Interview with Arantxa León on Central American Religious Experiences – Master’s Student, Socioreligion, Genders and Diversities

by | April 1, 2020

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Arantxa León is a Master’s student in socioreligion, genders and diversities. Here we talk about the research on religion in Central America.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the main question within the research for you?

Arantxa León: I will give some information to make this easy to understand why I asked this specific thing [Laughing]. I was in university. It was six years ago. Something like that. We were doing research about how teenagers stick with his or her mother. So, we asked some things like, “What was the main thing that you discussed with your mother?” Things like that. They said, “My mother is so annoying, she doesn’t let me go to parties,” or something like that. We were really surprised that they said, “My mother doesn’t let me go to church.” We say, “Okay?” [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

León: One says, “My mother drinks beer on Fridays. I don’t like it.” You are 17. So, maybe, this is weird for us. We began to think about this. I remember that in the history. Sometimes, you have the concept circling back. You go far, go back, go far, and then go back. It is like a circular trip. I think, “Maybe, this generation is thinking to go back to church, back to religion, again. Because we have a period of time, where people went far away.” That’s why I started thinking, “I will see why young people are going to church.” I gathered 12 young people. 6 are going to different churches, 3 Roman Catholic and 3 Evangelical. I began to ask them some things about their experience. When the research came to an end, they all go to churches and have a religion. I chose 4 of them, who I realized have real trouble in this society. They have real ideas about human rights, abortion, marriage, etc. They said, “I am okay with it. My church is not.” I am sure how to deal with that information. I choose from the 6 people who have these characteristics. I started to see their past few years, how they understand that, and their thoughts about that.

Some of them realized that their religion was not the best for them. Yet, they still believed something different while attending the church. Others, 2 of them, decided, “No! I am okay with my religion. My religion gives me things that I want. But I am not okay about everything in my religion.” It was really interesting. My main question was to understand how people face these different thoughts between what they believe on a personal ground and what the church said to them; that they had to believe. It was about human rights. That’s some of the research.

Jacobsen: In your undergraduate work, you looked at religious phenomena through the lens of psychological science, as well as taking into account the political context of Costa Rica. What is the significance of religion in Central America?

León: I think it is really difficult to think of Central America as a homogeneous region because we are really different. Costa Rica really stands out in the region. Costa Ricans, we are a confessional state. I don’t know if you know that.

Jacobsen: No, I don’t.

León: So, we are the only one in all of Central America. It means the country has a state religion. In our case, it is the Catholic Church. It is about in vitro, abortion, and so on. Those are opposed by the Catholic Church. For example, until last year, there was the day after pill. Even in the case of rape, you could not take it. We are different than other countries in that specific way. We are like 100 or more years behind other countries in Central America. It is different in other cases. Things like education, like health. We are very advanced in those, but we are not in terms of human rights. I cannot talk about Central America in its entirety. But also, something that we are speaking about now. The recent political parties have been allied with really radical Evangelical courts. Partisans and populists are really Evangelical. This is something that is happening more in the region. It is happening more in Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, even Brazil in South America. So, that is something that is really dangerous. We are trying to figure out how that happened [Laughing]. Costa Rica is part of that. So, my hypothesis, in that case, is that the Evangelical churches arrived where the government hasn’t, in some of our countries. That’s because the church has a really foundational role in our communities. They have free social activities and provide them with food, sometimes a house. Things like that. So, I think the church and, specifically, the Evangelical church has reached where the government hasn’t, doesn’t want to, or have the goal to give it.

Jacobsen: What about Costa Rica, in particular, as it regards religious experience? So, you have a political context in Central America. You have a unique context with a confessional state. Then you have a religious population that identifies with the tenets of Catholicism, by and large, and then have them bolstered by something that cannot be questioned through scientific, objective inquiry for most people. By which I mean, they have a personal experience. They label this as proof for their religion. This becomes a motivation for their social and political views as well. When people have religious experiences in a Costa Rican context, how does this influence how they see the world, how they vote, how they live their lives?

