Brazilian Religions Edgard Leite, PhD, Rio de Janeiro State University

JU IS-361 Latin America Studies

Edgard Leite

Brazil is a religious country. A 2007 survey made by the Datafolha Institute revealed that 97% of Brazilians interviewed said they believe in God. In an international survey carried out by Reuters, Brazil ranks third in number of believers in the world, second only to Indonesia and Turkey.

Datafolha survey also revealed other interesting data on the subject: 75% of Brazilians say they believe the Devil exists; 93% believe Jesus resurrected after dying on the cross; 65% believe that some people go to Heaven after they die; 58% also believe there is Hell and 60% believe in life after death.

Another Survey made by Datafolha in 2010 reveals that 59% of Brazilians believe in the Evolution theory, "with God guiding the process though", 25% believe God alone created the world and all life forms, and only 8% believe in an evolutionary process without God's participation.

​Brazilian people's strong religiosity is easy to understand. The control of the Church by the State, which lasted until 1890, reinforced the links between national and religious identity. Besides, there has never been in Brazil a revolutionary movement of secular characteristics, as in many Latin American and Western countries.

However, the way in which religious contents are experienced in Brazil is often subject to debate. Here, we highlight two relevant issues.

The first refers to the Catholic Church. As the most religious country in the world, Brazil is also the largest catholic nation in the world. However, there is a lot of debate on the current weight of Catholic Church dominance in Brazilian religious imaginary.

According to the 1872 census, 99,7% of the population was made up of Catholics. In the 1970 census, this number fell to 91,8%.

With the 1980 census, a slight decline in the number of Brazilians who say they are Catholics  began to be noticed. 89% in 1980, 83% in 1991, 73,6% in 2000, 64,6% in 2010.

This trend has been accompanied by a steady growth in the number of the so-called protestant Christians: 6,6% in 1980, 9,0% in 1991, 15,4% in 2000, 22,2% in 2010.

This growing trend does not mean there is a generalized growth of protestant beliefs. It primarily indicates the growth of some specific denominations, particularly Pentecostal and Neopentecostal  movements. These religious movements defend traditional values and advocate the need of a conservative reaction.

A 2012 survey made by the same Datafolha revealed that 86% of Brazilians believe faith in God makes you a better person and 58% believe that criminality is caused by mean people.

In another survey, in 2007, 69% of Brazilians said they consider family as the most important institution and 87% "see abortion as morally wrong".

Thus, society's inclination towards religious movements that are spiritually more intense or impregnated by a morally conservative political agenda seems to indicate a reaction linked to fears deriving from family and religious values in the face of a politics of moral pluralism.

In this sense, a Catholic church focused on secular goals (i.e., involved with a social and political agenda) partly jeopardizes its own role as a leading religious institution. Indeed, to many, it appears that the Church is relegating spiritual issues and prioritizing a secular agenda.

The slow decline of the Church, since 1980, which primarily affects the political and social agenda, has become the dominant theme in the ecclesiastical environment and seems to confirm the hypothesis: society is overwhelmed by a spiritual anguish

Initially, this feeling did not emerge from a political perspective because it paradoxically went on during the decline of the military regime.

However, in the last years, this movement started to contaminate the public sphere, with the strengthening of protestant and conservative representation at Congress.

These figures seem to indicate the growing defense of a political solution to current threats to religious values.

Another important topic on Brazilian religions concerns the fact that Brazilian culture is made up of cultural elements of different origins, which introduced particular aspects in the country's spiritual life.

Thus, for instance, it is easy to understand why 44% of Brazilian do not believe in reincarnation, as Brazil is a country with Catholic background. However, a surprising 37% firmly believe that souls are born again into this world and 18% do not have a definite opinion on the subject. This reveals the presence of consisting non-Catholic spiritual elements. 

In Brazil, Spiritism, the philosophy founded by the French ​medium Allan Kardec (1804-1869), according to which the soul develops through a cycle of successive lives, was gradually consolidated as a religion among Brazilian middle-class people along the last century. It is currently the third most important religion in the country.

According to 2010 census, 2% of the population, roughly around 3.900,000 people, consider themselves as Kardecist  spiritualists, particularly among Rio de Janeiro middle-class people as a whole, and 0,2% see themselves as umbandists (Umbanda is a hybrid development of spiritism with elements of popular religiosity).

This exceeds the percentage of Jehovah's Witnesses, a universal religion, which makes up only 0,7% of the population, and Candomblé followers, a religion of African origin, which is estimated to be followed by 0.09% of Brazilians.

The hybrid elements of Brazilian society, however, also give rise to significant religious events. These movements of distinct cultural origins interact with dominant Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, generating a series of tensions. These, in turn, give rise to either accommodation and syncretism or conflicts and intolerance.  

​On the other hand, these movements are also conservative in their general parameters, as they reaffirm specific beliefs with a strong moral tone and somehow go against an excessive secularization of habits.

Brazilian religious universe thus reveals the country's cultural peculiarity, as it is plenty of its own characteristics and spiritual inspirations. However, it allows the recognition of a religious and cultural conservative substrate in favor of values and principles that are constantly threatened by a secular agenda. This substrate to a great extent explains Brazilian society's vacillations towards modernization.

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