Like with most large countries in the world, Brazil is home to many different religious beliefs and practices. Because of its cultural diversity and colonial history, the country boasts an array of religious ideals and affiliations. Brazil is one of the most religious countries in the world. According to recent census data, approximately 90 percent of all Brazilians subscribe to some religious ideal or affiliation, making it the most religious country in South America[i], which happens to be the most religious continent in the world. In fact, only about 1 percent of the Brazilian population does not believe in a God or some other form of spiritual being.
Religion plays a major role in the lives of the Brazilian population—a population of just over 190 million people. In 1891, when the Brazilian Republican Constitution was ratified, Brazil finally ceased to have an "official" religion. Today, similar to the United States and countries in Western Europe, the people of Brazil are free to practice the religion of their choice, thanks to the newest constitution that was adopted in 1988.[ii]
Since the Portuguese colonized Brazil in the 16th century, the country has been overwhelmingly Catholic. And today Brazil boasts more Roman Catholics than any other country in the world – an estimated 123 million. But the share of Brazil’s overall population that identifies as Catholic has been dropping steadily in recent decades, while the percentage of Brazilians who belong to Protestant churches has been rising. Smaller but steadily increasing shares of Brazilians also identify with other religions or with no religion at all, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Brazilian census data.[iii]
Religious Beliefs in Brazil: The BreakdownAlthough there are a number of minority religions practiced in Brazil, the majority of the population adheres to the Roman Catholic faith. According to recent data, approximately 74 percent of the Brazilian population self-identifies as Roman Catholic. The practitioners of the various Protestant denominations make up the second largest group of believers, accounting for over 20 percent of the total population. In terms of the number of followers, Catholicism and Protestantism are followed, in order of popularity, by Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness and Eastern Orthodoxy, which together account for just 1.8 percent of the population.[iv]
Although lesser in number, there are many other beliefs that make up the Brazilian religious landscape. These include Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Rastafarian, and Shinto, all of which were brought over by immigrants from East Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This has recently given rise to the swift development of other sects and cult growths within the country as well. Many ancient beliefs still remain in Brazil as well. Once thought to be Satanic, these Amerindian and Afro-Brazilian practices now fall under a category known as Spiritism. In Brazil, two of the largest of these practices are known as Umbanda and Candomble.
In the last four decades, Catholics, as a percentage of the population, have decreased in number, while Protestants have risen among men and women, young and old, people with and without a high school education, and those living in both urban and rural areas. But the changes have been particularly pronounced among younger Brazilians and city dwellers. For example, the percentage of Brazilians ages 15-29 that self-identify as Catholic has dropped 29 percentage points since 1970, and the share of Catholics in Brazil’s urban population has fallen 28 points.[v]
Catholics in Brazil tend to be older and live in rural areas, while Protestants tend to be slightly younger and live in urban areas. Brazilians with no religious affiliation—agnostic or atheist—are also predictably younger on average, and are much more likely to reside in urban settings.[vi]
Major Religions in BrazilRoman Catholicism
Roman Catholicism was initially introduced to Brazil by European settlers and colonists, who arrived in the region with the aim of civilizing the native people. Most of these Europeans hailed from Portugal, which ruled the country from the 16th century until Brazilian independence in 1825. They erected churches and brought religious leaders into Brazil to teach the people the Catholic doctrine. During the 19th century, Roman Catholicism was declared the official religion of Brazil. This move meant that Catholic authorities were included in the political affairs and decision making of the country. As a result, Catholicism became an integral part of the management and administration of Brazil and its people.[vii] Even today, many of the annual Brazilian festivals and events are based around the Catholic Church.
Although Catholicism is no longer the official religion of the country, it remains the most popular, with approximately 74 percent of the population adhering to the faith. Even today, the Catholic Church continues to play a major role in shaping the social and political fabric of the country. During the country’s military regime, for example, the progressive clergy controlled the situation and were the primary focus of the defense of human rights and the resistance.[viii]
In March of this year, the spotlight on Roman Catholicism in South America became even brighter with the election of Pope Francis I. Although he hails from Argentina, not Brazil, the first Pope of the Americas, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, made the world look up and take notice of the Church’s popularity in this heavily Catholic region.[ix]
Protestantism is the largest minority religion in Brazil, with approximately 22 percent of the population practicing one of the Protestant doctrines. The largest populations of Protestants can be found in the North, Central-West and Southeast corners of the country, although there are small pockets of Protestants located throughout the nation. Some of the largest Protestant denominations in Brazil include the Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals (both Old-Pentecostals and Neo-Pentecostals), Presbyterians, Anglicans and Episcopalians.
