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date: 25 March 2019

Contemporary Religions in Brazil

Abstract and Keywords

This essay gives an overview of the religious landscape of Brazil as well as studies about religions in Brazil. Starting with the situation of Christian denominations in Brazil the essay discusses vernacular religions such as Spiritism and Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda, religions that have arrived in Brazil by immigrants such as Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, and indigenous religions such as the religion of the Guaraní. The text highlights how social and political changes have impacted on religions in Brazil. Each section refers to selected publications representing the range of studies about these religions undertaken by scholars in Brazil and abroad.

Keywords: Brazil, religion, Christianity, Candomblé, Umbanda, Spiritism, Guaraní, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam

Brazil has been described as a Roman Catholic country for centuries. Until 1891 Roman Catholicism was the only official religion of Brazil. However, the situation has changed during the twentieth century. Although 64.6 percent of the population still identified themselves as Roman Catholic in the national census of 2010, this figure represents a significant drop from 73.6 percent in 2000 and 90 percent in 1970. At the same time the number of groups (populações) called Evangélicas grew (22.2 percent in 2010 from 15.44 percent in 2000). In this group 60.0 percent self-identified as Evangélicas de origem pentecostal, 18.5 percent as Evangélicas de Missão (e.g., Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists), and 21.8 percent were of unspecified origin (Evangélicas de origem não determinada). These figures show that while Brazil is still predominately a Christian country, it has become more diverse.

Statistical data on such a large scale as the national census say, however, little about religious belonging or practice. They can supply certain indicators but one has to keep in mind that the declaration of religious affiliation is a self-declaration. They also overshadow the bricolage of traditions which began in the colonial past and resulted in the establishment of traditions out of the merging of old ones. For many Brazilians Afro-Brazilian traditions such as Umbanda remain embedded in a Christian faith and enable them to be Christian and practice at the same time other traditions. Chesnut states that half of all Brazilians have visited an Umbanda center at least once, though most of them only sporadically, particularly during a personal crisis. The number of Brazilians practicing an Afro-Brazilian religion is much smaller, although Chesnut (2003: 106–107) still estimates that 15–20 percent of Brazilians (approximately 30 million) practice Umbanda or one of the other Afro-Brazilian religions. Chesnut calculates that the number of people practicing an Afro-Brazilian religion is even as high as the number of Protestant Brazilians and explains that the very different figure in the national census is the result of the enduring stigma attached to African-derived religions. The figures of the national census consequently represent only the official side of the religious composition of Brazil and hide the vibrant existence of popular or vernacular religious traditions.

The Christian self-identification remains nonetheless a strong denominator for national identity that outshines the popular religions, which are often regarded as part of the personal spirituality of an individual, but not as the foundation for religious self-identification. In this sense, Christianity, and particularly folk Catholicism with its worship of the Virgin Mary and the Saints, is regarded as one of the core aspects of Brazilian culture and identity. Brazilian religiosity is expressed in diverse ways, however, and Christian self-identification does not prevent people from believing and practicing one of the popular religious traditions of Brazil. The discrepancy between practice and self-identification is only a paradox from a non-Brazilian perspective; it is not a problem for Brazilians. However, when it comes to the census people still prefer to identify with Christianity instead of one of the vernacular traditions.

This essay presents an insight into the diverse religious landscape of Brazil as well as an overview of studies on contemporary religions in Brazil. The aim is to highlight the diversity of traditions as well as research conducted in Brazil. The chapter begins with Christianity, mainly Roman Catholicism and Charismatic Christianities including Pentecostalism. The next section focuses on vernacular religions such as Spiritism and the Afro-Brazilian traditions, which have an important impact on Brazilian culture. This section will end with a short glimpse on so-called New Age and connected traditions popular in particular among the urbanized population. The following section focuses on religions that arrived in Brazil with immigrants such as Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. While some of them are still firmly linked to ethnic communities, other have branched out and attracted Brazilians of all origin. The last section focuses on an often neglected area, the religions of the Amerindian population. While most of the Amerindians in Brazil today are Christians, some religious ideas and practices continued, even within indigenous churches.

