Colombia does not have an official religion. However, Roman Catholicism is the dominant faith and deeply culturally pervasive. While the national department of statistics does not record the religious affiliations of the population, various studies and surveys suggest approximately 90% of Colombians are Christian. The most recent estimates published by the Pew Research Centre in 2014 proposed that 79% of the population identify as Catholic whilst 13% identify with Protestantism. A further 6% of the Colombian population is believed to be unaffiliated with any religion whilst 2% follow some other religion, including other variations of Christianity (Pew Research Centre, 2014).
Religion – specifically Catholicism – is deeply infused in the public life of Colombia. This is visible in the language. For example, one might hear the following phrases on a daily basis: “Si dios quiere” (God willing), “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you) and “Gracias a dios” (thank God).
The movement towards Protestantism has occurred within the last few decades. However, the topic of religious identity and difference does not have a lot of public importance in Colombia. Many people see the faith as part of their identity, passed on through the family and nation like cultural heritage. Almost all Colombians believe in God and are Catholic-raised. For example, 74% of Protestants were raised Catholic and 84% were baptised with the Catholic Church (Pew Research Centre, 2014). Atheists are generally seen as a minority and they are expected to participate in Catholic events and festivals regardless. A bigger discussion is ongoing surrounding the power and influence religious institutions have over politics and society.
Catholicism in Colombia
As a branch of Christianity, Catholics believe in the doctrine of God as the ‘Holy Trinity’, consisting of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Catholicism was introduced to Colombia by Spanish colonists in the 14th century. Today, it has become synonymous with the culture and society of Colombia. For the typical Colombian, life is marked by seminal Catholic moments, such as baptism, first communion, confirmation, marriage and extreme. These rites of passage mark key turning points throughout one’s lifetime.
Colombia has some of the highest rates of Catholic baptism in the world. The church has an influence in almost all aspects of life – politically, socially and economically. Many people consider the Pope to be the ultimate source of leadership and advice, basing their attitudes and opinions on social issues off the creed of the church. A survey in 2014 found that 93% of Colombians viewed Pope Francis favourably (Pew, 2014). One may find that Colombians can justify almost all events (whether positive or negative) by saying that they happened “because God wants it” (porque dios quiere). This idea of God predetermining events remains a source of comfort one can return to, giving people a ‘moral order’.
The Catholic practice of confession is a well-recognised way of bestowing forgiveness on those who hold remorse. In a country with a deeply turbulent history, this has been a source of consolation for many. Many Colombians believe there is a connection between what they do in life and the treatment they will receive in death (i.e. heaven or hell); therefore, it is hoped confession will wipe away any sins committed before judgement. However, this culture of forgiveness also means that many people turn a blind eye when someone does something that is immoral. A common local expression says “Él que peca y reza, empata” (“He who sins and prays, breaks even overall”). This is a cynical saying that essentially means a person’s immoral action can be excused so long as they repent it to God.