Education and the Future of Religious Freedom in Ecuador

In the past few weeks, Cornerstone contributors have assessed the state of religious freedom in various parts of the world, including China, Israel-Palestine, and India. This week on Cornerstone, research assistants at the Religious Freedom Project share their experience during their time abroad and offer distinct perspectives that highlight issues concerning religious freedom in various regions of the world. 

By: Spencer Crawford

While in Ecuador, my group traveled to the Galapagos Islands, including Isabela, where the historic finches that inspired Darwin’s theory of evolution are so populous that they actually irritate the locals—much like the infiltrating sea lions that cover the island’s beautiful beaches. Witnessing fantastic views both in the Amazon jungle and throughout the Galapagos Islands, I contemplated just how incredible a proposition evolution was: All of the diversity of flora and fauna had derived from just one common ancestor.

As the son of a doctor and a teacher who value the sciences and education, I was certain that on this island that was the birthplace of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, education on evolution must be complete, engaging, and widespread. According to one of our guides’ research done on education in Ecuador, however, the largest portion of the Ecuadorian population that does not believe in the theory of evolution lives in the Galapagos. Historically, the Galapagos has suffered from poor recruitment of quality instructors for its students, although another factor—one relating to religious diversity, or rather a lack thereof—could also be playing a role in this educational gap.

Contrasted to the biological diversity of the Ecuadorian jungles and the Galapagos, there appears to be a lack of diversity in faith backgrounds in the classroom. The country’s population consists of an overwhelming Christian majority, with an 80 percent Roman Catholic population and an additional 11 percent evangelical Christian. It seems likely that this lack of diversity of beliefs, along with the ailing education system on the islands, fosters an environment in which people are content not to expose children to the theory of evolution or other theories and subject matter that may clash with the majority’s religious views.

Moreover, this lack of diversity has led to some societal discrimination against minority religions, particularly Muslims and Jews, even though Ecuador has religious freedom laws embedded in its constitution. Given the demographic construction of religion in Ecuador, what is perceived to be “normal” is any Christian religion, predominantly Catholicism. Thus, religions like Judaism and Islam—religious outliers in the Catholic country—are seen as different or outside of the norm, and there is a level of intolerance in this perception. For example, rabbis and imams have reported inappropriate name-calling in the streets and certain neighborhoods, occupational discrimination, and intolerance for children at schools. In response, Muslims have created educational pamphlets to explain Islam, which is an early sign at an attempt to promote religious diversity education to the younger Ecuadorian population.

Additionally, although religious freedom may be promoted in the constitution, it is not guaranteed that this particular constitution will last forever. Broadly speaking, the Ecuadorian Constitution promotes religious freedom. However, unlike the amendment process in the United States, the process to change the constitution in Ecuador is to literally change the entire constitution: a process that has occurred over 20 times in the course of the country’s 180 year-long, robust history. Currently, president Rafael Correa is bidding to change the constitution in an attempt to be elected indefinitely, removing the term limit on the presidency. With even fewer checks on his power, political scientists worry about how the president, who received his Ph.D. in the United States, could further restrict freedoms among the Ecuadorian populace, an effect already seen in the restriction and elimination of certain powers of the press. Religious freedom, though an admittedly less likely target than the freedom of the press, could be under threat under these new restrictions.

In conclusion, I see two themes regarding the religious environment in Ecuador that could benefit from further research. First, it would be prudent to determine if and how the lack of religious diversity present in the classroom impacts social attitudes toward religious minorities and affects education, particularly in the sciences. And second, it is critical to see whether the future state of religious freedom will follow the same trajectory it is following now, especially in terms of Ecuador’s constitutional protections. Ecuador, which housed a type of environmental freedom that allowed for evolution to occur in some of the most beautiful, complex ways, should also now position itself for a future environment that promotes freedom and religious diversity in all of its natural, societal intricacies.

Spencer Crawford graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2016 with a major in science, technology, and international affairs and a certificate in religion, ethics, and world affairs.

To read more about Georgetown students' encounters with various religions and cultures while abroad, visit the Berkley Center's Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) blogs

This piece was originally authored on October 29, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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