Paula Montero (photo) talked about the study that involved 24 researchers from USP, CEBRAP, Unifesp and Unicamp, in addition to researchers from Ottawa University and from the Institut Marcel Mauss-CNRS (France) (photo: Heitor Shimizu)

Brazilian secularism undergoes reconfiguration

Expansion of the evangelical church and its growing influence on the media, political spheres and government institutions is the topic of a research study presented at FAPESP Week Belgium.

Brazilian secularism undergoes reconfiguration

Expansion of the evangelical church and its growing influence on the media, political spheres and government institutions is the topic of a research study presented at FAPESP Week Belgium.


Paula Montero (photo) talked about the study that involved 24 researchers from USP, CEBRAP, Unifesp and Unicamp, in addition to researchers from Ottawa University and from the Institut Marcel Mauss-CNRS (France) (photo: Heitor Shimizu)


By Heitor Shimizu, in Belgium  |  Agência FAPESP – In Brazil, a country traditionally shaped by its predominantly Catholic faith, secularism – the principle of separation between government and religious institutions – has undergone a reconfiguration. This is mainly due to the expressive expansion of evangelical churches and their growing influence on the media, political spheres and government institutions. 

The relationship between religion, law and secularism, and the reconfiguration of the “civic repertoire in contemporary Brazil” is the topic of a Thematic Project funded by FAPESP led by Paula Montero, a full professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH) and researcher at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP) which she headed from 2008 to 2015.

Montero talked about the study that involved 24 researchers from USP, CEBRAP, the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and the University of Campinas (Unicamp), in addition to researchers from Ottawa University (Canada) and from the Institut Marcel Mauss-CNRS (France), during FAPESP Week Belgium, held in the cities of Brussels, Liège and Leuven, October 8-10, 2019. 

“We investigated the contemporary relations of Brazil’s religious organizations with the political field and the State. This topic is important in light of some recent structural changes in Brazilian society that have profoundly affected the configuration of Brazilian secularism, in other words, the way religions relate to public life,” Montero said. 

“One of those important changes has to do with the end of the military regime and the transition to a new democratic regime enshrined in the Constitution of 1988. The other change is related to the decline of the political and cultural hegemony of the Catholic Church, which until recently had given meaning to our notion of nation and justice. That decline is associated in part with the rapid expansion of the evangelical churches,” she said.   

Montero presented data regarding the changes that have occurred over the last three decades in terms of Brazil’s religious and political scenarios as a result of the huge expansion in the number of evangelicals, whose share of the population increased from 6.6% in 1980 to 22.2% in 2007. Although the majority of the Brazilian population remained Catholic, their share of the population declined from 89.2% in 1980 to 64.6% in 2010.

“Of course, religious diversification of non-Christians in Brazil is still overwhelmingly smaller when compared to the two Christian blocks,” Montero said. “Spiritists correspond to 40% of this diversity while the African religions correspond to only 0.3% of the total, despite the latter’s huge importance in Brazil’s national imagery.”

According to the researcher, the new configuration of Brazilian secularism is conflicting. “The new pluralistic right to religious equality often comes into conflict with the classical republican principle of religious freedom, putting State neutrality under pressure.”    

This pressure is also gaining relevance in Brazil’s Congress, with the increase in political representation by Evangelicals, which increased their presence from 6.23% in 2006 (with 32 of the 513 representatives) to 14.42% (74 representatives) in 2014. “Evangelical religious leaders, unlike Catholics, are making increasing use of their ecclesiastical position in the churches to promote their candidacies,” Montero said.  

“A significant part of contemporary literature on secularism assumes that religion and politics are (or should be) two separate fields. Starting from the assumption that religious phenomena are private, that religious faith and belonging are a result of individual choices, the literature on secularism has been concerned about creating ways to measure the degree of secularity on the part of state organizations and describing different legal instruments to prevent religions from being in the public space,” said Montero, who is a member of the FAPESP Adjunct Panel on the Humanities and Social Sciences, Architecture and Economy as well as on the Steering Committees for the Improvement in Public Education Program and the Public Policy Program.    

“However, cases drawn from Brazil and other non-European countries have contributed to the emergence of a new analytical consensus: the concept of secularization, which presupposes the privatization of religion and the differentiation between the public and private spheres, is too western-oriented a political normative concept. In that regard, this concept is not useful for describing the new dynamic of contemporary pluralist democracies that need to address the issue of accommodating ethnic and religious differences in a secular public sphere,” she said.  

According to Montero, in the Brazilian case, the pluralist agenda placed the principles of State neutrality and separation between religion and politics under the focus of minority religious criticism.  

