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The institutional size of Religion in the IBGE Census

The number of religious establishments in Brazil is data from the current IBGE Census (2022) presented at the beginning of February and which caused several reflections and reactions – especially because it is a new census. As this information was shown together with data from other institutions such as schools, hospitals/health centers, clubs, etc., the comparison between the number of these establishments and religious spaces was immediate. Journalists and other opinion makers, in addition to social networks (this heterodoxly democratic communication phenomenon of our time) helped to disseminate and evaluate the different data, with diverse and controversial reflections. In this short text I try to make brief comments without wanting, however, to give a conclusive word on the subject.

To refresh your memory, let's look at some highlights of what IBGE showed regarding different types of establishments in Brazil:

– 579.7 thousand religious establishments

– 264.4 thousand educational establishments

– 247.5 thousand healthcare establishments

After the announcement, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo published news with the following headline: “Brazil has more religious spaces than education and health together, according to the Census” (Folha, 2/2/24). The number of health and education establishments totals 511.9 thousand. Faced with this journalistic call, followed in a similar way by other media outlets and reproduced on social media, varied comments emerged, including critical questions about the comparison of institutional sectors as different as health and education establishments versus religious spaces.

To focus solely on the issue of “religious establishments”, an excerpt from this text, but with comparative comments on other published items, lists some reflections in a succinct and preliminary manner.

Is the number of religious establishments growing?

It is possible to affirm, based on other research already carried out, that the number of religious establishments in the country is increasing, but for comparative purposes, always fundamental in social research, only in a next edition of the Census, if this issue is maintained, will it be possible to evaluate with precision its growth or decrease and at what levels the presence of religious establishments is in Brazil. Are all religious groups growing, at what rates, or are some groups showing decline in terms of religious establishments? Who loses, who wins, in which socio-geographical territories of cities and in which regions of the country are there more changes to these establishments? These are some basic questions for deepening and analyzing this topic.

Spaces with a sacred – and even profane – appearance  

With almost 580 thousand religious establishments spread across the country, it is safe to say that Brazil is a land with many sacred landmarks. In the past, when Catholic Christianity was the majority religion in Brazilian society, temples stood out especially in the city centers. With their towers, bells and crosses, these religious establishments were common in both large and medium-sized and small cities in all regions of the country. Such spaces are still there but have long shared urban and rural territories with other religions and their buildings, with religious architecture, but also “secular” and, even, once considered “profane”. Warehouses, stores, factories, cinemas, shopping malls and many other types of spaces have been used and adapted by the most different groups for religious activities. Yes, the many different religious spaces, always with their followers, reinforce the relevance of studying Brazilian society more from the perspective of religion, combining it with other variables, to seek to decipher some of our intriguing complexity as a nation. To remind Tom Jobim, “Brazil is not for beginners”. Including for many intellectual and political elites who think they understand but have revealed ignorance and even prejudice in relation to these issues involving religion, society and politics.

Religious diversity and plurality of establishments

When talking about religious establishments, some people may restrict their reference to Christian spaces, for example. The newspaper O Globo, when publishing the IBGE data, referred to religious establishments as follows: “churches and temples”, in a restrictively more Catholic and evangelical grammar. However, by religious establishments – it is necessary to emphasize – there is a huge diversity, as it refers to all the different faith spaces in the country. In addition to those already mentioned, temples and churches of Catholic and evangelical identity, the most numerous, including the buildings of groups such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and others, the growth of these establishments occurs in many other religious groups. Spiritist centers, Umbanda and Candomblé terreiros (and other worship spaces of Afro-Brazilian and indigenous origins), Buddhist temples, synagogues (Jewish), mosques (Islamic) and a myriad of the most diverse groups possible are spread throughout Brazil .

It is important to highlight that some evangelical establishments house more than one Christian community. This appears to be a growing trend that requires research. With the emergence of new evangelical groups that do not have a place to meet, they choose to look for spaces in temples of established churches to hold their services on different or alternative days and times than the meetings of the church that owns or is responsible for the physical establishment. Does something similar occur in other religious groups besides evangelicals? Important to research.

Unfeasible comparison

It is asymmetrical to compare the number of religious establishments with educational and healthcare spaces, also because of the different physical sizes between them and the number of people they tend to serve, considering, for example, large universities and hospitals. There are certainly hundreds of micro religious establishments that would fit inside the building of a single hospital, for example, as is easily seen in Brazil. Or even thousands of religious spaces that together are establishments smaller than the built area of a single campus or university city of some of these large higher education institutions in Brazil, such as USP, UFRJ, Unicamp, UFPE or UFAM.

More religious establishments than indicated by the Census

There are certainly more religious establishments in the country than those registered by IBGE. Qualitative research shows that there are many churches and temples, including these two examples, that use private homes, shops, hotel halls, etc. for religious activities, not to mention that many of these groups do not even have legal registration. In other words, there are certainly more religious establishments in Brazil, without any identification with a sign on the door or the characterization of a religious space. A specific methodology for searching for this data would certainly result in an increase in the number of religious groups and establishments in the country.

What about religious spaces within health and education establishments? When comparatively quantifying the number of health and education establishments in relation to religious spaces, it is important to ask whether the many religious places and establishments within school/university areas, such as chapels and other temples, in both public and private facilities, were considered, and also in healthcare spaces, such as hospitals.

As is known, there are many temples within these different facilities throughout Brazil. If religious spaces were not taken into account in these establishments whose primary purpose is education and health services, the number of religious establishments will certainly be even greater.

Other data from this set of Census information were classified as “collective households” (such as prisons, nursing homes, hotels, boarding houses), which total 104.5 thousand, and “establishments for other purposes” (such as public buildings, stores, services), which reach 11.7 million. As we know, in many spaces of deprivation of liberty (prisons and socio-educational institutions) there are religious establishments and some with at least two buildings: a Catholic temple and an evangelical temple, as shown by ISER research. It is common in the country, in its different regions, to find Catholic or ecumenical spaces in airports, bus stations, shopping centers, military institutions, condominiums, among others.

Education and health versus religion?

When morally comparing education/health establishments with religious spaces, it can lead to a false interpretation that people are deceived by religion, when they should have access to education, including to overcome their “religious beliefs”, for example. The equation is, in addition to being false, prejudiced and elitist. People need and must have their rights to quality education and health services guaranteed. But this does not replace religion. This fulfills a fundamental social function in society, whether through sociability, belonging, integration or ontological security, among others. Especially in an increasingly isolated, individualistic and violent world, as we see especially in so many areas of Brazilian reality.

People seek a religious establishment for different reasons, especially in a world of multiple insecurities and look for ways to overcome anomie and other problems that affect their lives. In this sense, to recall the old French scholar Durkheim, every religion is true – and this is not a theological statement, but a sociological one – to the extent that it meets people's demands.

To conclude, but continue the conversation

It is necessary to revisit in the public debate the idea that has already been abundantly demonstrated over time by various scientific knowledge in seminal studies that religion is a relevant key to understanding our society and It is a fundamental crossing point in Brazilian life. Therefore, it is necessary to see with acuity, to understand more, including in the sense of building in dialogue with them a society with greater well-being, rights, democracy, secularism – in this land of Santa Cruz and so many other beliefs, spiritualities, as well as of non-beliefs and people without religion. Anyway, Brazil is not for beginners, which is why it is even more exciting for all of us.

Clemir Fernandes, sociologist, deputy director of ISER.

*This article was originally published on the Nexo Políticas Públicas portal.