Brazilian Christianities

The predominant form of Christianity traditionally practiced in Brazil was folk Catholicism with syncretized elements of African religions, medieval Portuguese Christianity, and indigenous beliefs. Their impact can be seen until today as popular Catholicism is essential part of the national identity (Droogers 1987). While the institution of the Roman Catholic Church has lost much of its political power, Mary, in particular in her appearance as Nossa Senhora Aparecida (Our Lady Who Appeared) maintains its significance as the national patron of Brazil. It is therefore folk Catholicism with its main features (the cult of saints, interpersonal relations, and a diffuse body of lay religious agents according to Steil) that continues to capture the imagination of Brazilians (Steil 2016; see also Ribeiro de Oliveira 1972 and Maués 1995). Nonetheless, the Catholic Church remains important until today though its influence is constantly declining in favor of so-called Evangélicos since the 1970s.

One of the areas of studies about Christianity in Brazil focuses on the secularization of Brazil and discusses the place of the Church after the separation of powers at the end of the nineteenth century. Leite (2011) points here to the differences of the secularization process in Europe and in Brazil where one did not see a drastic break but an ongoing cooperation. Similar to the US Constitution, the new constitution of the Republic promoted a model of secularism that rejected atheism, granted religious freedom, and allowed the public exhibition of Christian symbols (Leite 2011: 43). As Brazil did not cease to be Catholic, most people in the government and administration remained Catholic. As a result, the Catholic Church maintained its influence in important areas such as health and education. Montero (2012) even argues that the Catholic Church was initially the only organized and nationally influential civil force. The separation from the State even strengthened the Catholic Church as an institution. Despite being pushed away from the center of political power, the Church was able to become an active force in the construction of civil society in Brazil. This development had significant impact on other religions, for instance, vernacular practices such as Spiritist healing. They were considered to be pathological and illegal medical practices in the first decades of the twentieth century. Maggie (1986) shows also that Afro-Brazilian practices were repressed by the police and legal systems until the 1940s, as they were classified as witchcraft, quackery, and charlatanism. Esquivel (2008) argues that at the end of the military dictatorship in the 1960s the Catholic Church managed to be once again in the center of political power as Catholic anointing was fundamental for the legitimacy of political regimes. However, the Church became also the main opponent to the military dictatorship and advocate of civil and political freedom, human rights, and re-democratization (Lowy 1997).

Another strand of studies on Christianity in Brazil looks at the growing presence of Pentecostalism in Brazil (e.g., Alencar 2005). This area is much studied by Brazilian sociologists who predicted the incredible success of the Evangélicos in the 2010 census years before (e.g., Pierucci 1996). While the Evangélicos de Missão (e.g., Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Adventists) never presented a threat to the dominant position of the Catholic Church in Brazil, Evangélicos de origem pentecostal do. Mariano and Oro (2016) point, for instance, at the growing political influence of Pentecostal voters and their growing party activism over the last decades. Until the mid-1980s, Pentecostalism was not interested in politics. However, since then, Pentecostal leaders have begun to mobilize their congregations and have gained influence in the political arena (Sylvestre 1986). Over a relatively short time, the number of Pentecostals in local and even national assemblies increased (Freston 1994). Mariano and Oro (2016) show that between 1986 and 2010, evangelical representatives in the National Congress more than doubled. While one reason is, of course, the increase in the number of Evangélicos, it also shows that the churches managed to mobilize them.

Although the Assembly of God is the largest Pentecostal church in Brazil, the interest of scholars working in this area has shifted to the so-called Neo-Pentecostal churches, in particular but not exclusively the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, hereinafter IURD). While some scholars criticize the disproportional focus on one church, the interest is justified by the scandals around the church in the last decades but also its incredible spread outside Brazil. The IURD is present in more than thirty countries worldwide. Corten, Dozer, and Oro (2003: 13) regard it therefore as the largest and most important new church in the so-called developing world. Greenfield who describes the IURD as “one of Brazil’s more unusual multinational corporations” points toward its “theology of health and wealth” (2008: 141–142). The keystone of the IURD is the miraculous healing of the Holy Ghost, which can provide solutions to all kinds of problems—physical, psychological, social, and even economic. However, health comes for a price. The doctrine of prosperity is not only a pillar of the IURD, but other churches have adopted it, too. Healing has become big business in Brazil and contributes also to the success of the church outside Brazil (e.g., Schmidt 2008 about the spread of the IURD in New York City). Scholars are also looking at the increasing conflict between the IURD and other Neo-Pentecostal churches with other religions, in particular Afro-Brazilian traditions (e.g., Engler 2011; Schmidt 2013; Silva 2007).

