Colonized by a catholic country, Brazilians have recently been open to different religions, what has led to a constant migration among beliefs and practices. Learn in this article what are the major religions in Brazil.
Before the arrival of the Portuguese colonizers, Brazil already had natives living here. These natives, who were composed by different indigenous tribes, had their own religions that ended up being prohibited as the natives were forced to convert to Catholicism. This introduction of Catholicism to indigenous people was very violent and nearly erased all the religious and cultural features of these communities. This is why we don’t see indigenous communities among the major religions practiced in Brazil.
As Brazil was shaping its cultural identity and immigrants began to arrive, new religious patterns have started to be developed. Apart from the Portuguese, Brazil was also strongly colonized by African people, who came to the country as slaves. These people brought their traditions and beliefs that later on were to be incorporated to the Brazilian culture and identity.
In the 20th century the massive arrival of Japanese people along with other Asians (such as Koreans and Chinese) brought different religious practices into the country and the intensive process of globalization has provided the opportunity of getting in touch with several different religions and practices.
Religion in Numbers
According to the last census, the Brazilian population is constituted by:
- Roman Catholics - 64,6%
- Protestants – 22,2%
- No religion – 8%
- Other religions – 3,2%
- Spiritualists – 2%
According to a study made by Galileu magazine, there are 125,5 million Catholics in Brazil. The Brazilian Catholic Church has 10.218 parishes, 298 bishops and 18.685 priests. The same study has estimated that per each priest there are four ministers and that Catholics give only 0,54% of the family earnings to the church, while Protestants give from 1,48% to 2,26% of the family earnings.
As for the family income, the minorities are on the top, as we can see below:
- Oriental religions - monthly family income of BRL 5.447,00
- Spiritualists – monthly family income of BRL 4.422,00
- Catholics – monthly family income of BRL 2.023,00
- Protestants – monthly family income of BRL 1.496,00
Still according to the same study, Scientology only have 200 followers in Brazil, while the Islam would have 27.239 Brazilian followers and Santo Daime, a religion from the Amazonian area, would have 200 thousand followers.
Even though most Catholic people (94% to be more specific) claim they have always been Catholic, the Catholic Church is the one that has lost the greatest number of followers over the years, with many of them migrating to protestant churches.
The Catholic Church in Brazil is divided into three major groups:
- The Roman Catholic Apostolic Church;
- The Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church;
- The Orthodox Catholic Church;
The one with the greatest number of followers is the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church, with a total number of 123.280.172 followers, according to the 2010 Census. The Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church is the second major Catholic Church in Brazil, with 560.781, followed by the Orthodox Catholic Church, with 131.571.
The area in Brazil where the Catholic Church has mostly lost its followers is the Southeast, where there is a major concentration of Protestants, especially in major cities and its metropolitan areas. The Northeast of Brazil is the region with the major number of Catholics, with Piauí state being the state with the major concentration of Catholics in Brazil (85% of the population). On the other hand, Rio de Janeiro is the Brazilian state with the lowest concentration of Catholics (45% of the population).
Known in Brazil as “evangélicos”, Protestants used to be known for making a stricter interpretation of the bible. Most conservative protestant churches would impose several prohibitions to its followers, especially women. “Congregação Cristã do Brasil” (or “Brazilian Christian Congregation in free translation), for example, prohibit its female followers to get a haircut and wearing pants or shorts, having their clothing basically restricted to long dresses and skirts. They were also prohibited of wearing makeup and painting their nails.
Such strict conduct has been one of the main causes for the rise of so many different protestant churches in Brazil. New churches with more relaxed codes of conducts started to pop up everywhere in Brazil to the point that having one single street with three different protestant churches is not uncommon.
The buildings of most traditional (and why not wealthier) Protestant churches obey a certain pattern, being easily identified as a church; but the ones that have not been in the market for too long are commonly placed in buildings that used to host stores and even bars.
According to IBGE, there are at least 20 types of Evangelical churches in Brazil, being divided into missionary and Pentecostal churches. Below are the churches, organized by the number of followers (data obtained from the last census, from 2010).
