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Research Note

Mapping Religious Change
in Latin America
Nicolás M. Somma
Matías A. Bargsted
Eduardo Valenzuela


Using Latinobarometer survey data, we study the evolution of religious identities
among the adult populations of 17 Latin American countries between 1996 and
2013. We find several interesting patterns. First, the current religious landscape is
highly dynamic and is becoming increasingly pluralist among a majority of coun-
tries. Changes derive not only from the growth of Evangelicals, as commonly
assumed, but also from the sharp rise in irreligious individuals. Second, religious
change cannot be convincingly explained by important theories such as seculariza-
tion, religious economies, and anomie. However, the predictions derived from
anomie theory seem more useful for understanding Evangelical growth. Finally,
our cohort analysis indicates that aggregate religious change largely results from
individual-level change across time—religious conversion and apostasy—rather
than from generational replacement. Still, there are interesting variations across
countries in that respect.

I n the last few decades, Latin America’s religious landscape has changed dramat-
ically (Burdick 2010; De la Torre and Martín 2016; Hagopian 2009; Levine
2014; Stark and Smith 2012). The Catholic monopoly that prevailed for four cen-
turies over the whole region started to crumble from the 1950s on, as Pentecostal
groups started to make significant inroads among the popular masses, to the point
that one pathbreaking study asked whether Latin America was turning Protestant
(Stoll 1990). In Brazil and Caribbean countries, religious cults with African roots
like Umbanda, Candomblé, and spiritismo also gained salience and even
expanded to countries like Uruguay and Argentina, which were traditionally for-
eign to these religious traditions. More recently, the region also saw a dramatic
increase in the number of people reporting no religious affiliation at all, suggest-
ing incipient secularization.

Nicolás M. Somma is an associate professor of sociology. Matías A. Bargsted
is an assistant professor of sociology. Eduardo Valenzuela is dean of the
Social Sciences School and professor of sociology. All are at the Instituto de
Sociología, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Copyright © 2017 University of Miami
DOI: 10.1111/laps.12013

The Catholic Church has reacted in many ways to this double-edged competi-
tion, from Afro and especially Evangelical groups on the one hand and secularism
on the other. During the 1970s, as Evangelicals were evidently threatening the
Catholic monopoly, the church espoused a progressive Catholicism inclined to
social action and the improvement of the conditions of the poor (Smith 1991;
Levine 1986). In countries such as Brazil and Chile, it also denounced human rights
violations by authoritarian regimes (Gill 1998). During the 1980s it had to face an
internal grassroots renovation movement, the Charismatic Renewal, which com-
bined the Pentecostal emphasis on charisma and faith healing with the adoration of
the Virgin that was the hallmark of Catholicism (Cleary 2011).
We are interested in Latin America not only because it currently has one of the
most dynamic religious landscapes in the world (Pew Research Center 2014), but
also because it combines two central concerns for sociologists of religion: religious
competition—a main topic among those studying religion in the United States—
and secularization—a traditional theme among European scholars (Valenzuela et al.
2013). Latin America allows for exploring how secularization and competition com-
bine, whether they reinforce or repel each other, or whether the forces that drive one
also drive the other.
It is surprising that, to our knowledge, no study has traced recent religious
change in Latin America using cross-country, comparable statistical data (but see
Corporación Latinobarómetro 2014). A few studies provide cross-national statistics
about religious identities, but for a single time point (Parker 2009a, b; Pew Research
Center 2014; Stark and Smith 2012; Valenzuela et al. 2008). These studies are so
rare that an article published as late as 2012 in this journal claimed to offer “the first
reliable and current statistics on the percentages who are Protestant and Catholic in
each of 18 Latin American nations” (Stark and Smith 2012, 36). Only Gill (1998,
1999) considers change rates in religious identities, but for the 1970s and 1980s,
leaving open the question about what happened in the 1990s and 2000s. Also, Gill
does not differentiate among Catholics, Evangelicals, and the irreligious.
Fortunately, there are many excellent qualitative, historical, and comparative
works on Latin American religious change that deal with the explosion of Pente-
costalism (Stoll 1990; Martin 1990), secularization (Parker 1996), Catholic renewal
(Cleary 2011), and the challenges to the Catholic Church (Hagopian 2009; De la
Torre and Martín 2016 for a recent review). These studies advanced enormously
our knowledge of religious change in the region, and we use them for developing
the working hypotheses in this article. However, they do not provide—nor is it their
purpose—an updated and comprehensive view on religious change on the basis of
comparable quantitative information.
Here we start addressing this gap. We provide broad empirical generalizations
across time and countries, instead of “thick descriptions” (Geertz 1973) of specific
places and times. Specifically, we address three questions. First, how did religious
identities vary in Latin America during approximately the last two decades? By “reli-
gious identity” we refer to the way people report their religious affiliation in survey
questions. We consider three main identities: Catholic, Evangelical, and irreligious.

