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Directions for Religions in the New Millennium PDF Print E-mail

Lisias Nogueira Negrao, Univiersity of Sao Paulo

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil

Many thanks to the organizers of this conference conducted by the International Coalition for Religious Freedom. The theme of my presentation is "Directions for Religion in the New Millennium" as it is announced in the program. I am going to talk about religious freedom. Also, I am going to talk about the religious journey of people in Brazil and Latin America.

I would like to talk about a special kind of religious ecumenism which is not like those that take place at the levels of the religious institutions or at the levels of the political, economic, and intellectual elite, which sometimes gather together in conferences as the present one. However, I want to talk precisely about another kind of religious ecumenism that takes place at the popular realms of the society of the poor and abandoned, and to whom religion helps in solving their daily troubles.

Indeed, these people search for a special religion, one that is general and exactly fits the tribulations that they go through daily. Truly, they search in religion not only for the redemption of the soul, but that of the body too.

This popular ecumenism that I am talking about is not the same as is understood in the existent churches of this world. The later is an ecumenism that is a very restrictive relationship. This is not the attitude of acceptance of the legitimacy of all religions, but the exclusive practice of one of them only.

This popular ecumenism that I would like to describe today, is exactly one that goes far beyond of the institutional ecumenism. Not only it is tolerant of other religions, but it participates with other religions. In reality, the Brazilian religions have a proverbial tolerance towards other’s religion; furthermore, individuals participate in various religions. The popular religions, or saying it better, religious people by their behavior do not analyze. This ecumenism is not about religions and institutions, but about religious individuals who really search for different religious experiences. This behavior is very frequent, even more than anyone may imagine.

We found two types of religious behavior, which we could call multiple behavior. The first I will call "religious concomitance." This is the simultaneous participation of the individual into two or more different religious systems. There exists in Brazil a proverbial syncretism, for example, between African religions and Catholicism, spiritism and Catholicism. The greatest example of this religious concomitance is illustrated by the character of Teobaldo Tacarana in the novel of Guimaraes Rosa. Tacarana says,

I have many religions. I do not have time for only one religion. I take advantage of all of them. I drink water from every river. One religion alone is too little, perhaps not enough.

This is the attitude that we frequently observe with people accepting several religions and participating in them simultaneously.

The other attitude is the migration from one to another religious system. This attitude is very common too. There are many changes in religious affiliation and it seems that people are always looking for something more in religion. The people have a strong unrest and they change frequently from one institutional religious universe to another; sometimes it happens from non-Christian to Christian and vice-versa, other times within Christianity, other times from Catholicism to Protestantism, etc.

The following is an example of my investigation and interviews. A woman together with her husband, who were Catholic, due to serious health problem were advised by some of their friends to search for a holy man somewhere. They did it and, according to her testimony, she was cured through a spiritual treatment given to her by the holy man. As the result both she and her husband became Umbandistas in short period of time. Some time later the husband had financial difficulties and they approached a group comprised of Episcopalians who were known for helping one another. Then, they became Protestants and started participating in the group assemblies and worship meetings of that church. While they were still members of this Protestant group and as they did not have health problems anymore, the husband started suggesting to her to return to the previous Catholicism.

This type of religiosity is very divergent regarding that which we usually think of as normal religious behavior. In fact, we usually think that in the matter of religion there exists a certain religious exclusivity. It is normal that an individual belongs only to one religious universe, one religion, one church, and one tradition. In addition it implies the denunciation of migration from one religion to another. It would be normal if migration were through conversion, which is the true change of values for a preferred theological system.

We observe in Brazil that in ambiguous and fluctuating religious behavior cases like this one, religious ambivalence and changing one’s religion do not happen through conversion. Instead, it happens through simple adherence. This does not imply conversion in reality. The people continue keeping their fundamental beliefs and don’t have any problem about it. Usually, problems arise with the intellectuals who try to explain the phenomenon, and with the religious leaders, but the people themselves do not have any problem with this type of behavior.

Speaking from an historic perspective, we may say that this characteristic is typical of the Brazilian religion. It proceeds from the origin, from the religion of our country, which dates from the colonial period. Brazil was colonized under Catholicism. This Catholicism was very special because it was closely linked to the government. Truly, it was the Portuguese government through the system called priesthood that administered the Church. The pope consented to the Portuguese king’s administration of the Church throughout the Portuguese colonial empire. For this reason we had here one Church, deeply linked to the government. Naturally, we had several conflicts concerning religious orders, especially the Jesuits. The religious orders were not autonomous in respect to the government even while trying to maintain their loyalty to Rome.

The situation was different with the regular clergy, who were more attached to the government. The point that I want to emphasize here is that we had a colonial Catholicism as a mandatory religion. Everybody had to be Catholic in order to enter the Paradise. The black people had to be baptized and those who arrived here suspected of being Jews—called the new Christians or converted Jews—were always under suspicion. As the court of the Holy Office was not installed here in the colony, many of these individuals were sent mainly to the court in Portugal. This was a formal Catholicism insofar as the people went habitually to church for prayer, worship, and the sacraments. However, in private life there was complete freedom. In private life there was space for celebrating other religions here in the colony, especially the native and African religions that came to Brazil. Therefore, it was this type of formal colonial Catholicism that gave room for that which we call multiple religious life or religious ambivalence.

Of course, the situation changed with the time. By the middle of the 19th century, particularly after the proclamation of the Republic with the separation of the church and the state, we observe the Church trying to control its priests here in Brazil, turning its loyalty to Rome, and making Catholicism more orthodox. Then, we had in fact a situation in which there was a Catholicism truly intensively lived around the Santeria revolutions. It was justly that popular devotional Catholicism that was the object of control of the Church during the colonization period.

I would like to say however, that during and after the period of the Republic there was an opportunity to create a religious pluralism. Brazil had allowed Protestantism because of the alliance between Portugal and England and the consequent strong commercial presence of the English business people in Brazil during the period of the empire. Nevertheless, it was after the proclamation of the Republic that religious pluralism was formally installed. Even though, for a period of time that lasted from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, we had many religious persecutions conducted by the state and the Church. These persecutions were mainly conducted against the Afro-Brazilian religions. In the period of the New State, which banned democracy in the country, particularly between 1937 and 1945, these religions were strongly persecuted and oppressed. The persecutions were abolished since the return of democracy.

In conclusion, I believe the scenario of religion and religious freedom in our country is highly favorable and positive. It is so not because of the religious institutions themselves, which shoot many arrows against each other, calling the others sects. "Sect" is always the religion of the other, but from the population’s point of view, religious freedom is complete in the mentality of the Brazilian population. I affirm that there is freedom not only to choose a religion but to concomitantly participate in several of them, and there is no problem. In this case the religion of the other person is always legitimate because it may well become mine, or already it was my religion.

Therefore, we have a highly favorable situation regarding the issue of religious freedom because our population is wide open about divergent religious point of views. I cannot say the same about the religious institutions. Many of them still organize campaigns antagonizing the others by calling their gods demons. We still observe these attitudes, but fortunately we have a scenario that gives us much hope, which comes from the population’s religious tolerance.