This past Sunday, I had the chance to explore the experiences of atheists outside the United States. We heard from David, a professor of American History in Qatar; from Zach, an atheist student who studied abroad in Japan; from Martin in Germany; and from several other Ask an Atheist listeners. One listener’s response to our call for stories and anecdotes was so comprehensive, interesting, and insightful that I didn’t want to dishonor it by briefly touching it on air, so it is my pleasure to share with you the story of our friend João* from Brazil. Enjoy!
Ask an Atheist wants me? I feel this urge to respond, perhaps this feeling is god calling on me to state my views on religion in Brazil and how we heathens are doing down here but most probably it is because I enjoy the show so much.
I’m from Brazil, specifically from [REDACTED LARGE METROPOLITAN AREA]. As for my background, I’m an engineer, my father is an engineering professor born in Spain who migrated to Brazil in the 50’s. My mother on the other hand is Brazilian whose family came to Brazil several generations ago but my grandparents happened to become evangelical Christians and my grandfather was a preacher who worked at the Salvation Army. From what I hear my grandparents were very influential in introducing evangelical Christianity in Brazil. My mother tells me that when she was younger if someone passed by an evangelical church in some shithole town it was very probable that they were singing songs composed by my grandfather (who died in 1975).
You see, until a few years ago (10 or 20) Brazilians used to be proud of the fact that Brazil was the largest Catholic country in the world.
I believe it still is but very few people mention that today. Evangelical Christianity went from being a fringe group to becoming very influential, close to 30-35% of the population with considerable influence in congress where several congressmen are evangelical preachers. As for the Catholics, once they realized that evangelicals were eating away their share of believers, they became much more vocal and tendencies that look and act very much like evangelicals. I find this very disturbing since they get the worst of traditional Catholicism and the worst of evangelicals and we are seeing the results today (more on that later).
Even though being the daughter of a preacher, my mother was a skeptic to the bone, sometimes questioning my grandparents on bible inconsistencies that would drive them crazy. She studied biology in the university and became an atheist. I don’t think she ever told my grandfather explicitly she was an atheist even though he suspected and she never had any problems with him even though he was sad to see her move away from the church.
My father, son of a communist Spaniard, was always very vocal against the “church”, specifically the Catholic Church, but any church in general. I grew up listening to him complain about the church, preachers and priests (and I still enjoy listening to him).
Why do I tell this story? Because when growing up, and even today, very few people here argued religion. It is almost taboo. Since my father is a university professor I grew up among other professors and grad students. Since religion rarely came up, it is always surprising to find out that people who I knew for so long are young earth creationists. I never had any idea that so many people close to me were nut case Christians. People who I could swear were atheists or at least agnostics I later found out to be hard-core Catholics or evangelicals.
I remember the shock of finding out that my cousin was a young earth creationist. I knew his family was evangelical but for me this was inconceivable: a family where both parents studied at the best university in Brazil, intelligent and generally knowledgeable people couldn’t believe that the world was only 6000 years old! That was 1996.
A few years later I found out that a professor of mine (thermodynamics of all subjects!)… who had been my father’s grad student told my father he was a young earth creationist (and he loves all sorts of conspiracy theories…). There was no discussion, no context: he simply told my father. Now I think he did that as an act of faith: to acknowledge to a friend whom he respects that he is batshit crazy must not have be easy.
Up until a few years ago, the only time religion was an important issue was in the election to Mayor of São Paulo in 1985 when a few days before the election a journalist asked the candidate that everyone thought would easily win whether he believed in God. He said no and lost the election. It is not clear if that was the reason he lost but in 1994 he was running for president and when asked the same question he did not waver: he was a firm believer. He became president and there is very little info on his conversion but he does mention God often.
As for schools, public education is usually very bad in Brazil. Usually public schools are for poorer kids and it is almost inconceivable for middle class kids to go to public schools. Catholic schools are very common and are usually considered good. I was lucky to go to a good public school that was related to the University of Sao Paulo and God was never an issue. I remember a teacher leading a prayer when the soon-to-be president, the first civilian president after 20 years of military rule, got very sick and was on his deathbed. This was a very emotional time for the country. When he was chosen by congress to become the next president, people were very hopeful and I think this sort of prayer was very common at the time. As usual it didn’t do any good and the guy died any way.
One interesting thing I remember around this time (or a little earlier) that shows how Brazil has changed on the religious issue is that kids used to poke fun at other kids who “were” evangelical. We are talking 1983-1984! Sure my mother had problems a few times with teachers who didn’t accept evangelicals in the 1950’s. Today this is completely inconceivable.
This change was so fast that there really never was a public debate on religious freedom. Copying the US, in the late 80’s, money bills started to have printed on them the equivalent of “In God We Trust”. There were some criticisms that never really stood a chance even though there never was anything similar to that in money before. Apparently this is here to stay.
