Accepted Paper:

Leaving Catholicism: the causes and consequences of protestant conversion in rural Oaxaca  


Toomas Gross (University of Helsinki)

Paper short abstract:

This paper discusses conversion to Protestantism in the Zapotec villages of Oaxaca. Leaving Catholicism is often triggered by disappointment in the Catholic Church or by confrontation with village authorities. Conversion often has a “rupture effect” on one’s social relationships, which affects the sustainability of new religious affiliations.

Paper long abstract:

For the past four decades Evangelical Protestantism in Latin America has grown with remarkable speed. Individualism, success in "this" life and many other "new" values that Protestants preach are believed to radically change contemporary Latin America. The process in which the historically hegemonic Catholic Church is losing ground to Protestantism has been considered "modernisation" (Stoll), "Latin America's Reformation" (Garrard-Burnett), and a "religious revolution" (Patterson). What leads individuals to question the dominant normative systems and religious values, to convert en masse "out of" Catholicism, and what are the consequences of changing faith?

This paper discusses conversion to Protestantism in the example of the Zapotec villages of the State of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico, building on the author's intermittent fieldwork in the region since the late 1990s. As will be argued, individual conversions to Protestantism in the predominantly Catholic communities are morally and socially difficult choices, often triggered by feelings of disappointment in the Catholic Church during times of personal crisis, or by confrontation with village authorities. However, subscribing to new normative references and religious values can be "socially costly." Protestant conversion in a predominantly Catholic religious environment has a strong "rupture effect" on converts' relationships with their families as well as with the majority of the village population. This significantly influences the sustainability of converts' new religious affiliations. The "costs" of conversion are generally higher for native villagers than for migrants. This explains, at least partly, why conversion to Protestantism is more common among the latter.

Panel W112
What happens when we stop believing in/believing that?