They constitute about 95 percent of the religious identities in the region. Past
research suggests three general trends: an increase in the proportion of those declar-
ing to be Evangelicals, an increase in the irreligious, and a decline in Catholics.
But we cannot assume that these trends happen uniformly in all countries, and
we cannot assume either that they happen at all in every single Latin American coun-
try. Indeed, we show that there is substantial variation within the region. In countries
such as Mexico and Paraguay, there is little religious change: the proportion of
Catholics remains high and unchanged, and Evangelicals and the irreligious barely
increase. In other countries, like most in Central America, the number of Evangeli-
cals explodes. And in others, like Uruguay, the irreligious are the fastest-growing
group. Thus we provide a first step in unraveling the region’s internal heterogeneity
by resorting to more accurate and comprehensive data than past research did.
Our second question is about the potential forces behind these variations. Why
do Evangelical populations explode in some countries but those of the irreligious do
so in others? Why do some countries show little evidence of religious change, with
Catholicism the norm for large majorities? Besides change rates, what explains robust
differences in religious composition among countries for the entire period studied?
Our third question refers to the sources of change behind the aggregate trends
we uncover. We seek to understand what is changing among Latin Americans: are
individuals themselves changing, in the sense of experiencing high rates of religious
conversion or apostasy? Or is it the case that the religious affiliations of Latin Amer-
icans remain relatively constant through their lifespan, but that younger cohorts—
with higher rates of Evangelicalism and apostasy—replace older and more Catholic
cohorts? To address these questions, we decompose the individual and cohort
sources of aggregate change.
Because past research provides little systematic evidence to answer our second
question, we resort to simple analytic techniques. This is the necessary first step
before using more refined methods, such as multilevel modeling or multivariate
panel regressions. To answer our third question, we employ slightly more complex
statistical techniques, but given the unprecedented nature of our empirical analysis,
we underscore the provisional nature of our findings.
For mapping religious change we use Latinobarometer survey data between
1996 and 2013 for all 17 Latin American countries (excluding the Caribbean).1
Latinobarometer surveys are representative of the adult national populations and
have been applied almost annually from 1996 to date (except only 1999 and 2012).
National samples range from 600 to 1,200 cases, with a margin of error of 5 percent
to 3 percent.
Latinobarometer is the best data source for our purposes. Due to its massive geo-
graphic scope, it provides a complete picture of the region. And due to its temporal
scope, it allows for studying religious change across a considerable span of time. It is
therefore better for our purposes than other alternatives, like the World Values
Survey, which is applied to a small and uneven set of countries, or the Latin American
Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), which covers the whole region only since 2006.
More generally, for estimating the distribution of religious identities, national survey

data are clearly a better alternative than statistics provided by religious organizations,
which tend to be less reliable (Stark and Smith 2012; Hagopian 2009, 11).

The Latin American religious landscape is structured by two main forces: religious
competition (expressed in an increase of Evangelicals) and secularization. In order
to show this point, we first review the empirical trends in religious affiliation since
the mid-1990s.
Figure 1 shows the evolution of the proportion of Catholics, Evangelicals, and
people without religion by country between 1996 and 2013. The figure shows
locally weighted regression (LOESS) lines in order to smooth the trends. It confirms
the three processes suggested by the literature: while Catholics tend to decline,
Evangelicals and the irreligious tend to grow. The figure, however, suggests interest-
ing cross-national variations. For instance, Catholics decline drastically in Honduras
but remain stable in Mexico. Evangelicals grow steeply in Nicaragua but barely in
Ecuador. The irreligious explode in Uruguay but not in Venezuela.2
To grasp these trends better, we ran OLS regression models by country, in
which the dependent variable was the proportion of each religious identity in the
total population and the independent variable was the year of the survey. We then
plotted the beta coefficients and their respective confidence intervals for each group
and country (see figure 2). Positive coefficients indicate that the group grew across
time; negative coefficients indicate the opposite; coefficients close to zero indicate
little change. We did not add a quadratic term for year because figure 1 suggests
essentially linear trends in most cases.
Figure 2 confirms the important cross-national variations suggested by figure 1.
Consider Catholics. In an average year during this period, the percentage of
Catholics in Nicaragua decreases 1.9 points—a highly statistically significant drop.
In Costa Rica, Honduras, and Uruguay, a slightly lower but still more than one-per-
centage point drop per year takes place. Of the 17 countries in the analysis, the
annual decline in Catholic identities is negative and significant (with 95 percent
confidence level) in 14. On the other hand, the proportion of Catholics does not
significantly change across Bolivia, Paraguay, and Mexico.
The proportion of Evangelicals increases dramatically in Nicaragua (1.7 per-
centage points per year, on average), Honduras (1.4), and Guatemala (1.1), and to
a lesser extent—but also with statistical significance—in 9 other countries. How-
ever, the proportion of Evangelicals does not change (either substantially or statisti-
cally) in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uruguay. And the increase is
moderate, and marginal statistically, in Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Latin Amer-
ica may still be turning Protestant (Stoll 1990), but not uniformly across countries.
Furthermore, the change in the numbers of irreligious people also varies dramat-
ically. Compare Uruguay, where they grow yearly by almost 2 percentage points (a
very significant change both substantially and statistically), to Paraguay, Mexico, and
Figure 1. Evolution of Religious Identities in Latin America, 1996–2013

Religious Group

Note: The line shows data smoothed by locally estimated (LOESS) regression with a span set equal to 0.45.

Figure 2. Coefficient of Survey Year on Proportion of Each Religious Group, by
Country, 1996–2013

Ecuador, where they remain essentially stable. Between these two poles we have 13
countries in which the irreligious grow, often with statistical significance but at more
modest rates. It is interesting that Evangelicals grow at faster rates than the irreligious
in most countries, especially in the Andean and Central American countries.
We are interested not only in within-country change rates across time but also
in structural differences between countries across the whole period. To this end,
figure 3 shows the religious composition of Latin American countries averaging all
years between 1996 and 2013. Four types of countries emerge: solidly Catholic
countries like Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and
Paraguay, with 80 percent or more of the population identifying as such; countries
in which Evangelicals represent a sizable minority, over 20 percent (El Salvador,
Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua; that is, all Central American countries
except Costa Rica); countries with a relatively large percentage of the irreligious,
essentially Uruguay (32 percent) and Chile (16 percent) and, if removed from the
previous group, El Salvador (15 percent); and countries without any distinctive pat-
tern, which are mostly Catholic but also have some Evangelicals and irreligious
(Brazil, Costa Rica, Panama, and Bolivia).
In sum, any broad generalization about the Latin American religious landscape
over the last two decades would be misleading. Regarding change rates, there are
notable differences between, say, the secularizing Uruguay, the increasingly Evan-
gelical Nicaragua, and the solidly Catholic Mexico. In terms of religious composi-
tion, while Catholics prevail in all countries, there are important variations across
them. Furthermore, some countries show particular patterns that merit detailed
attention: Uruguay and all Central American countries except Costa Rica.

Figure 3. Proportion of Religious Groups by Country (average, 1996–2013)

How can we make sense of these variations? Given the dearth of cross-national
quantitative studies in the region, we resort to the secularization, anomie, and reli-
gious economies theories. They help us derive empirical hypotheses about both the
correlates of change rates and the correlates of religious composition.

