Religion in Belize
Unlike its predominantly Roman Catholic neighbors, Belize is home to a broad diversity of religions. Almost all the religions in Belize are non-native. The Mayan religion has the best claim to indigenous origins, but many of Belize’s modern Mayans came from other Central American countries. Belize has many pockets of immigrant culture, and each has brought its own spiritual traditions. Each of these communities is relatively small, but are determined to pass their religious heritage onto the next generation.
Immigration from war-torn Guatemala and Mexico has increased the number of Catholics, and today around 39 percent of Belizeans identify as Catholic. This is a relatively new phenomenon. The Spanish forced the Maya to convert to Catholicism in the 17th century, but much of the Mayan community at that time was almost completely wiped out by European diseases.
30 percent of Belizeans today practice various forms of Protestantism. Evangelical Christianity has grown quickly in the past few decades. Most of the Protestants in Belize are Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, or Anglican. In the early 19th century, British loggers brought their Anglican beliefs to Belize.
Maya Religion – From Ancient Traditions to Today
The Maya do not have a complete written record of their traditional beliefs. When the Spanish conquered the Maya, they burned almost all of their writing. Maya culture has survived because of the Maya’s willingness to adapt to the traditions of their colonial overlords.
The religion that the Maya practice today does not resemble the religious rites of the Maya in their heyday. They have combined what they know of Maya folklore with Catholic traditions. Modern Mayans came to associate Jesus with the Maize God. In fact, today many Mayans include the Virgin Mary and other Catholic saints in their prayers. Many Maya traditions have been lost to history, due to upheaval and a diminished population.
Maya religion took their gods and goddesses from the natural elements. There was a god of the sun and the moon, and a god of rain. Animals and plants were also part of the pantheon. Natural formations were also held in high esteem, and the pyramids the Mayans built are thought to have been a tribute to the surrounding mountains.
Evidence of the Maya’s nature worship survives at a few of the major Mayan ruins in Belize.
At the Altun Ha complex, you can see a temple built to the Sun God. It was also used as a tomb – archaeologists uncovered the remains of a male skeleton inside. Some researchers have suggested that the remains may have belonged to a priest.
The Maya built the Canaa pyramid to resemble a mountain. This structure is located in the Caracol complex, estimated to date from 300 AD. Canaa is one of the tallest structures in all of Belize.
Another major Mayan site, Xunantunich, had an older name, Ka-at Witz. The older name translates to “Supernatural Mountain.” It is best known for El Castillo, the second-largest pyramid in Belize, after Canaa.
Rulers were thought to have descended from the creator god. Some Mayan glyphs depict the kings taking part in important religious ceremonies. Ceremonies and sacrificial rites took place under the supervision of a high priest.
Mayans had a complex calendar, with 260 days. They devised short-count and long-count calendars, and paid careful attention to the movement of the planets and the stars to dictate when they would plant and harvest. The calendar has long since fallen out of use, along with the Maya system of writing.
Certain days of the years were considered auspicious, based on the Maya's complex astrology. We know that the Maya performed ritual sacrifices to ask the gods for a good crop. Sacrifices were not taken on lightly – they involved careful selection and elaborate preparation. Besides human sacrifices, we know from inscriptions and carved reliefs that high-ranking Mayans would take part in ritualized bloodletting. Some glyphs show Mayan nobles drawing blood from either the tongue or the genitals.
Mayans considered caves sacred, and believed that they served to connect the living to the underworld. Maybe that’s why the Maya chose the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave as the site for 14 human sacrifices. Actun Tunichil Muknal is a 3-mile (5-km) long cave, where archeologists have uncovered the bodies of 7 adults and 7 children. Women and children were considered some of the best sacrifices, along with high-ranking captors from rival city-states. Most of the skeletons appeared to have died as a result of blunt force trauma to the head.
Human sacrifices have not played a role in Maya religion since the 17th century. Nowadays, Maya priests will occasionally sacrifice a chicken. Sacrifices of cocoa and sugar cane liquor often play a role in ceremonies.
Garífuna and the Sacred Drum
Belize is home to a small population of Garífuna people. They are the descendants of escaped slaves from western Africa, brought to the Caribbean by the British.
Garífuna religion incorporates mysticism from Africa and India. Every celebration and religious ceremony involves drums, and drum-makers still have a place of high esteem in Garífuna culture.
To the Garífuna, the drum is more than a musical instrument. Drums also play a central role in opening the lines of communication with the spirit world – musicians and a high priest work together during religious ceremonies.
Dugu is a ceremony where a high priest communes with Garífuna ancestors. Ancestral spirits come to help worshippers with their problems. For two days, congregants gather in a temple to dance and play their drums. These are spiritual practices that make it possible to interact with the spirit world.
Velorio is a 9-day prayer in honor of the dead. Drumming, dancing, and traditional food are part of the ceremony.
Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Year’s celebrations also involve drum music. Each occasion has a distinct rhythm. These holidays are a good time to visit a Garífuna town, like Punta Gorda, Dangriga, or Hopkins - all vibrant locations to hear distinctive Garífuna music.
There are still some Creole Belizeans that practice obeah, a form of witchcraft that came to the Caribbean by way of Africa. Obeah has also absorbed elements of Roman Catholicism. Practitioners typically use obeah spells to ensure romantic and financial success. It is more common among the older generation of Creoles in Belize, as the younger generation largely believes these practices to be superstitious.
Mennonites in Belize
Most surprisingly for visitors, around 3 percent of the Belizean population is Mennonite. Mennonites in Belize are mostly from the more conservative branch of the faith. Most do not wear modern clothing, instead opting for more modest, old-fashioned attire. Belize’s Mennonites live mostly in the Orange Walk District in western Belize.
The Mennonites came out of the 16th-century Protestant reformation in Europe. Mennonites differentiated themselves from other Protestants by abandoning the practice of infant baptism.
The first Mennonites came from Germany and Switzerland. To this day, Mennonites speak a dialect of Old German. They faced persecution in Europe, so they fled to North America and Canada. Belize’s Mennonites immigrated later, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 20th century, they became well known for their pacifist stance, and refusal to enlist in military.
Belizean Society and Religion
Catholic and Protestant churches make up the bulk of places of worship, but the Maya have their architecture, the Garífuna their music, and the Mennonites have made significant contributions to the Belizean dairy industry.
Belizeans have a wide array of spiritual traditions ingrained in their culture. But not everyone wants to participate—15 percent of Belizeans do not practice any religion. Even if this number grows, Belize’s religious diversity makes its small population full of variety, with different traditions to explore in each district.