- Igreja Evangélica Luterana (Lutheran Evangelic Church) – 999.498 followers;
- Igreja Evangélica Presbiteriana (Presbyterian Evangelic Church) – 921.209 followers;
- Igreja Evangélica Metodista (Methodist Evangelic Church) – 340.938 followers;
- Igreja Evangélica Batista (Baptist Evangelic Church) - 3.723.853 followers;
- Igreja Evangélica Congregacional (Congregational Evangelic Church) – 109.591 followers;
- Igreja Evangélica Adventista (Adventist Evangelic Church) – 1.561.071 followers;
- Other Missionary churches – 30.666
- Igreja Assembleia de Deus (The House of God Church) – 12.314.410 followers;
- Igreja Congregação Cristã do Brasil (Brazilian Christian Congregation) - 2.289.634 followers;
- Igreja o Brasil para Cristo ( Brazil for Christ Church) – 196.665 followers;
- Igreja Evangelho Quadrangular( Quadrangular Evangelic Church) – 1.808.389 followers;
- Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) – 1.873.243 followers;
- Igreja Casa da Benção (Blessing House Church) – 125.550 followers;
- Igreja Deus é Amor (God is Love Church) – 845.383 followers;
- Igreja Maranata (Maranata Church) – 356.021 followers;
- Igreja Nova Vida (New Life Church) – 90.568 followers;
- Undefined Neopentecostal churches – 23.461 followers;
- Evangelic Community – 180.130 followers;
- Other Evangelical churches from Pentecostal origin – 5.267.029 followers;
- Undefined Evangelical churches – 9.218.129 followers.
Even though denominated as a Christian church, Jehovah’s Witnesses (or “Testemunhas de Jeová” in Portuguese) have no Trinitarian beliefs, differing from mainstream Christianity. Known for their door-to-door preaching, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse military service and blood transfusions. They also do not celebrate Christmas, Easter, birthdays or other holidays they consider to have pagan origins.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have been strongly criticized by members of the medical community who see their refusal to blood transfusion as a risk to their own lives. The Watchtower, series of books distributed to disseminate their preaching, has been accused of racism, with black people being explicitly considered to be inferior, a belief that has only started to change in the 50’s, when Jehovah’s Witnesses started to see them as "capable of being taught". In Brazil, there are 1.393.208 Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to the last census, dating from 2010.
Spiritualism was first observed in Brazil in 1845, in Bahia state, but it was in Rio de Janeiro that the religion started to gain visibility through the work of Allan Kardec, that later on would be responsible for the Spiritualistic denomination called Kardecismo. Spiritualism in Brazil followed the principles of the two books published by Allan Kardec named “O Livro dos Espíritos” (The book of Spirits) and “O Livro dos Médiuns” (The Psychics’ book).
The popularity of Spiritualism in Brazil occurs greatly through literature, with Zíbia Gasparetto and Chico Xavier as major exponents. Its followers still face prejudice from Brazilians, especially Christians, who believe that Spiritualism is related to witchcraft and devilish practices, a prejudice that is also extended to African religions.
According to IBGE, there are 3.848.786 spiritualists in Brazil.
Umbanda is a 100% Brazilian religion, based on Catholicism and Spiritualism, as well as Indigenous and African religions. In the early 20th century, Umbanda followers (as well as any practitioner of African religions) were victims of religious persecution, being chased and beaten up by government representatives.
Umbanda followers believe in the existence of a supreme god named Zambi, preaching fraternity, charity and respect to others. As Umbanda has incorporated practices originated from Spiritualism, the practice of mediumship is adopted as means of contact between the physical and the spiritual world.
Umbanda is based on the pursuit of a peaceful life and respect to humankind, nature and god, respecting all different beliefs, regardless on religion. However, its followers still suffer a great prejudice in Brazil, especially because most Brazilians believe that African religions are directly connected to witchcraft.
Another practice highly condemned in Brazil is the sacrifice of animals to be offered as gifts to “orixás”, who are important deities of Umbanda. Its followers claim that they do not practice animal sacrifice as this would go against the religion respect to life and nature.
