’t believe that God exists, and some of us do. That both might be true is scientifically absurd. If there is no God, then despite all the good the Church has represented in the world (I’m quite conscious of the subjectivity of the claim), its entire foundation is based on false belief at best… and at worst a blatant and sinister lie. However, if there is a God, then what a sad irony it is to observe the history of the Church and inevitably have to wonder, and dubiously so, how the hell the damned thing figures into any equation regarding the relationship between God and Man.
Christianity is not based on belief in God per se. It’s founded more specifically on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and a faith not only in his philosophical teachings and fulfillment of prophecies, but more importantly in that he really was the son of God, as well as God in the flesh, and that his sacrifice, if one believes in ‘Him’, forgives all of one’s transgressions committed against the will of God and grants eternal life. One has not to be a believer to acknowledge this origin of Christianity. The same Paul that the Roman Catholic Church deems a Saint pointed out that upon nothing more than this factor alone does Christianity even exist (1 Cor. 15. 12-19).
Now how’s all that for scientifically absurd? However, it should not be overlooked that while the realm of nature seems infinitely vast, the field of science is quite restricted to within whatever its boundaries are. To assume that there exists nothing beyond simple nature is just philosophically dull. But even duller is the inability, among believers and non-believers alike, to see that the Church, in all of its pitifully pompous political hierarchy, is neither God incarnate, nor vicariously Jesus Christ, nor some bloody gatekeeper of the Holy Spirit.
The Church would have its followers believe that to be excommunicated is to lose your salvation.. that whatever one might do to offend or betray the Church is therefore an offence to or betrayal of God.. that to question the authority of the Church is to question God… Few, if anyone, considers that the very foundation of Christianity is a culmination of the rejection of Jesus Christ by the priests and authorities of his own religion, who were no more or less fallible than any alive today.
A famous quote, some say made by Porfirio Díaz over a century ago, goes something along the lines of “Poor Mexico.. so far from God, and so close to the United States.” It’s a sentiment that many here possess to this day… which leads one naturally to ask – Why, in a society as religious as Mexico, do so many feel that their very nation is so far from God? Has God forsaken Mexico? That’s kind of a ridiculous question, I suppose. It’s not so silly to point out, however, that blind devotion to Church doctrine and its pathetic patchwork of mandates will never serve to usher any soul to God’s good graces.