Secularization Theory

The secularization theory’s main assertion is that as societies grow modern, capital-
istic, and eventually wealthier, religion will weaken. This may be reflected across
several dimensions—from a decline in people’s demand for religion or their reli-
gious beliefs and identities to a diminishing influence of religious institutions on
politics. Several mechanisms explain the links between modernization and religious
decline. These include increases in education and material prosperity, scientific and
technical rationalization, skepticism toward established traditions (including reli-
gious ones), the pluralization of cultural worldviews and lifestyles, and functional
differentiation (Berger 2011; Berger et al. 2008; Swatos and Christiano 1999;
Parker 2009b for Latin America).
In terms of our research questions, secularization theory predicts that as Latin
American countries modernize and as the level of education, urbanization, equality,
and material well-being of their people increases, new cultural options should flour-
ish. By allowing increasing segments to question traditional religion (Catholicism in

our case), modernization should create a fertile ground for the expansion of both
alternative, nontraditional religious identities (e.g., Evangelical religion) and secular,
irreligious identities. Empirically, and regarding religious change, socioeconomic
modernization should be associated with a more drastic decline in the proportion of
Catholics (hypothesis 1, or H1) as well as a more pronounced increase in the pro-
portion of Evangelicals (H2) and the irreligious (H3). Regarding average differences
in religious composition for the whole period, secularization theory suggests that
socioeconomic modernization should be associated with a lower proportion of
Catholics and a higher proportion of Evangelicals and the irreligious.
Norris and Inglehart (2011) propose a theory of existential security and reli-
gious change that can be understood as a specification within the secularization
framework. They assert that people living in societies with high levels of material
and existential insecurity often face collective hazards, such as famines, interpersonal
violence, state repression, epidemics, and natural disasters. To compensate for these
insecurities, people turn to religion—in particular, traditional religion. Yet as soci-
eties develop and provide more security, demand for traditional religion decreases.
People become more open to both new religious experiences (Evangelical religion in
our case) and irreligious identities. The empirical implications of this theory are
consistent with H1, H2, and H3. The main difference is that while secularization
theory emphasizes cognitive mechanisms (e.g., pluralization of cultural worldviews),
Norris and Inglehart emphasize emotional or experiential mechanisms.

Anomie Theory

Anomie theory might also be subsumed within the framework of secularization
theory, but we treat it here as a different theory, since it leads to opposite empirical
implications for our research questions. Anomie theory focuses on the social dislo-
cations brought by modernization. Modernization means rapid socioeconomic
change, migration, and urbanization. These conditions create inequalities and dep-
rivation, cut people off from their kin and communal ties, and generate alienation
and rootlessness. Since old religious identities cannot provide the tools for thriving
in this new context, people are more prone to adopt new religious identities (Evan-
gelical religion in our case). Thus whereas, according to existential security theory,
material and existential stress leads to a reinforcement of traditional religion, in
anomie theory it leads to religious innovation (Willems 1967; Lalive d’Epinay 1969;
Gill 1999, 290–93 for a summary).
For our purposes, this theory suggests that the poorest, the most unequal, and
the least developed Latin American societies are the worst prepared to attenuate the
dislocations promoted by economic change and therefore are the most traumatized
by it. Regarding religious change, it is in such societies that we should see the stark-
est decline of Catholics (H4) and the clearest surge of Evangelicals (H5). Regarding
religious composition, socioeconomic deprivation should be associated with more
Evangelicals and fewer Catholics. Anomie theory does not offer clear predictions
about the evolution or levels of irreligious identities.

Religious Economies Theory

The religious economies theory emerged as a response to the failures of the secular-
ization theory to explain the case of the United States (Finke and Stark 2005; Stark
and Finke 2000). In the United States, religiosity increased as capitalist develop-
ment advanced during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Also, in comparative
perspective, the United States is very religious, despite being very modern and eco-
nomically advanced (but see Baker and Smith 2015 for the deep roots of American
To explain this anomaly, religious economy theorists challenge a central
assumption in secularization theory—that the plurality of worldviews challenges the
validity of the prevailing religion and weakens religiosity. Instead, they claim that as
religious diversity increases, religious groups compete to capture adherents. This
improves the quality of the symbolic goods offered in the religious market, moving
people to “consume” more religion. Additionally, religious plurality and competi-
tion increase when the state lowers the political costs and legal regulations for the
expression of minority religions. Thus, countries with official and monopolist reli-
gions (such as many European nations), as well as those that disproportionately
favor the prevailing religion, will have lower levels of religiosity than those with
more plural and less regulated religious markets.
For our purposes, this theory suggests that in Latin American countries with
more regulated religious markets, and in those with greater favoritism for the pre-
dominant religion (Catholicism), religious competition should be lower. Because
this lowers the quality of religious products, the proportion of Catholics should
decrease (H6), and the proportion of irreligious should increase (H7). Evangelicals,
in a hostile institutional context for minority religions, should decrease (H8). Con-
versely, countries with lower religious regulation and favoritism should have more
religious competition, with Evangelicals growing at a faster rate. Also, competition
means better religious products. This delays both the increase of irreligious people
and the decline of Catholics.
Regarding religious composition, the theory suggests that more regulation and
favoritism should be associated with more irreligious (less attractive products turn
people away from religion) and fewer Evangelicals (due to higher costs of expres-
sion). The prediction for Catholics is unclear: regulation pushes up their numbers
because it protects them from competition, but it also lowers religious consumption,
which should push them down. We assume that these opposite drives will cancel
each other out, and we expect no differences in this respect.

