Major Religions of South America

The Cathedral of Manaus, in Manaus, Brazil.
The Cathedral of Manaus, in Manaus, Brazil.

All countries in South America have laws which guarantee the freedom of religion and have a clear separation of the church from the State. Christianity is by far the biggest religion in South America and is the dominant religion in all countries of the continent. The Roman Catholic Church which is the most popular denomination in South America represents that largest religious group in the continent. South America is also home to other religious groups which include Protestantism, Islam, and Judaism.

Roman Catholicism In South America

Roman Catholicism is the largest religious denomination in South America and is practiced by over 50% of the population in all South American countries except Uruguay and Suriname. Roman Catholicism was brought to the continent by the European colonial powers in the 17th and 18th centuries who enforced the religion to the native tribes. The practice of Roman Catholicism among South Americans was made mandatory in most countries during the colonial period, which would become a factor behind the religion’s popularity in the continent. Brazil has the highest number of Roman Catholics in the world and is practiced by 63% of the country’s population. Roman Catholicism has been the dominant religion in Brazil for over 500 years since the religion was brought by the Portuguese settlers in the 16th century. Catholicism was intertwined with governmental affairs for centuries where Brazilians were at one point required to pay taxes to the Catholic Church. Even after Brazil gained independence in 1824, the faith was still established as the official religion, a distinction it held until 1891 when the church was separated from the state.

Roman Catholicism is also the dominant religion in Chile where it is practiced by 9 million people, representing 55% of the country’s population. The Roman Catholic Church in Chile is made up of 18 dioceses and five archdioceses. Roman Catholicism was introduced in Colombia by the Spanish colonialists in the 16th century and remained as the country’s official religion until the constitutional reform of 1991. Roman Catholicism is practiced by 70.9% of the total population in Colombia. A major festival is held annually in Colombia to consecrate the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” which is led by Colombia’s head of state.

Roman Catholicism is also popular in Argentina where it is the dominant faith, practiced by as much as 77% of the country’s population. Roman Catholicism was introduced in Argentina by Spanish settlers in the 16th century, and its practice was thoroughly enforced during the period when the country was a Spanish colony. The Roman Catholic Church has considerable influence in the local culture in Argentina. Roman Catholicism in South America is quite distinct from that practiced in other regions in the world as many local traditional beliefs are incorporated into it, and this merging of beliefs is most profound in Brazil and Colombia where the faith is mixed with African rituals.

Other Christian Denominations In South America

Protestantism is the second largest religious group practiced in South America and are also known as Evangelicals. Protestantism always has a minority religion in the continent for most of its history but has experienced tremendous growth in followers since the late 20th century. Brazil has the highest number of evangelicals in South America, with about 44 million Brazilians identifying themselves as Protestants which is equivalent to about 22.2% of the country’s population. There are several different groups of Protestants practiced in Brazil, and these include Presbyterians, neo-Pentecostals, Methodists, and Baptists. Pentecostals make up about 89% of the Protestants in Brazil. Protestantism also has a considerable number of followers in Argentina with some studies claiming that up to 15% of Argentinians are Protestants.

Protestants make up the second largest religious group in Chile, with 13% of Chile’s population being identified as Protestants. Protestantism was introduced in Chile in the 19th century by missionaries from America and Germany. The main Protestant churches in Chile include the Anglican Church, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Baptist Church. Chile is also home to a significant number of Mormons who are said to be over 540,000 people or equivalent to 3.3% of Chile’s total population. Mormonism was introduced to Chile by missionaries in the mid-19th century. Protestants account for 11.1% of the entire population in Uruguay. Orthodox Christianity has a significant number of believers in South America with the majority being found in Brazil and Argentina.

Islam In South America

Islam is the second largest religion in South America based on followers, coming behind Christianity. The religion is practiced by a minority in most countries of the continent. The Islamic religion was brought to South America by Arab immigrants who migrated in large numbers in the 20th century. Argentina has the largest population of Muslims in South America with as many as 0.7 million Argentinians identify themselves as Muslims. Islam was introduced in Argentina in the 20th century after the country received scores of Arab immigrants from the Ottoman Empire, particularly from Lebanon and Syria. The current 3.5 million Argentinian Arabs are all descendants of these Arab immigrants. The largest mosque in Latin America, the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center is found in Buenos Aires, Argentina and was built in 1996 on a parcel of land granted by the Argentinian government. The largest Islamic organization in Latin America, the Islamic Organization of Latin America is also based in Argentina. Brazil also has a significant number of Muslims who are estimated to be 0.4 million in number. The religion was introduced to Brazil by African slaves who settled in the country during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Judaism In South America

Another religion with significant followers in South America is Judaism. Argentina is home to the largest population of Jews in South America which is estimated to number over 0.3 million. However, this population is a shadow to historical numbers with the country having as many as 0.4 million Jews in the early 20th century. The decline in Jews is attributed to a massive immigration to Israel after the formation of the nation in the 1940s. Argentina’s capital, Bueno Aires is home to the majority of the country’s Jewish people with the city having the second largest Jewish population in the Americas, behind New York.

Other Religious Groups In South America

Other religious groups in South America include Baha’i, Buddhism, Hinduism, Kardecist Spiritualism, Umbanda, and Shinto. The continent is also home to a significant number of non-religious people as well as individuals who identify themselves as Agnostic.


More in Society