A southern Reformation

In The Economist:

Latin americaSince around 1970 the world’s most Roman Catholic continent has become steadily less so. This trend, much remarked, shows no sign of slowing down, according to an exhaustive new study by the Pew Research Centre, a self-described “fact tank” based in Washington.* This found that only 69% of adult Latin Americans are now Catholics, down from 92% in 1970. Protestants now account for 19%, up from 4%. Over the same period the share of those with no religious affiliation has grown from 1% to 8%—though most of these people still believe in God.

Pew’s study finds sharp variations from country to country. In four Central American countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua—barely half of the population is still Catholic. Though 61% of Brazilian respondents say they are Catholic, 26% are now Protestant. In many other countries there are still firm Catholic majorities. Whatever their denomination, most Latin Americans remain deeply religious. Only Uruguay stands out as a bastion of secularism—a tradition dating back more than a century.

Two things distinguish Latin American Protestantism. First, it is mainly a result of conversion (see chart). Second, two-thirds of Latin American Protestants define themselves as Pentecostal. Much more often than Catholics, they report having direct experience of the Holy Spirit, such as through exorcism or speaking in tongues. Indeed, the words “evangelical” and “Protestant” are used interchangeably in the region. Pew finds that Latin American Protestants are conservative on social and sexual issues, such as gay marriage and abortion. As Catholics become more liberal on such questions, that points to looming American-style “culture wars”.

What is causing the shift to Protestantism? Academics have several hypotheses. Some hold that Pentecostalism resonates with Amerindian and Afro-Latin American belief in the spirit world. But Pew finds that many Catholics as well as Protestants in Latin America hold such beliefs.

A second theory stresses the appeal of Protestantism to urban migrants. David Stoll, an anthropologist at Middlebury College in Vermont, notes that such people have moved away from their extended families, attenuating their networks of support. Evangelical churches tend to operate on “family-like principles”, he says.

Read the rest here.