Historically one of the most Catholic regions in the world, Latin America is slowly losing its religion, according to a new report from the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project.
Though 84% of Latin Americans say that they were raised Catholic, today only 69% say they have kept the faith. Some 25% of Nicaraguans, for example, identify themselves as former Catholics, while in Brazil 20% of the population say the same.
The extensive new Pew Research Center survey investigated the religious affiliations, beliefs and practices of people in 18 countries (plus Puerto Rico) across Latin America and the Caribbean.
While Catholicism has been in decline, Protestantism in Latin America has experienced a surge in new members. Though only 9% of Latin Americans were raised Protestant, 19% currently are, meaning that Protestantism has more than doubled its numbers in just a generation. This also means that large percentages of current Protestants are former Catholics. In Colombia, for instance, 84% of Protestants say they were baptized as Catholics.
Reasons people gave for leaving the Catholic Church for Protestantism were varied, but indicate that many find Catholicism too distant or unresponsive to their spiritual needs. Most (81%) said that part of the reason for their switch came from “seeking a personal relationship with God,” while a majority also cited enjoying the “style of worship at new church” (69%) as a factor. Other important elements included the desire for “a greater emphasis on morality” or the experience that their new church “helps members more.”
Though Catholicism is often associated with moral rigorism, the study reveals that Catholics in Latin America tend to be less socially conservative than Protestants, and are more lax on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, divorce and sex outside of marriage.
The shift also testifies to the effective outreach among Protestant congregations with more than half (58%) responding that they were reached out to by members of their new churches.
The report may also suggest that Latin American Catholics may be more “culturally” Catholic than actively practicing. According to the survey, Protestants say they go to church more frequently and pray more often than do Catholics. Only 62% of Catholics attend church at least once a month while 83% do so.
Along with Protestantism, the survey shows that the religiously unaffiliated are also growing as a group. The unaffiliated have doubled: whereas only 4% of Latin Americans were raised in unaffiliated homes, 8% identify themselves as currently unaffiliated.
According to the survey, these shifts are fairly recent, with Catholics only beginning to lose adherents in the 1970s, after the close of the Second Vatican Council.