Religious Syncretism and Race in Brazil

I’m getting a little bored talking about political isses LOL, so let’s talk anthropology and religion today, okay? We can get back to the politics later this week.

One of the most fasciniating subjects in the social analysis of religion is syncretism, the combination of elements from various religious and cultural traditions into an integrated, more or less, pacakge. My series/book on Cgristian stncretism, focusing on Western Christianity’s holiday tradtions, is my main passion in the study of syncretism, but most anthropologists focus on syncretism in folk religions.

It seems that there is a Brazilian folk religion called Umbanda. which is celebrating its centennial this year. That makes it a very young folk religion and of especial interest to anthropologists. Using my iGoogle page, I found a an informative and interesting article about Umbanda and its centennial celebration in this morning’s Kansas City Star. Here’s how the article describes Umbanda:

According to the religion’s folklore, Umbanda took off after a teenager near Rio de Janeiro was possessed by an indigenous spirit known as the Caboclo das Sete Encruzilhadas, or the Indian of Seven Crossroads, in 1908.

That event launched what would become a potent mix of African religions, Roman Catholicism and the teachings of 19th-century French spiritualist Allan Kardec. The religion now claims as many as 8 million devotees and more than 100,000 temples around Brazil.

Brazil is a country that does not have the integration issues that the US has. There is and has been a lot of racial intermarriage in Brail – Causcasians, Africans, and the indigenous peoples. And it appears that Umbanda reflects that racial polyglot very nicely. It may very well be that this is one of the reasons Umbanda is embraced as the only truly Brazilian religion. According to Wikipedia, the Pardos – the mixed ethnic group – makes up over 40% of Brazil’s population, the second largest ethic group behind Caucasians, who are nearly 50% of the population. Had the US not had significan laws against miscegenation all these centuries, this is what our population would and should be like.

Roman Catholicism is the oldest and still the largest Christian denomination in Brazil. but, what is interesting is that the next seven most popular denominations are all Protestant evangelical/Pentecostal/fundamentalist. You do not run into a mainline Prostestant denomination until #9 (scroll down the Wikipedia article for the specific data). I could not find any demographic data relating religion and ethnicity in Brazil, but I am willing to guess that the Protestant evangelicals are mainly Caucasians, and that those Pardos who are at least nominally Christian count themselves as Catholics. The reason for that guess is, one, the long history of the Catholic Church in Brazil – nearly five centuries; two, the list of Protestant denominations did not include any of the traditional African Christian denominations found in the US; and three, the largest evangelical denominations in Brazil are those that are predominately Caucasian here in ths US and elsewhere.

For the last point I want to discuss in this look at religious syncretism in Brazil, I am going to quote one last paragraph from the Kasnas City Star article:

Throughout the early 20th century, Brazilian governments, alarmed at the religion’s intense ceremonies, outlawed its practice, forcing many worshippers underground. Although the religion is legal now, Brazil’s mushrooming Pentecostal churches still regularly condemn Umbanda and other Afro-Brazilian religions as the work of the devil.

If my conclusions about the relationship between ethnicity and religion are correct, and given whgat I have said about the correlation between racism in this country and religious affiliation, it appears to me that this attitude of the Protestant evangelicals towards Umbanda either has its roots in pre-existing racism already present in the Caucasian population, or there is a growing racism founded in religion deveoping in Brazil. In either case, it would behoove the government and people of Brazil, of any ethnicity, to be sensitive to this situation.A country that celebrates its racial diversity as does Brzil should serve as a model for the rest of the world, rather than the racism of countries like the US serving as a role model for Brazil.

It seems even in discussions of religion I cannot stay away from politics. Oh well! I hope you were nor disappointed. Peace!


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