To measure religious affiliation, Latinobarometer employs the following survey
question: “What is your religion?” Respondents freely give an answer and the inter-
viewers mark a precoded choice. The alternatives that receive most mentions are (in
decreasing order) Catholic, Evangelical (which includes Pentecostal), and “none.”
Religious identity is important in itself because it provides an indication of the reli-
gious group or collectivity to which people feel closest in terms of doctrine, affect,
and social networks (Alwin et al. 2006).
The obvious limitation of this measure is that religious identity tells us nothing
about individuals’ level or type of religiosity. We cannot differentiate between, say,
practicing and nominal Catholics, or atheists and people not identified with a reli-
gious group who nonetheless believe in a supreme being (Baker and Smith 2009;
Davie 1990; Stark and Smith 2012). We cannot capture religious expressions—such
as New Age, esotericism, syncretism, and popular religion—that have been or are
increasingly relevant in Latin America (De la Torre and Martín 2016). Also, the
Latinobarometer surveys do not provide commonly used measures of religiosity
(such as attendance at religious services or the importance of religion in one’s life).
Furthermore, we cannot make distinctions among religious identities (e.g., charis-
matic and noncharismatic Catholics).
To provide a preliminary test of these hypotheses, we use six religious variables,
with countries as the units of observation. Three variables indicate rates of religious
change within countries across time. They are the beta coefficients of the years in which
the Latinobarometer survey was applied, regressed on the proportion of Catholics,
Evangelicals, and the irreligious in each country (as plotted in figure 2). Survey years
range from 1996 to 2013. By correlating these coefficients (now considered as variable
values) with other variables, we expect to find out which national characteristics are
associated with more or less change in the proportion of Catholics, Evangelicals, and
the irreligious. The other three religious variables indicate religious composition: aver-
age percentage of Catholics, Evangelicals, and the irreligious across the entire 1996–
2013 period. These six variables are calculated from Latinobarometer survey data.
We use other variables for tapping the secularization, anomie, and religious
economies variables. Because the first two refer to structural socioeconomic and
demographic features of countries, they can be tested by resorting to a common set
of measures (keeping in mind that the expected signs differ according to the theory).
These include the Human Development Index (HDI, a composite measure of edu-
cation, per capita gross domestic product, and life expectancy, taken from the
United Nations Development Program), the Gini coefficient of income inequality,
the poverty rate (measured as the percentage of people living on US$2 or less daily,
adjusted by purchasing power parity), and the urbanization rate.3 The last three
come from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.4 Since the socioeco-
nomic and demographic conditions of different time periods may have a differential
impact on the religious landscape of 1996–2013, we consider them at several time
points across the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s (see table 1).

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics of Variables Used in Correlational Analysis

Variable Mean Deviation Minimum Maximum
Catholics (slope 1996–2013) –.008 .005 –.018 .001
Evangelicals (slope 1996–2013) .005 .005 –.000 .017
Irreligious (slope 1996–2013) .004 .004 –.000 .017
Catholics (average prop. 1996–2013) .71 .123 .510 .88
Evangelicals (average prop. 1996–2013) .14 .090 .049 .312
Irreligious (average prop. 1996–2013) .09 .067 .026 .316
HDI 1980 .56 .08 .43 .68
HDI 1990 .60 .08 .46 .70
HDI 2000 .66 .07 .52 .76
Gini average 1981–1991 50.1 6.3 40.8 59.3
Gini average 1992–2000 52.4 5.0 42.6 59.5
Gini average 2001–2010 52.1 4.7 41.8 58.0
Poverty average 1981–1991 10.3 9.1 .2 34.8
Poverty average 1992–2000 9.6 5.2 .6 20.7
Poverty average 2001–2010 8.3 5.2 .8 17.7
Urbanization average 1981–1990 60.7 16.6 38.0 87.4
Urbanization average 1991–2000 66.2 15.7 43.2 90.5
Urbanization average 2001–2010 70.9 14.7 47.4 92.0
Government regulation 1.4 1.2 0.0 4.2
Social regulation 2.1 1.8 0.0 5.6
Government favoritism 5.1 3.0 0.0 8.5
Gill’s regulation index 5.9 3.6 1.0 12.0
Observations 17 for all variables

For testing the religious economies theory, we use four measures from different
sources that tap important aspects of religious markets. Three of these variables
come from the dataset developed by Grim and Finke (2006). The index of govern-
mental regulation measures “the actions of the state that deny religious freedoms”
through “any laws, policies, or administrative actions that impinge on the practice,
profession, or selection of religion” (Grim and Finke 2006, 13). The index of social
regulation of religion “refers to the restrictions placed on the practice, profession, or
selection of religion by other religious groups or associations or the culture at large”
(Grim and Finke 2006, 19). The index of government favoritism of religion “refers
to the actions of the state that provide one religion or a small group of religions
[Catholicism in our case] special privileges, support, or favorable sanctions” (Grim
and Finke 2006, 13). In all these indexes, higher values indicate more regulation or
Our fourth measure in the religious economies framework is Anthony Gill’s
religious regulation index (1999). Based on 21 items taken from different sources,
it “measures the degree to which countries regulated religious organizations during
the 1970s” and accounts “both for outright bans on various religious activities and

rights (e.g., outdoor religious processions, property ownership) and preferential
favoritism shown to one particular denomination (e.g., Catholicism being taught in
schools exclusive to other religions)” (Gill 1999, 300–301). Higher values mean
more restrictive environments for minority religions and more favorable conditions
for Catholicism. Table 1 shows descriptive statistics for these variables.
Regarding the analytic methods, we provide an exploratory test of the hypothe-
ses presented in the previous section. Because quantitative research on religious
identities in Latin America is scarce, we proceed with caution. Also, the small
number of countries examined (N = 17) makes it difficult to carry out multivariate
statistical analyses aimed at identifying causal patterns. For both reasons, at this
stage we choose bivariate Pearson correlations (all our variables are continuous). Of
course, we do not endorse any claim about causation with these data.

Table 2 presents correlation coefficients between religion variables, on the one hand,
and variables related to the secularization, anomie, and religious economies theories,
on the other. We focus on the sign and size of coefficients more than on their stan-
dard errors and significance levels. Because we are working with the universe of
Latin American countries (rather than a sample of the universe, as standard errors
assume), the meaning of standard errors is ambiguous. Also, since the number of
observations is small (N = 17), even considerably large coefficients may be statisti-
cally insignificant at the .05 level. Thus, we will speak about a “strong” correlation
when the absolute coefficient is .65 or higher; a “moderate” correlation when it
ranges between .4 and .64; and a “weak” one when it is lower than .4. We will also
examine whether or not signs are consistent with theoretical predictions.
We focus first on Catholics. Regarding religious composition, the average per-
centage of Catholics in the 1996–2013 period is moderately higher in those coun-
tries with higher HDI and lower poverty rates in the 1980s. This is consistent with
anomie theory (H4) and inconsistent with the secularization and existential security
theories (H1). There is also a positive and moderate correlation between Gill’s reg-
ulation index and the percentage of Catholics, which may be construed as support-
ing the religious economy theory (if we assume that more regulation protects
Catholicism) or contradicting it (if we assume that more regulation lowers religious
consumption). The remaining 13 correlations (81 percent out of 16) between the
percentage of Catholics and the other variables are weak, and there are no strong
Moving to the change rate of Catholics across time, we find (again) no strong
correlations, a majority of weak correlations (88 percent), and only two moderate
correlations. According to the latter, Catholics decrease less, or not at all, in coun-
tries with higher income inequality during the 1990s. This is consistent with the
secularization and existential security theories (H1): inequality creates risks that
keep people attached to the traditional religion. This is also inconsistent with the