Apart from the growing number of sociological studies on Pentecostalism, there is another strand of studies within religious studies looking at the Charismatic movements, within the Roman Catholic Church (Catholic Charismatic Renewal) as well as the Pentecostal churches. The economic success of two forms of Charismatic Christianity in Brazil is remarkable as Chesnut (1997, 2003) shows. Chesnut (2016) even argues that Charismatic Christianity has gained hegemonic status in Brazil’s religious economy because the great majority of church-affiliated Christians in Brazil are charismatic. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) was introduced in Brazil in 1968 and spread rapidly through Brazil. It mirrors the emotional worship style of Pentecostal churches, which also emphasize the physical dimension of religion. Pierucci and Prandi (1998) see significant similarities between CCR and the Pentecostal movement not only with regard to the charismatic form of religious practice but also on a sociological level (e.g., gender distribution). An important difference, however, is the devotion to the Virgin Mary, which takes a central place in CCR but is excluded from Pentecostal worship.

A new area of studies looks at the Diaspora communities (e.g., Rocha and Vásquez 2013). A focus here is also on Neo-Pentecostal churches such as IURD, but there is currently research done on other churches (e.g., Sheringham 2011 about Brazilian churches in London). An interesting side-topic here is the role of evangelical football players. Because of the strong presence of evangelical football players in Brazil, they have become also increasingly visible among Brazilian players overseas (e.g., Rial 2008, 2013).

Vernacular Traditions


According to the census data the number of people identifying with Spiritism increased slightly from 1.3 percent in 2000 to 2.0 percent in 2010, counting for an increase of over a million people, from 1.4 million in 2000 to 2.5 million in 2010. However, some scholars argue that Spiritism is used as an umbrella category for all kinds of vernacular traditions including the Afro-Brazilian religions in order to prevent the negative perception of “black magic” that is still connected to Afro-Brazilian religions (Malandrino 2006: 39–40). Another factor why the number is inaccurate is that many practitioners reject the notion that Spiritism could be labeled “religious.” They insist that Spiritism is a secular technique, means of communication between the world of humans and the world of spirits. Consequently, they reject to tick the box for Spiritism when questioned about their belief, despite their practice. Spiritists can identify as agnostic or even with a specific religion though the majority of Brazilian Spiritists conform to Christian beliefs.

Spiritism has attracted the attention of scholars, mainly Brazilians (e.g., Lewgoy 2006; Silva 1995; Stoll 2002, 2006) but also a few others (e.g., Greenfield 2008; Hess 1991). While the focus of the latter is often on Spiritist healing, the former group focuses mainly on the relationship with Catholicism, questions of identity or political issues. Spiritism arrived in Brazil around 1880 (Lewgoy 2006: 211) though not linked to immigration or missionary activities but due to the spread of books by the French founder of Spiritism, Hypolyte Léon Denizard Rivail (1804–1869), known under his Spiritist name of Allan Kardec. Until today Spiritists acknowledge his teachings and honor his significance. However, in addition to Kardecism Brazilian Spiritism has incorporated a range of other influences and developed consequently multiple variations of Spiritism. At the same time, Spiritist ideas have enriched other belief systems such as the Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda.

Lewgoy (2006: 211) states that in the first decades Spiritism with its anticlerical attitude and its progressive, positivistic, and free-thinking ideas attracted mainly educated Brazilians. Unsurprisingly practitioners were persecuted until the separation of Church and State in 1890. Spiritist ideas then spread quickly to wider sectors of society due to its dedication to charity. Kardec’s main teaching led in Brazil, for instance, to the foundation of orphanages and hospitals (Brown and Bick 1987: 79), but its link to healing resulted in severe persecution because it was regarded as illegal to offer medical treatment without a medical license.

A focus in studies about Spiritism has been on Francisco Cândido (Chico) Xavier (1910–2002), still the most famous medium in Brazil. During his life time, he published over 400 books with messages from the spirits. However, his fame goes way beyond his books. He was regarded as a charismatic leader who became a national symbol in Brazil (Silva 2006; Stoll 2002). Scholars argue that Chico Xavier changed Spiritism in Brazil with his strong link to Roman Catholicism and his conservative attitude. As a result Spiritism became more structured with a set of ritualistic canon and doctrines (Lewgoy 2006: 219).

