Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Maria Celi ScalonAugust 18, 2003

The Vatican and the Latin American bishops have expressed great concern for but little sophisticated understanding of the success of Protestant denominations in Latin America. Who is being converted, and why, are questions that need to be answered by research, not by clerics who do not listen to their people. Are Latin Americans losing their sense of a personal God? Are they leaving because of the church’s strict teaching on sex? Do they reject the church’s teaching about life after death, heaven, hell and miracles? Are they too lazy to go to church on Sunday? Are they chasing after fortune-tellers, faith-healers and astrologers? Are they seeking a more feminine image of God? What are the odds of their coming back? The answers are surprising.

A beginning toward understanding conversions in Latin America has recently been made by a joint investigation of Protestant (usually evangelical) gains in Brazilthe first of a series of studies we hope will come out of work done jointly at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago and the Graduate Research Institute of Rio De Janiero, based on data collected for the International Social Survey Program.

Brazil, with a population in excess of 180 million, occupies almost half the South American continent. As an industrial nation it ranks eighth in the world, yet it has its own internal third world. It is the largest Catholic country in the world, though our data suggest that religious affiliation is also somewhat unstable. Seventy-one percent of Brazilians are Catholic; 11 percent are Protestants (mostly Evangelical, Baptist, Adventists and members of the Assemblies of God); 11 percent have no religious affiliation but believe in God (a choice that the standard Brazilian questionnaire permits); 6 percent belong to cults (a collection of some 25 groups, most of which have less than 1 percent of the population); and less than 1 percent say that that they do not have a religious affiliation and do not believe in God.

As anyone who has visited Brazil well knows, there is an overlay of pagan religious beliefs and practices (like Condomblé, Macumba and Umbanda), which many Catholic Brazilians do not find inconsistent with their more orthodox beliefs. One need only visit Copacabana on New Year’s Eve, Salvador da Bahía on Jan. 6 or the whole country on Shrove Tuesday to observe festivals that are mostly pagan (but not necessarily evil).

More than one out of five of those who were raised Catholics leave the church9 percent to Protestantism, 4 percent to the cults and 9 percent to join those with no religious affiliation. However, Catholicism has a higher rate of retention than do any of the other religious groups. More than two-fifths of those who were raised Protestant are no longer Protestant, which is what one would expect of sect-like groups. The Catholic Church picks up 16 percent of those who were raised Protestants. Obviously religious change in Brazil is frequent.

Religious and Moral Beliefs

In many respects Brazilian Protestants are better Catholics than are Brazilian Catholics. Eighty-nine percent of Brazilians believe that God exists, by far the highest rate of any country studied so far by I.S.S.P. There is no significant difference between Catholics who have remained Catholic and converts to Protestantism on this measure. While 70 percent of all Brazilians believe that God is concerned about them as individual persons (also the highest in the world), 76 percent of those who have converted believe in this personal concern. Converts are also significantly more likely to believe in life after death, heaven, hell and miracles. Seventy percent of the converts believe in the literal, word-for-word inspiration of the Bible, but so do 59 percent of those who remain Catholic.

Eighty-seven percent of the converts go to church at least several times a month, as do 41 percent of those who remain Catholicapproximately the same level as that of American Catholics. Eighty-three percent of the converts pray every day, as do 74 percent of Catholic loyalists, also the highest rates in the I.S.S.P. world. Thirty-four percent of the converts engage in religious organizational activities once a week, as opposed to 12 percent of those who remain Catholic. The converts are twice as likely to say that they feel very religious as are the Catholic loyalists (53 percent versus 26 percent). Finally they are almost three times as likely to report a religious turning point experience (60 percent versus 22 percent). Only the difference between the two groups in belief in God is not statistically significant.

Brazilians tend to be a devout and believing people. Those who remain Catholic, very religious by all comparisons with other countries, seem less religious only in comparison with those who have converted to Protestantism. Can this phenomenon be explained by the fact that the Protestant denominations, fundamentalist for the most part, are able to make more intense religious demands on their members or by the fact that those who join are looking for a more intense and demanding religious community? Perhaps some combination of both factors is at work. Perhaps the high defection rate among those raised Protestant (42 percent) can be explained by the fact that the younger generation of Brazilian Protestants do not find the demands, and the apparent enthusiasm that supports them, attractive.

The converts, moreover, are better Catholics than the loyal Catholics on all measures of sexual ethics, save for there being no difference between the two groups in the proportion who think extramarital sex is always wrong (more than 90 percent). By large majorities the Protestants are more likely than Catholics to reject premarital sex (62 percent versus 42 percent), cohabitation before marriage (38 percent approve against 55 percent), homosexual acts (96 percent versus 84 percent) and abortion (71 percent versus 59 percent). The appeal of Protestantism to those who were raised Catholics in Brazil certainly cannot be attributed to a relaxed sexual ethic.

