What is South America Telling Organized Religion?

Religion in Latin America: Widespread Change in a Historically Catholic Region

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Source Pew Research Center

Latin America is home to more than 425 million Catholics – nearly 40% of the world’s total Catholic population – and the Roman Catholic Church now has a Latin American pope for the first time in its history. Yet identification with Catholicism has declined throughout the region, according to a major new Pew Research Center survey that examines religious affiliations, beliefs and practices in 18 countries and one U.S. territory (Puerto Rico) across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Historical data suggest that for most of the 20th century, from 1900 through the 1960s, at least 90% of Latin America’s population was Catholic (See History of Religious Change). Today, the Pew Research survey shows, 69% of adults across the region identify as Catholic. In nearly every country surveyed, 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.

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Overall, 84% of Latin American adults report that they were raised Catholic, 15 percentage points more than currently identify as Catholic. 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.

Much of the movement away from Catholicism and toward Protestantism in Latin America has occurred in the span of a single lifetime. Indeed, in most of the countries surveyed, at least a third of current Protestants were raised in the Catholic Church, and half or more say they were baptized as Catholics. For example, nearly three-quarters of current Protestants in Colombia were raised Catholic, and 84% say they were baptized as Catholics.

The survey asked former Catholics who have converted to Protestantism about the reasons they did so. Of the eight possible explanations offered on the survey, the most frequently cited was that they were seeking a more personal connection with God. Many former Catholics also said they became Protestants because they wanted a different style of worship or a church that helps its members more.

Smaller percentages of converts to Protestantism also cite other factors – such as health or family problems (a regional median of 20%) or marriage to a non-Catholic (median of 9%) – as important reasons why they are no longer Catholic.

Reasons catholics switch

In addition, evangelization efforts by Protestant churches seem to be having an impact: Across Latin America, more than half of those who have switched from the Catholic Church to Protestantism say their new church reached out to them (median of 58%). And the survey finds that Protestants in the region are much more likely than Catholics to report sharing their faith with people outside their own religious group.

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