Nonetheless, Spiritism became increasingly mixed with elements from other traditions, in particular New Age ideas (Lewgoy 2006: 220), and has lost to a certain degree its Roman Catholic frame. Recent developments (esp. the movement of some Spiritists toward selling advice on the Internet) have also shown a changed attitude toward the charity aspect that was central to Kardec’s teaching (Stoll 2006). Nowhere is this more visible than in the growing healing sector. Greenfield (2008) shows particularly well the intensity of the link between Spiritists and healers in Brazil and its many variations, with various different treatments, from disobsession (persuading a spirit to let go and leave a person alone) over cleaning the aura of a client to Spiritual surgery by a medium (often without medical training). One common feature among these treatments is the consultation of the spirits of deceased medical doctors, for instance, Dr. Fritz, who had become quite famous.

Afro-Brazilian Religions

According to the census, 588,797 Brazilians declared that they belonged to one of the Afro-Brazilian religions in 2010 (167,363 referred specifically to Candomblé, 407,331 to Umbanda, and 14,103 to other Afro-Brazilian religions). However, the practice is far more widespread. Afro-Brazilian religions attract practitioners with their offer of help but not all of these “clients” will take the step toward initiation into the community. One also should not underestimate the pressure of the negative image of these religions which has become worse in the last decades due to the increasing influence of Neo-Pentecostal churches (Silva 2007). Leaders of these churches interpret the core spiritual entities of the Afro-Brazilian religions, the orixás, as demons which have to be exorcised when they incorporate in humans. Afro-Brazilian traditions, however, encourage the incorporation as it enables communication with the supernatural entities and enriches the lives of the possessed positively. Afro-Brazilian traditions have inspired many artists and elements of Afro-Brazilian are portrayed nowadays in countless novels, poems, songs, movies, and other artistic forms. Some aspects of the Afro-Brazilian religions, such as the legends about the deities, the orixás, and even some artifacts, are now elevated as part of the national heritage (Sansi 2007).

The birth of the most prominent Afro-Brazilian religions is linked to places in Brazil with a slavery history such as slave markets, plantations with large populations of enslaved workers and palenques, communities of maroons, and so-called runaway slaves. Candomblé, which derives mainly from the West African Yoruba tradition, is linked to Bahia do Salvador. Xangô, named after the Yoruba deity with the same name, was established in Recife. Tambor de Mina, which has a strong influence from Dahomey, as well as Terecô were established in the state of Maranhão. And the list can go on (for an overview, see Silva 1994). Prandi (2005) categorizes the different forms even as “ethnic religions” due to the strong link to a specific region in Brazil (Bahia, Maranhão, Recife, and so on). Nowadays, however, one can encounter terreiros (community houses and compounds) of these traditions in all major cities of Brazil and most of them are beginning to lose the link to the original region. The spread of Afro-Brazilian religions in the twentieth century has led to another development, the creation of new syncretic religions such as Umbanda which combines elements of Spiritism with Candomblé. When at the end of the twentieth century, Candomblé priests began to “re-Africanize” their traditions and to “clean” their terreiros from Catholic influences such as the presences of the cross and images of Catholic saints, Umbanda and similar more syncretic religions kept them as a symbol for their links to Brazilian popular Catholicism. Nonetheless, it is not possible to divide the Afro-Brazilian terreiros in separate religions due to the many variations and mixtures. They represent such a diverse spectrum of beliefs and practices that it is sometimes impossible to identify whether a terreiro is Umbanda or Candomblé. A common feature is the worship of the African deities (usually called orixás but also voduns or nkisis), which are associated with elements in nature (e.g., wind, water, thunder). The initiation reinforces the relationship between the initiate and the orixás who have power over the destiny of humans but also can be influenced by sacrifices and other offerings. Each community is hierarchically structured with a priest or priestess as undisputable head of the community. They have the ultimate power over the composition of the beliefs and practices of their terreiro though they are themselves linked to the terreiro of the priest who proceeded over their initiations, years or decades ago.

Most of the Afro-Brazilian religions but mainly Candomblé and Umbanda are well researched by Brazilian scholars (e.g., Birman 1995; Ferretti 1995, 1998; Goldman 1985; Prandi 2001; Silva 1995) and American and European anthropologists (e.g., Bastide [1960] 1978; Brown 1986; Capone 1999; Johnson 2002; Landes 1947; Matory 2005; Wafer 1991). The result is the existence of a range of ethnographical studies describing in detail the worldview and rituals of specific communities in Salvador de Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and other cities. As each terreiro is autonomous the variations seem endless. However, some communities, in particular in Bahia, have received special attention by anthropologists because of their perceived “authority” due to the influence of artists such as Verger (1981). These terreiros welcomed their recognition and even gained some political influence though religiously they do not have any authority over other terreiros and do not speak for them.