Table 2. Bivariate Correlations Between Religious Variables and Secularization,
Anomie, and Religious Economies Variables (17 Latin American countries)

___________________ Evangelicals
________________ Irreligious
Average Average Average
% Maintenance % Growth % Growth
HDI 1980 .40 .14 –.77*** –.69** .22 .39
HDI 1990 .37 .19 –.74*** –.71** .22 .39
HDI 2000 .30 .22 –.69** –.70** .25 .42
Gini average 1981–1991 –.35 –.14 .51* .37 –.02 –.13
Gini average 1992–2000 .23 .45 .16 –.004 –.53* –.51*
Gini average 2001–2010 .13 .37 .16 –.11 –.39 –.36
Poverty average 1981–1991 –.49* –.25 .82*** .69** –.11 –.31
Poverty average 1992–2000 .02 –.03 .48* .51* –.52* –.59*
Poverty average 2001–2010 –.16 –.10 .59* .52* –.36 –.50*
Urbanization average
1981–1990 .15 .06 –.65** –.60* .43 .52*
Urbanization average
1991–2000 .19 .11 –.68** –.64** .39 .49*
Urbanization average
2001–2010 .23 .14 –.69** –.66** .35 .47

Religious economies theory
Government regulation .22 .13 –.22 –.25 –.15 –.15
Social regulation .14 .21 –.16 –.12 –.09 –.20
Government favoritism .26 –.13 .02 .12 –.37 –.27
Gill’s regulation index .56* .47 –.34 –.41 –.46 –.40

* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001

anomie theory (H4), according to which inequality promotes dislocations and
therefore religious change. In addition, Gill’s regulation index is moderately and
positively correlated (.47) with Catholic maintenance. This is inconsistent with the
religious economy theory (H6), which predicts a negative correlation.
It is with Evangelical presence and change rate that we find the strongest cor-
relations of our analysis. Regarding the former, countries that were less developed
across the 1980–2010 period have a higher percentage of Evangelicals (all strong
correlations). The same happens with countries with higher poverty rates across the
whole period (moderate and strong correlations) and those that were more unequal
during the 1980s (moderate correlation). This is fully consistent with H5, derived
from anomie theory: poverty, inequality and underdevelopment contribute to the
kind of social tensions and dislocations favorable to Evangelical prevalence. Of
course, the strong empirical support for H5 means a lack of support for H2 (derived

from secularization and existential security theories), which predicts just the oppo-
site. It is intriguing, and contrary to the anomie theory, that urbanization is nega-
tively related to Evangelical presence: Evangelicals are more prevalent in more rural
countries. Honduras and Guatemala illustrate this finding: with urbanization rates
below 50 percent in the last three decades, almost a third of their inhabitants were
Evangelical in the 1996–2013 period—more than any other Latin American coun-
try. Also, all four religious economy variables correlate weakly with the prevalence
of Evangelicals.
When looking at the correlates of Evangelical growth rates, the evidence again
mostly supports H5 instead of H2. Between 1996 and 2013, Evangelicals increased
more in countries with lower HDI (all strong correlations) and higher poverty rates
(two moderate and one strong correlation). As with Evangelical prevalence, correla-
tions with the Gini index were weak: what fosters Evangelical expansion does not
seem to be inequality but poverty and underdevelopment. As with prevalence, Evan-
gelicals, surprisingly, increase less in more urbanized countries. In addition, all the
correlations between Evangelical growth and the regulation measures were weak,
but the correlation with Gill’s regulation index was moderate, and negative, as
expected (–.41). In ancillary analyses we found that Guatemala, Honduras, and
Nicaragua are influential cases regarding the prevalence and growth rate of Evangel-
icals. However, the general patterns mentioned above remain in place when these
countries are excluded from the analysis.
We close the examination of table 2 with the irreligious. Regarding religious
composition, the average percentage of irreligious in the 1996–2013 period tends to
be higher in countries with less inequality and poverty in the 1990s, and more
urbanization in the 1980s (all are moderate correlations). This provides support for
secularization theory’s H3, which claims that prosperity, modernization, and equal-
ity erode religion. The remaining correlations linked to secularization theory are
weak, but many of them are close to moderate, and all of them have signs consistent
with H3. Ancillary analyses show that these results are strongly influenced by
Uruguay—a very secular, developed, urbanized, and egalitarian country in Latin
America (see Armet 2014 and Da Costa 2009 for the “Uruguayan
In addition, three out of the four religious economy variables show weak cor-
relations with the prevalence of Catholics. The exception is Gill’s regulation index,
which has a moderate correlation with it. However, this is a negative correlation,
indicating that countries with more regulated religious environments have a lower
proportion of irreligious people. This is inconsistent with H7, which predicts the
Results for the change rates of irreligious people are similar to those for their
prevalence. During the 1996–2013 period, the irreligious increased faster in more
developed, egalitarian, and urbanized countries, as well as in those with lower
poverty rates (mostly moderate correlations). This supports H3, derived from secu-
larization theory. Again, Uruguay plays a major role in these results for the reasons
mentioned above.6 In addition, all the correlations between irreligious growth and

the religious economy variables are weak, with the exception of Gill’s regulation
index, which is moderate (–.40) but negative—therefore contrary to H7.
To summarize, the secularization (and existential security) theories perform
only reasonably well for predicting the prevalence and growth of the irreligious, but
only if Uruguay is included—otherwise correlations are weak. The religious econ-
omy theory does not do a good job, either. Correlations are almost invariably weak,
and when moderate, often have a sign opposite to what was expected. All things
considered, anomie theory is the theory that performs the best: results are moder-
ately consistent with it regarding the prevalence of Catholics and strongly consistent
regarding the prevalence and growth of Evangelicals.

