New Pew Research Center Report Explores Changing Religious Landscape in Latin America
18-country survey finds 69% of adults in region identify as Catholic, down from at least 90% for most of the 20th century
Media Contact: Katherine Ritchey, Communications Manager
Washington, Nov. 13, 2014 — Latin America is home to more than 425 million Catholics – nearly 40% of the world’s total Catholic population. Yet identification with Catholicism has declined throughout the region, according to a major new Pew Research Center survey that examines religious affiliations, beliefs and practices in 18 countries and one U.S. territory (Puerto Rico) across Latin America and the Caribbean.
The survey finds 69% of adults across the region identify as Catholic, down from highs of at least 90% for most of the 20th century. The Catholic Church has experienced net losses from religious switching, as many Latin Americans have joined evangelical Protestant churches or rejected organized religion altogether.
Overall, 84% of Latin American adults report that they were raised as Catholics, 15 percentage points more than currently identify as Catholic. The pattern is reversed among Protestants and people who do not identify with any religion. Just one-in-ten Latin Americans (9%) were raised in Protestant churches, but nearly one-in-five (19%) now describe themselves as Protestants. And while only 4% of Latin Americans were raised without a religious affiliation, twice as many (8%) are unaffiliated today.
The survey, conducted from October 2013 to February 2014 among more than 30,000 adults, also finds:
- Of the eight possible explanations for leaving Catholicism offered in the survey, the most common reason converts to Protestantism cite is that they were looking for a more personal connection with God. At least two-thirds in most countries surveyed cite this as a reason they are no longer Catholic.
- Evangelization efforts by Protestant churches seem to be having an impact. Across Latin America, more than half of those who have switched from the Catholic Church to Protestantism say their new church reached out to them (median of 58%). The survey finds Protestants are much more likely than Catholics to report sharing their faith with people outside their own religious group.
- Most Protestants in Latin America identify as Pentecostal Christians. Moreover, substantial percentages of Protestants across the region say that they engage in beliefs and practices often associated with Pentecostalism, such as divine healing, prophesying and speaking in tongues.
- Many of the major patterns revealed by this survey mirror trends found among U.S. Hispanics. According to a 2013 Pew Research poll, nearly a quarter of Hispanic adults in the United States were raised Catholic but have since left the faith (24%), while just 2% of U.S. Hispanics have converted to Catholicism after being raised in another religious tradition or with no affiliation – a net drop of 22 percentage points. Like their counterparts in Latin America, many U.S. Hispanics have left Catholicism for Protestant churches. Protestants now account for about one-in-five Hispanics in the United States (22%), roughly the same as in Latin America (19%). In addition, a substantial number of Hispanics in the United States (18%) describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular.
- Catholics in Latin America tend to be less conservative than Protestants on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. On average, Catholics are less morally opposed to abortion, homosexuality, artificial means of birth control, sex outside of marriage, divorce and drinking alcohol than are Protestants.
- Protestants in Latin America tend to be more religiously observant than Catholics. In nearly every country surveyed, Protestants say they go to church more frequently and pray more often than do Catholics; a regional median of 83% of Protestants report attending church at least once a month, compared with a median of 62% of Catholics. Protestants also are more likely than Catholics to read scripture outside of religious services, to approach the Bible literally and to believe that Jesus will return during their lifetime.
- Current Catholics in Latin America overwhelmingly view Pope Francis favorably and consider his papacy a major change for the church, but former Catholics are more skeptical. Only in Argentina and Uruguay do majorities of ex-Catholics express a favorable view of the pope. In every other country in the survey, no more than roughly half of ex-Catholics view Francis favorably, and relatively few see his papacy as a major change for the Catholic Church. Many former Catholics say it is too soon to have an opinion about the pope.
The report further explores demographic differences among Catholics, Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated, including gender, education, age and average number of children among all three groups; religious beliefs, including beliefs associated with Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian and indigenous religions; Catholics’ and Protestants’ views on addressing poverty and attitudes toward science; and Latin Americans’ attitudes toward the teachings of the Catholic Church on matters such as divorce, contraception and the priesthood.
The survey involved more than 30,000 face-to-face interviews conducted in Spanish, Portuguese and Guarani across 18 countries and Puerto Rico by the Pew Research Center between October 2013 and February 2014. The survey encompasses nearly all Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries and territories stretching from Mexico through Central America to the southern tip of South America. Together, these countries and Puerto Rico account for more than 95% of the total population of Latin America. Sample sizes and margins of error by country are available here.
The report is accompanied by an interactive that shows the results of eight questions often discussed as moral issues, including respondents’ thoughts on divorce, alcohol consumption, suicide, abortion, prostitution, premarital sex, homosexual behavior and the use of contraceptives. An interactive map displays the median responses for each question across the countries surveyed.
The new report is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures project, an effort funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation to analyze religious change and its impact on societies around the world.
Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. Its Religion & Public Life Project seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.