Students of Mexico’s religions find a patchwork of new colors

When one remembers Graham Greene’s portrayal of Mexico’s religious landscape, one might think of grayish and sad, old musty churches. In that view, faith is seen as moving mountains among those suffering poverty and despair. However, the last 30 years have completely challenged that image. The country is now living through a huge transformation, a blending and remaking of religious practices and associations. According to recent government-issued data, there are 35 religious associations currently registered in the country. Although many of them are Catholic of some sort, evangelical Protestants are well represented, with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Hare Krishnas being important minorities. Other expressions, such as Mexicanists and Fidencists (the former a religion based on pre-Columbian deities and the latter a group based on the teachings of a faith healer) are gaining momentum in contemporary Mexico. Research interests have been mirroring the country’s increasing religious diversity, concerned with religious conversion and hybridization as well as new evangelization patterns. RIFREM, the Research Network on Religious Phenomena in Mexico (Red de Investigadores del Fenómeno Religioso en México), is a national network of students and researchers devoted to the study of religion that held its twenty-second annual congress in mid-June. RIFREM was born in 1998 as a regional effort to understand religious phenomena in a country where academic Marxism and strong political secularism had marginalized religious studies for decades. In 2004, the network became a national one.

In 2018 RIFREM had over 300 members from national universities and research centers, as well as from some foreign universities. In its national congress, PhD students and seasoned scholars present work along with their younger peers working on their Master’s theses or BA projects. The congress venue selected this year was the small town of Creel, a tiny place in the Tarahumara region in the northern state of Chihuahua. Creel was an important site of missionary activity in the early seventeenth century and continues to bear witness to Jesuit evangelization efforts in the region. At the congress, scholars from all over the country gathered to discuss new trends in evangelization and new religious expressions and movements. From discussions of Shia Islamic communities in Mexico City to architecture and secularization, the growing importance of Protestant churches to the evangelical presence in society, the general atmosphere was of a vibrant, thriving research community in a country that is no longer fully Catholic but where Catholicism still resonates strongly. Relics and online (Catholic) devotions, current disputes on religion, gender, and sexuality, transnational perspectives on Mexican Catholicism, religious tourism, and religion in conflict zones were among the most interesting topics discussed at the gathering.

Even the government of President López Obrador came under scrutiny at the RIFREM congress. A panel on Obrador, politics, and religion prompted interesting debates on the thorny issue of the role of religion in the public sphere, a nearly taboo topic in Mexico. The issue arose after Obrador invited representatives of several evangelical churches to visit him at the Palacio Nacional, sparking a national debate on secularism and the limits that should exist on the relations between the government, states, and churches. Other topics showed the strength of more classic scholarship, such as new trends in education and evangelization, secularization, religious materiality in everyday life, and spirituality and wellbeing. Opening the conference was José Casanova of Georgetown University, who challenged scholars about the usual meaning given to globalization and linked it to premodern religious enterprises, mainly those of the Society of Jesus. RIFREM 2019 was charged with some of the more pressing issues Mexico faces and scholars took on the task of discussing religious practices in violent contexts, migratory processes, and other transformations in a country which, religiously speaking, is anything but grey. —By Marisol Lopez Menendez, who is a professor of sociology at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City.