León: In Costa Rica, it is different than other countries, as I told you. The other reason is in Costa Rica, I think, the vast majority of the people believe in a God. Like, everybody has to have the religious approach. Even if you do not believe, you will be around people who believe. You can, maybe, say, “I don’t believe.” People gasp. Maybe, you have to hide that part of you. There are people who are trying to say, “Yes, I believe. However, I have my own beliefs about some stuff.” People can be unsure about you while not knowing the religion for you. These religious values are important for the society. They think: if you are religious, then you are an honest person. You will be willing to help other people and will be a good person. If you do not believe, then you will be seen as a person who does not have the right values. Maybe, not a bad person, but a person who you can not believe in, or have confidence in them. It is difficult in Costa Rica here to say that you do not believe and do not have a religion. People are not doing activism about it. Maybe, most activists and those who do not believe exist in the feminist groups who are thinking about human rights, e.g., abortion, sex education, and things like that. That’s like the nearest approach for activism. Otherwise, you have to hide it. It is important to believe in Costa Rica, in our country. It is okay if people do not go to church ever. If you say, “I’m Catholic.” People think, “Okay!” But you have to say it, “I believe.” They think, “Yes, that’s good.” It is all of these things. It is different and is really interesting in the universities. As part of my research at the universities, if you believe, it can be something really bad; but out of the universities, if you believe, it is really okay. There are few places that you can be you if you do not believe. Most of the places, you cannot be yourself. It is difficult for young people.

Jacobsen: Another follow-up to that would be: if someone says, “I don’t believe in Catholicism. I am agnostic. I am a freethinker. I am a humanist. I am an atheist,” whatever it might be, how are they seen by the general culture?

León: Someone who does not have values. Someone who is not honest. Someone who is a person that you cannot trust. Someone who can’t be a friend because he will try to change your mind and your religion. Some people do not want to be near them. That’s why people do not identify as those as much. It is even more difficult in a social context. At work, maybe, or with family, it will be like, “Oh!” No one may be your friend. No one will talk to you. It is changing. But here in Costa Rica, it is very little steps. As I said, there are some places where it is okay. But I just heard a really sad story about a girl who is 14 or something like that. She said, “I do not believe in God,” in her school. People were like, “You are so bad,” and then bullied her. So, that’s what happens here in Costa Rica. You cannot say it.

Jacobsen: There’s different social treatment depending on what you believe.

León: Of course, of course, it will be tricky in some spaces or some places. Maybe, if you are going with your family, please don’t tell them, they might not want you back. People will say, “Please don’t tell dad or mom, or my friends,” because you will be treated differently. It is a bad thing here.

Jacobsen: I have heard that same story all over the world. It doesn’t matter if a rich country or a poor country. It is the same phenomenon. It depends on the laws and the social privileges of the religious. In general, though, there is always a backlash. The kind of it and the strength of it depends on the culture and the laws. What are religious experiences from a scientific view? What are religious experiences from a cultural, Costa Rican view?

León: As I understand religious experiences, they are an individual experience. But it is collective, as it is understood collectively. Here in Costa Rica, they are seen as good experiences, which help people in some way. I believe in an objective way: religion is here for a reason. There is a reason why. If religion doesn’t work, then the religion wouldn’t be there. For some people, it is an important part of their lives. It gives them hope and some material things. Maybe, if you are a poor family, then the church will help you. It is important for them. If you are a teenager, then there is a space for culture and art, as it is expensive to do anything here. So, for young people, it is like, “Wow! There is a space near my house where I can go and see other people.” They do parties, the way they do them, but they do them. I can talk with other people, meet with other people. Maybe, I can play an instrument or help with a younger child. Something like that. There’s a really good experience for them because the church and the religion gives them the kind of things that they can’t have in other spaces. Also, there are really bad experiences about feeling bad about themselves because religion says they are wrong. That you will never be liked. That you are really a bad person. But at the same time, it is like, “God loves you,” but you are a bad person. You don’t deserve anything in your life. It depends on the individual experience. It depends on the religion and the church, specifically, where you are going. Also, it depends on individual experience before. So, it is different for everyone. I can’t tell you, “Religion is all good or all bad,” because it is a personal thing based on researching.

Jacobsen: When you are looking at these 4 individuals in the graduate research, what are their demographics? What is a common theme in their stories?

León: They are young people. They are between 18 and 23. Their life experience is emerging adulthood. They are at the university. Same, I think, as in other countries. Here in school, you have to be in religious classes (Catholic religious classes). You have to believe. If you do not believe, then you still have to attend all of the classes. It is still very difficult. Then you go to the university. There are a lot of professors who say, “I am a freethinker. I am a humanist.” Something like that. You open your mind to other things. For people who went to the universities, some of them went to the public universities. Some of them went to the private universities. They are different from each other. They are like middle-class people. They are women and men. I think that’s the graphic. They are from San Jose, too. The common theme is that they have issues about inclusion and human rights. It has to do with their careers and their group of friends too. They have issues about it. Because, of course, the Catholic Church, “You can’t include everyone,” for example, homosexual people, or people in the LGBTIQ community, etc., or some groups. You can’t have an abortion or something like that. It is like the common theme in the stories. They are not sure about what to do with what they’re doing because they believe in god. It is really interesting because some of them believe in god because of his/her father or mother, or even their grandparents. Also, 2 of them, it was something that they started to believe when they were teenagers. Their close group of friends, at the moment, believed. They started to attend the church, even when the mother or the father was more like a part of that. One of their mothers is an atheist. She is at the point in life, where church is not that good for her. That’s the main topic. That they don’t know if one way or another, or just to be in the middle. They have really different stories. They started different things in different universities. Everything is different [Laughing] from one person to the other, but the common thing is them being in the middle and then trying to decide.