Some of the early anthropological studies looked at the bricolage of ideas and practices within the wider Afro-American framework (e.g., Bastide [1960] 1978). They focused often on Candomblé, which is still perceived as the more “authentic” and “African” religion. For a while Umbanda was overlooked until its significance within the wider Brazilian society became recognized (Brown 1986). A long-standing research focus has been on women (e.g., Birman 1995; Hayes 2011; Landes 1947) and sexuality (e.g., Wafer 1991). Brazilian scholars also study these religions within the wider political context such as prosecution (e.g., Maggie 1986), black identity, past and present (e.g., Hofbauer 2006; Parés 2006), or urbanization (e.g., Silva 1995). A recent development is a shift toward Umbanda and its interpretation as “Bantu” (e.g., Malandrino 2006). Another constant feature of these studies is the aesthetic side of the rituals and its material dimension (e.g., Sansi 2007; Suhrbier 2012; Van de Port 2005).

New Age, Santo Daime, and Other Traditions

One can find in Brazil a growing number of New Age groups, in particular, in urban centers such as São Paulo. Prokopy and Smith (1999: 12) estimated in 1999 that there were already more than 1,000 New Age groups and establishments in both São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Today the number would be much higher. One of the most vibrant developments is based around ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drug that was traditionally used by indigenous shamans and mixed-race healers in the wider Amazonian area of Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Brazil. Developed in the rural area of Brazil in the 1920s and 1930s, ayahuasca inspired the establishment of various new religions that are still flourishing today among the urbanized population, even outside Brazil. The best known is Santo Daime, founded by Raimundo Irineu Serra, known as Mestre Irineu (1892–1971). Another group in this sector is União do Vegetal, founded in 1961 by José Gabriel da Costa (Mestre Gabriel). A common feature is that after the death of each founder the groups fragmented further and spread throughout Brazil and beyond. Dawson (2007, 2013) gives in his publications a good overview of the diversity of the ayahuasca religions as well as an insight into the ritualistic aspects. All of these groups are popular among the more affluent middle and upper classes in Brazil and other countries. Although these groups are relatively small and appear too insignificant to have an impact on Brazil, they are well known in and outside Brazil and have an impact nationally and internationally. Some of the Santo Daime groups can be found in the United States, Canada, Japan, France, Italy, The Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, and many other countries (Labate and Jungaberle 2011). And here they demonstrate the possible impact these groups produce, for instance, by changing constitutions: because it is usually illegal to consume ayahuasca because it is classified as a drug, followers of Santo Daime are pursuing legal battles in each of these countries to get ayahuasca rituals accepted as religious (in Brazil it is legal to drink ayahuasca as part of a religious ritual).

Another group is the Ordem Espiritualista Cristã Vale do Amanhecer (Spiritualist Christian Order Valley of the Dawn), usually named Vale do Amanhecer after the location of the Templo Mãe (Mother Temple) northeast from the capital Brasília. The Vale was founded in 1959 by Neiva Chaves Zelaya (1925‒1985). The main practice is healing with the help of spiritual guides (e.g., Pierini 2013). They are quite well known due to the spectacular dimension of the colorful sacred spaces and ritual uniforms and begin to spread currently not only within Brazil but beyond. Pierini reports that the Order has opened over six hundred temples in Brazil, and many more in North and South America, in Europe, and in Japan. The main temple has grown from a small farm into a town of around 10,000 inhabitants, with the vast majority mediums or with some other tie to the Vale do Amanhecer (Pierini 2016).

Ethnic Religions Associated with Immigrants

This section looks at religions linked to various immigrant groups. They are not well studied apart from some historical sources and a few sociological studies. While the number of devotees for these traditions is indeed small, their presence contributes to a growing multi-religious composition of the country. These religions are linked to immigration and to the construction of cultural identity of these groups though some Asian religions have managed to attract since the 1960s Brazilians of other ethnic origins.

Islam and Judaism

The presence of Islam and Judaism in Brazil can be traced back to Pedro Alvares Cabral and the Portuguese conquest of the country in the sixteenth century. However, while on board of the Portuguese ships were indeed Muslims and Jews who tried to flee from the Inquisition, the persecution forced them into hiding by conversion and renaming, which makes identification in the historical records impossible. The Dutch part of what is today the northeastern part of Brazil was not controlled by the Inquisition and allowed Jewish immigrants. Recife saw therefore the birth of the first Jewish community in America during the seventeenth century. However, when Portugal conquered Recife in 1654, the Jewish community had to leave (see Topel 2016).