Religious World Views

In their underlying worldviews, the Protestant converts are strikingly different from those who remain in their Protestant churches. On indicators of the Catholic Imagination (see Andrew Greeley, Religion as Poetry and The Catholic Imagination) there is a sharp differentiation in image of God as lover (57 percent Catholic versus 33 percent Protestant), as friend (35 percent versus 21 percent) and as mother (39 percent versus 31 percent). Moreover, loyal Catholics are more likely to see human nature as good rather than corrupt (36 percent versus 24 percent) and the world as good rather than evil (33 percent versus 23 percent). Brazilian Catholics have the highest score in the world on the image of God as lover and as mother. But the difference between converts and loyal Catholics raises a fascinating question. Were the converts attracted to Protestant sects because their stories of God and humankind and world were already different from those of their fellow Catholics, or did their conversion to Protestantism lead them to embrace the Protestant world view?

The loyal Catholics are also far more likely to believe in good luck charms, fortune-tellers, faith-healers and astrology than are converts to Protestantism. While official Catholicism rejects these beliefs as superstitious, they are a risk inherent in the Catholic imagination, which sees God as present in the objects, events and persons of his creation. Perhaps those who became Protestant rejected not only patent superstition but also images and stories of God that might be conducive to it. Or the rejection may have come after conversion, as the new Protestants learned to dislike the overlay of syncretism in Brazilian Catholicism. Perhaps they did not like the New Year’s Eve ceremonies, the Bonfim (feast of the happy death) or Carnival before their conversion, or perhaps conversion developed latent dislike for such apparently pagan ceremonies.

The converts are also more likely to believe that God cares for humans as individual persons (76 percent versus 69 percent) and that God makes life meaningful (87 percent versus 74 percent). Once more the Brazilian scores on these items are the highest of any country I.S.S.P. has studied.

Brazil, then, is a country where the Catholic imagination and its unfortunate links to superstition and syncretism are very strong. The converts to Protestantism tend to reject these elements of Catholicism either as a cause or a consequence (or a possible combination) of their conversion. In their intense and devout fundamentalist Protestantism, there is no room for such images and metaphors.

Demographic explanations for the phenomenon of Catholic conversion to Protestantism in Brazil are weak. Converts are twice as likely to come from the states of Saõ Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. They are less likely to be well educated, more likely to be women, less likely to be from the Northeast (cities like Recife, Fortaleza and Salvador). Parental religious devotion, age, city size, rural dwelling, income, race, confidence in public institutions and lack of political affiliation do not correlate with conversion.


Brazil is a large and profoundly Catholic country, in which the Catholic imagination is very strong, as is syncretism and superstition. Those Catholics who convert to fundamentalist Protestantism are more devout, more moral, less anticlerical and more Protestant in their imaginations than those who remain Catholic. One might speculate that their conversion is a massive reaction against the syncretism and superstition that seems (to them) to permeate Brazilian Catholicism in favor of a more stern and sober version of Christianity, with intense levels of superstition-free devotion. One wonders how many of the Brazilian Baptists and Evangelicals and members of the Assembly of God participate in Carnival. Claims that Protestantism is sweeping Brazil are not sustained by the data. Nonetheless Protestantism is making some progress, a growth that is threatened by the inability to hold two-fifths of the children of converts. The data from our research provide a benchmark for further studies. We hesitate to draw any policy conclusion for Catholicism in Brazil, except that to some extent it would seem that the swing to evangelical religion may represent a strong critique of Catholic syncretism. More research must be done if the church is to respond intelligently and pastorally to the situation in Latin America, but there is little reason to expect that Brazil will abandon its unique and vibrant form of Catholicism.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
16 years 8 months ago
Since I was born a Brazilian, was raised a Catholic and am now an American citizen, I found “Catholics and Protestants in Brazil” (8/18), by Maria Celi Scalon and the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, very interesting. But it seems to have overlooked an important turning point for the church in Brazil—i.e., the effects of liberation theology (Leonardo Boff, Paulo Cardinal Arns et al.) in the molding of Catholic opinion, especially under the military rulers of the period 1964-75.

In a country with one of the most unbalanced income distributions in the world, liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor, stressing social issues like land reform, is certainly academically correct. But it missed an essential point of the Brazilian people’s psyche—the yearning for the supernatural, the hope for miracles, the pageant of the processions.

As the upper classes become more secularized, the poor are easy prey for evangelicals with their singing and television pastors. And of course the local alternative of the syncretic coupling of Catholic saints and African rites increased substantially as well.

Now that Brazil has elected, with a substantial majority, its first president of lower-class origin (his advisor in ethical matters is Frei Betto, a well-known liberation theologian), we must see if the detected trends continue.

The latest from america

Anyone who has attended a synod of bishops will tell you that it’s more about the journey than the destination.
Sebastian GomesOctober 02, 2023
A Reflection for the Memorial of the Guardian Angels, by Molly Cahill
Molly CahillOctober 02, 2023
The global advocacy group End Clergy Abuse is seeking to draw attention to the failure of Pope Francis to make good on years of pledges of “zero tolerance” for abuse.