Sources of Religious Change:
Individual-level Change Versus
Cohort Replacement
Another way of approaching religious change in Latin America is to decompose the
aggregate trends into their individual- and cohort-level components (Firebaugh
1988, 1997). The aggregate trends shown in figures 1 and 2 may mask two very dif-
ferent processes. On the one hand, the proportion of Catholics in many countries
may be declining because more and more Catholics are becoming Evangelicals or
irreligious. In this case, individuals are changing—there is intracohort change. On
the other hand, aggregate trends may result from intercohort change (Ryder, 1965).
For instance, people born during different time periods may show differences in
their levels of Catholic affiliation that remain stable over time. Changes in the aggre-
gate levels of Catholic identity would result from generational replacement: older
and more Catholic cohorts pass away and are replaced by younger and less Catholic
cohorts. Of course, both processes may operate simultaneously.7
It is important to make this distinction because much of the literature about
religion in Latin America assumes that the main driver of change is conversion,
which, by definition, implies within-cohort change across time. That is, it is
assumed that individuals go through certain experiences (e.g., a miraculous cure in
a Pentecostal ceremony) that make them switch faiths. The anomie theory also
seems to emphasize conversion—it is when people move to new contexts that reli-
gious change ensues.
Secularization theories, however, seem to privilege an explanation based on
cohort replacement. For example, for Norris and Inglehart (2011), the level of exis-
tential security that people experience during their formative years shapes their reli-
gious orientation. Such experience varies across cohorts. Furthermore, recent studies
have found sizable intercohort differences in religious identities and beliefs. Voas
and Crockett (2005) found that in Britain, a considerable part of religious change
resulted from cohort differences. To a large extent, Britain secularized across time
because younger cohorts were less likely to identify with a religion than older ones
were. Similarly, Hout and Fischer (2014) found that around 60 percent of the grow-
ing trend among adult Americans to resist identification with any religion could be

attributed to cohort differences. Also, Parker (2009a) posits the existence of cohort
differences among Latin Americans; secularization and new spiritual currents are
more common among younger generations, who were exposed during their forma-
tive years to globalized cultures and markets (Parker 2009a, 135).
To decompose the aggregate change in religious identities we apply, to each
country and religious identity, the “sheaf” variable procedure suggested by Hout
and Fischer (2014). This procedure is somewhat intricate but tremendously flexible.
First, we create a trend variable for each religious group in which we replace the year
the survey was applied with the LOESS smoothed percentage of people who identify
with the respective religious group that year. Second, we take the log odds of this
percentage and introduce this trend variable into a binary logit model predicting
whether an individual identifies with the religious group or not. By construction,
the coefficient of this variable should be 1. If, by chance—such as for some countries
in the Latinobarometer survey—samples fluctuate sizably from year to year, the
LOESS percentage of respondents identifying with a religious group will differ
slightly from the raw data, and the trend variable coefficient will only approximate
the value of 1.
Third, we add to the previous regression a series of five-year birth cohort
dummy variables. The percentage decrease in the size of the trend variable of the
second model compared to the first model corresponds to the degree to which the
aggregate trend in religious identities can be attributed to birth cohort membership,
or more technically, is our estimate of the intercohort effect.8 The most important
advantage of this procedure—as opposed to the simpler approach suggested by Fire-
baugh (1988), in which the researcher regresses religious identity on year of survey
and year of birth—is that the “sheaf” variable approach can easily capture nonlinear
trends. As shown in figures 1 and 2, the majority of the trends are relatively linear,
but our analysis is flexible enough to capture any departures, such those observed for
Evangelicals in Costa Rica or the irreligious in Uruguay.9
Our empirical estimates are presented in table 3. The table shows many inter-
esting results. Changes in religious affiliation in Latin America between 1996 and
2013 operate most commonly though individual levels of religious switching or
apostasy. However, a sizable portion is attributable to intercohort variation in the
trends of Catholic and irreligious identities. On average, for the entire region, more
than one-third of the increase trend in the irreligious (whose numbers grew from 7
percent to 11 percent) can be attributed to cohort differences among the popula-
tion. Similarly, almost one-fourth of the trend for Catholics (whose numbers
decreased from 79 percent to 67 percent) can be attributed to intercohort change.
By contrast, only 9 percent of the trend for Evangelicals (who increased from 8 per-
cent to 17 percent) can be attributed to cohort differences. Therefore, whereas indi-
vidual change is the main driver of aggregate religious change, it is particularly so
among Evangelicals. This means that the rise of Evangelicals in Latin America has
been mostly through individual-level processes of religious switching or conversion.
By contrast, among Catholics and the irreligious, cohort differences amount to a siz-
able part of the explanation.
Table 3. Decomposition of Change in Religious Identities by Country, 1996–2013

Catholics Evangelicals Irreligious
________________________________ ________________________________ ________________________________

