Religious Shifts in Latin America

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, May 2013
While Pope Francis is generally very popular in his native region, the Pew research found that former Catholics were much less likely to hold a favorable view – Creative Commons (Edgar Jiménez)

Last July, a few months into the first Latin American papacy, I shared some findings from a Pew Forum study of religion in Brazil, where the Roman Catholic share of the population fell from 92% in 1970 to 65% in 2010. Today Pew released a broader report on the entire region — with much the same result.

A few key findings:

• Overall, 69% of Latin Americans now self-identify as Catholic, even though 84% reported being raised in that tradition. While only 9% of people in that region were raised as Protestants, 19% now identify with such churches.

• How much of that change is from one branch of Christianity to another? Here there’s great variety: only 15% of Panama’s Protestants were raised Catholic, versus (at the other extreme) 74% of their brethren in Colombia. Hispanic American Protestants were right in the middle: 47% had been raised Catholic.

(I’m fascinated by Panama in this study… It’s also at the extreme end of another telling result: 68% of the country’s Protestants say the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally — only one point higher than the same result among Panamanian Catholics: the smallest difference in a survey where the median difference was about 15%.)

• When Catholic-to-Protestant converts were asked why they left, five reasons came up at least half the time: they sought a more personal connection with God (81%), enjoyed the style of worship at their new church (69%), wanted a greater emphasis on morality (60%), found that their new church helped their members more (59%), and experienced outreach by a church (58%).

• About the “greater emphasis on morality” figure… Protestants everywhere in Latin America (and most of all among Hispanic Americans) are more likely than Catholics to oppose same-sex marriage, with that number being higher than 80% in twelve countries. Even more common is the view that homosexuality itself is morally wrong; 63% of Protestants in Uruguay and 65% in Argentina hold this view, by far the lowest numbers in the set. There’s also widespread opposition to abortion among Latin American Protestants. (Uruguay again is an interesting exception here. It also has far and away the highest incidence of religious non-affiliation: 37%, about twice the next highest number.)

• One place where there’s relatively little distinction between Protestants and Catholics — but there is by country — is on religion and politics.

Pentecostal church in Colombia
Pentecostal congregation in Bogotá, Colombia – Creative Commons (Iglesia de Dios Ministerial de Jesuchristo Internacional)

• As many as two-thirds of Latin American Protestants are Pentecostals. This is a rare part of the survey where Hispanics in the United States deviate from the Latin American norm: only 45% of them are Pentecostal by self-identification or membership in a Pentecostal church. The only country in Latin America where the majority of Protestants don’t fit that category is Bolivia (49%); in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and Panama (again!) it’s 80% or higher. Among Hispanic Americans Protestants are also a bit less likely than Catholics to believe in a variant of the “prosperity gospel” (51% vs. 54%); that’s reversed with most countries in Latin America. (For the record, in Panama it’s virtually identical: 85% of Protestants and 86% of Catholics say God will grant health and wealth to believers with enough faith.)


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