“In the name of pluralism, many religious agencies presented an extraordinary activism in the public arena, provoking the courts, demonstrating in the streets and occupying diverse spaces on governmental and legislative agendas.” 

Public religions

“In our FAPESP-funded Thematic Project, we are working on the hypothesis that the recent competition for civic-political space on the part of religions changed the nature of religious discourse. Evangelicals, Catholics and Afro-Brazilians, in response to secular or anti-religious activism, appropriated the legal language for their own religious purposes. Religious agents are learning how to develop public languages that will allow them to display their religious interest in the legal-political language of rights such as religious freedom and tolerance,” Montero said.    

According to her, that methodological movement is making her reflect on the theoretical limits of the use of religion as a self-evident phenomenon.   

“The concept of religion is closely associated with the Catholic Church model, which emphasizes the doctrinal dimension and its congregational format. Therefore, it is very inaccurate in describing what religious agents do when the march in the streets, when they fight in Congress or when they preach on television,” she said.   

The USP professor went on to say that in this regard, one of the main contributions of the Thematic Project has been advancing a new concept to frame these phenomena: the concept of “public religions.”  

“That concept has to be worked in two different dimensions. In the first dimension, religions become public when they say and do things in public arenas addressed to public opinion. Public religions involve the relationship between religious agents and strangers. From that perspective, religions do not produce believers,” she said. 

“In the second dimension, religions become public when they emerge as a public problem, that is, when actions and discourse turn into public controversies involving a wide range of non-religious actors.” 

Using this concept as an analytical tool, the various research studies under the scope of the Thematic Project are gathering data in order to determine how religious organizations act publicly in the contemporary Brazilian scenario.  

“Or under which circumstances and in which ways does religious action emerge as a public problem within the Brazilian context? Or, how and in which sense do different religious organizations increase their moral authority for regulating collective life in its different dimensions?” Montero asks. 

Disadvantaged youth in Brussels

Géraldine André, a researcher at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel (IES-VUB), spoke during FAPESP Week Belgium on the topic of “Obstacles and facilitators to youth social and civic participation in Brussels: the case of disadvantaged social groups.”   

“This deals with the research study I lead that is investigating the social participation of youth in terms of education, employment, training and socio-professional integration; civic and political participation; social psychology; and links between types of social and civic participation,” she said.   

According to André, one-sixth of Belgians between the ages of 18 and 24 do not have high school diplomas, do not study, are not involved in training activities and are not employed. They are primarily immigrants. “They are youth of non-European origin who end up suffering from discrimination at school and in the job market,” she said. 

The study, carried out with Alejandra Alarcon-Henriquez, a member of the Research Cluster on Migration, Diversity and Justice at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), also plans to assess the impact of programs that promote civic action and integration by these youth in Brussels.    

Urbanization and metropolitization

José Marcos Pinto da Cunha, a professor in the Demography Department of the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences and a researcher at the Population Studies Center, both at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), presented the topic “Metropolization and spatial distribution of population in São Paulo: a research agenda” at FAPESP Week Belgium.

Cunha focused on the main issues of his study, which investigates the process of metropolitization and the demographic dynamic in the state of São Paulo. The researcher led the FAPESP-funded Thematic Project “Intra-metropolitan dynamics and socio-demographic vulnerability in two metropolitan areas in the state of São Paulo: Campinas and Santos,”. 

Cunha, who is also associated with the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), one of the FAPESP Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs), talked about large-scale demographic trends in Brazil.  

“Among the major trends in migration in the 1990s and 2000s are: the decrease in long-distance interstate migrations; the increase in return migrations that are changes in the traditional pattern of population redistribution forces; the decrease of demographic pressure in traditional emigration areas of Brazil’s Northeast; the advance of fertility transition since the 1980s; and the prominence of short-distance flows, particularly in the metropolitan areas,” he said.       

According to Cunha, the large-scale migratory flows were crucial in explaining the process of urbanization and metropolitization in Brazil over the course of the 20th century.

“In recent decades, Brazil’s major cities are presenting low population growth rates due to decreased migratory flows in their direction. At the same time, other smaller urban centers are presenting high population growth rates.  However, no evidence could confirm that hypothesis because the metropolitan areas have practically not altered their share of population in their respective states and in the nation as a whole,” he said.  

According to Cunha, that urban dispersion has led to a productive restructuring with decentralization of economic activities, a concentration of command and power functions, the emergence of socio-spatial complementarities on a regional scale, and topological and topographical flows.

“In Brazil, that process has manifested itself through the formation of what has been called the São Paulo Macrometropolis,” he said.  

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