The predominant religion in Brazil is Roman Catholicism with about 70% of the population claiming to be Catholics, although many are not active and practicing. The country's Catholic affiliation is reflected in religious festivals which take place throughout the year, including Cirio De Nazare which celebrates the Virgin of Nazareth, and Festa do Divino, or Festival of the Holy Ghost. It is significant to note that the Catholic Church in Brazil remains a powerful entity in political matters and decision making. For example, as Ogland and Verona (2011) point out, "The official doctrinal position that abortion is a grave sin is widely disseminated, and under the direct influence of the Vatican and guided by the belief that the 'right to life begins at conception,' the Catholic Church in Brazil has consistently demonstrated opposition to the legalization of abortion and has propagated this view in a clear manner among its followers."
However, despite the dominance of Catholicism, one of the unique features of religious life in Brazil is the prevalence of syncretism, or the practice of a combination of religious beliefs, primarily a blending of Roman Catholicism and Afro-Brazilian cults ("Celebrate Brazil," 2010). African based religions such as Candomble and Umbanda, as well as Kardecist Spiritism are often practiced along with the traditions of Roman Catholicism.
Candomble planted its roots in Brazil during the 17th century when slaves brought from Africa wanted to practice their own religious beliefs. Not so different from other world religions, Candomble focuses on:
• "Belief in one God, as Creator and Ordainer
• Belief in a pantheon of deities who, from the beginning of the cosmos, have been the administrators of creation, with everything existing in it, including human beings and their passions
• Belief in two distinct worlds, the visible material world and the spiritual world" (da Costa, 2004).
Their belief in the "orixas" or guardian spirits corresponded to the guardian angels or saints of Catholicism, so the slaves were able to maintain their religious customs, and the religion with its traditions of chanting and rituals where contact is made with otherworldly spirits survived through the centuries. Spiritism, with its roots in France and a man named Allan Kardec, found its way to Brazil in the 19th century and stresses contact with spirits, reincarnation, charity and self-improvement ("Celebrate Brazil," 2010). Umbanda, another religion with African roots, also is centered on contact with other worldly spirits.
In my discussion with Claudia Costabile (personal communication, October 27, 2012), she verified the phenomenon of this syncretic approach to religion in her own family. While her mother and sister are strictly Catholic, her father practices Catholicism, but also attends meetings of one of the African cults, although she was not that certain of the exact one. Her mother-in-law is very active in a Spiritist group and she stated that people find it very appealing because of the goals of self-improvement and charity, as well as providing a possibility of making contact with deceased relatives.
Another development in Brazilian religious life involves the increase in Protestants over the last several decades. As Ogland and Verona (2011) describe, this increase has largely been among Pentecostals who appeal to the poor segments of society, and espouse a conservative approach to moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage. On the political stage, Pentecostal leaders aim to "impede strengthening of secular values in Brazilian society" (Ogland, et al, 2011).
Religion plays a strong influential role in the worldview of Brazilians. Evidenced by the prevalence of religious festivals and celebrations, and other Afro-Brazilian rituals in Brazilian life, belief in a higher power, and even contact with spirits of the other world appear to play a significant role in the lives of Brazilians. In political life, religious organizations, particularly the Catholic Church, remain powerful forces in decision making.