Festival do DivinoBrazil is the fifth most populous country and the largest Roman Catholic nation in the world. While Catholicism remains the dominant faith at 65% of the population, other religious movements are gaining in popularity.[1]

One in four Brazilians are Pentecostal, a form of charismatic Protestantism that has exploded across Latin America, and African‐derived religions represent a minority at fewer than 5%, though a rising number of Brazilians identify as followers of these traditions.[2] Each—Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and African‐derived religion— has a unique trajectory shaped by access to power and resistance to power in Brazil, and is interwoven with themes of marginalization, poverty, gender, race, and social justice. Finally, it’s worth noting that more Brazilians than ever before are not affiliated with a religion—roughly 8% in 2010.[3]

Contemporary Brazilian history spans the rise of the Old Republic—dominated by coffee and rubber oligarchs—to the economic liberalization in the 1960s, the military dictatorships of the 1970s, the restoration of democratic governance in the 1980s, and since 2002, the dominance of the leftist Workers’ Party. Since the early founding of the Republic and through today, Brazil’s integration into the global economy and later economic transformations—most notably economic liberalization—enriched an elite minority while most lived in poverty. Social justice movements, including the labor movement and the anti‐racism movement throughout the century, have brought together a wide variety of actors,[4] from European migrant labor organizers to Catholic priests, Afro‐Brazilian practitioners of Umbanda and Candomblé fighting against racism,[5] and Pentecostals influencing the political sphere as a voting bloc.[6]  Though an economic powerhouse in Latin America, Brazil suffers from rampant corruption, poverty, and deep structural inequality that typically manifest along racial and socioeconomic class lines. As of 2011, an official census revealed that just over half of Brazilians now identify as either as “black” or “mixed‐race,” yet less than 18% of the wealthiest segment of Brazilian society identifies as such.[7] However, it’s important to point out that racial categories are complex, and can mean different things depending on context.

While the Catholic Church is the predominant religious institution in Brazil, Brazilian Catholics are quite diverse in their theological views. For example, many priests and lay members were inspired by the social justice focus of liberation theology and mobilized resistance to military dictatorships in the 1970s. At the same time, many bishops supported and legitimized the military junta.5 While much of the Catholic clergy have been closely involved with labor movements and leftist politics, Catholicism also remains the faith of the Brazilian economic elite. As such, Catholic perspectives span a broad social, economic, and political range.

Candomblé and Umbanda are the two most popular African‐derived religions, primarily among Afro‐ Brazilians in coastal regions but among some white Brazilians as well. African‐derived religions are inseparable from the experiences of slavery and represent the renewal of social, cultural, and spiritual meaning in the wake of intense racial trauma and ongoing economic and social marginalization. They provide spaces for Afro‐Brazilians to express themselves in resistance to the identities forced upon them by those with power in colonial and post‐ colonial society, and in some areas are closely tied to anti‐racism movements.[8] The rising number of white Brazilians embracing African‐derived religions, and especially Umbanda, has created controversy over the meaning of these traditions.[9]

Protestant Christian Pentecostalism spread rapidly across Brazil in the 1950s fueled by the movement of rural migrants into new urban communities.[10] It is estimated that more Protestants than Catholics now attend church services, with surveys indicating that eight in ten Protestants identify as Pentecostals.[11] While Pentecostals tend to lean conservative—especially on social issues—organizations such as the Assembly of God and the Universal Kingdom of God engage across race and class, and were instrumental in the recruitment of voters for former leftist president, Lula de Silva, in 2002.[12]

One of the most significant recent developments in Brazil includes the spread of the Zika virus throughout the country and across South America. The virus, which is transmitted via mosquito bite, has since been connected to the sharp increase in reports of microcephaly, a birth defect which affects the development of a child’s skull, and can lead to severe learning difficulties. The increasing prevalence of the Zika virus, and so also microcephaly, has given rise to discourse on abortion. Abortion is illegal in Brazil unless the pregnancy is a result of rape, or if the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Given the prohibition of abortion by Roman Catholic doctrine and the supremacy of this faith tradition in Brazil, the law seems unlikely to change soon, despite the steadfast campaigning efforts of individuals such as lawyer Debora Deniz, who published an article in The New York Times on the subject.[13] Advocates for the broader legalization of abortion such as Deniz have emphasized the vulnerability of impoverished women of color to Zika.

Since the Zika virus has been found to be transmitted sexually, contraception has also continued to be a hotly-debated topic in the context of religion and health in Brazil. Unlike abortion, which is widely opposed in Brazil, approximately 70% of people approve the use of contraception, with regional bishops also recommending use of contraception in health crises.[14] Pope Francis has also gone on record saying that contraception may be the “lesser evil” in preventing the spread of the Zika virus.[15] In the same statement, the Pope also condemned abortion outright as “an absolute evil.” [16]

                                                                Historical Legacies→


[1] “Brazil’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, July 18, 2013,, accessed April 15, 2014.

[2] Lourdes Garcia‐Navarro, “Brazilian Believers Of Hidden Religion Step Out Of Shadows,” NPR, September 16, 2013,, accessed April 15, 2014.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Brazil’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Tom Phillips, “Brazil census shows African‐Brazilians in the majority for the first time,” The Guardian, November 17, 2011,, accessed April 14, 2014.

[8] Rachel Harding, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 1.

[9] Tina Gudrun Jensen, “Discourses on Afro‐Brazilian Religion: From De‐Africanization to Re‐Africanization,” Latin American Religion in Motion, eds. Christian Smith and Joshua Prokopy (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 265–283, p. 280.

[10] Rowan Ireland, Kingdoms Come: Religion and Politics in Brazil (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), p. 100.

[11] Historical Overview of Pentecostalism in Brazil,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, October 5, 2006.

[12] R. Andrew Chestnut, “Brazil,” The Encyclopedia of Religion and Politics (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2007), pp. 74–77.

[13] Debora Deniz, “The Zika Virus and Brazilian Women’s Right to Choose,” The New York Times, February 8, 2016,, accessed March 5, 2016.

[14] Travis Knoll, “Could the Zika virus move Catholics to reconsider birth control?” Religion News Service, February 11, 2016,, March 5, 2016.

[15] Harriet Sherwood, “Pope suggests contraception can be condoned in Zika crisis,” The Guardian, February 18, 2016,, accessed March 5, 2016.

[16] Sherwood, “Pope suggests contraception can be condoned in Zika crisis.”

Image Credits:

Aldeia Tenondé Porã, Sarah Fernandes, Flickr Creative Commons.

"Festival do Divino," Danielle Pereira, Flickr Creative Commons.

Devotos celebram dia de Iemanjá no Rio, Agência Brasil Fotografias, Flickr Creative Commons.