Protestantism is the fastest growing religion in Brazil. Over the last four decades, the population of Brazil more than doubled, increasing from 95 million to 190 million+. Between the years 1970-2000, the number of Catholics in the country rose, even though the share of the population that self-identifies as Catholic was falling. However, from 2000-2010, both the absolute number and the percentage of Catholics declined. The number of Protestants, though, continued to grow in the most recent decade.[x]
The number of Protestants in Brazil rose from 26 million (15%) in 2000 to 42 million (22%) in 2010. The Protestant church is defined here to include Brazilians who identify with historically mainline and evangelical Protestant denominations, as well as those who belong to Pentecostal denominations, such as the Foursquare Church and the Assemblies of God. It also encapsulates members of the independent, neo-Pentecostal churches, such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and the God is Love Pentecostal Church, both of which were founded in Brazil.[xi]
The Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Jehovah’s Witnesses and Eastern Orthodoxy
Mormonism is the third largest religion in Brazil. In 2012, the Mormon Church had a reported membership of 1,173,533 (0.6 percent of the population). These numbers included 1,940 congregations and 315 family history centers. According to records, the Mormon Church also has 6 temples in various regions of the country, including Sao Paulo, Recife, Porto Alegre, Manaus, Campinas and Curitiba. These numbers represent a dramatic differential from the 2010 census numbers, which indicated there were only 226,509 people in the country that self-identified as Mormon. This differential has caused many critics of the Mormon Church to question the 2012 data reported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[xii]
Jehovah’s Witnesses is the fourth largest religious denomination in Brazil. In 2012, Brazilian authorities said there were approximately 756,455 members (0.3 percent of the population), with 11,127 congregations spread throughout the various regions of the country. Based on these numbers, there is approximately 1 follower of the Jehovah’s Witness Church per every 255 residents.[xiii]
Eastern Orthodoxy rounds out the top five religions in Brazil. According to the latest data, there are approximately 500,000 Brazilian residents that adhere to the Eastern Orthodox faith.[xiv] As a religion, Eastern Orthodoxy arrived in Brazil in the past century, primarily via a wave of immigration from places such as Lebanon, Syria, Armenia, Greece, Russia and the Ukraine.
Afro-Brazilian Religions in Brazil: Umbanda and CandombleAlthough Protestantism is the fastest-growing religion in Brazil, the number of Brazilians belonging to one of the many Afro-Brazilian faiths is also climbing. In this group, the two most popular and widely practiced sects are Umbanda and Candomble.
Umbanda is a Brazilian religion that combines influences of indigenous Amerindian religions, African religions, Catholicism and Spiritism. The religion is practiced primarily in the southern regions of Brazil, and in smaller numbers in countries such as Argentina and Uruguay.
There is no uniform belief system among all the followers of the Umbanda religion, but there are certain beliefs that are widely held among most adherents. Umbanda practitioners believe in a supreme deity called Olorum (or Zambi), who has a variety of representations. Many followers also believe that various Catholic saints emit divine energies and forces called Orixas. Some adherents are known to seek interaction with the spirits of the deceased, and the ideas of karma and reincarnation are also central themes of the Umbanda religion.
Historians and theologians say that the Umbanda religion is really an amalgamation of several different religions. The religion takes its belief in a supreme deity and the reverence of saints from Catholicism. The belief that adherents can communicate with the dead through psychics and mediums was borrowed from the Spiritism faith, while the adoption and deification of Orixas comes from the indigenous religions of the early Brazilians.[xv]
The Candomble religion was founded during the 16th century by indigenous Africans who were brought to Brazil as slaves during Portuguese rule. Most practitioners of the religion hail from Brazil, although there are also followers in some other Central and South American countries and in Europe. In total, experts estimate the religion has approximately 2 million followers worldwide.[xvi]
Believers of the Candomble religion practice surrender to "Oriashas," or spirits, to the point of complete possession. Believers have been known to conduct various sacrifices to the spirits and call on spirits to heal them as well.
Similar to Umbanda, the Candomble religion teaches its followers that some Oriasha spirits are in fact deceased Catholic saints. Religious and societal experts believe this is a result of religious syncretism[xvii], which combines religions brought from the African continent with the teachings of the Catholic missionaries in 16th century Brazil.
A typical Candomble ceremony involves celebration, animal sacrifices and spirit possession. It is not uncommon for Candomble priests to summon spirits and surrender to them, often succumbing physically to their control, while meanwhile, other participants sing and dance.
Candomble is a polytheistic religion—believing in many Gods. There is, however, one chief God, called Olodumare or Olorun. Most of the deities worshiped by the Candomble practitioners can be traced to spirits in one or more the African religions and the Catholic saints. There is also a branch of Candomble with strong Islamic influence, which comes from slaves who were brought to Brazil from North Africa at a time when Islam dominated that region. Adherents to this branch are called “Males.” They have different beliefs and practices than other followers of Candomble. They interact with different spirits, have different holy days, and dress similar to Muslims in the Middle East.[xviii]