In this post, Uruguayan sociologist Néstor Da Costa describes the rates and forms of nonreligion in Uruguay and the ways they are shaped by the country’s historical relationship with religious institutions.
This article explores the groups of non-affiliated believers and atheists in Uruguay, a small country with the highest percentage of non-affiliated and atheists in Latin America.
The data presented here forms part of a major research project titled “The Transformation of Lived Religion in Urban Latin America: A Study of Contemporary Latin Americans’ Experience of the Transcendent,” supported by the John Templeton Foundation. This is a collaborative qualitative research project that involves Boston College, Catholic University of Cordoba (Argentina), Catholic University of Uruguay, and Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. The objective of the project is to describe and understand the way in which people search for transcendence in everyday life.
Uruguay is located in the southern cone of South America and is an atypical case of the place that religion occupies in Latin American societies. Eighty-one percent of Uruguayan’s believe in God, 41% define themselves as Catholics, 15% as Protestant, and 37% of the Uruguayan population does not express any particular religious affiliation The percentage of nonaffilliated is higher than all other Latin American countries.
Uruguay is also the only South American country where, on a political level, there was a systematic attempt at eradicating religious aspects of society. This was based on the identification of religion with obscurantism and ignorance, inspired by the French model of laicité. This political project can be conceived as secularist if “secularism” is defined as referring to “different normative-ideological state projects, as well as different legal-constitutional frameworks of separation of state and religion and to different models of differentiation of religion, ethics, morality and law” (Casanova, 2011).
Since 1919, as part of this political project, Uruguay has had a model of strict separation of church and state. The Catholic Church has no privilege and religion, after a long period of conflict, was moved from the public to the private sphere. This political project developed with a clear intention — the removal of religion from everyday life. Some examples of this effort include changing town names containing references to secular ones, for example the town of “Saint Elizabeth” was renamed “Way of the bulls”. Similarly, any religious language relating to public holidays was removed, like December 25th, which was renamed “family day”, and the holy week is now known as the “week of tourism”.
Even though we can identify a long-term presence of people “without religion” (with percentages higher than any other country in the continent), few Uruguayan researchers have studied the phenomena, perhaps as they understand it as a “normal” situation considering the strong secularist culture described above.
The following chart illustrates this situation:
The Pew Forum Latin American Survey on Religion also shows an important variability of “nones” on the continent. The number of “nones” in Paraguay is 1%, Mexico – 7%, Brazil – 8%, and Argentina – 11%. This makes Uruguay, with 37% on nones, the country with the highest percentage in all of Latin America. Notably, this 37% includes believers without institutional affiliation, with 24%, 10% of non-believers or atheists, and 3% of agnostics.
In order to understand who the non-affiliated are (comprising a large number of atheists), we analyzed 29 interviews that took place in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. Based on this, we find that believers unaffiliated with religious institutions in Montevideo are searching for interiority and transcendence. They seek individual freedom and non-imposition of predefined rules, norms, obligations or truth spaces. And they perceive religious institutions as restricting such explorations and limiting experiences by imposing institutional doctrines, not only when it comes to the content of faith, but in the set of rules and obligations they generate.
A vital mark of such explorations is the eclecticism of the unaffiliated in Uruguay. Uruguayan unaffiliated compose their own universe of meaning out of elements mixed from various religious or spiritual traditions. It is of high importance for them to live in balance, calmness and peace with oneself and the others. Interiority becomes another important concern. Participants reported different experiences of participation or connection with religious institutions throughout their lives while other had no such involvement whatsoever.
We see similarities to the approach proposed by Heelas and Woodhead (2005), who conceptually distinguish religion and spirituality. They say that people have an inclination towards forms of spirituality that help them live in accordance with the deepest and most sacred dimension of their lives, and less inclination toward religions that propose living in conformity with external principles.
In our study, atheists can be classified as belonging to two groups: transgenerational atheists, or those who come from atheistic environments, and those who turn to atheism after experiencing religious socialization. We can also differentiate two kinds of atheism. We found a grouping of atheists that reject religion and churches, but they still care about their influence on society. We also encountered the “indifferent atheists” who do not care about religion or churches at all. The former manifest a clear position against the existence of religious beliefs (anti-theism) and at the same time express a rejection of religious institutions or traditions such as Catholicism or Christianity (anti-clerical). The second group is composed of those who do not consider beliefs of others as a matter to be rejected or opposed. This latter position evidences a significant change in the Uruguayan society. So far, the publicly recognizable form of atheism was that of anti-religious and anti-clerical atheism.
Both the non-religious and atheists claim personal autonomy for the construction of their personal options, distancing themselves from institutional mandates. This claim could be seen as characteristic for modernity, but the concept of modernity used in Europe or North America does not adequately define the Latin American case. This is why some authors prefer to use the concept “enchanted modernity” (Morello et al. 2017) differentiating it from “secular modernity”. This concept explores the people who, in individual ways, build their universe of beliefs or unbeliefs by taking elements from different origins and processing them in their personal situations amid the complexity of their daily lives.
The particular place that “the religious” occupy in Uruguayan society with its strong model of “laicité” has been the favorable framework for the development of a strong presence of atheists and believers without religion in Uruguay. We can also say that believers without religion are not a new phenomena but a renewed one, including nowadays a clear presence of searchers that we can identify with New Age characteristics. They reject traditional religious institutions and they walk their own spiritual way.
Casanova, Jose. 2011. “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms.” Pp. 54-74 in Rethinking Secularism, eds. Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan Van Antwerpen. Oxford University Press.
Heelas, Paul and Linda Woodhead. 2005. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford University Press.
Morello, Gustavo, Catalina Romero, Hugo Rabbia, and Néstor Da Costa. 2017. “An Enchanted Modernity: Making Sense of Latin America’s Religious Landscape.” Critical Research on Religion 5(3: 308-326.
Néstor Da Costa is a sociologist who received a PhD at Universidad de Deusto in Spain. There he specialized in sociology of religion, a field in which he has done a lot of research and published many works. He is the Director of the Religious Studies Institute at Catholic University of Uruguay. He has obtained a Fulbright Scholarship, and is the co-PI of the research project, “The Transformation of Lived Religion In Urban Latin America: A Study of Contemporary Latin American’s Experience of the Transcendent,” sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.