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Brazil ’82 - Willem C. van Hattem

Most countries in Latin America were colonized by the Spanish, who introduced a doctrinaire form of Roman Catholicism that remained relatively unaffected by influences either from the Reformation or the Renaissance. Brazil, however, was colonized by the Portugese who, like the French, exported a more tolerant Roman Catholicism and emphasized spirituality more than did their Spanish counterparts. That emphasis on spirituality and tolerance has given Brazil a rich religious tradition, but one that is also marked by syncretism and occultism. Brazil’s history of religious tolerance has allowed for religious experimentation of almost all types. But, while Brazilians entertain a number of syncretistic movements--Umbanda, Rosicrucianism, and new Japanese religions--they have not similarly accepted the typical cult movements of North America and Europe.

No Foothold

Why have those North American and European new religious movements failed to find a basis of support in Brazil, apart from similar experiments already in existence? The answers are varied. Often the ideas and beliefs of those groups have already been tried and used by Brazilians. Theologically, there is nothing new under the sun in Brazil. Socially, many of the new groups stress different types of membership practices that are not in tune with the tolerant attitude toward religion in general. Emphasis on strict membership practices is not common among Brazilian social movements and seems to alienate many people who cannot identify with the rigorous commitments demanded by some of the new religions. That observation holds true for movements like Hare Krishna (ISKCON), Children of God, Rajneesh, and the Divine Light Mission. Then too, Brazil is, in a sense, a saturated market. The circle of customers for new religions is limited to those who want something different and exclusive; they prefer a boutique to a supermarket label, although both places offer the same goods.

Sensing the problem of customer appeal, ISKCON has begun to identify itself with more popular forms of Brazilian expression. They have actively taken part in festivals sponsored by alternative groups and are beginning to be accepted in that milieu. In the fourth National Encounter of Rural Communities, Hare Krishna devotees swam in the nude with other participants,1) and some even said that enlightenment is not the unique privilege of ISKCON devotees but is shared by other movements as well. In so doing, the Hare Krishna movement ceases to be distinctive and controversial, yet its actions may result in better, albeit limited, success. Other movements have not had even that limited success which comes with compromise because they have retained their agendas in full.

Rajneesh and the Divine Light Mission each have an audience that is limited to the university campus. Students seem to prefer a life somewhat different from the larger population, at least for the duration of their studies. Even then, however, those groups have not been received with enthusiasm, and their membership is often composed of international students who are led by devotees imported from Europe and North America.

The failure of those movements to attract the Brazilians’ imagination does not mean that the Brazilians’ commitments to Christianity are firmer than those of other populations. It simply means that the weaknesses and strengths of Brazilian Christianity are different. Occultism is popular and has attached itself to Christianity much more effectively than those other new groups. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church is one branch of Christianity which seems to be losing members to new religions, the 1981 statistics of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil reveal no significant losses to the new religions. Of the total number who left the Lutheran Church, 40 percent exited in the normal border traffic that exists among established denominations. The percentages among other people who left were .12% to Seventh-Day Adventists, .04% to Jehovah’s Witnesses, .24% to the Mormon Church, .08% to spiritualism, .05% to the Four Square Gospel sect, .12% to the so-called electric church, and 4.7% to Pentecostal groups. That leaves 55 percent of lost membership unaccounted for: they left the Lutheran Church with an unknown destination.

One could suspect that a large portion of those believers joined the new religions, but evidence indicates that such was not the case. Few families join the new religions as whole groups; it is usually the action and commitment of one family member. In those instances, it is customary for the other members in Lutheran families to ask their churches for information about the new religions. Such requests, however, did not reach Lutheran pastors or agencies. Based on the types of inquiries that were made, it appears that those lapsed church members moved in another direction, namely, the direction of the occult and the new Japanese religions. Those two types of groups also appeal more to the Brazilian mentality as a whole. They are tolerant of other religions and generally do not require members to leave their traditional churches. They conveniently allow a person to sojourn in the borderlands of the Christian church while cultivating another religious interest.


In 1978 the TV network GLOBO made a survey of the religious attitudes in Brazil. The results from one question indicated that 84 percent of the people interviewed believe that all religions are true religions and are equally valuable. In that light, it is not surprising that more than 60 percent of the population participate in some way in the syncretistic, occult religion known as Umbanda. Umbanda actively incorporates elements of the African Nago religion, indigenous Brazilian religions, Roman Catholicism, Kardicism, and other popular forms of spiritualism. From its humble origin in Rio de Janeiro in 1908, it grew quickly during the next few decades and was sufficiently large enough to hold a successful congress in 1941, to found the Spiritist Umbanda Congregation of Brazil in 1950, and to be an integral member of the National Union of Afro-Brazilian Cults, founded in 1952.