The last Brazilian census has counted 407.331 Umbanda followers, mostly concentrated in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, Brazilian cities with a greater number of African-descendants.
An African-derived religion, Candomblé worships orixás, Voduns and Nksis, depending on the nation. Differently from Umbanda, Candomblé is not restricted to Brazil, being practiced in Uruguay, Argentina, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Spain and other countries.
Originally, each African nation worships one orixá. The combination of different cults is a result of slavery that brought to Brazil Africans from several different nations. In Brazil, its presence is stronger in Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Pernambuco, Alagoas and Maranhão states. IBGE estimates that there are 167.363 Candomblé followers in Brazil.
Although having different deities according to the nation, Candomblé claims to be a monotheistic religion. Its deities are honored with “gifts” such as songs, dances, special clothes, vegetable and the sacrifice of hens, pigeons, sheep and goats.
As an attempt to escape from religious persecution, African slaves used elements from Catholicism as a disguise when worshiping their own god and deities. The usage of Catholic images and symbols ended up being incorporated to Candomblé, but was not enough to avoid persecutions from Christians and even government members saw the religion as pagan and witchcraft.
Unlike most religions in Brazil, homosexuality is openly accepted by Candomblé, being openly discussed by its members. However, the religion shares the Christian positioning of being against abortion as the birth of a child is considered to be holly.
The rise of contagious diseases such as HIV has caused changes in the Candomblé customs. Just to give an example, when a member was admitted he/she had his/her head shaved and the same razor would be shared among all members. As fear of contamination with HIV started to grow, the use of individual or disposable razors was adopted.
Macuba is a musical instrument used during the religious rituals. Afro-Brazilian religions suffer greatly from prejudice and the term “macumba” is pejoratively used to refer to these religions, especially to the sacrifice of animals as offer to deities.
The practice of sacrificing animals is restricted to Candomblé as Umbanda followers see the practice as being contradictory to their beliefs of respect to life and nature. What Umbanda followers do – that is also directly associated to macumba – is to light candles for the angels to whom they have made a request.
Many Brazilians claim that Afro-Brazilian religions practice black magic and can harm other people through the spells they supposedly cast. These spells, known as “trabalhos”, are practiced by some members of Candomblé, but this practice does not represent the religion.
Brazil has the second largest concentration of Jewish people in Latin America, with a total of 107.329, according to the last census. The immigration of Jews to Brazil started in the early 19th century and went on until the first half of the 20th century. The Brazilian Jewish community is basically formed by Brazilians with Jewish heritage or beliefs.
Jewish people in Brazil are directly related to the upper-class, with very few (or none!) Jews living amongst the lower classes. This socioeconomic “privilege” is related to persistence and hard work. As an example is the story of Silvio Santos, who went from a poor child who worked as a street vendor to the owner of the TV broadcaster SBT, becoming one of the wealthiest and most popular personalities in Brazil.
The Brazilian states with the major concentration of Jewish people are:
- São Paulo – 44.569
- Rio de Janeiro – 29.157
- Rio Grande do Sul – 8.330
- Paraná – 2.408
- Minas Gerais – 1.656
- Pernambuco – 1.267
- Pará – 899
- Bahia - 855
According to IBGE, there are 5.675 Hindus living in Brazil. The religion is still not popular, being restricted to some small cities such as Nazário, (GO), Palmeiras (BA) and Itapina (ES).
Brazil is the largest Japanese community outside Japan and these immigrants have brought their traditions and beliefs to Brazil. Still, Buddhism is not so popular amongst the Japanese community in Brazil as most of them have converted to Catholicism.
The most popular Buddhist denominations in Brazil are the ones connected to the Buddhist leader Nitiren. Schools following this denomination have become popular because their purpose was to spread the religion to everyone and not only to those with a Japanese heritage.
As Japanese descendants born in Brazil were becoming more and more adepts to Christianity and the Japanese immigrants were dying, the number of Buddhists started to drop in Brazil. The last census counted 243.966 Buddhists in Brazil.
Islamism has been gradually introduced to Brazilian people, with an expressive growth of 25% from 2001 and 2011. Most Muslims in Brazil are from a Syrian or Lebanese heritage and descend from immigrants who first came to the country during the World War I. After that, several other conflicts have contributed to the emigration of Muslims such as the conflicts between Israel and Palestine and the war in Iraq.
