Dispatch from Colombia

If you’re an American, chances are that the mention of Colombia conjures up images of violence; and you imagine it to be a very dangerous place to visit. You might think of the decades-long civil conflict, and the drug trade. Well, the civil war ended in 2016. And while the cocaine business is still thriving, and its practitioners are still killing each other occasionally, ordinary citizens or tourists rarely have anything to fear from them.

Colombia does have its share of violence and crime like any country, but for the most part it’s a peaceful and safe place to visit. And it has absolutely gorgeous scenery, with one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world: deserts, mountains, jungles, beaches, you name it. Bogota, one of the largest cities in the world, is home to some 8 million souls, and of course has its share of crime. In the 1990’s it had a reputation as the most dangerous city in the world, when it (like much of the U.S.) had a high homicide rate (concurrent with the crack epidemic). But since then, the rate of crime, especially violent crime, has been reduced dramatically.

Colombia is a victim of what one might term residual impression: an image that is now obsolete (if it was ever accurate at all), but still persists in the public consciousness. Americans, heavily fed on visual shorthand and media stereotypes, sometimes hang onto mental images of other countries and cultures that have been outdated for decades, but still can be seen in widely circulated movies. If other countries perceive the U.S. in a similar fashion, they might think that most Americans ride horses and wear white hats.

For instance, the hit film Midnight Express gave many Americans a negative impression of Turkey, and especially of the Turkish penal and legal systems. But screenwriter Oliver Stone made significant departures from the book on which the film is based; and the book’s author, William Hayes, later admitted that his account was not quite truthful; in fact, it appears that he simply fabricated many details — let’s not forget that he was a drug smuggler. (It also appears that when he made his famous prison escape, the Turkish authorities knew he was going to attempt it, and simply let him go.) Stone later apologized to the Turkish people for the negative PR he had given them, but by then the damage was done.

But to be fair, it isn’t just Americans who are guilty of residual impression. There’s plenty of it here in Colombia and elsewhere in South America, too — though of a different variety. What I see a great deal of here is residual exaltation of religion –i.e., Catholicism — in a way that should have become obsolete ages ago.

In a nation where some 80 percent of the population is Catholic, the separation of church and state has been a long, slow process. Until 1991, Catholicism was the official state religion. Before a 2012 court ruling, Bible verses could be cited as the basis of law. And even after these official changes, the unofficial power of the church to influence government action remains quite strong. In 2016, after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos issued a manual, prepared by the Ministry Of Education and the United Nations, to combat the bullying of gay students, the Catholic Church howled in outrage, declaring it an attack on “Colombian values”. President Santos ultimately was compelled to withdraw the manual form circulation.

Religion is everywhere in Latin America. Schools indulge in classroom prayers, public facilities sometimes play religious music, and there are Catholic icons everywhere you turn. Streets and landmarks are named after Christian figures and tenets. Jesus, of course, is a common name for boys. Public calendars are packed with church holidays. At the central bus terminal in Bogota, I saw a religious statue (Virgin Mary?) at which passengers paused to make some sort of reverent tribute, apparently in hopes of currying some sort of favor.

This kind of behavior illustrates a residual concept of religion, and specifically of Christianity, that is founded on three obstinate myths. The first is that religious doctrines represent absolute truth. Thus, the tenacity of traditional fundamentalist convictions including, for instance, that homosexuality is both voluntary and perverted. Religion, for many people, does not lead them to the truth; it merely convinces them that they already have it.

The second myth is that religion is the ultimate moral authority. In reality, the morality of religion is a very mixed bag. On the one hand, we have religious individuals and organizations feeding the hungry and housing the homeless and tending the sick. On the other hand, we have a long history of them killing, torturing and persecuting people for the slightest reason, or no reason at all. Not to mention flying airplanes into buildings.

People may become religious because they are moral, but they do not become moral just because they are religious. In Colombia, devout Catholics have been among those involved in drug trafficking, gang warfare, and other atrocities. Some of the nation’s bloodiest decades occurred when an official national religion was still in effect. I’ve been told by Colombians I’ve met that it’s just standard practice to bribe a cop whenever you get stopped for something; and no doubt those who have accepted bribes go to mass on Sunday feeling they have nothing to confess. Religion doesn’t cause people to do the right thing; it just convinces them that whatever they’re doing is right.

And the third myth is that religion is a switchboard of providential preference — that the True Believer is entitled to divine intervention in daily affairs. Religious fanatics (at least of the fundamentalist sort) believe not only that miracles happen and happen constantly, but that they deserve to be the beneficiaries; and that they have a right to be always at the top of the pecking order. Religion doesn’t make miracles happen more often; it just convinces people that when they do get a break, it’s because they’re entitled to it.

And where did these misconceptions about religion come from? Well, from religion itself — or more accurately, from religious institutions. Traditionally, the church wielded more or less absolute authority over societies and their citizens. So it has worked hard to create and maintain the perception that such authority is both merited and necessary.

In the last century or so, civilization has been shedding these residual impressions like outworn snakeskins. But even more recently, there’s been a coordinated effort to stuff humanity back into that skin. The effort by “conservatives” to reestablish religious dogma as the foundation of public policy is more strongly coordinated than ever. Not coincidentally, this comes at the same time as a global resurgence in fascism. After all, one of the earmarks of fascism is a strong alliance between church and state. Other traits include the other “conservative” campaigns we’re seeing: domination of media, perversion of elections, militarism, homophobia, patriarchy, racism and xenophobia. The last two further strengthen the distorted conceptions, among North Americans, about Colombia and other nations.

