world council of churches

An Assessment of the Interreligious Situation in Brazil
Otávio Velho

Brazil has been traditionally known as a Catholic country. Possibly the largest Catholic country in the world. A more sophisticated view could complete the picture by drawing attention to the importance of several sorts of "Afro-Brazilian cults" (candomble, xango, umbanda, etc.) and to Spiritism of European origin (basically stemming from Alan Kardec’s doctrine) which has had great impact since the end of the XIXth century. These different religious trends, however, in spite of significant tensions, have increasingly tended with time to flourish side by side, under the hegemony (and tolerance) of the Catholic Church. Many Brazilians consider themselves "non-practicing Catholics". Syncretism and double-affiliations have also been characteristic. Umbanda, for instance, is an invented religion, which from the start in the 1920s assumed syncretism as an orientation and a positive value. This has to do with a hegemonic national ideology (both popular and erudite), which considers «mixture» in general, as typically Brazilian, contrasting favorably with ideologies of racial and/or cultural purity prevalent in other parts of the world. In literature this was celebrated as a kind of symbolic anthropophagy.

Historically, Protestantism in Brazil has been very localized and not considered part of this complex. It has had to do with some immigrant groups (particularly the Germans in the case of Lutheranism) and with some small groups of converts. Their influence, particularly in the sphere of education, sometimes outstripped their numbers. But this did not change the overall picture. The same can be said until these last few decades specifically about the Pentecostals, which started entering the country in the beginning of the century.

However, although this whole picture tends to be considered still broadly correct, it is nowadays at its best no more than a rough first approximation and at its worst frankly misleading. Important changes have been occurring in the last few decades which most outside analysts have not yet adequately appreciated. Even for those inside the country only in the last few years have they become clearly visible.

The most visible is probably the growth of Pentecostal churches. Particularly from the 70s onwards and thanks to their presence in the media (radio and television), although at the grassroots there was a certain turmoil since the 50s. Temples have increasingly been substituting former theatre and movie houses. When the elite started to notice it, the first reaction was to consider it an artificial importation, particularly from the United States. This view is no longer sustainable, since there are now several important churches founded in Brazil and some of them have even been "exporting" to other countries. The most important one in that respect is the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God) which now owns a TV network plus hundreds of radio stations and is supposed to have a presence (token or not) spread all over the world, particularly in the countries of the Mercosur, in Portugal, former Portuguese colonies and following (but not restricting itself to) the Portuguese diaspora (for instance in France, Switzerland, South Africa). Inside Brazil, however, the Assembly of God is still the most numerous. Although up-to-date general statistics are not available, there is some basis to suggest that at least 10% of the population is now Evangelical, mostly Pentecostal. In Rio de Janeiro this goes up to more than 15%, in a city now considered to be the least Catholic in the country. This, however, still means that more than 60% of the population in Rio consider themselves Catholic (down from more than 90% in a few decades).

In some cases and similarly to what has happened in Africa with local religions, these churches have incorporated in a paradoxical form the Afro-Brazilian religions, diabolizing their pantheon and practicing exorcism. They have in varying degrees related themselves to these religions in a much more aggressive manner than the Catholic Church and have stressed the importance of converting their practitioners. This has met with considerable success. At the same time they have been (also in varying degrees) rather aggressive towards the Catholic Church itself. A few years ago there was a famous incident in which a preacher from the Igreja Universal kicked an image of Our Lady of Aparecida, supposedly the patron-saint of Brazil, in front of the television cameras.

This aggressive strategy has in some cases backfired. However, it has also met with some success in denaturalizing the presence of Catholicism (and the complex which it benevolently headed), which had officially been practically identified with Brazilian society and culture in such a way that even atheists tended to accept it (in the form, for instance, of national holidays, all sorts of special privileges for the Church, etc.). To a certain extent it has fitted into a whole combination of forces which have been pushing Brazilian society to question its self, so to speak, in a reflexive stance.

Mention should also be made of the role many of these churches (and there one should include the Baptists) have played in helping people in shantytowns (favelas) and other impoverished situations to build an alternative for their families to involvement with the drug-traffic, which has also been spreading wildly in the last decades. In a certain sense one can even say that they fill in a gap left by the absence of the State.

