Brazil: A Lesson in the Peaceful Navigation of Religious Change

by vaughn_admin  //  

July 14, 2016

While Latin America today is an area of relative religious homogeneity with roughly 90% of the population identifying as Christian, there is still much diversity within Christianity, and non-Christian groups are steadily growing larger. This week, Cornerstone contributors comment on the following question: what kinds of challenges do Latin American countries face when it comes to religious freedom?

By: Brian Grim

The high level of religious freedom in Brazil is notable as the country arguably undergoes one of the most dynamic religious shifts in the world today, with no religious or sectarian conflict. In light of recent research showing that religion is on the rise worldwide, the Brazilian example is worth highlighting and understanding, particularly when day to day we witness stories from across the world on the role of religion in conflict situations.

On 29 April 2015, Brazil’s largest and oldest mosque, Mesquita Brasil (Brazil Mosque), will host a national Celebration of Religious Freedom, with the theme, “Brazil: A Voice to the World.” The celebration will attract hundreds of religious, political, and business leaders, with Catholic cardinals invited to share the same podium as Pentecostals, Adventists, Mormons, and Muslim leaders. Low restrictions on religious freedom are notable in Brazil. 

Brazil is exceptional in terms of religious freedom. Among the 26 most populous countries, Brazil has the lowest restrictions on religious freedom of them all (see chart). Brazil has lower restrictions, in fact, than the United Kingdom and the United States, where restrictions have been rising. 

Low restrictions on religious freedom are notable in Brazil, a country that is undergoing what is perhaps one of the most dynamic religious shifts in the world today—and with no religious or sectarian conflict.

Much of the religious shifting in Brazil has been from Roman Catholicism to highly active and conservative forms of Pentecostalism as well as many Protestant and other minority denominations, including Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). In other parts of the world, active and conservative religion is sometimes equated with extremism and political destabilization.

But in Brazil, it adds vibrancy to the political process, and religious freedom ensures that these faiths are not disadvantaged, which, as demonstrated in research such as The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution & Conflict in the 21st Century (Cambridge), can create grievances that lead to violent persecution and religious conflict.

Of the 29 April event, Sheikh Abdel Hammed Metwally, religious leader of the Mesquita Brasil said, “This will be the first of many meetings,” adding that the event will “show the world how Brazil stands out as a leader” in religious freedom.

Dr. Damaris Dias Moura Kuo, chairwoman of the Law and Religious Liberty Commission of the Brazil Bar Association/Sao Paulo, believes that “this meeting will mark the beginning of a new stage both nationally and internationally. From it, we will open space for the exchange of information and consolidation of religious freedom.”

Similarly, Dr. Ricardo Cerqueira Leite, president of the Association for Religious Freedom & Business, one of the co-sponsors of the event, argues that Brazil is ahead of many countries in expressing support and respect for all religions. “We are essentially a nation with natural vocation to deal positively with religious differences and to organise ourselves to demonstrate these values as an example to the world.”

If we look at religious shifts in Brazil, since the Portuguese colonized Brazil in the sixteenth century, it has been overwhelmingly Catholic. And today Brazil has more Roman Catholics than any other country in the world—an estimated 123 million.

But a recent Pew Research analysis finds that 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. Indeed, much of the religious shift has been from Roman Catholicism to Pentecostal and Protestant denominations. Smaller but increasing shares of Brazilians also identify with other religions or with no religion at all.

The Pew Research analysis notes that from 2000 to 2010, both the absolute number and the percentage of Catholics declined; Brazil’s Catholic population fell slightly from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million a decade later, dropping from 74 percent to 65 percent of the country’s total population. The number of Brazilian Protestants (including Pentecostals), on the other hand, continued to grow in the most recent decade, rising from 26 million (15 percent) in 2000 to 42 million (22 percent) in 2010. 

In addition, the number of Brazilians belonging to other religions—including Afro-Brazilian faiths such as Candomblé and Umbanda—has been climbing. In 2000, adherents of religions other than Catholicism and Protestantism numbered about 6 million (4 percent of Brazil’s population), and as of 2010, that group had grown to 10 million (5 percent). Finally, the number of Brazilians with no religious affiliation, including agnostics and atheists, numbered 12 million (7 percent) in 2000 and 15 million (8 percent) according to Brazil’s 2010 census.

Given the level of religious switching in Brazil, it is particularly notable that a separate Pew Research study finds that there have been no reported incidents of hostility over conversions or proselytism.

Brazil was not always known for religious tolerance. For instance, the persecution of Brazilian Jews in the 1600s sent the first group of Jews to New York in 1654. But writing in 1923, University of Texas legal expert Herman G. James noted that “It is safe to say that there is no other country in the world where the Roman Catholic faith is the traditional and prevailing faith of the inhabitants, where there is a more complete separation of Church and State, or where there is greater freedom of conscience and worship.” The stance of the majority faith, Catholicism, has contributed towards religious freedom in Brazil.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributing factors to the peaceful navigation of the past decades of religious change is the stance of the majority faith—Catholicism—toward religious freedom. Coming right before the massive religious changes occurred in Brazil, the Catholic Church made a clear and unequivocal Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, promulgated in 1965 by Pope Paul VI during the Vatican II.

It makes clear that people “should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty.” So, while perhaps lamenting the loss of members, the dominant faith was bound by its doctrine to a higher spiritual calling tha
n protecting mere membership rosters. It seems clear that, in this case, this doctrine produced peace not conflict.

Brazilians at the grassroots level plan to promote religious freedom worldwide through a series of initiatives, including hosting the first biannual Business, Faith and Freedom Global Awards that recognize the best advances and innovations by businesses in improving respect for religious freedom, interfaith understanding, and peace. Time will tell whether Brazil becomes a major global force for religious freedom. But, as shown clearly in the data, Brazil certainly has a track record of peacefully navigating religious change worth noticing. 

Brian J. Grim is president of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation and a leading expert on the socioeconomic impact of restrictions on religious freedom and international religious demography. 

This article was originally published at Religion & Geopolitics, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. It was later republished on June 4, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.