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Carlos Martínez García

The religious change in Latin America (I)

According to a report by Pew Reasearch, the Catholic Church has suffered considerable losses following a move by its members to Evangelical churches.

KAIROS AND CHRONOS AUTHOR Carlos Martínez García TRANSLATOR Noemí Sánchez Read 11 FEBRUARY 2015 12:15 h GMT+1
evangelicals latin america The Evangelical movement has grown across the American continent. Pictured here, March for Jesus in Sao Paulo.

Latin America boasts the majority of the catholic population, whilst at the same time represents a continent in which Protestantism is widely growing. 

A large quantitative study carried out by the Pew Research Center provides evidence of the religious affiliations and practices in 19 countries across the Latin American continent. The document shows, not just the number of different religious beliefs, but also interprets the socio-cultural impact of such diversification.

This study by the Pew Research Center is very broad and contains 310 pages, including an appendix. The title is “Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region” and can be downloaded here.

There are over 425 million Catholics living in Latin America, representing 40 per cent of the world’s total catholic population. Allowing for variations between countries, Latin America’s population was 90 per cent Catholic for most of the 20th century (between 1900 and 1960). That percentage started to decline steadily from the 1960s.

At the end of 2014, as the Pew Research Center finished collecting data, the percentage of adults who belonged to the Catholic faith in Latin America was 69. This downward trend has been identified across the whole continent and, as the Pew research points out, “the Catholic Church has experienced net losses from religious switching, as many Latin Americans have joined Evangelical Protestant churches or rejected organized religion altogether.  For example, roughly one-in-four Nicaraguans, one-in-five Brazilians and one-in-seven Venezuelans are former Catholics”.

Of all the people interviewed, 84 per cent said they had grown up in a catholic family, but later chose to either leave the faith or change their affiliation to another religion, bringing the number of Catholics raised in the faith down to 69 per cent.

In contrast, “the pattern is reversed among Protestants and people who do not identify with any religion: while the Catholic Church has lost adherents through religious switching, both Protestant churches and the religiously unaffiliated population in the region have gained members. Just one-in-ten Latin Americans (9%) were raised in Protestant churches, but nearly one-in-five (19%) now describe themselves as Protestants. And while only 4% of Latin Americans were raised without a religious affiliation, twice as many (8%) are unaffiliated today”.

The investigation provides interesting data which show the different patterns of the “de-catholicisation” in Latin America. When analysing the numbers of people responding affirmatively to having been raised within the Catholic faith, we find that Colombia is the country with the largest number moving to different protestant denominations. 74 per cent of Evangelical Colombians had grown up in catholic households. However, Panama showed the smallest percentage, with 15 per cent of Protestants raised in Catholic homes.

Out of eight possible answers to the reason why they had changed Catholicism for Protestantism, the most popular was a search for a personal connection with God. The second reason given was an enjoyment of the style of worship in the new church; the third was a greater emphasis on morality and the forth was a more supportive church towards its members.

The switch from Catholicism to Protestantism in the Continent takes place as the church approaches the people, rather than people searching for a church (median 58 per cent). A key point was the involvement of church in daily life and the places where they meet.

In Peru, 7 per cent of Catholics said they shared their faith at least once a week, whereas 38 per cent of Protestants did the same. In other words, Protestants are five times more active in sharing their faith than Catholics are. In Guatemala the figure is higher both for those Catholics sharing their faith (34 per cent) and Protestants (53 per cent).

Although the move towards Protestantism is seen across all ages, the highest percentage is found in the under 25s group. Geographic mobility contributes to the shifts from one faith to another. The study says that in some of those Latin American countries (Argentina, Bolivia and Costa Rica), “converts to Protestantism are less likely than Catholics to have a secondary education”.

With good reason, the study emphasizes that the term “Protestant” has a less strict meaning than it has in the United States and, may I add, in Europe. Because, “unlike in the United States, where the labels ‘born again’ and ‘Evangelical’ set certain Protestants apart, in Latin America ‘Protestant’ and ‘Evangelical’ often are used interchangeably”. I would like to point out that the use of “Evangelical” in Latin America is more and more frequent, which has resulted in a watering down of the real concept which identifies Protestantism. This, more than a personal reflection, is a factual observation.

The concept “Protestant” is used by The Pew Research Center  “to refer to members of historical Protestant churches (e.g.,Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, Lutherans or Presbyterians), members of Pentecostal churches (e.g., Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal Church of God or the Quadrangular Evangelical Church)and members of other Protestant churches”. Perhaps we should note that the Latin American Protestants/Evangelicals (whether from historical churches, Pentecostals, neo-Pentecostals or mega churches from different tendencies) use the short canon Bible (which does not include the Deutero-Canonic books), unlike the Catholic Church.

The report states that the number of those Protestants belonging to historical churches is less than 25 per cent. It also adds that “roughly half say they belong to a Pentecostal church, and, in most countries, at least a quarter say they belong to another Protestant church or that they do not know their denomination”.  It is possible that those who did not identify themselves with a specific denomination did so because they belong to new movements within the Protestant church and do not want to be labelled under an institution. However, as time passes, it may well become a new strand of the Protestant church.

In my next article, I will continue to analyse other data about the religious field in Latin America, provided by the Pew Research Center. 

Carlos Martínez García is a journalist and sociologist. He is a founder of the "Centro de Estudios del Protestantismo Mexicano" (Cenpromex), a network of Evangelical researchers studying Protestantism from different perspectives.




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