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Peru Religion and Social Change / Religion in Peru

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What are the religions in Peru and how have they affected the culture and social change? With a dual personality, religion in this South American nation can be seen as good or bad. Here's what some research reveals about Peruvian attitudes towards religion.

P. Porras Barrenechea, a historian, once made the statement that the Peruvian was probably the most religious man in the world.

Be that as it may, religion has played a significan role in the social and cultural development of society in the following timeline:

  • From the origins in the Andes mountains....
  • Through the birth of ancient civilizations (3,000 BC)...
  • The cultural and political education of pre-Hispanic Andean societies, and finally...
  • The religious transformation following the fall of the Inca Empire and the seizure of power by the Spanish, who imposed Catholicism.

Peru Religion and Social Change - The Primary Religious Groups

Census 2007 showed Religion in Peru as:

  • Roman Catholic

  • Evangelical 12.5%

  • Other Religions 3.3%\
  • Unspecified or None 2.9%

The main religions in Peru are nominally of the Christian religion, with Roman Catholicism being the dominant one.

Catholicism, which came to this country along with the conquistadores, met with the Inca polytheistic religion and  resulted in a mixture of the two.

This amalgamation of Catholic and tribal beliefs exists presently throughout the country in different mixtures and concentrations.

The Andean original religions attached a high value on helping others, such as the poor, and encouraged full respect for nature.

As pointed out by author José Carlos Mariategui in 1968, "The fundamental features of religion Inkaiko (Inca and Quechua Indians) are your theocratic collectivism and materialism ... the Religion of the Quechua was a moral code rather than a metaphysical concept... the State and the church were indistinguishable; religion and politics recognized the same principles and the same authority."

The first meeting between Catholic authority and Inca authority was when Father Valverde met with the head Inca, Atahualpa.

Valverde gave Atahualpa a copy of the Catholic Catechism, saying it was the Word of God.

When the Inca put the book to his ear and failed to hear God's voice, he then threw the book to the ground.

According to the records, Father Valverde then shouted to the Spanish forces who were hidden and ready to attack,

"Santiago, attack them, I absolve you!"

This cry of a military attack was the first episode where the Catholic Church acted in coordination with the Spanish soldiers to invade and conquer the Inca Empire - social change of a definitely negative character.

Peru Religion - The Christian Religions in Peru

Catholicism - at 81.3% is the religion that traditionally identifies Peruvian society.

Peru Religion and Social Change
Peru religion
"Virgen de la Candelaria" festivities in Puno

The Peruvian Catholic Church hosts many festivals that are often combined and confused with native religious celebrations .

However, even though the Catholic religion as a whole is in the majority throughout the Peruvian cultural areas, in actual practice, it is very diverse; rituals, symbols, beliefs, and festivals differ significantly from one area to another.

Called "popular religion," this is a synthesis of Catholicism and pre-Hispanic practices.

At times, it is difficult to see any vestige of Christianity in the holy day festivities of individual "Catholic" communities (note the photos with the various names and renditions of the Virgin Mary festivals).

The spread of Catholicism began when the Spanish conquerors arrived to the territory that later became known as Peru in the sixteenth century.

Peru Religion and Social Change
Peru religion
Paucartambo - Fiesta de la "Virgen del Carmen"

Imposed by force on the natives, the Catholic religion accompanied the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and was partner in the distribution of profits and extracted gold and other riches from the Incas.

The Spanish colonists who arrived later in Peru continued the pattern of their predecessors, imposing the doctrines of the Church on what they termed the "pagans or gentiles."

The Spanish clergy destroyed most of the cultural heritage of the Inca Andean religion by their actions, called by themselves the "extirpation of idolatry." (see Inca Art)

Writing in 1986, author Pierre Duviols states, "To theologians of the sixteenth century Spain, the American peoples of the civilized realms - such as the Mayas and the Incas - were considered heathens, or gentiles, in much the same way as the ancient Greeks and Romans in the 1st century.

Like those ancient cultures, these New World natives worshiped many gods or idols. The Andean people as well as each of the Amazonian tribes had its own mythology, religion, and explanations of the origin of the universe, the events after death, miracles of healing, etc.

These native religions were deemed "idolatrous" and thus open to violent persecution which came in the form of slavery and even worse during the Spanish Inquisition in Peru.

Ironically, the Peruvian Constitution officially recognizes the "contribution of Catholic religion" in the formation of the Peruvian nation.

Peru Religion - Religions in Peru
Peru religion
"Virgen de la Candelaria" festivities in Puno, Peru

Evangelical or Protestant Religions - 12.5%

Protestant and evangelical churches came to Peru with European immigrants and Americans involved in the distribution of the Bible and their doctrines, introducing a new climate of religion and social change.

One who stands out among these is Diego Thomson, a Scottish citizen who arrived at the port of Callao in Peru on June 28, 1822. Thomson had been invited by the liberator of Peru, General Jose de San Martín.

San Martín's plan was for Thomson to organize a system in Peru for training school teachers in order to develop general education, which up until that time had been reserved only for the wealthy.

Not a member of the upper classes himself, Martín emphasized the need for education and social change.

Peru Religion - Religion in Peru
Peru religion
Paucartambo - Fiesta de la "Virgen del Carmen"

Later, a major promoter of the Christian faith was Francisco Penzotti. A believer in religion and social change, Penzotti was an Italian missionary who came to Peru in July 1888.

Efforts on the part of Penzotti to make the Bible available to the masses also provided an entrance into Peru for the first time of protestant Bible societies and translators, stimulating a new era of religion and social change.

Now, mainline Protestant churches such as the Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodists have a definite but limited presence.

Other Religions - 3.3%

With migration came other religious beliefs and practices in Peru.

Along with the Spanish Conquerors and Colonization came slaves to work the land. Among these were many Africans. Known today as Afro-Peruvians or Afro-Peruanos, these brought their own religious beliefs and customs depending on the tribe they were from.

The Chinese arrived in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Jews, Arabs, Turkish, and Japanese communities each contributed a small share to Peru religion and social change

In review, then, religion in Peru currently includes the Catholic and Protestant religions, Buddhism, Islam, and the Hindu religion, as well as other influential religions such as that of Jehovah's Witnesses and the LDS, as well as a smattering of other religious and tribal groups.

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