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Religion in Brazil’s Free Market of Faith

Maria Enedina Lima Bezerra

Chapel Address
January 28, 2009

When one thinks of Brazil in terms of religious affiliation, one probably thinks most Brazilians are Catholic. Brazil is indeed known for being a Catholic country. But how Catholic is Brazil today? Are there other religions thriving in Brazil? What are these religions? These are some of the questions we will approach in this paper.

Brazil was originally a colony of Portugal, beginning in 1500, when the Portuguese first set foot in Brazil, unto 1822, when Brazil got its independence.  Despite the fact that Brazil got its independence from Portugal in 1822, it remained closely linked to the mother country. For three hundred years Church and State were linked in Brazil and Catholicism was the religion of the State. Brazil had brought slaves from Africa, starting in the mid-16th Century, to work in the sugar plantations of the Northeast, then in the 17th and 18th Centuries to work in the gold mines, and finally in the 19th Century to work in the coffee plantations. The Africans brought to Brazil were not allowed to worship their gods freely. Some plantation owners allowed their slaves to worship in their living quarter, and that’s how African religions survived during the slave period, from the 16th Century to the end of the 19th Century.

Even though slavery was abolished in 1888, Catholicism remained the religion of the State. A year later there was finally separation of Church and State in Brazil and the establishment of the republic. However, Afro-Brazilian religions were persecuted into the mid-20th Century. Thus, by the end of the 19th Century, 95% of Brazilians were Catholic, at least nominally Catholic.

With the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the establishment of the Republic in 1889, Afro-Brazilians moved into the cities from the countryside and slowly formed their own communities, trying to regain their heritage through music, religious practices, and fellowship. Candomblé had remained the purest form of African religion in Brazil. It retained most elements of the slaves’ ancestral religions, with worship of the Orixás, the gods of nature, such as Iemanja, the goddess of the sea. The practice of Candomblé, however, did not lack its share of troubles after the abolition of slavery in Brazil. The faithful and their terreiros suffered police raids and other forms of social discrimination. Nevertheless, Candomblé persisted and flourished. Candomblé terreiros became centers of solidarity for blacks struggling to overcome social and economic barriers. They provided a refuge, a source of mutual assistance and a substitute protector, in the form of the cult leader.

Not only has Candomblé survived the cultural genocide carried out by slavery as well as official campaigns to suppress it, but also it has represented an important model of resistance to the status quo in Brazil. Afro-Brazilians, by differentiating themselves as Candomblé practitioners, were able to maintain a sense of their community, thus, making it stronger. Through its clear distinction from the religion of white masters, Candomblé has provided meaning and belonging to many Afro-Brazilian people of both past and present generations.

In the early part of the 20th Century, with the widespread displacement of Afro-Brazilians from the interior to the urban areas, communities and networks of Afro- Brazilians were formed to help them cope with their new life. One of these sets of communities was the Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda, which emerged in Rio de Janeiro around 1920. In need of a religion that would retain some of the traditional African features that were familiar to them and that would be more in tune with their urban environment, the creators of Umbanda incorporated Brazilian spirits in its pantheon, such as the quintessential urban Brazilian antihero known as malandro. Along the years Umbanda has continued to accommodate to Brazilian culture by incorporating other spirits into its pantheon, especially spirits drawn from Brazilian folklore, such as gypsies, sailors, cattle drivers, and others.

Former slaves and children of former slaves who inhabited Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s were able, through Umbanda, to gain access to the spiritual world through community ritual. This ritual differentiated the followers of Umbanda from the Candomblé practitioners and also differentiated them from the Catholic faithful. Today Umbanda is often claimed to be the fastest growing religion in Brazil and is considered Brazil’s national religion. This dimension of nationalism arises from the types of spirits typically incorporated at Umbanda terreiros. They usually incorporate the spirits of Preto Velhos, who are understood to be the old black slaves of colonial Brazil, or the Caboclos, who are the spirits of the original inhabitants of the Brazilian land. In Umbanda the spirits actually take possession (or incorporate) in the body of the medium and people in the terreiro talk directly with them.

