Roman Catholics in Decline, Protestants on the Rise

Washington, D.C. — Washington, D.C. July 18, 2013 — As young Catholics begin to gather in Brazil, awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis in celebration of World Youth Day, a new Pew Research Center analysis finds that the share of Brazil’s overall population that identifies as Catholic has been dropping steadily in recent decades. Over the same period, the percentage of Brazilians who belong to Protestant churches has been rising, as has the share of Brazilians who identify with other religions or with no religion at all.


Liga Plaveniece
Communications Associate

With an estimated 123 million Roman Catholics, Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world. Between 1970 and 2000, the share of the population that identifies as Catholic fell even though the number of Catholics in the country rose. But in the most recent decade, from 2000 to 2010, both the absolute number and the percentage of Catholics declined. Brazil’s Catholic population fell slightly from 125 million in 2000 to 123 million a decade later, dropping from 74% to 65% of the country’s total population.

Conversely, the number of Brazilian Protestants continued to grow in the most recent decade, rising from 26 million (15%) in 2000 to 42 million (22%) in 2010, with a particularly notable rise among Pentecostals. In Brazil’s 1991 census, about 6% of the population belonged to Pentecostal or neo-Pentecostal churches. By 2010, that share had grown to 13%. Meanwhile, the percentage of Brazilians who identify with historical Protestant denominations, such as Baptists and Presbyterians, has remained fairly steady over the last two decades at about 3% to 4% of the population. (The Brazilian census also contains a third category of Protestants, labeled “unclassified.” That group has grown from less than 1% of Brazil’s population in 1991 to 5% in 2010.)

The new analysis also finds that the number of Brazilians belonging to other religions – including Afro-Brazilian faiths such as Candomblé and Umbanda; spiritist movements like the one led by the late Chico Xavier; and global religions such as Buddhism and Islam – has been climbing. About 2 million Brazilians belonged to these other religions in 1970. By 2000, adherents of these other faiths had grown to about 6 million (4% of Brazil’s population), and as of 2010, they number nearly 10 million (5%).

And the number of Brazilians with no religious affiliation, including agnostics and atheists, also has been growing. In 1970, fewer than 1 million Brazilians had no religious affiliation. By 2000, that figure had jumped to 12 million (7%). In the most recent decade, the unaffiliated continued to rise, topping 15 million (8%) in Brazil’s 2010 census.

These are among the key findings of a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life analyzing Brazil’s changing religious landscape, based on Brazilian census data. It 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.

Other key findings include:

  • The main factor in the growth of Protestantism in Brazil appears to be religious switching, or movement from one religious group to another. The country’s decennial census does not ask Brazilians whether they have switched religions. But a 2006 Pew Research survey of Brazilian Pentecostals found that nearly half (45%) had converted from Catholicism.
  • Catholics have decreased as a share of Brazil’s population while Protestants have risen among men and women, young and old, people with and without a high school education, and those living in both urban and rural areas. But the changes have been particularly pronounced among younger Brazilians and city dwellers. For example, the percentage of Brazilians ages 15-29 who identify as Catholic has dropped 29 percentage points since 1970, compared with a drop of 16 points for those 70 years and older. And the share of Catholics among Brazil’s urban dwellers has fallen 28 points, compared with a decrease of 16 points among the rural population.
  • Brazilian Catholics tend to be older and live in rural areas, while Protestants tend to be slightly younger and live in urban areas. Brazilians with no religious affiliation also are younger, on average, than the population as a whole and are more likely to reside in urban settings.

The full analysis, including a detailed examination of the religious breakdown of Brazilians by age, gender, education and urban versus rural, is available on the Pew Forum’s website. Also available are resources on the global Catholic population and polling on Catholics and the pope.


The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life conducts surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world. As part of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy organization, the Pew Forum does not take positions on policy debates or any of the issues it covers.

Twitter: @pewforum