November 13, 2014

7 key takeaways about religion in Latin America

A new Pew Research Center survey of 18 Latin American countries and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico asked people from Mexico to Argentina about their religious affiliation, beliefs and practices. The survey also explored Latin Americans’ views on a wide variety of topics, including support for same-sex marriage and legal abortion, the morality of divorce and how best to aid the poor.

Here are a few of the key findings:

1Shifting Religious Identity in Latin AmericaLatin America remains overwhelmingly Catholic, but Catholics have declined substantially as a share of the region’s overall population. As recently as 1970, Catholics comprised more than 90% of Latin America’s population, according to the World Religion Database and the Brazilian and Mexican censuses. Today, the Pew Research survey shows that 69% of Latin Americans identify as Catholic – 15 percentage points lower than the share of adults who say they were raised Catholic (84%).

2Losses for Catholics have meant gains for Protestant churches and the category of people who do not identify with any religion. Just 9% of adults in the region were raised Protestant and 4% were raised unaffiliated, but twice as many now describe themselves as Protestants (19%) or unaffiliated (8%). Most Protestants across Latin America identify as Pentecostal Christians or are members of Pentecostal denominations.

3Why are Latin Americans leaving the Catholic Church for Protestantism? The survey asked respondents to rate eight possible explanations. Protestants who converted from Catholicism most frequently say they “wanted a more personal experience with God.” Other commonly cited reasons include the style of worship at their new church and a desire for greater emphasis on morality.

4Protestants, Catholics, Religious Commitment in Latin AmericaIn general, Latin American Protestants are more religiously committed than Catholics. We base this on a variety of measures, including frequency of church attendance and prayer as well as the level of importance they ascribe to religion in their lives. Generally, Protestants also are more likely than Catholics to oppose legal same-sex marriage and abortion and to say that wives must always obey their husbands.

5Many of the findings about religion in Latin America mirror trends seen among Hispanics in the United States. Nearly a quarter of U.S. Hispanics (24%) were raised Catholic but have since left the faith, and Protestants now account for one-in-five U.S. Hispanics (22%), roughly the same as in Latin America (19%). But the percent of religiously unaffiliated among U.S. Hispanics is more than double that among Latin Americans (18% vs. 8%).

6Pope Francis is overwhelmingly popular among Catholics in Latin America – especially in his home country of Argentina, where 98% of Catholics say they have a favorable opinion of him. Majorities of Catholics throughout the region also describe Francis’ election to pope as a “major change” for the Catholic Church. But former Catholics are less persuaded that the pope represents a significant change for the church, with many offering no definite opinion on his impact.

7In all of Latin America, people in the Central American nations of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador are among the most religiously committed and socially conservative. By contrast, people in the “Southern Cone” countries of Argentina, Chile and especially Uruguay are among the most secular, with relatively low levels of religious commitment. The biggest country surveyed – Brazil – falls somewhere between these two groups in terms of religious commitment and social attitudes.

Topics: Latin America, Religious Affiliation, Catholics and Catholicism

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Warren Clarke3 years ago

    It would be interesting to know how much American culture, economic and political power has contributed to this trend of Hispanics/Latinos converting to Protestantism. It is interesting to note that majority of these new Hispanic/Latino converts to Protestantism are choosing to join the Pentecostal denomination rather than say Anglican, Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Calvinist, Lutheran denominations. Why are the Pentecostal so successful in recruiting new converts in comparison to other protestant denominations? Perhaps Pentecostal preachers and missionaries are more active and numerous in Latin America and in the US?

    I wonder whether this increase Protestantism will have political ramifications for the countries of Latin America, liberation theology of the Catholic Church was and remains very popular in Latin America. Liberation theology is very left wing, with Marxists overtones and hostile to US neo-liberal economics. Perhaps the increase in Protestantism will see a precipitous decline in anti-US sentiment in Latin America? Further studies regarding these issues should be conducted.

    1. Bobby3 years ago

      In Texas Mexicans are mainly converting to Baptist and Methodist.We have a large legal and a large illegal population.I am not sure where in the USA Mexicans are becoming Pentecostal.What is your definition of Pentecostal and how do you know .