Residual impression is a naturally occurring phenomenon, even under the best of circumstances. But it becomes even more misleading when certain interests deliberately endeavor to create and preserve it.

9 comments

  1. “Religion doesn’t cause people to do the right thing; it just convinces them that whatever they’re doing is right.“ Very quotable line. People hold on to their residual impression long after it has stopped doing them any good.

    • And sometimes people embrace what they felt and had faith in when young, and then turn away from greedy leaders who use them only for transactional political advantages that enable them to acquire or hold on to power. i.e. Trump, and Putin.

  2. The residual impression keeps people observant of religion long after it has stopped doing them any good. Being good takes more work than simply following a pattern of rituals. Religion takes the easy way.

    • I agree, religion is often composed of following a repetitious patterns or rituals, many of which give us a feeling of “Holiness” However one thing Christ actually said, is, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.”

    • Religion should not be perceived as some kind of Tylenol used to “do us good.” I know that many people seem to think that way, but many regular Church goers use their religions to keep in touch with higher principles and as a way to guide their own faith in something larger than themselves. Dictators tell them that the State they created is what is larger than themselves, while using their followers to advance their own desired agendas. But true religious ICONs have denounced placing all faith in material possessions. And have often lived simply and without external attachments. Jesus told one of two criminals being crucified next to him who acknowledged that he had earned his fate and pointed out that Jesus had done nothing wrong. And this heartfelt confession was accepted with compassion by Jesus, who told the repenting criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

      At the last supper Jesus washed the feet of his disciples while they protested to their master that he should not do this But Jesus used this occasion to teach them that true spirituality involves humility, not the fake kind, but the kind which which includes real care and compassion for our fellow men without placing ourselves above them.

      All too often we judge the value of faith by adding up the many offenses and ethical crimes of those who are parts of religious groups, but the real Icons in many world religions are not the spreaders of such ignorance. And when we see the many ridiculous things said and done in the name of religions, we should not automatically decide that the entire world of spirituality is nothing but BS–because when it is BS, that’s usually due to the ignorance of its followers, and not the purity of the original message spread by the religious ICONs whom their faiths are founded on. That being said, it often seems to me that many atheists are more compassionate and understanding than many religious people are. So the quality of compassion, mercy, faith, and love, does not express itself in any “one true way!”

  3. One of my best friends married a Colombia woman & he’s been down there several times to visit her family & he loves it down there. He would love to move there but she loves the States. She’s a devout Catholic but he’s basically pagan … just a partier.

  4. “People may become religious because they are moral, but they do not become moral just because they are religious.”

    I love the quote above but this following quote which you also provide, feels full of generalizations, and may be supported by those who are aggressively biased or prejudiced

    “Religion doesn’t cause people to do the right thing; it just convinces them that whatever they’re doing is right.”

    Believe it or not, a good deal of spirituality involves teaching us what (not) to do. Such faith can begin with the realization that greed, power trips, and taking violent action against others, is not cool and not truly advantageous to our spirits.

    I agree that religions fail to live up to their own standards and reject science needlessly, instead of what Jesus actually told his disciples–not to lay up treasures for ourselves which can be stolen by thieves or be eaten by moths. He also told us to go into our closets to pray, so that sharing our thoughts with God will be treasured, and that, where our treasure is our hearts will be also. But regardless of these internal rewards televangelists choose to broadcast close-ups of their own faces, as they strain to show us that they are oooh sooo, saintly and holy?

    My personal feeling is that many world religions do promote genuine care and concern for “the least of us” as being much more important to God. Unfortunately, as imperfect human beings we often disobey the spiritual maxim to love our neighbors as ourselves. And most of us know that such an attitude is much easier to give lip service to, than take to heart. So if anything, the words of genuine saints and genuine lovers of humanity are often swept under the rug to foster a fake impression of personal holiness and of being devout! Is this the fault of the iconic founders of Christianity, Buddhism etc. or does it come from the minds of human beings who unfortunately seem to misinterpret the words of all the truly good men this world has ever known?

    We certainly don’t need religions to be moral, but we do need to love somebody or something which is worth believing in. We may love our wives or husbands, our fathers and mothers, our close friends, and often the words of great philosophers, however, it’s also our nature to be selfish, greedy, angry, and hateful, So perhaps these are the things are the qualities religious icons truly want us to shed, even when our own fearful and selfish ways are the easiest course to take!

  5. Whenever people condemn religions for doing more harm than good, I like to leave a few gems like these from Einstein:

    “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.”

    And about bible thumpers and Hell-fire preachers, they might be interested in reading these words from Einstein:

    “Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.”(an observation also shared by some Buddhists)

    Overall, Einstein was not a believer in religion, and said this:

    “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

    But before we think that only atheists know the truth, how about this quote from Einstein?:

    He said this also when criticizing. fanatical atheists… “whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics.”

    and from this link:

    https://notevenpast.org/was-einstein-really-religious-0/

    Einstein famously wrote: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

    So to Einstein, although he valued science and reason over prayers and penance, taught us not to think that any other man in possession of the whole truth, For him the fault lies in ignorantly thinking that only one pole of two polar opposites contains the complete and entire truth.

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