While the last census has counted 35.167 Muslims in Brazil, the Brazilian Muslim Association claims that there 1,5 million Muslins in the country. They would be mostly concentrated in São Paulo, Paraná, Mato Grosso do Sul and Rio Grande do Sul, especially in Foz do Iguaçu, PR.
New Oriental Religions
Igreja Messiânica Mundial
The Church of World Messianity is a new religion founded in Japan in 1935. The religion’s key concept is Johrei, allegedly a method of channeling divine light into the body of another for the purposes of healing.
Church of World Messianity is strongly present in Brazil, where there is the largest concentration of Japanese descent outside Japan. According to IBGE, the new religion has 103.716 followers.
Seicho-no-Ie is a syncretic and monotheist religion that emphasizes gratitude for nature, the family, ancestors and, above all, religious faith in one universal God. Another Japanese religion, Seicho-no-Ie inherited its basic characteristics from Buddhism, Christianity and Shintoism.
Seicho-no-Ie’s communication department claims that the religion has 3,5 million followers in Brazil, but IBGE classifies it under the “new oriental religions” group, that has a total of 52.235 followers.
The last census has revealed that 15.335.510 Brazilians have no religion, with only 615.096 declaring themselves as atheists and 124.436 as agnostics.
Atheists in Brazil still suffer a great deal of prejudice, being very often associated with Satanism. The Brazilian state with the greatest number of people with no religion is Rio de Janeiro, with 18% of its population declaring themselves as having no religion. Nova Ibiá, a small town in Bahia state, is the one with the highest concentration of atheists (59,85%) and the second one is Pitimbu, in Paraíba state, with 42,44% of atheists. Curiously the two cities are located in the Northeast of Brazil.
A very profitable business
It is not uncommon to see famous parishes with luxurious mansions and cars, especially Pentecostals and Neopentecostals. This is because unlike the Catholic church, the payment of the tenth in the great majority of Pentecostal and Neopentecostal churches is mandatory and as the name suggests, corresponds to 10% of the church-goer income. The tenth is not only a donation made spontaneously; many churches charge it as a monthly fee, as if the church-goers were paying for the services provided by the church, causing an uncomfortable feeling in those who cannot compromise 10% of their income or have no income at all. In Brazil, it is said that the profit of Protestant churches is only behind the profit generated by drug dealing.
As an attempt to obtain a more effective collection, churches like the Pentecostal “Assembleia de Deus-Vitória em Cristo” accept cash, checks, debit and credit cards, having employees circulating with credit card machines during the cult. Some churches also commercialize items that they claim to be sacred such as a pair of socks or a cloth to help those who are indebted and bring luck.
An important particularity of churches in Brazil is that they are exempted from declaring income. To that extent, everything the church receives (from tenth to donation of cars, furniture, real estate, etc) cannot be taxed. Also, some states exempt churches from paying state taxes such as IPVA and some municipalities do not receive IPTU from the churches. Also, in Rio de Janeiro, Protestant churches were exempted from paying COSIP, a tax destined to defray public lighting.
Do Brazilians tolerate different religions?
Overall, yes. There is no religious persecution in Brazil as there is no official religion either. Also, Brazil declares itself as a secular country, with no intervention of the church in political affairs, however, ministers and other religious representatives can run for city councilman, senator, congressman and even president and address directly to their audience if they like.
Even though there is a certain prejudice against some religions (such as the Afro-Brazilian ones and Spiritualism, not to mention prejudice against atheism), hate crimes related to religion in Brazil are very rare. What happens in some cases is that some religions have a very strict code of conduct and condemn practices that are said to go against god’s will such as homosexuality, what can lead to hate crimes, even though indirectly.
Every religion finds its place in Brazil and can be practiced freely. In case of religions that still in expansion (such as new oriental religions and Islamism), it is easier to find temples in major metropolitan areas such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, Natal, Goiânia, Brasília, Salvador, Cuiabá and Belo Horizonte.