In Brazil, a turn to new faith, or none at all

Dogma and disaffection have led more Brazilians to turn their backs on the church.
Franco Origlia

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — The clean-cut bishop in slacks and a blue Oxford shirt paces the marble stage.

His words are nearly drowned out, even though he’s shouting into an amplified microphone in this stadium-sized church, as thousands of tearful worshippers join hands and shout prayers. 

“Descend, Holy Spirit!” he bellows.

The churchgoers, members of Brazil’s most high-profile evangelical movements, erupt into cheers and applause: “Thank You, Jesus!”

Charismatic messages like those of Bishop Darlan Avila are one of many new forces fracturing the religious makeup of Brazil, once solidly the world’s largest Catholic country. 

The number of Brazilians who considered themselves Catholic fell from 83 percent in 1990 to 68 percent in 2009, according to a recent study by Fundacao Getulio Vargas, a university in Rio de Janiero. That drop was steeper than any other time period measured, the study said. That still leaves a significant number of Brazilians who remain deeply Catholic.

Still, no other socio-economic measure in the past two decades has changed so dramatically as the country’s religious composition, it said.

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Brazil, an emerging-market power swept up in the modern age, is losing its old religion. Officials with the Catholic Church acknowledged recently that Brazil is undergoing a “process of deinstitutionalization.”

The change underscores the shift that Brazil has undergone as it develops from a burgeoning economy to a powerful player on the world stage. Brazilians are adopting the English language, in addition to their own Portuguese, as citizens take jobs abroad. The government is courting foreign companies, and is preparing to host both the World Cup and the Olympics. As the country opens up, it’s leading Brazilians to re-evaluate old traditions.

Experts, church leaders and converts say that rising income and education, as well as the more liberal social stance of Protestant faiths, has led many Brazilians away from the Catholic Church to other Christian traditions.

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As the number of self-identified Catholics has fallen, the number of Protestants or Pentacostal worshippers grew from 9 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2009.

“There is a change, which is that the Protestant churches give a lot more autonomy,” such as allowing pastors to marry and permitting divorce, says Cecilia Loreto Mariz, an adjunct professor at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro.

Pastor Michel Medeiros — who first read the Bible as a teenager when he wanted to understand references to Jesus in the Rastafari movement — says the majority of converts in his Rio de Janeiro Protestant church come from traditionally Catholic families.

Marcelo Neri, an economist with the Fundacao and author of the study, also notes that women’s growing power in economic and professional spheres has correlated with a migration of women away from the traditional Catholic church, though not from religion all together.

A smaller portion of women than men called themselves Catholic in the study. But overall, more women identified as religious than men. Women are also represented at a higher rate in almost all of Brazil’s major religious groups.

That includes Ana Teresa Oliveria Rosa, who left the Catholic Church when she went looking for a priest to pray with her when she became unemployed and her daughter fell ill. After being told the priest was sleeping and unable to pray with her, she entered an evangelical church in her neighborhood.

“I switched to find something different, something that filled my heart,” says Oliveira Rosa, now herself a pastor in a Baptist church.

But as Brazil becomes more modern, some people are abandoning religion entirely, even if they retain spiritual beliefs.

In the study, about 7 percent of Brazilians now claim to have no religion. That percentage was negligible until 1980.

Most of these are Brazilians who were raised Catholic — until recently almost a cultural obligation. But they have since left the faith.

Luis Fernando, a 21-year-old journalism student in Rio de Janeiro, was baptized in the Catholic Church. His mother prays multiple times each day, but he does not. He says he disagrees with some of the church teaches.

“I consider myself without religion,” he said.