I imagine that life as English teacher in Spain is a lot like being a dentist. People are generally unhappy when they see you, and you spend an inordinate amount of time pulling teeth. Teeth, for me, generally means any response in English. Over time, I’d like to think that I’ve successfully combatted many of my students reluctance to participate. Except, that is, when it comes to the topic of religion.

I’d always imagined Spain to be quite a religious country. Given the fervent Catholicism that is still common in its former colonies, I imagined that Spain itself would have a close connection to the Catholic Church. One that could only be out done by Italy. And at some point in recent history, that was probably true. But it is not now. I learned that this week when I asked them what I thought was a simple question: Who is Moses?

They returned blank stares, but not the usual kind. Usually, when I don’t get a response, it means that the students either don’t understand the question or don’t know how to answer it in English. These pauses are generally short and the silence is almost always broken by their mutterings to each other in Spanish. Que significa “friendship?” Amistad. Ahhh…okay. Vale.  The best classes, will continue this until they collectively come up with an appropriate answer.

This does not happen when I ask them questions such as these: What is the period before Easter and after Carnival? Or what day is Easter? Or as before, Who is Moses?

On these occasions the silence only ever broken by me or my Spanish co-teacher. I will try to restate the question. And if I still don’t get a response my teacher will ask it for me in Spanish or Menorquí. But they still don’t answer. But not because they don’t want to. It is generally because they have no idea.

Suffice it to say I found this shocking. One of my favorite students told me that she was an atheist and therefore didn’t believe in these stories. I tried to explain to her that that wasn’t the point I was trying to make.

I told her that generally in America regardless of one’s religious background, you will learn the basic tenants of the most famous Judeo-Christian stories. It is not generally taught in public schools, but you will learn through a kind of cultural osmosis. I explained that I thought it might be a little dangerous to participate in rituals without knowing the history behind them. My class responded with a typical shrug.

Though I obviously cannot speak for all of Spain, through my experience I have learned that an ambivalent/agnostic/atheistic viewpoint isn’t really unique here. Another American friend of mine called it “Catholic Atheism.” Which in other words means that people are culturally Catholic, but not generally religious.

So how does Catholicism manifest itself here? In my experience, through holidays or vacations. In Spain, every single city and pueblo has a patron saint. Madrid’s patron is San Isidro. In early May, there is a big festival throughout the city. Women wear red carnations in their hair and people dance the chotis a traditional Madrilenian dance.

Who is San Isidro and what did he do?

I have no idea, and neither do the people in Madrid.

In Mahón, Menorca, the Patron is San Antonio, but again, neither the teachers nor the students know who that is either. To be fair, Spanish history, religiosity included, is very long and complex. It is no wonder that a few details would slip one’s mind. That seems to be happening here in a cultural sense.

Given the heavy-handedness of Catholicism here, don’t forget about the Inquisition, folks, it is understandable that people would grow a little weary of religion. But I wasn’t expecting this level of disconnect.

To the point, two weeks ago, after I spent nearly 10 minutes explaining Ash Wednesday to my students–complete with pictures. After class, my co-teacher remarked on the differences between the generations. She told me that when she was in high school, they didn’t even have to trouble themselves to walk to church. The priest would come to school on Ash Wednesday and mark the foreheads of both students and staff.

Now, twenty-plus years later, no body was coming to mark foreheads. And even if they did, many might refuse because the children hadn’t even heard of the ritual.

I’ll keep this in mind the next time the next time I’m performing an English extraction. Because it would seem that in Spain, it is generally not a good idea to speak about religion. But not because it is considered rude. It is more, at this point, people just do not know or care about it.

Photo by Back-slowly catching up

Photo by George Pachantouris

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