Perhaps the most famous monument in Brazil is a statue of Christ on the top of a mountain in Rio de Janeiro. That was built in 1930’s. But even today small towns build crosses and [C]hrists in public squares all over the country. There is separation of church and state in the constitution that doesn’t seem to amount to much.
Besides [C]atholicism and evangelical Christianity, Spiritism [of the] Allan Kardec [variety] has a very large following in Brazil. They tend to keep a low profile and it was a surprise when a couple of years ago a movie about Chico Xavier, a very famous medium in Brazil, attracted very large public to the theaters. So large that one could say there is a new genre of film in Brazil: every year there is one or two successful movies about Chico Xavier. It’s crazy.
There are several African originated religions in Brazil. These guys were really persecuted until 30 years ago. They were outright banned and jailed for decades. Nowadays they are free to exercise their religions which are heavily influenced by Catholicism, and in some regions (specifically Salvador, Bahia) it is even a tourist attraction. But evangelicals go crazy on them: they are the impersonation of the devil himself. They get hysterical when Candomble is mentioned. It is completely nuts.
My feeling is that since evangelical Christianity rose so fast they did not need to emphasize the importance of separation of church and state. People say that Brazil is an example of religious tolerance. On the face of it, that is true. There are a few “skirmishes” between the Catholic church and a few influential preachers but they have reached some sort of compromise: they both agree that secularism is the enemy. The kardecists keep a low profile and the only ones that get some heat are the Afro-Brazilian religions, mostly from pentecostal churches (which make up the majority of evangelicals in Brazil).
In general some sort of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” used to go on in Brazil regarding religion. It is very difficult to debate religion here. People simply don’t do it. One could say that I’m the problem but every atheist I ask says the same thing. It is clear the theists are becoming more vocal in the last few years. Once the evangelicals started to elect preachers to congress, the Catholics started doing the same thing but the problem is aside from doctrinal issues they usually have the same agenda: they are right-wing conservatives. They are obsessed with abortion, even though abortion is illegal in Brazil. Is just read that there are 30 projects in congress on abortion. Most of them [are] trying to impose harsher sentences on women who undergo abortion and the doctors, even though 1 million abortions happen every year and poor women are dying like flies in illegal abortion clinics.
Last year we elected the first woman for president and for the first time we really felt the religious-conservative claws. The opposition right-wing candidate (if it makes sense to talk about right/left today) was losing the election so he pulled the religious card. They said that Dilma (the woman who became president) was a baby killer and the Catholic church was distributing pamphlets ordering people not to vote on her. This is denied by the church but I saw some of these pamphlets that were distributed in a church by the priest. In the end the baby-killer card backfired because the wife of the right wing candidate actually acknowledged (in a class 15 years ago, some of her students brought it up) that she had an abortion in the 70’s. But Pandora’s box was opened and the new president had to promise that she wouldn’t try to change the status quo on abortion and every other day she mentions that she is a Christian and she is always thanking god for everything. The religious
now are a very strong force in congress.
As for gay rights, even though there are still difficulties and homophobic violent attacks things are getting much better even though there are ridiculous things going on. Last week the São Paulo city council approved the heterosexual pride day (this is embarrassing). Several Christians rant all day long about the immorality of homosexuality but gays are being successful overall.
Last year a poll showed that atheist are ranked with drug addicts as the people with largest rejection in elections. The [Brazilian Atheists and Agnostics Association, or ATEA in its Portuguese language acronym], was unable to put adds on buses in several cities. At least people are being more vocal about religion. Since religion was never debated in Brazil the evangelists are very poor at it in general, the most sophisticated argument I heard was Pascal’s wager.
As for public schools, as I mentioned before, public schools is mostly for the poor. A few states approved religious classes (in particular Rio de Janeiro) but they have had some problems – Catholics versus evangelicals. A couple of months ago, an opinion piece in an important newspaper mentioned that one teacher in a public school was using as reading material texts from the newspaper of the largest pentecostal church in Brazil (and I can tell you, it is horrible!). A friend of mine happens to teach at that school and when she mentioned that she thought that it was wrong to other teachers, they all sided against her and there were no more repercussions.
To sum it up, Brazil is very religious country but religion is seldom debated. Influenced by US conservatives, theists are to trying gain control of the country and their influence has grown considerably but at least atheists are starting to talk. A tendency that frightens me is the growth of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. They are basically Catholics that look and act like pentecostal evangelicals. What is worrisome about them is that the Catholic Church is a monolithic structure and they can exert much more influence in the country as opposed to evangelicals who end up fighting each other for believers and cash.
Thank you so much, João, for your perspective! We wish you all the best from your atheist friends in the United States!
*Certain identifying characteristics like names of persons and places have been altered or redacted, and certain grammar/mechanics have been changed for ease of reading and to conform to American English conventions. Links that explain and extend understanding are editorial additions.