Jacobsen: Other than impressions, what are the emotions or thoughts that these people are telling or conveying in their transition from religion to non-religion?

León: First, there is a lot of confusion because they free thinking about what they thought that they believed. It is a really confusing time of their lives. Also, there is the position that to not believe is fully against what they learned over several years. It is like, “Well, maybe, I was just thinking that this was the right thing for me, for like 5, 6, 11 years. Now, I am thinking, ‘It isn’t for me.’ It was a dogma moment of life.” Also, they experience a lot of fear, for different things. First, they are not sure what will happen to them because they are not sure if there is a life after this life. So, it is like, “Oh, maybe, I will go to hell because I do not believe. They told me for 20 years that I will go to hell. I was never sure of that. I will never be sure of that.” They experience a lot of fear and, also, have a lot of fear about what the other people will say to them. The people in the church who they grew up with. They will feign saying, “Oh! I am going to another church.” Because they don’t want people to think, “Oh, he/she is a bad person.” They cannot be real with the people around them. Also, with their families, they say, “Oh! I cannot go to church because I have a lot of homework.” The family will say, “Oh, yes, you haven’t gone in like 2 years” [Laughing]. They have experienced these kinds of things. Also, they have a fear of being alone. But also, when the time passes, and then they start to believe in realizing what is happening, and start to read about it, and get more information, they feel satisfaction about the decision that they are making. They feel more free to really have their own thoughts and to do those things that feel right rather than the things that other people say are right. I think everyone will have a happy ending, I hope. Some of them are experiencing this in this moment. Some of them aren’t. I always think one of the them may return to church because I see this as always a possibility; because it is really difficult for them. Maybe, the easiest way for them is simply to return. It will be right for them.

Jacobsen: Those will be common stories. I have seen them. Individuals will leave a faith, then will have difficulties professionally and personally. In the professional sphere, they experience lack of promotions, harassment, condescending comments. In personal life, a lot of the same stuff, but without the boundaries of discourse and conduct that professional life puts on others. So, they are subject to more visceral forms of prejudice, bigotry, hate, bias, appeals to emotion, evangelism, and then the ironic claim that they themselves are not allowed to talk to the people who are evangelizing about their faith. It becomes a one-sided issue. That steadfastness becomes an important marker, I think. It becomes a marker of being solid in oneself. I noticed the dropping of fear in the commentary there. It becomes an important point at which people do not have to fear others or, from their view, now, an imaginary realm of hellfire and demons and angels, and blessings and curses, and so on.

León: I feel like it’s really important that I was reading a lot of papers. There is something that happened at this point in their lives, their journeys. But when they have a real couple or even kids, they return to that because it is the way that society tells them. They are only a good couple or a good dad in this way. It is always tricky. You will never be like in a comfortable situation in society, as someone who does not believe.

Jacobsen: How can someone challenge a confessional state to make it not a confessional state?

León: That’s really difficult. 51% or 52% of the people think that things will be better without a confessional state. But it is only half of the people. There is a reason. That is, people don’t understand what is a confessional state and do not realize what is happening. It is believed 1 or 2 years ago. The statistics would be like 20% of the people. There is really good work by some feminist groups, collectives. Also, some universities that are talking to people about it, and what that means. The percent of people who give to state go to church. For the Catholic Church, maybe, if you are idealistic, then it might not be that good for you. The kids have to have Catholic classes in their schools or something like that. I think the main topic here is to make the people understand what we want as changes. The Catholic Church says, “Oh no! They will be really upset about it.” It’s like, “No, we won’t be upset about it.” Let’s talk about it first, it is about a political thing and do not be mad because 5,000,000 people don’t make their choices about what the Catholic religion says. I don’t know if I am making the point clear. It is making the point that it’s not about them not being able to attend church, have faith activities, and so on. It is just that not all people in Costa Rica are the same as you, and that’s okay. You should be open to other beliefs and just let the people in the society decide in a political way, in a democratic way, not just what the Catholic Church says. That’s why in Costa Rica; there’s a lot of false information.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Arantxa.

León: No! Thank you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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Image Credit: Arantxa León.

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