The presence of Muslims among the enslaved Africans arriving in Brazil centuries later is, however, confirmed (Pinto 2011). While they were sent at the beginning mainly to the state of Bahia, a rebellion of slaves in 1835 (Reis 2003) forced the state to change it attitude. From then onward, Islam was regarded as dangerous and Muslims were spread across Brazil in order to diminish the threat for the slave owners (Castro 2016). Nonetheless, Silva (2004) states that at the end of the nineteenth century approximately 20,000 Muslims lived in Brazil with the majority in Salvador de Bahia. While the constitution did not allow for a Mosque to be built, it was possible to meet in private houses for Friday prayer and Qur’an school. However, these groups of African Muslims diminished despite the guarantee of religious freedom in 1824.

Due to the new religious freedom, the nineteenth century saw the arrival of immigrants of non-Catholic background. Topel (2008) reports of Jewish immigrants mainly from Eastern Europe but also from Tangier and Morocco. Mass immigration, however, did not start until the beginning of the twentieth century when the United States began to restrict immigration. According to Decole (2001: 151), 50,000 Jews arrived in Brazil between 1920 and the beginning of World War II, mainly from Eastern Europe. At the same time Muslim immigrants also began to arrive in Brazil due to the fall of the Ottoman Empire (Castro 2013; Truzzi 1993). Topel however highlights that it was impossible to establish religion at that time as immigration only noted nationality in an undifferentiated way. It was therefore impossible to recognize how many of the immigrations from the Ottoman Empire were Muslims or Jewish. Since these immigrants held Turkish passports, they would have been recorded as Turks, whether they were Jewish, Christian, or Muslims (see Topel 2016).

The next flux of immigrants from the area arrived in Brazil due to the outbreak of the Lebanon war in 1975, which contributed to an increasing number of Muslims in Brazil. Even today the largest group of Muslims in Brazil (55.7 percent) is of Lebanese origin. Nonetheless, the number remains small: according to the 2010 census only 35,167 Muslims live in Brazil though Castro writes that according to local religious leaders approximately one million Muslims live in Brazil (Castro, 2016).

The number of Jewish Brazilians is only slightly higher: 107,329 according to the 2010 census. However, as the Brazilian census defines religious belonging on religious grounds and by self-identification non-religious Jews such as secular Zionist or cultural Jews might not be included while, on the other hand, Messianic Jews would be counted despite the Christian frame of their faith (see Topel 2016).

Asian Religions

Despite the long history of Jewish and Muslim presence in Brazil their numbers today are smaller than the number for Buddhists (243,966 in 2010) and devotees of so-called Eastern religion (155,951). While the number of immigrants from Japan, China, India, or other Asian countries is probably not larger than the one of the Middle East, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Shinto manage to attract growing interest from Brazilians of other ethnic backgrounds. Like Islam and Judaism, Asian religions arrived in Brazil via immigrants. The first recognized communities came from China in the nineteenth century though their number was tiny. Usarski and Shoji (2016) mention not more than 300 Chinese tea planters in the city of Rio de Janeiro and approximately 1,000 miners in the Federal State of Minas Gerais. The number of Asian immigrants increased in the beginning of the twentieth century. Izumi (2012) mentioned the arrival of almost 190,000 Japanese farmers and rural workers during the first decades due to a rural crisis in Japan. Usarski and Shoji note that while Shinto played an important role for the identity of these immigrants, rituals were often improvised due to a lack of priests and monks during the first decades (Handa 1987).

After World War II, Buddhism gained a more institutionalized level in Brazil. Maintaining its ethnic character, Buddhism became in particular important for funerals as immigrants realized that they would stay in Brazil. Japanese new religions also spread among the Japanese communities as means to preserve their ethnic identity (Shimazono 1991: 106). Even today traditional Japanese Buddhist temples maintain significance within the ethnic community despite having a declining importance for younger generations. Nonetheless, Buddhism has diversified due to the arrival of Chinese and later Korean immigrants who brought their own forms of Buddhism (Yang 1995). Another changing factor was the spread of Zen Buddhism among Brazilians of other ethnic backgrounds (Rocha 2008). The increasing number of Brazilian converts to Zen Buddhism since the 1970s and later on the growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism among Brazilians has led to a growing presence of Buddhism in Brazil (Usarski 2012). Buddhism, once arrived in Brazil with a firmly defined ethnic identity, has now lost its ethnic marker. While in 1941, 98.5 percent of the Japanese immigrants identified with Buddhism (Fuji 1959: 14), the number dropped dramatically among the following generations where the number of converts to Christianity increases. Maeyama (1973: 248) reports, for instance, that only 29.9 percent among the second generation and only 19.0 percent in the third generation declared themselves to be Buddhist in the 1970s. Consequently, the number of Buddhists of Asian descent was surpassed already in the 1980s by Buddhists of non-Asian descent. Nevertheless, the number is still not significant in quantitative measures: just 0.13 percent of the population identified as Buddhist, 0.03 percent as belonging to “new oriental religions,” and only 0.01 percent to “other oriental religions” such as Shinto.

ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) also belongs to the group of “new oriental religions” though it is not linked to an ethnic group like the other Asian religions. There are also a few small groups of Hindu origins but ISKCON is the best known and best organized of the groups developed from Hinduism (Guerriero 2001). ISKCON arrived in Brazil in 1974 in a similar manner as elsewhere in the West as part of a general counterculture movement, hence it is part of a wider urban phenomenon that took place in the 1970s and early 1980s (Huber 1985; Magnani 2000). Although it never spread in Brazil as successfully as in other Western countries, there is an interesting development. Due to the constant movement between religions, which is a characteristic of the Brazilian religious market, Guerriero reports that some Vedic symbols have become part of the wider religious universe in Brazil. He mentions, for instance, the presence of an image of Saint Francis wearing a saffron dhoti, or even murthis in small household altars (Guerriero 2016).

Religions of the Amerindian Population

According to the 2010 census, there are 817,000 Amerindians in Brazil; however, only 63,082 declared that they belonged to an indigenous religion. Most are nowadays Christian although they often keep part of their own tradition. The term “indigenous religion” overshadows the wide diversity of the beliefs and practices of the Amerindian population in Brazil, which can be divided as belonging to 305 aboriginal nations, with 274 different languages (IBGE 2012). Despite some cultural commonalities, each group differs widely from each other.

Most of the research about the indigenous religions has been done by Brazilian anthropologists (e.g., Baldus 1970; Nimuendajú [1914] 1987; the Ribeiros 1976, 1980; Schaden 1959) as well as European and American anthropologists (e.g., Civrieux [1970] 1980; Münzel 1973; Wilbert 1993). While the focus of these anthropologists has been on an accurate ethnographic account of distinct Amerindian populations, in their effort to gain insight into the world of the Amerindian groups that they visited, the anthropologists collected not only information about social structure (e.g., kinship), languages, warfare, and so on, but also worldviews.

Like other indigenous religions, Amerindian people do not have a word for religion but refer to it as a way of life. Chamorro (2016), for instance, writes that religion among the Guaraní group can be described as “our good way of being” (ñandé rekó katú). Religion is integral part of culture, essential in the thinking and everyday life of the group (tekó), linked to what they consider to be exclusively theirs (ñandé) and how to be good (katú). In this sense, religion is a marker of the identity of the group, a way to separate themselves from others (see also Chamorro 2003).

Early studies on these indigenous religions focused often on a collection of myths that contain, for instance, information about worldview with its various groups of natural and supernatural beings. One of the early studies about the Guaraní religious universe was published in 1914 by Curt Unkel Nimuendajú who worked with a small group of Ñandéva (Apapokúva) from the Mato Grosso. His collection of myths about the creation and destruction of the universe contains one of the earliest ethnographic studies of Amerindian religion. His insights were particularly important due to the chiliastic search for “the land without evil” that was still ongoing among the Guaraní during his time. These movements which were recorded since early colonial times are usually interpreted as reaction to colonialism and postcolonial pressures including diseases and deforestation. The aim was to find the land of the ancestor spirits, the land without evil (Melià 1991), usually by walking for hundreds, even thousands of miles (one colonial report refers to the arrival of a small group in the Incan empire in the Andes). Upon arrival the group would then begin to dance nonstop in order to get closer to the land of the spirits. While the time of the long walks is over, dance in the form of walking and the concept of the land without evil is still a prominent feature of Guaraní rituals (Chamorro 2016).