Its success has led some analysts to speak of a "Pentecostalization" of the whole religious field, its influence spreading way beyond its boundaries, including some main-line Protestant Churches. Paradoxically this has become part of a new strategy of the Catholic Church which has to do with the Charismatic Movement and the so-called "Singing Priests". The charismatics, which until a few years ago were viewed with some suspicion from the part of the Catholic hierarchy have now become standard bearers of the Church. The "Singing Priests" (which have a loose relationship with the Charismatic Movement) attract countless crowds to official Church gatherings. The most widely known, Marcelo Rossi, has already made incursions into Portugal and Argentina, countries in which the Catholic Church is notoriously more conservative than in Brazil. It is probable that a fair picture of what is happening in the religious field must earnestly consider what is happening inside main-line churches that does not necessarily reflect itself in terms of a shift in institutional allegiance. The belief in reincarnation among the faithful may be a fair example of these "disguised" changes.

All these changes have been part of two larger trends that go beyond it: a new and different wave of transnationalization of the religious field and a certain reaction against the ideology of mixture and syncretism. As part of the first one, Brazil has not only been "importing" religion, but also "exporting", which shows that the usual direction of cultural influence can be reversed. And this is true not only of the Pentecostal churches, but also of Afro-Brazilian religions, particularly in Argentina and Uruguay. One can also mention at least two movements (Santo Daime and Uniao do Vegetal) that have evolved around the drinking of a hallucinogenic drink of indigenous origin (Ayahuaska) and that have had a certain modest but polemical penetration in countries such as Holland and Spain. Last but not least, Brazilian New Age has been present in the international scene through the work of Paulo Coelho, demonstrating that New Age is not restricted to the First World. All in all, in what is polemical, one could speculate to what extent Brazil is not pioneering a new, "post-modern" trend, so to speak, in which the modern, restricted view of religion is contested in a world in which counter-tendencies to secularization may be arising, sometimes combining with old-style, "pre-modern" religion. Most of the polemics and disputes circulate around the definition of what is legitimate religion, an issue which may itself be increasingly dated.

In what regards the reaction against the ideology of mixture and syncretism, the Pentecostal churches’ aggressive stand is certainly paradigmatic. But the same can be observed in some cases with regard to Afro-Brazilian religions, particularly candomble, in which African roots (imaginary or not) have been stressed and the identification with Catholic saints has been repudiated. The same kind of movement has arisen in what regards race relations, a growing commitment to a Negro* or an Indigenous identity challenging the ideology of racial mixture and vying for the allegiance of people formerly considered "mixed-bloods", such as "mulattos" or "caboclos". At the moment it is hard to predict what will be the outcome of this cultural and ideological clash. Particularly in what regards interreligious relations. On the one hand, there is a certain trend towards rigidness, but on the other hand new sources of identity create affinities across established barriers, such as is the case between Pentecostals and Charismatics or between Negroes of different Afro-Brazilian religious persuasions.

Finally, mention should be made to the fact that Brazil harbors more than two hundred different Indigenous peoples. Diversely from what was also expected until some time ago, their numbers are growing. Partially as a result of better sanitary conditions. But also due to the switching of identities referred to above, which has shifted dramatically the distribution of Indigenous peoples inside the country, since formerly non-registered (or considered extinct) peoples are sprouting outside the traditional Indigenous areas, particularly in the Northeast and the South. Many of these peoples are in contact with Christian missionaries, but the extent to which they may be considered "converted" is also open to dispute, particularly in the new scenario sketched here. The growing presence of the Indigenous inside the country (including political, as was noticeable in the recent reactions against the official celebrations of the "discovery" of Brazil) has certainly to do with the spread of popular religions which have a mythological Indigenous origin (such as the Santo Daime and the Uniao do Vegetal) and with a growing interest in neo-shamanism.

All this richness -- traditional and new -- involve a very challenging interreligious scenario. It is very important that the churches be sensitive to what is happening in the grassroots in that respect. In many cases the churches have no idea of some of the experiments their faithful have been engaged in and their significance. Much can be learned by observing and eventually absorbing what is happening.

* People of African descent in Brazil identify themselves as Negroes.

Otávio Velho is a Full Professor in Social Anthropology at the National Museum (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and former President of the Institute for the Study of Religion (ISER).

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