Umbanda’s popularity is seen in the number of terreiros (special plots of ground on which rituals are conducted) that have been established within the past several decades. In 1960 there were 50,000 terreiros throughout Brazil. In 1970 their number reached 100,000, and by 1980 there were more than 300,000 terreiros in Brazil. The Umbanda movement has also established 200 terreiros in Argentina and 300 in Uruguay. At least 100 people annually visit each Brazilian terreiro, meaning that 30 million visitors pass through the ritual grounds each year. And that figure applies only to terreiros that are registered with the Spiritist Umbanda Congregation and the National Union of Afro-Brazilian Cults. It does not include the free-lance terreiro groups.

Church leaders are troubled by the dual membership which many people in their congregations hold with Umbanda. Parishioners are often members of terreiro groups or other types of spiritualistic movements. Commented one pastor, “Doing something against terreiro would separate me from my most influential members,” a common concern among church leaders. Some churches have adopted an accommodating attitude in the hope of winning solid commitments without engaging in direct conflict. The Roman Catholic handbook for liturgy, for example, makes this observation regarding Mark 9:37-42:


However, the liturgy stresses the possibility that God acts outside the ‘regular’ assembly....(that is) important in our milieu where macumbistic and spiritistic healers do great works in Jesus’ name. There is a mentality to scare believers against everything done in Brazilian religious syncretism. Perhaps it is more evangelical not to reject so much, but to acknowledge that God may use such men to effectuate his love. Such an attitude will show a comprehensive face of the Church, trying to recognize the good in all things. 2)


The research of Rev. Dr. David B. Barrett in the World Christian Encyclopedia suggests that some 60 million Brazilians hold membership in both spiritistic movements and Christian churches. Many of those Christians are members of Umbanda which is broken into four distinct branches.

Table Umbanda is practiced in a room furnished only with chairs and tables; there are no altars or statues. Effigies of the Caboclos and Pretos Velhos, who represent the spirit guides of disincarnate mestizos and Negroes, hang from the walls, as does an effigy of the spirit guide who resides in the house. The purpose of the sessions is to generate communication with the spirit world, receive physical healing, and develop mediumistic powers.

Salon Umbanda has a larger public following than Table Umbanda and is characterized by a definite progression of events. It does not use instruments like the other Umbanda branches. The goals of Salon Umbanda are similar to those of Table Umbanda, that is, contact with spirit guides, healings, and development of occult powers.

Terreiro Umbanda is marked by distinct African influences. An altar consecrates the ‘holy place,’ and charms embodying mystical powers lay on the altar or are buried beneath it. The mediums who conjure up the spirits often perform ritual dances, and on certain occasions animals are sacrificed.

African Umbanda is fully African in style and content. Extensive use of percussion instruments and dance are a large part of the ceremony. The celebrations are held in open-air places near running water rather than inside buildings. Because African Umbanda is highly spiritistic, its goals are similar to those of the other Umbanda branch rituals.

The Umbanda deities are shared by all of the movements within the religion. They are closely identified with important figures in Christianity, thus creating the syncretism. Among the most important Umbanda gods are: Oxalé, the creator, who is associated with Jesus Christ; Iemanjá the mother of all the Orixás (powerful gods), who is identified with the Virgin Mary; Ogum, the god of iron, who is identified with Saint George, the dragon slayer; Oxóssi, the god of the forest, who is identified with Saint Sebastian; and Xangó, the god of storms, who is associated with Saint Jerome. Umbanda divinities also include the Caboclos, spirits whose origin lies in African religions, and the Pretos Velhos, who represent the spirits of old and wise African slaves.

Umbanda is popular in part because it offers practitioners a multitude of advantages. There is mediumistic healing in case of illness, protection from evil spirits, the development of occult powers, and the potential for material blessings. Much of its larger success is due to the effective relationship Umbanda has developed with regard to Christianity.


Another occult movement which has identified itself with Christianity and enjoys a significant degree of success is the Rosicrucian Order. Their major activities take place in Rosicrucian lodges and temples and have proven to be attractive to high-school and university students. During my chaplaincy, I met a number of students who were Rosicrucians, several of whom said, “It doesn’t really matter If I don’t take my degree, for I know much more than all the others. I’m a Rosicrucian.” What is the special knowledge that those students valued more than their university training?

