Religion & Tolerance in Costa Rica

Toleration and Ticos

There can be something disturbing about seeing your driver cross himself before beginning his journey – what dangers is he expecting to face on the roads ahead?  After seeing a sample of Costa Rican roads, this Tico habit at the start of long drives may not be so strange!  However, it isn’t just driving!  Many Ticos will cross themselves before entering the water to swim or surf, or when beginning a soccer game.  It is simply part of the majority Catholic culture.

Christopher Columbus and those who followed him brought Catholicism to Costa Rica from Spain; the animist beliefs of the indigenous people were almost completely forgotten and the religion has been the dominant force behind the governing of the country ever since.  Today, approximately 75% of the population is Catholics and most of them consider themselves to be practicing members of the faith.  For this reason, abortion is completely illegal and emergency contraceptives are unavailable in the country – the politicians are unwilling to contradict the preaching of the church in these matters.  It could be quite surprising then to hear that homosexuality is legal and that Costa Rican legal bodies are even considering whether to legalize gay marriage!  In other Central American countries, such as Nicaragua, homosexual sex remains a criminal offense.

Ticos though, are a tolerant people and proud of their peaceful history.  While the majority of the population may be Catholic; this has not been an impediment to peoples of other races and faiths to find this tiny country a refuge from troubles in their own.  Jews fleeing persecution in the horror of the Second World War formed their own community here and the Quakers who settled in Monteverde, arrived escaping the compulsory conscription that their native USA was attempting to impose on them against their pacifist beliefs.  In the Caribbean coast of the country, the black population brought their religions with them – Methodist, Baptist, Seventh Day Evangelist and other churches can be found in Limon and the smaller towns in the province.  Missionaries have freedom to work in Costa Rica and the Jehovah Witness Church can boast a membership of just over 1% of the population as a whole.

Generally, it is the Catholic Church that is visible though.  Children are taught religious studies at school and Catechism class is a common inclusion in the curriculum (although students can opt out if their parents object).  Catholic holidays are recognized on the official calendar and Catholic services are broadcast on national television on Sundays.  There is also a fair bit of the kitsch that surrounds Catholicism to be found.  Check out the Virgin Mary on your taxi driver’s stick shift or the shrine to the family football team when a big game is on for delightful examples.

While somewhere between 3 and 10% of the population would claim to be without a faith; it would be wrong to assume that atheism is accepted!  Even if you are agnostic or atheist yourself; perhaps you would be more tactful if you didn’t confess this to new Tico acquaintances!

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2 Responses to “Religion & Tolerance in Costa Rica”

  1. michael alan says:

    With all due respect, this article is a little misleading. Costa Rica is a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and more importantly a, ‘Don’t ACT’ country. They may not care that you’re gay, but they definitely don’t want to see it. As far as gay marriage, the Catholics were behind a referendum to put it to a ‘popular vote’ knowing good and well it wouldn’t have a chance in hell of passing (pun intended) if the ‘people’ voted on it. However as it stands now, the powers that be seem to realize that maybe voting on a civil right isn’t constitutional. Gay marriage (or civil unions) aren’t close to happening in Costa Rica, although I would love to be wrong.

  2. sara says:

    Misleading or positive? While it may be true that Costa Rica is a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ country; this is infinitely better than a ‘we’ll hang you, if you are’ country and a great improvement on a ‘we’ll imprison you, if you are’ country. The point being that while there may be some nations which are more tolerant towards homosexuality; they are hugely outnumbered by those countries that are more hostile towards gay relationships. Even in the most liberal countries in the world, it might be unwise or perhaps dangerous, for homosexuals to demonstrate affection in public – it isn’t only Ticos who don’t want to see it. Surely, this tiny Central American country deserves some credit for its forward thinking laws and comparative tolerance?

    As for the gay marriage referendum being a cynical political ploy – when aren’t politicians working for their own benefit? However, the issue is still there, in the open and up for discussion. It is unlikely to be passed, but the very fact that the issue can be raised and debated could be seen as an indication of the high level of tolerance that the country does hold for minority groups!