Umbanda can be seen as another product of Brazil’s rapid urbanization and industrialization and represents the increasing desire and ability of the middle sectors of society to develop ways to express their identity. Even if Umbanda does not help adherents improve their lives in the material sense, it gives them some control over the sacred realm and a sense of community.

In the late 19th Century when the Catholic Church was starting to lose its hold in Brazil, intellectuals were united to change the face of Brazil by cultivating positivist and evolutionist ideas. It was then that another religion arrived in Brazil: Spiritism. Spiritism arrived in Brazil from France during a time when the Catholic Church was no longer able to cater to the special needs, interests, and wants of all segments of society. Influenced by positivism, the elite in Brazil was on a quest for reason.

They wanted to obtain answers to the many questions they had about the spiritual world, and Allan Kardec’s doctrine, which had emerged in France in the second half of the 19th Century, seemed to give them much more plausible answers than the traditional Catholic Church did. Spiritism provided its followers with a new sense of identity and meaning by giving Brazilians a new orientation toward life and the world through the belief in karma, reincarnation, spiritual communication, and especially through the belief in the evolution of the spirit.

Even though slaves practiced “mediumship” religions that allegedly made contact with spirits, the white intellectuals of Brazil did not want to identify themselves with such practices. By establishing their boundaries, the first generation of Spiritists in Brazil was able to practice a “mediumship” religion and still not be labeled as backwards.

Throughout the years, Spiritism established itself as the religion of those who sought more reason than faith in their religious beliefs and practices. Usually people who sought a more positivist approach to their beliefs were those who had achieved a certain level of formal education. This is one of the reasons that Spiritism has attracted the middle and upper-middle sectors of the Brazilian society since its arrival in Brazil in the late nineteenth Century. The practice of Spiritism requires a certain amount of dedication and study of Kardec’s doctrine. Therefore, only those able to afford Spiritist books and magazines were able to fully understand the spirits’ message recorded in Kardec’s books and in the hundreds of books that were later written by Brazilian mediums.

In summary, Spiritism emerged in Brazil during a period in which the original monopoly of the Catholic Church was losing the support of the State. Spiritism was able to thrive in Brazil due to the fact that it catered to specific needs and wants of a group of people who sought reason more than faith in their contact with the sacred. Currently, Spiritism continues to thrive and to accommodate itself to the needs of Brazilians.

Also in the latter part of the 19th Century, when the Catholic Church started to lose its monopoly in Brazil, the first Protestant missionary arrived from Scotland and founded the Congregational church in Rio de Janeiro. Four years later in 1859 Presbyterian missionaries arrived from the United States. Later, American Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians also arrived, opened churches, and sought Brazilian converts. They wanted to introduce Protestant patterns of behavior and reproduce the American churches they had left in America. American Protestants in Brazil were able to attract a modest number of converts and convince them to reject things that they thought were detrimental to their spiritual growth, such as the use of alcohol, dancing, carnival, and promiscuity.

Protestant converts remained a small minority until the second decade of the 20th Century when a charismatic branch of the Protestant church arrived in Brazil—the Pentecostals. Pentecostalism teaches a literal interpretation of the Bible, urges its converts to follow a strict moral code, and calling on its believers to seek a religious experience that matches the appearance of the Holy Spirit before the apostles of Christ. They believe in the ability to speak in tongues as well as in the ability to cure the sick and make prophesy. In contrast to classical Protestant churches, Pentecostal services are highly emotional and spontaneous, which played an important role in attracting followers in Brazil because people could express themselves during worship. They could sing, shout, applaud, dance, and even bring their musical instruments to aid during the service. Their freewheeling style of worship was well suited to Brazilian temperament. The fact that Pentecostals did not openly try to impose their American culture on Brazilian people was also an important factor in the upsurge of popularity of Pentecostalism in Brazil.