Rosicrucians, by use of the mail, offer the knowledge of old secret fraternities that have existed, so they say, since the 18th Egyptian Dynasty. Although the Rosicrucian courses are advertised as a secret science that is not religious, members pay a substantial fee for materials that offer a complete religious training program. One can buy guide books on “Mysteries of Time and Space,” “How to Direct the Powers of the Mind,’ “Reaching Cosmic Conscience,” “Development of Personal Magnetism,” “Development of the Inner I,” and “Magnetism.” Members are taught secret recognition signs, watchwords, and handshakes that give them free to Rosicrucian lodges around the world. As one Rosicrucian advertisement promises, “This extraordinary knowledge, preserved by the secret fraternities, is now available for those in search of personal power and dominion of life.” The Rosicrucian Order is syncretistic and appeals to the thinking of many people in Brazil who prefer an eclectic religion. Yet another group of popular religions which teach tolerance toward all religions and are often syncretistic are the new Japanese religions.

Made in Japan

In the room of the hotel where I always pass the night when staying in Saó Paulo, I made a stunning discovery. The usual Gideon Bible was gone, and in its place was The Teaching of Buddha, published by the Buddhist Promoting Foundation, Tokyo, Japan. A few years earlier, I noted a calendar of Seicho no Ie in the hotel lobby, but I didn’t give it much thought at the time. Apparently, the hotel owner had been encouraged by his involvement with Seicho no Ie and had decided to share his interest with guests by replacing the Bibles in their rooms with teachings from Buddha. Guests were encouraged to take the book home with them. That is only one small example that illustrates the growing influence that new Japanese religions are exercising in Brazil. Among the more successful of those religions are Tenrikyo, or Heavenly Wisdom, and Seicho no Ie, or House of Growth. (For a fuller description of these and other Japanese religions, see article this issue titled “New Japanese Religions.”) The presence in Brazil of those movements is due to the immigration of many Japanese to Brazil. Originally confined to that Japanese population, Tenrikyo and Seicho no Ie have recently been successful in their missionary activities. Membership in those religions now includes a large number of Brazilians as well. Also active in Brazil are the Buddhist Community of South America and Nichiren Buddhism as practiced in Soka Gakkai.

Tenrikyo is prototypical of the new Japanese religions. It combines elements of Shintoism and Buddhism while emphasizing the laws of karma and reincarnation. It is tolerant toward other religions, and many of its writings have been translated into Portuguese, the Brazilian language. In 1978 Tenrikyo had 49 shrines and 184 mission stations in Brazil, and its members numbered about 10,000. One Heavenly Wisdom teaching that is emphasized in Brazil is the belief that negative personal characteristics--miserliness, covetousness, hatred, self-love, enmity, anger, avarice, and arrogance--should be swept away as dust. Those shortcomings are left over from previous lives and will reoccur unless they are dealt with adequately during this lifetime. Heavenly Wisdom enables members to change their negative characters through belief in the power of thought.

Seicho no Ie also draws on other religions for its theological basis and, like other successful movements in Brazil, is syncretistic. The movement’s founder, Masaharu Taniguchi, believed that behind the world of sadness and differing material manifestations was a unified presence. His book The Truth or Reality of Life, which was followed by 39 sequels, proposes that one’s environment and circumstances in life are reflections of the mind. Change your mind and life will be different. The movement in Brazil maintains 200 shrines and nearly 1,000 places of worship. At the present time its membership is close to one million people, a large percentage of whom are of Brazilian descent. Like Heavenly Wisdom, House of Growth appeals to the syncretistic attitude that is so prevalent in Brazil.

Many Christians and churches in Brazil have a more tolerant attitude toward the new syncretistic religions, in part because a number of Christians maintain a dual membership in Umbanda and similar types of movements. The new religions that emphasize membership and theological exclusiveness, therefore, have not been popular among the Brazilians. The new Japanese religions have been successful, however, because they emphasize tolerance of and syncretism with other religions. It is difficult for Christians who live in a religious atmosphere which favors acceptance of various religious notions and uses them for whatever seems practical. At this moment in Brazil’s religious history, Christians are challenged to he relevant and truthful at the same time.



1. “Encontro Nacional de Comunidades Rurais,” Planeta, September 1982, Number 120, pp. 113-119.

2. Johan Konings, Esoírito e Mensagem da Liturgia Dominical, Porto Alegre, 1981.

Willem C. van Hattem is Secretary of the Commission for Theology and Church Relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brazil.