• Donovan Badrock

Disappearing Secularism In Guatemala

In March, International Association of Atheists has been running a campaign to give Guatemalan students access to educational programs that teach critical thinking. You can learn more about this campaign here.

Guatemala is a small country of about 17 million people, located in Central America, sharing its northern border with Mexico.

Its religious breakdown reflects those of most western countries: 87% Christian (45% Catholic, 42% Protestant) 11% of people profess no religious affiliation, with the remainder being made up of Muslims, Jews, and indigenous religions such as Mayans, which is where the Guatemalan breakdown differs from other Christian dominated countries.

The constitution of Guatemala protects religious freedom with Catholicism getting special distinction through a concordat.

Because of this, any non-Catholic has to register for legal status, tax exemptions, and for renting property. Religions do not need to be registered for the purpose of worship.

The constitution also protects the rights of Mayans to hold ceremonies at historical sites on government property.

Guatemala has heavy protections both for and against religion. People can be sentenced from one month to one year for interruption of religious celebrations or the vague ‘offence of a religion’, and for the desecration of burial sites. The country has legal freedom of expression which gives citizens protection from blasphemy laws.

According to the constitution, no member of the clergy of any religion may serve as president, vice president, government minister, or judge. A very explicit separation of church and state.

The biggest issue in Guatemala for the indigenous religions is access to their spiritual sites.

There have been complaints from Mayans about limited access due to fees to enter national parks, and areas that cannot be accessed due to environmental protection issues. There are also ongoing issues with Mayan historical sites on private property, with landowners accused of refusing access.

Fees to enter some national parks can be $4 or $5, which is prohibitive for many of the indigenous populations. Mayans can be issued with a ‘Spiritual Card’ from the government, but leaders say this is very time-consuming, with trips to Guatemala City required and the need for applicants to be fluent in Spanish, which many of them aren’t.

Education is one of Guatemala’s biggest social issues. Secular government education is free, but the materials required are not. With more than half of Guatemala’s population living under the poverty line, many families struggle to give their children a full education, with many children attending for only a few years, or not at all. Many remote indigenous communities have little to no access to formal education.

In 2015 in what was a departure from its protected secularism, the Guatemalan congress debated a bill to force all schools, private and public, to teach Christianity, including that the Bible as a literal description of past events. Humanist and secular organisations protested the bill. A member of the Guatemalan Association of Secular Humanists (AGHS) spoke out against the proposal in Congress and was booed as he talked about the "the importance of separation between state and religion" and the "liberal tradition" of secularism that Guatemala has.

Another bill, introduced in 2018 and the first bill ever proposed by the country's evangelical churches, proposes protecting the "traditional family" by essentially promoting and legalizing homophobia, transphobia and attacking the rights of women. One of the biggest concerns that came with this proposed bill was that it was indicative of the growth of the evangelical movement in Guatemala.

These are both disturbing bills for a secular government to even consider. Ensuring a secular education for children is a primary goal for all humanist, secular, and atheist organisations. The more secular and the more educated a population is, the less likely it is for people to face blasphemy charges, to face persecution for not being religious, or for being a member of ‘the wrong’ religion. It also means less chance of religious ideas being passed by legislators into law.

It’s with this in mind that the IAA is running a fundraising campaign to support after-school programs in the Guatemalan highlands that teach critical thinking. The program is sponsored, as well, by Guatemala Humanistas and will seek to teach children not only how to think critically, but also that they can, and that they should.

For many of the beneficiaries of this program, this will be their only access to education that teaches critical thought. We need you to ensure they get it. Please donate now by clicking here.

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