Atheism in Brazil 

What is an atheist?  There are in fact multiple understandings of what the word means.  First of all, there is the active atheist who is "a person who believes there is no God" (Webster's Dictionary).  The person is therefore making an assertion that God does not exist.  Then, there is the passive atheist who does not believe in God without needing to deny the existence of God. Thirdly, there is the agnostic who feels that the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved, on the basis of known evidence.  Then, there is the gnostic who believes in the existence of God, but who must be extremely evil to permit such sufferings in this world.

By these definitions, the theistic/atheistic/agnosticism decision is one of weighing the known evidence and making what is effectively a philosophical determination.  Unfortunately, as with most other things in life, this issue is connected with the political economy as well as other issues.  During the twentieth century, atheism was closely identified with communism because the socialist countries of the Cold War era (the Soviet Union, China, Albania, North Korea, etc) were staunchly against religion.  In 1844, Karx Marx wrote that 'religion is the opiate of the people.'  Why?  Because Marx felt that religion was created by the ruling class to deflect the anger and utter hopelessness under the existing system of economic exploitation.  Through religion, the existing order is justified as having been mandated by a Higher Being and all the sufferings in this world will be compensated by eternal happiness in the afterlife.  But the linkage between atheism and communism is not certain, as a socialist state can be secular (for example, Cuba).

The famous American atheist-activist Madeleine Murray O'Hair provided this definition of an Atheist:

An Atheist loves himself and his fellow man instead of a god. An Atheist thinks that heaven is something for which we should work for now - here on earth- for all men together to enjoy. An Atheist accepts that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, subdue and enjoy it. An Atheist thinks that only in knowledge of himself and knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment.

Therefore, he seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to 'know' a god. An Atheist knows that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist knows that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death.  He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man. He wants an ethical way of life. He knows that we cannot rely on a god nor channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of troubles in a hereafter. He knows that we are our brothers' keepers in that we are, first, keepers of our lives; that we are responsible persons, that the job is here and the time is now."

The concepts of theism/atheism/agnosticism is further complicated by the issue of religion (defined as "any specific system of belief and worship, often involving a code of ethics and a philosophy" (Webster's Dictionary)).  A belief in God does not automatically result in a person being religious, but most theists are involved in organized religion in various degrees.  There are many theistic religions in the world, so that the adoption of a particular religion may be more of a historico-social-cultural decision.  In the names of these organized religions (e.g. Christianity (Catholicism, evangelism, Mormonism, etc), Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoism and so on), enormous numbers of atrocities and massacres have been committed.  Latin America has certainly experienced a particularly bloody history in which the European colonizers looted the land and enslaved the indigenous people, all in the name of God and blessed by the Church.  But even within a single religion such as the Roman Catholic Church, there are opposing strands with conservatives siding with repressive authoritarian regimes and liberation theologists siding with reformers and revolutionary forces.

In this article, we will not prove if God exists or not.  The reality is that we would not know how to do that even if we wanted to.  Nor we will try to establish if religion is right or wrong.  We will report some survey data taken from the 2002 TGI Brasil survey.  This is a survey of 5,312 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old who were interviewed in Brazil during the first half of 2002.  During this survey, the respondents were asked to classify themselves according to their religious beliefs.  Among the possible answers are "Atheist and/or don't have religion."   

According to the TGI Brasil survey, 4.5% of the survey respondents chose the answer "Atheist and/or don't have religion."  This is a simple elective, and there was no probing of the complexity (or lack thereof) of the reasoning behind this choice.  As for the other respondents, most of them chose some form of Christianity, mostly Roman Catholicism as well as many of the protestant denominations.  There was no probing of their degree of involvement with their churches, although it is well-known there is considerable cognitive dissonance, such as the extent of family planning practices that are explicitly against church teachings.  

In the next chart, we show the breakdown of the responses by age/sex groups.  Within any age group, the incidence is consistently higher among males than females.  The historical gender role may make it more difficult for females to openly admit to taking a rebellious role.  Within each gender, the incidence is higher among the younger than the older people.  There are some ambiguity as to how this piece of data should be interpreted.  First of all, this may be taken as the reflection of the secularization of the youth.  Whereas once upon a time the Church was regarded as the guardian of the Word of God, recent developments with respect to issues such as family planning, divorce, human rights and scandals have eroded their standing among the new generation.  If this were the case, the future obviously does not bode well for religion.  But this could just as well be taken as the awareness and appreciation of religion grows with maturity.  Whereas young people go through the proverbial rebellious stage, it takes major life stage events such as marriages and deaths to appreciate religious values. 

(source: TGI Brasil)

In the next chart, we show the incidences by socio-economic level and educational level.  There does not appear to be much difference by socio-economic level.  By education, the highest incidence occurs among those who have received post-graduate training, such as obtaining doctorate or master degrees.  Religious faith is perhaps hardest to come by for intellectuals, for they have been trained to reason which is not applicable to an act of faith.  A famous example is Blaise Pascal's wager: '"If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in him.  But if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing."

(source: TGI Brasil)

(posted by Roland Soong, 9/18/2002)

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