Brazilian atheists stay closeted or fear death threats
Pity Brazil’s atheists, who live in a country with myriad ways to worship and feel like foreigners in their own home.
They live in the country with the world’s largest Roman Catholic population, at 125 million faithful.
President Dilma Rousseff has told no less than Pope Francis himself that “God is Brazilian.” And many folks pray to Afro-Brazilian saints or, after attending Mass, communicate with the dead.
“You have to be brave to say you are atheist. So there are still a lot of atheists in the closet,” said Daniel Sottomaior, president of the Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, which is fighting prejudice and discrimination against people who do not believe in God.
Sottomaior, a 41-year-old civil engineer who lives in Sao Paulo and has received anonymous death threats, says that in Brazil — which will host a major Catholic festival called World Youth Day on July 22-28 in Rio and the pope’s first overseas visit — “atheists are likened to criminals.”
In Brazil, there is more violence against blacks or homosexuals because they cannot hide. But atheists also suffer physical threats at times, or are fired from their jobs or disowned by their families when they go public with their beliefs.
“Every time people speak about a criminal, about someone who is inhumane, about a woman who is beating a small dog to death, the expression you hear is, ‘They have no God in their heart.’ Here, being atheist is the cause of all crime,” Sottomaior said.
In an unprecedented conviction over discrimination against atheists, a TV network called Bandeirantes was found guilty after one of its presenters said that the killing of a child could only have been done by atheists. The presenter also blamed atheists for “war, plague, hunger and everything else.”
“Atheists suffer a lot (…) They are considered people without morals, like weirdos, like foreigners within Brazil,” said Renata Menezes, who researches the anthropology of worship at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
According to Elias Wolff, an advisor on inter-faith issues for the Brazil Bishops Confederation, discrimination and prejudice “exist unfortunately,” especially among “some religious groups of fundamentalist nature.”
“The Catholic church as an institution believes in the right not to profess any faith, understands that and seeks to understand why the numbers of people in Brazil with no religion are growing. And it is always willing to establish a dialogue with them,” Wolff told AFP.
Some 84 percent of Brazilians would elect a black person to be president, 57 percent would give the job to a woman, and 32 percent would vote for a homosexual. But only 13 percent would elect an atheist, according to a poll by the magazine Veja in 2007, the last of its kind done in Brazil.
Rousseff declared herself to be “without religion” in 2007. But during the campaign that led to her election as president in 2010, she emphasized that she was “first of all, Christian, and secondly, Catholic”.
In the last census, conducted in 2010, atheists and agnostics numbered just 740,000 people out of a population of 190 million — or 0.39 percent.
But Sottomaior criticizes the methodology used in that census and says the figure is more like two percent, as many atheists are lumped into a broad category called people “without religion,” which includes both believers and non-believers.
His organization, founded five years ago, has 8,800 members but nearly 250,000 fans on Facebook.
Brazilians in general are very religious, and following just one faith is sometimes not enough. So often they adhere to two or three at once “to increase their protection against ill fortune,” said Fernando Teixeira, an expert in religions at Juiz de Fora Federal University in Minas Gerais.
Catholicism is losing its appeal quickly in Brazil. The proportion of people who call themselves Catholics has fallen from 91.8 percent of the population in 1970 to 64.6 percent in 2010.
But evangelicals – mainly pentecostals — are gaining strength, and now account for 22.2 percent of the population, and the “without religion” camp has gone from 0.8 percent in 1970 to eight percent in 2010, according to figures from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, drawn from the last census.
To be without religion does not necessarily mean no religion at all: some may be atheists but there are also non-practicing Catholics, and evangelicals who do not have institutionalized practices.
Others are spiritists — followers of the 19th century French educator Allan Kardec, who feel that spiritism — the belief in the survival of a spirit after death — is a doctrine and not a religion.
In Brazil, religions and religious content are blended and people “create their own individual menu,” says Ronaldo de Almeida, a professor at the University of Campinas who researches the phenomenon of “religious transit.”
“There are a lot of ways to be Catholic in Brazil,” says Teixeira. He cites a study which suggests that nearly half of Brazilian Catholics believe in reincarnation.
“Here there is a lot of praying and not much Mass, a lot of saints and not many priests,” he concludes, alluding to the large number of non-practicing Catholics and the widespread custom of worshipping Catholic or Afro-Brazilian saints — sometimes all at once — and treating them as if they were family.