Argentina –0.08 1.02 0.62 0.39 0.03 1.02 0.97 0.05 0.06 1.02 0.59 0.42
Bolivia –0.08 1.06 0.95 0.10 0.10 1.05 1.03 0.02 0.02 1.08 0.86 0.21
Brazil –0.10 1.00 0.68 0.32 0.11 1.00 0.99 0.01 0.05 1.05 0.81 0.22
Colombia –0.17 1.07 0.90 0.16 0.03 1.05 1.05 0.00 0.17 1.05 0.68 0.35
Costa Rica –0.12 1.00 0.74 0.26 –0.01 1.00 0.85 0.15 0.02 1.04 0.76 0.27
Chile –0.20 1.01 0.75 0.26 0.11 1.11 1.13 0.02 0.07 1.01 0.70 0.31
Ecuador –0.07 1.04 0.91 0.13 0.07 0.99 0.98 0.01 0.01 1.14 0.94 0.18
El Salvador –0.11 1.02 0.92 0.09 0.14 1.00 1.07 0.07 0.02 1.06 0.92 0.13
Guatemala –0.05 1.07 0.90 0.15 0.15 1.03 0.99 0.04 –0.02 1.15 0.94 0.19
Honduras –0.28 1.00 0.78 0.22 0.29 0.99 0.90 0.09 0.00 1.05 0.67 0.37
Mexico 0.00 1.05 1.03 0.02 –0.01 1.03 1.05 0.02 0.00 1.09 0.97 0.11
Nicaragua –0.30 1.00 0.93 0.07 0.25 1.00 1.02 0.02 0.07 1.07 0.71 0.34
Panama –0.17 1.04 0.90 0.14 0.14 1.00 0.91 0.09 0.02 1.07 0.94 0.12
Paraguay 0.01 0.96 1.00 0.05 0.00 1.14 1.10 0.04 –0.01 1.11 1.00 0.10
Peru –0.12 1.00 0.93 0.07 0.06 1.01 1.02 0.01 0.03 1.02 0.64 0.37
Uruguay –0.20 1.00 0.66 0.34 0.03 1.05 1.12 0.07 0.15 1.03 0.78 0.24
Venezuela –0.09 1.04 0.96 0.08 0.09 0.98 0.96 0.02 0.02 1.02 0.91 0.11

Latin America –0.12 1.00 0.76 0.24 0.08 1.00 0.91 0.09 0.06 1.03 0.67 0.35

TC: Total Change (Percent Religious Group in 2013–Percent Religious Group in 1996)
TSU: Trend Coefficient (Sheaf) Unadjusted
TSA: Trend Coefficient (Sheaf) Cohort Adjusted
PR: Percent Change in Trend Coefficient (sheaf)

These differences in conversion rates are consistent with a recent study of reli-
gion in Latin America (Pew Research Center 2014). Using respondents’ self-
reported religious switching, it finds that the country average percentage of current
Evangelicals who mention having been raised in another religion or in no religion
at all is 9.8 percent. This is higher than the figures for the irreligious (only 6.1 per-
cent of whom claim to have been raised religiously) and Catholics (only 1.4 percent
of whom were raised in another identity).
The estimates within countries show considerable diversity for Catholics and
the irreligious. Among Catholics, cohort replacement captures more than 30 per-
cent of the trend in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, while it captures less than 10
percent in El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru. In general, there is
a negative but relatively weak correlation between the total amount of change in the
percentage of Catholics between 1996 and 2013 and the proportion of the trend
attributable to cohort replacement in each country (r = –.27).
Regarding the trends among the irreligious, we find several countries in which
cohort replacement captures more than 30 percent of the trend: Argentina, Colom-
bia, Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru. On the other hand, there is not a single
country in which less than 10 percent of the trend can be attributed to cohort
replacement. In this case, there is a positive and more sizable correlation between the
total amount of change in the irreligious and the proportion of the trend attributa-
ble to intercohort change (r = .48). There is also a considerable correlation (r = .51)
between the proportion of change attributable to intercohort change for Catholics
and the irreligious, suggesting that the intercohort drop in Catholic affiliation has
been matched by an intergenerational rise of the irreligious.
Furthermore, the trends among Evangelicals result mostly from individual con-
version, with perhaps one exception represented by Costa Rica, where about 15 per-
cent of the trend for Evangelicals can be attributed to intercohort differences. On
the opposite side, we find several countries where even less than 5 percent of the
trend is attributable to cohort differences: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Chile,
Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. There is
no association between the total amount of change in Evangelicals and the propor-
tion of the trend attributable to intercohort change (r = .04).

Our analysis of religious change in 17 Latin American countries across 2 decades
yields some interesting findings. First, while the proportion of Catholics is declin-
ing, on average, this is not a homogenous or regionwide phenomenon. In 4 coun-
tries, the proportion of Catholics has not decreased significantly across time, or it
has done so only marginally (Ecuador, Bolivia, and especially Paraguay and
Mexico). From 1995 on, at least, Catholics declined only moderately in the most
populous Latin American country (Brazil), and they did not decline in the second
most populous one (Mexico). At the same time, some countries have experienced
dramatic increases in the proportion of Evangelicals, particularly in Central Amer-

ica, while in others (e.g., Chile and Uruguay), religious apathy is clearly on the
rise—at least in terms of religious identities.
Although the longstanding Catholic monopoly is being challenged by religious
competition and apostasy, in only a few countries do both processes occur simulta-
neously. Indeed, there are only two countries in which the proportion of both Evan-
gelicals and the irreligious increased more than five percentage points (Chile and
Nicaragua). Instead, the more common pattern is one in which the Catholic
monopoly is being challenged by one specific force. In Honduras or Guatemala, the
challenge comes from growing levels of Evangelicals. In Uruguay and Colombia, it
comes from rising rates of the irreligious. These two processes are distinctive and
should be considered on their own terms in future research.
Our correlational analysis supports some important predictions derived from
the anomie theory. Our clearest finding is that Evangelicals both grow faster and
constitute a higher proportion of the population in countries less developed and
with higher poverty rates. Yet contrary to this theory, Evangelicals thrive in less
urbanized countries. A proper answer to this puzzle goes beyond this article. In addi-
tion, Evangelicals do not boom, as the religious economy theory would expect, in
less regulated religious markets. Also consistent with anomie theory, Catholics
remain a larger share of the population in countries with higher levels of human
development and those that had less poverty during the 1980s.
Another noteworthy finding is that the irreligious grow more in more devel-
oped, urbanized, and egalitarian countries, as well as in those with lower poverty
rates. This is consistent with the secularization and existential security theories,
which suggests that better living conditions erode the motivations for religious
attachment. Yet these results should be taken with care, since they are dispropor-
tionately influenced by Uruguay—a case that merits attention in its own right.
In sum, none of the three theoretical approaches considered here can explain
by itself the diversity of trends observed in the region. Although these theories are
useful for suggesting hypotheses for our research questions, it is important to keep
in mind that they were not designed to explain variations in religious identities;
instead, they focus on variations in the private or public relevance of religion. More-
over, some of these theories were not built with the Latin American experience in
mind. The secularization theory attempted to understand religious decline in
Europe, and the religious economies theory focused on the North American experi-
ence (but see Gill 1999 and Chesnut 2003 for impressive applications to Latin
America). Along with Burdick (2010, 176), we raise the question of the extent to
which we need a truly “Latin American” theory for explaining religious change in
the region.
Our cohort analysis also suggests important variations in the sources of change
of the aggregate trends. While the changes in the three religious groups we consider
result mostly from individual-level processes of religious apostasy or switching, the
role of cohort replacement among Catholics and the irreligious is certainly not neg-
ligible. This pattern seems a bit odd to us. When it comes to different forms of social
identity, one would expect that religious identity, if any, would change very little