Pentecostalism did not begin to enjoy a rapid growth in Brazil until the 1950s and the 1960s. This growth has continued to the present day. Much of the development of Pentecostalism in Brazil is due to the growth of Brazilian industry, which increased the size of the working class. The urban setting fostered a sense of alienation and bewilderment among people who sought for community and certainty. Many were able to find this sense of community and certainty in Pentecostal congregations.

Pentecostalism in Brazil became the faith of the poor and disenfranchised. The vertiginous growth of Pentecostalism in Brazil is explained by the fact that it helps people cope with poverty. When the Brazilian poor go to a Pentecostal church, they are looking for an enchanted religion with magic, miracles, and emotion. They go to a Pentecostal church because they are trying to control the changes that have taken place in Brazilian society, such as modernization and industrialization, and create a better life for themselves and for their families.

Anthropologist, John Burdick, calls Pentecostalism a “cult of affliction,” a religion that does not call for patience and perseverance in the face of suffering but rather promises prompt relief. Historian, Andrew Chesnut believes that the reason for the enormous success of Pentecostalism in attracting Brazilian’s popular classes is that it offers a powerful remedy of faith healing. For Chesnut, most people convert to Pentecostalism during or shortly after a serious illness. Thus, poverty-related illnesses and faith healing provide the key to understanding the growth of Pentecostalism in Brazil, and also in much of Latin America.

Protestantism in Brazil continues to grow. According to IBGE (The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) figures, the number of Protestants in Brazil jumped from 7.9 to 16 million between 1980 and 1990, 60% to 80% of whom are Pentecostals. A more dynamic, syncretic form of Pentecostalism has also emerged in Brazil, which is referred to by scholars as Neo-Pentecostalism. The most popular of these Neo-Pentecostal churches is the home grown Universal Church (Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus), which combines elements of Pentecostalism, Umbanda, and Catholicism. The Universal Church started in 1977 in Rio and by the mid-1990s had hundreds of churches across the country, a membership of several million, a collection of $1 billion per year, and the ownership of Brazil’s third largest television network, thirty radio stations, two newspapers, a bank, and other businesses.

The Universal Church has attracted a large number of people from the poorest and least educated segments of the population because it bases its pastoral model on three theological responses to the primary needs and desires of its followers: (1) claims of cures of any and all diseases, including cancer and AIDS; (2) exorcism, which is mainly aimed at the Afro-Brazilian and Spiritism former members; and (3) promises of financial success. Pentecostalism helps the Brazilian urban poor and disenfranchised cope with poverty, giving them a certain level of empowerment with personal, household and local dimensions.

Pentecostalism and especially Neo-Pentecostalism in Brazil has employed very effective methods of gaining new members using a variety of tactics, which include greater lay participation, emphasis on the Bible, exorcism, emotional spirituality, revivals and miracle healing, moralizing against drinking and adultery, and the acceptance of people with afflictions.

In Brazil, Pentecostals have had greater success because they have responded more effectively to people’s suffering, needs and fears than either conservative or progressive Catholicism. Pentecostalism will continue to flourish in Brazil as long as there are people in need of health care and of a community that helps them endure the hardship of poverty.

Unless income is better distributed and the country provides adequate work wages, education, and health care to its population, Pentecostalism is sure to continue serving the lower sectors of the Brazilian population.

Within a pluralistic religious arena, like the one in Brazil, faith is no longer socially given but must be individually achieved. Religious pluralism in Brazil created conditions for several religions to thrive because these new religious groups have to cater to the needs of people that they want to attract. The various religious groups that emerged during the last 150 years in Brazil have strengthened the Brazilian religious field and brought people even closer with the sacred realm than when the Catholic Church monopolized the entire religious arena.  During the time that the Catholic Church monopolized the Brazilian religious field, it produced a large number of nominal believers who later joined other religious groups that were better able to cater to their needs and wants.

The various religious groups in Brazil, such as Candomblé, Umbanda, Spiritism, Protestantism, Pentecostalism, Neo-Pentecostalism, as well as other religions that are not mentioned here, emerged in Brazil to fill in the gap left by the traditional Catholic Church and the State. They were able to thrive by offering their adherents not only meaning and belonging, but also solutions to their personal problems.


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