Religious beliefs profoundly influenced Mexico in the past. The Nahua religion of ancient Mexican tribes was comparable in complexity to the Egyptian or Assyrian beliefs, due to their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. Contemporary religion (mainly Catholicism) affects national holidays and festivities, music, literature, drama, architecture and local customs in many parts of the country.
During the 1500s, some 700 Native American tribal peoples resided in the area that now forms the nation of Mexico. Most of these groups had developed specific, complex religious belief systems.
Several powerful empires ruled the region, particularly between 100 and 900 AD. Unique religions arose in the Olmec, Toltec, Mayan and Aztec Empires. By the early 1500s, the Aztec Empire controlled large portions of land now lying within the modern nation of Mexico.
Depiction of Tezcatlipoca, a shaman God and Mesoamerican omnipotent universal power
Once central theme of the early Aztec religion in Mexico involved viewing life and death as an integral part of human existence. The Aztec ruling caste demanded human tribute from vanquished tribes. Aztec religious officials regularly killed many of these slaves in bloody public religious rituals. They frequently sacrificed enemy prisoners of war in this way, too, offering their blood as a gift to the Aztec gods.
After the Spaniards arrived to Mexico carrying the Catholic faith with them, the Mexican religion experienced important changes that led to the exclusion of many deities in favor of one, which was the True God announced by the Spanish priests.
However, far from being left apart and forgotten, many ancient deities were incorporated by the Mexican religion, creating a unique view of the Catholic faith. Nowadays, those deities can be found under several forms, and the rituals worshipping them are present as well.
For instance, today many Mexicans appreciate an important cultural icon who also reflects the importance of the Catholic Church. The Virgin of Guadalupe depicts the Virgin Mary as a Mexican of Native American ancestry. Her popularity attests to the importance of religion in Mexico.
© Lawrence Op - Virgin of Guadalupe
In 1521, the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez captured the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, later renamed Mexico City. By the mid-1550s, Spain had also assumed control of territory that once belonged to the Mayan Empire. The lands which later formed the modern nation of Mexico became Spanish colonies.
© Bud Ellison - Christmas Celebration in Mexico
In many local areas, people adapted distinct cultural traditions into popular religion in Mexico. For instance, they integrated nonviolent Christian beliefs with local religious practices and customs inherited from the pre-Christian era, just as they did in many parts of Europe.
For example, the popular Mexican "Day of the Dead" holiday today represents a fusion of European customs surrounding All Souls Day with rituals from earlier Aztec and MesoAmerican tribal customs. It celebrates death in a festive, fearless way, much as Halloween does in the United States.
© Michael B. - Day of the Dead Celebration
During the 300 year period when Spain governed Mexico, the vast majority of the population adopted the Catholic faith. Catholic Spanish colonial officials had reacted in horror to the practice of ritual human sacrifice by Aztec religious leaders. They took steps to outlaw this practice. Religion in Mexico during the modern era has become nonviolent in focus.
During the late 1800s and the 1900s, some Protestant denominations and the Church of the Latter Day Saints gained support in parts of Mexico. A splinter LDS denomination also established colonies in Northern Mexico during the 1920s. Some members of the faction became involved in violent incidents publicized during the 1970s and 1980s.
As of 2000 the TIME Almanac (2013) reported that 96.3% of the Mexican population described their religious beliefs as Christian. Roman Catholics accounted for 87% of Christians in Mexico, the vast majority. A minority of Christians in Mexico, some 3.2%, describe themselves as Protestant. Independent or unaffiliated Christians comprise 4.1%. Approximately 2% of Christians in Mexico belonged to the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mennonites and the Mormons.
Some reports indicated that in 2010, the number of Catholics in Mexico had declined to 80%, with Evangelical Christian sects growing in numbers. Religion in Mexico enjoys a tolerant public attitude in most of the nation.
© Jiuguang Wang - Cathedral of Campeche
Members of the Bahá'í Faith visited Mexico during the early 1900s, and by 1937 a branch of the Bahá'í had become established in Mexico after Bahá'í from the United States conducted missionary work in Mexico.
In 2005, an estimated 37,900 Bahá'í resided in Mexico, with large communities in San Luis Potosi and Yucatan. Freedom of religion in Mexico obtains tolerance under the laws of many Mexican states and the federal constitution.
In 2000, 3.1% of the Mexican population described themselves as "nonreligious". This figure likely includes both agnostics and atheists, as well as secular people who do not think about religion at all.
According to the definitions contained in Webster's Dictionary, an "agnostic" considers the existence of God unknown or unknowable. An "atheist" denies the existence of God.