The Mayans practiced a natural, cosmological sort of spirituality prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Mountains, rivers, and caves were of divine origin, and many of the structures that the Mayans built were based on natural phenomena. Temples, for example, were often aligned with the cardinal directions and arranged specifically to mark events like the summer and winter solstice. Caves were held as sacred passages to the underworld.
Modern-day Mayan religious practices, known as costumbre, are held on mountains, in caves, and at archeological sites. The ceremonies often include sacrificing a chicken or other small animal, lighting candles, and displaying flowers.
The Mayan calendar is still used in some places today, especially within the Western Highlands. This calendar is closely linked to the agricultural cycle, especially maize, which is considered a sacred crop. Maize is believed to have been involved with the formation of man by the gods, as told in the Popol Vuh, a K’iche’ book of mytho-historical narratives. The Popol Vuh includes a creation myth, epic tales, and genealogies. Most of the original writings were burned in the 16th-century, but three Mayan texts survived and are held in European museums.
An interesting characteristic of Mayan spirituality in the Western Highlands is the veneration of folk saints, especially one known as San Simón or Maximón. This folk saint has an affinity for liquor and cigars, and is thought to represent Pedro de Alvarado or Judas. Modern-day Mayans are often Catholic converts who still hold allegiance to folk saints. Combining Catholicism and Mayan religious beliefs is common in highland Mayan spirituality.
Catholicism was introduced to Guatemala during colonial times. It continues to have an important role in the country today, although there have been tensions between the church and state throughout the last few hundred years. Catholic churches still see full services on Sundays, particularly during Holy Week.
In the late 19th century, the Guatemalan government confiscated church property and secularized education in an attempt to limit the power of the church. During the civil war in Guatemala, many priests adopted a form of Liberation Theology and opposed military campaigns in the highlands. Numerous priests were killed or exiled as a result. The church still holds a position of defending the poor and less powerful in Guatemala.
Despite the many churches scattered around the country, the Catholic Church has had trouble finding priests to fill them. This has partially contributed to the growth of Evangelical Christianity.
Almost a third of all Guatemalans are now Protestant and/or Evangelical Christians. The rise of Evangelical Christianity in Guatemala began in 1975, when earthquakes destroyed several villages in the highlands. International aid agencies, many of them Christian, rushed in to help and ended up with converts. Another factor that contributed to the rise of Evangelical Christianity was the civil war of the 1980s. During this time, many Guatemalans found hope in a belief system that promised rewards in heaven despite a challenging present.
Some Guatemalan villages have almost entirely converted to Evangelical Christianity and have achieved incredible results. A good example is the town of Almolonga, where alcoholism was once widespread but is now almost entirely gone. The town jail has also been closed for years, and the city exports fruits and vegetables to El Salvador, bringing a good income for many of the town’s families. Evangelicals often use it as an example of the good that their faith can bring.