Nonetheless, Guaraní are nowadays predominately Christian like the other Amerindian populations in Brazil. Chamorro links the installation of indigenous reservations in the early twentieth century with the spread of Protestantism among Amerindian groups. She argues that the Brazilian government favored Protestant missions because they were supposed to make Amerindians receptive to transformation. The impact was widespread, in particular, due to the focus of the missionaries on education and other social offers. Missão Evangélica Caiuá, for instance, since 1928, has focused on education and health as a way to spread their Christian faith and is today well established among the Guaraní. Chamorro states that many indigenous leaders, teachers, and agents in the health sectors today were taught in Protestant schools and churches. However, since the 1970s Pentecostalism began to spread among Amerindian populations as means to indigenize Christianity. Among the thirty-six churches in the “Indigenous Reservation of Dourados” (Reserva Indígena de Dourados) today, thirty-two are Pentecostal, three Protestant (Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist), and one Roman Catholic. However, while a large number of these communities are led by indigenous leaders, the twenty larger churches are all led by non-indigenous ministers living in the urban centers such as Dourados (Chamorro, 2016). The first indigenous church in this reservation, Igreja do Evangelho Pentecostal Indígena de Jesus, was founded in 1993. As other indigenous churches, it is independent from non-indigenous leaders and displays a charismatic form of Christianity, with a focus on personal narratives of successful resistance against the powers of evil.

While the Christianization of the Amerindian population is a recognized phenomenon, it is so far not well studied. The focus of anthropologists has been on the traditional beliefs and practices, for instance, shamanism. An important contribution to the understanding of Amerindian religions is Viveiros de Castro’s “Amerindian perspectivism” (1998, 2004) in which he criticizes the human-centric way of thinking. Instead, he argues, an Amerindian way of thinking accepts the existence of different beings (e.g., human, animals, and spirits) and different perspectives which determine each kind’s reality. Viveiros de Castro (2004) characterizes the Amerindian way of thinking therefore as the acceptance of different, coexisting realities, not only human and animals, but different human groups and different animals groups (see also Stolze Lima 1999; Turner 2009). Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism is linked to the revitalized debate on animism (an old term renewed in this debate) that takes place currently among anthropologists working on Amerindian religions (e.g., Descola 2013). One important feature of the Amerindian form of animism is the relationship between man and nature and the possibility to cross the border between man and animal (e.g., in dreams or shamanic visions). Man is not elevated as “guard of nature” but seen as part of a sometimes harmonious, yet more often conflictive network of relations (Descola 1997). Reflecting on Amerindian thinking, “animism is the capacity to appraise plants, spirits, objects and animals as other-than-human persons, that is, as volitional, sentient, sensitive, aware and intelligent beings” (Rival 2012: 139).

The latest development in studies of Amerindian religions is marked by the growing contributions of indigenous authors. While on one side mediating between Western interpretations and indigenous traditions, they also represent a significant expansion in the way of thinking as they often merge traditional ideas in a new bricolage. Münzel points, for instance, toward Gabriel dos Santos Gentil (1953‒2006), a Tukano thinker who taught at the Federal University of Manaus and collaborated with Western researchers in his quest for indigenous traditions (e.g., Gentil 2000). His “Lunar Calendar” (2003) combines Tukano religious teachings with New Age and Incan ideas, taken from the vast literature on the Incan empire (see Münzel 2016). Gentil represents just one example of a growing field of creative bricolage (for further examples of merging traditions, see also De Souza 2011).


This overview of studies gives just a glimpse into the rich field of studies on religion in Brazil. The studies reflect on the changes of the Brazilian society over the last decades and give an indication of the complexity of religion in Brazil. Brazil is an industrialized and urbanized society with ongoing social problems, a legacy of its colonial and postcolonial past but also a result of the dramatic urbanization. These processes had an impact on the religious landscape of Brazil today as this chapter shows. One consequence was the increasing diversification due to the arrival of other Christian denominations as well as other religions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. However, these religions did not stay within a limited ethnic section of society but spread out and developed further. Another consequence was the impact on gender and social stratification. It is no longer possible to restrict specific religious roles and traditions to one social or racial sector of society. It is no longer possible to say, for instance, that certain religions are practiced predominately among the urbanized poor or that other traditional religions attract predominately women or homosexual men. It is even possible to become a shaman in an Amerindian religion without being indigenous. And, third, another consequence of the processes that changed Brazilian society is the bricolage of traditions. While Afro-Brazilian religions had become established as bricolage already during the colonial past, the merging of traditions and the establishment of new forms is now present among other religions as well, and not only among vernacular traditions. Lastly, a relatively new development is the spread of Brazilian religions. While this development is linked to the emigration of Brazilians, it goes much further as the success of some of the neo-Pentecostal churches indicate.


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