In this post, Sabrina Testa explores organized atheism and politics in Brazil.
Keywords: Brazil, secularism, atheism, nonreligion
Following the turn of the millennium, a self-identified atheist movement emerged in Brazil, giving start to an unprecedented articulation of nonbelievers in a country known by its religious vitality. This movement not only announced disbelief as an explicit (and valid) identity but also made it the central reason for collective initiatives, in an attempt to turn atheism into something more than an individual, private conviction or a purely philosophical principle.
Often assimilated with its European and American counterparts, the Brazilian atheist movement remained, however, embryonic and scarcely institutionalized. In practice, it manifests itself in a diversity of virtual initiatives, such as websites, groups, blogs, forums, social media pages and WhatsApp groups; in the organization of some events dedicated to nonbelievers and in some attempts to create formal associations along with several less formal groups. In all cases, the explicit aim of these efforts is to advocate for the public acceptance of atheism as a valid and respectable position, to combat prejudice against unbelievers and, at the same time, to promote the secular State. Brazilian atheism has embraced the cause of church and state separation, making it the center of its most serious efforts.
This focus is visible in the activity of the Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics (ATEA), the most active and best-known atheist organization in the country. Founded in 2008, ATEA has the explicit purposes of combating prejudice against atheists and defending the secularity of the State. Therefore, it has an active presence in the virtual world through its website and its Facebook account, where it encourages the digital activism of its supporters. If the aggressive media policy ATEA shows in these vehicles is the responsible for its popularity, it is not, however, the battle its leaders consider most important or to which they dedicate most of their scarce resources. The main frontline is the legal activism the institution carries in defense of the principle of secularism.
Article five, item four, of the Federal Constitution, guarantees freedom of conscience and belief and article 19, item one forbids the State to “establish religious sects or churches, subsidize them, hinder their activities, or maintain relationships of dependence or alliance with them or their representatives, without prejudice to collaboration in the public interest in the manner set forth by law”[i]. It is with this last rule that ATEA is mainly concerned. In this regard, the association fill in complaints against facts such as the presence of religious symbols in public offices; the celebration of cults in city councils, or legislative chambers; the construction of religious monuments in public lands, the public funding of religious shows or events, and even the official consecration of a city to God or Jesus Christ[ii].
Although the Catholic Church has enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Brazilian State since colonial times, concerns about undue religious interference in the public machine have become more conspicuous with the growing social and political influence of the evangelical Protestant movement. In this process, the rise of openly declared evangelicals at all levels of government and public administration is particularly significant, with the “Evangelical Caucus” in Congress as its most characteristic expression. Through this activities, Pentecostal-evangelical churches work to establish a legal normativity through which values of their religious dogmatics are converted into public policies, in a phenomenon known as confessionalization of politics and the public space[iii].
In such a context, the 2018 presidential race sparked heated debates among activists, in particular in social networks. The second round of the contend pitted center-left candidate Fernando Haddad, from the Worker’s Party, against right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro, from the Social Liberal Party, who had the support of several of the country’s top evangelical leaders and clearly expressed his intention to form a “Christian government”[iv]. If a clear preference for the first candidate was to be expected among committed atheists, they were actually divided on their electoral choices, causing more than few disagreements between them and several desertions from the movement.
The heatedness of discussions not only showed a relativization of the principle of secularism in the face of the candidates’ economic and political convictions, but also contradicted the generalized stereotype of the atheist as a left-wing voter. Brazilian atheists show a large diversity in their political positions, although discussions roughly oppose left and right not without a certain Manichaeism. Here is a point worth stressing: regarding the atheist movement’s cause, the 2018 runoff did not oppose two equivalent options. If Brazilian politicians in general seek support from religious figures, Bolsonaro run in a coalition integrated by the evangelical leaders whose influence the atheist movement tries to neutralize and made clear his commitment with their agenda, as when he stated: “God above all. There is no such thing as a secular state. The State is Christian, the minority that is against it should move away. Minorities have to bow to majorities”[v].
Although the debate has divided all atheist networks, it has had particular repercussions in the case of ATEA. Even if the organization presents itself as non-partisan, on his personal Facebook, its president publicly supported Bolsonaro’s candidacy, a fact that prompted various reactions from ATEA followers. That one of the main atheist figures in the country and a staunch militant for the French model of laicity, supported a candidate who explicitly turned religion into a political weapon did not please many, even if it was an individual position. There were great discussions in ATEA’s virtual networks, between those who questioned the president’s actions and those who defended him, and much speculation about the extent to which the leader’s particular opinions influence the association as a whole.
The president was not the only one to take this position, many atheists expressed support for the right-wing candidate. Records of discussions on the association’s Facebook page made on October 12, 2018 show the diversity of positions and arguments. Some pointed out the contradiction of having atheists publicly supporting Evangelical candidates. Others went further in their reflections, accusing the non-believers who supported religious candidates of dogmatism. Others, on the contrary, noted that neither respect for atheists nor the secularity of the State were matters of priority beside all the problems faced by the country. Some even voiced the opinion that those are not important issues at all, while others stated that the main point was to avoid the danger of communism, represented by a new Workers Party’s mandate. There were also those who chose not to support either of these two candidates. Others, finally, expressed support for Haddad (indeed, against Bolsonaro) based on issues other than atheism or secularism.
These different opinions allow for some very interesting observations. First, it is clear how atheism itself loses importance in the political discourse of atheists. In fact, state secularism and even religious tolerance tend to be secondary issues for those who vote for the conservatives, while those who vote for the left complain of the incongruity of such a position. In comparison, motives for those who support the Worker’s Party are not very clear, and it is possible that atheism was not the determining issue for these voters either. In short, for Brazilian atheists, secularism tends to constitute an ad hoc and always dispensable factor in the definition of political preferences, independent of the candidate’s religious alliance.
[iii] See: Camurça, Marcelo. Um poder evangélico no estado brasileiro? Mobilização eleitoral, atuação parlamentar e presença no governo Bolsonaro, Revista Nupem, 2020, vol. 12, n. 25.
[iv] Camurça, Marcelo. Religião, política e espaço público no Brasil: perspectiva histórico/sociológica e a conjuntura das eleições presidenciais de 2018, Estudos de Sociologia, Recife, 2019, Vol. 12 n. 25; Almeida, Ronaldo de. Bolsonaro Presidente. Conservadorismo, Evangelismo e a crise brasileira. Novos Estudos CEBRAP, 2019, Vol. 38, n. 01. Mariano, Ricardo and Gerardi, Dirceu André. Eleições presidenciais na América Latina em 2018 e ativismo político de evangélicos conservadores. Revista USP, 2019, n. 120.
Sabrina Testa is a posdoctoral fellow at the Social Anthropology Program at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (Brazil). She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology by the same program, where she developed a thesis on the recent articulation of an atheist movement in Brazil. She has experience in sociology and anthropology of religion and nonreligion, atheism, secularism and laïcité.