during the individual lifespan. This is precisely what Hout and Fischer (2014)
found in the United States, where more than 60 percent of the increase in the irre-
ligious can be explained by cohort differences. In contrast to this result, the low level
of intercohort change among Latin American Evangelicals is remarkable.
We close with seven areas and several questions for a future cross-national
research agenda on religion in Latin America. First, why do religious identities seem
to be so volatile? A starting point for an answer could be the historically nominal,
low-intensity character of Latin American Catholicism (Hagopian 2009, 12–13;
Stark and Smith 2012), especially among the popular classes. Such a condition may
contribute to religious conversion nowadays.
Second, what are the religious implications of recent macropolitical changes in
the region? Has redemocratization during the last three decades contributed to the
growing religious diversity documented in this article? Do the “left turns” of the
2000s—and the more recent “right turns”—have religious consequences in their
respective countries? Can growing irreligiosity in some countries be the result of the
strengthening of universalist social policies under leftist governments? Third, what
about economic changes? Does neoliberalism, by freeing economic markets, help
free religious markets too? Is there an isomorphism between them?
Fourth, what are the relationships between crime and religion in Latin Amer-
ica? (See Brenneman 2011.) Do stronger organized crime and drug-trafficking net-
works contribute to a growing demand for new forms of religion? Do they increase
religiosity levels by undermining existential security among broad sectors of the
population (and not only the lower classes)?
Fifth, researchers could adopt multilevel methods to examine how national
conditions shape the relevance of individual predictors of religious identities. For
instance, some scholars suggest that poorer Latin Americans are more prone to con-
vert to Evangelism than those who are better off. Is this actually the case? If so, does
this hold to the same extent in all countries? If not, why not? Likewise, are Latin
American women more likely than men to report a religious identity, as is the case
for other regions of the world (Norris and Inglehart 2011)? If so, does this “gender
gap” still hold in Latin American countries with less traditional gender roles?
In the sixth place, note that we grouped the irreligious in just one category.
However, recent research in the United States shows that they include agnostics,
atheists, and unchurched believers. Each of these groups has its own particular view
on religion and spiritual practices (Baker and Smith 2009). Is this also the case for
Latin America? The recent Pew survey on religion (Pew Research Center 2014)
would help to answer this question, since it provides a varied set of measures about
religiosity, which Latinobarometer does not (although the advantage of the latter is
that it allows for tracking change across time). Future studies should also examine
the methodological implications of survey-based, cross-national studies of religion
in Latin America (e.g., measurement equivalence and bias and social desirability,
among others; see Davidov et al. 2014).

The authors thank the reviewers and editors of Latin American Politics and Society for
excellent comments and suggestions.They also appreciate the support of the Centre for Social
Conflict and Cohesion Studies (Chilean grant CONICYT/FONDAP/15130009) and the
Centro UC de Estudios de la Religión (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile).
1. The countries are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador,
El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay,
and Venezuela.
2. Out of the 272 annual surveys included in the analysis, there are 2 in which the dis-
tribution of religious groups deviates markedly from the overall trends. These are the 2004
surveys in Venezuela and Uruguay. In the Venezuelan survey, the percentage of Catholics
drops to 51 percent, whereas the years before and after it show 90 percent and 87 percent,
respectively. Similarly, the 2004 Uruguayan survey reports that Catholics correspond to 70
percent of the sample, whereas in the years before and after they are only 53 percent and 46
percent, respectively. We are not aware of the reason behind these deviations, but given their
magnitude, it seems very unlikely that they simply reflect random sampling fluctuations.
Consequently, we exclude these two surveys from the analysis.
3. The Human Development Index can be retrieved from
4. Retrieved from
5. When we remove Uruguay from the analysis, moderate correlations change from
–.53 to –.24 (Gini 1992–2000); –.52 to –.30 (poverty 1992–2000); and .43 to .12 (urban-
ization 1981–1990).
6. Removing Uruguay from the analysis, moderate correlations change as follows: .42
to .22 (HDI in 2000); –.51 to –.33 (Gini 1992–2000); –.59 to –.37 (poverty 1992–2000);
–.50 to –.26 (poverty 2001–10); .52 to .19 (urbanization 1981–90); .49 to .18 (urbanization
1991–2000); and .47 to .19 (urbanization 2001–2010).
7. There is a complex literature that attempts to disentangle age, cohort, and period
effects (Yang and Land 2013). Given that we do not have enough time series for engaging in
such analysis, we use a simpler method for differentiating the cohort component of change
and the individual-level component of change (which groups period and aging effects).
8. The smoothed percentages of each religious group were estimated using a LOESS
span set equal to 0.45. Estimation of cohort effects (shown in table 3) barely changes if we
alter the degree of smoothing. We tested this using a range of 0.3 up to 0.8. As an example,
and using the pooled data for all countries included in the Latinobarometer study, the differ-
ence in the percentage of the trend of Catholics attributable to cohort effects using a span of
0.3–0.8 is less than 1 percentage point. As a general pattern, the less we smooth the data
(which means increasing the LOESS span), the larger the cohort effects become, although the
change is slight.
9. The coefficient of the LOESS year variables should be equal to 1 if the LOESS curve
were flexible enough to capture all random fluctuation of the data. However, given that there
is a good deal of unreliability in the Latinobarometer survey data, not even a very small band-
width is able to capture all the fluctuations between the year estimates. Moreover, even if it
could, the purpose of using the smoothed trend as a predictor is precisely to capture impor-
tant nonlinearities in the trend of Catholic evolution in each country, net of random sam-
pling fluctuations.

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