CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Religious Transit and Ecological Spirituality in Brazil

by Sandra Duarte de Souza
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London


Maybe the first thing I should say is that my speech is somewhat initial. I am in the beginning of a research and, like every beginning, middle and end of a research, I feel like I am in a foggy questioning. All I have are some insights of a reflection that promises to last for a long time.

The definition of an object is always a risky job, because it demands a directioning of one’s outlook that not always accepts delimitation. Each choice involves the renouncement of other also instigating aspects, but less central to the proposed research. In an attempt to "determine" the object, we "spilled over" the peripherical zones of this essay, elements that can be central in a future research. At this moment, though, we will restrain ourselves to that which has caught our attention recently: the religious transit and the appearance of movements of ecological spirituality, that begin to take strong shape in Latin America, particularly in Brazil.

The present article is inserted in the context of studies on the new religious movements generated by Modernity. As strongly evidenced in the 14th International Conference on "New Religiosity in the 21st Century", promoted, in August, 2000, by CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions), in Latvia, the modernity of the end of the Century has been marked by the appearance of that which we could call the "new secular religious movements". Researchers from many places of the world, among them Latvia, Russia, France, Germany, Warsaw, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Italy, Australia, Egypt, Canada, the United States and Brazil, presented, concomitantly, for three days, their researches on various and recent religious movements derived from Modernity. In Latin America, the Mercosul Social Scientists Association has met every year to collectively present the researches on religion that have been developed in our continent, showing a special concern for the influences of modernity/post-modernity on the present Latin-American religious configuration. In several places of the world, congresses, symposiums and conferences have been promoted to analyze this world "religious movement". These are some important indicators of the urgency of this object of study. In other words, the theme of the religious pluralism and the emergence of new religious movements is in debate.


In contemporary society, the traditional institutions that build meaning face the precarious engagement of the people with their beliefs systems. While the religious institutions claim an exclusive following, demanding the "faithful’s" permanent commitment to a specific symbolic system, the subject of faith has made his/her own symbolic combinations, moving around through several religious expressions and assuming specific meaning contents according to the specificity of his/her needs. Thence, such phenomenon called "religious market situation" (Brandão, 1994:34), in which the offer of symbolic goods and the symbolic demands cause an incessant religious mobility. In such religious context, the inherited religion or religion of conversion has shared its place with the polysemous religious experience, ruled by ephemeral combinations that vary according to the believer’s "moment", that is, according to his/her demands (variable from times to times), producing a kind of "kaleidoscopic religiosity". (Luz, 1998)

During a research project developed for the Catholic University of Goiás, I visited an area in Alto Paraíso, a place that concentrates a great number of people who justify their presence there by the pursue of a "new spirituality", or a "spiritual deepening", or even a "greater closeness to the sacred through nature":

"I was feeling lost. I needed to feel closer to God, because I couldn’t only sit on the church’s pew. Do you think there is a better place than this (the nature) to see God? He is in heaven, but he is also in the flowers, the trees, the rivers, the birds and in all animals." (Interview granted to me in Alto Paraíso - Goiás, in June 05, 2000.)

 In an attempt to trace a religious biography of such people, I noticed that a significant number of them was experiencing a religious transit condition. Their stories were manifold, but they all pursued alternative forms of symbolic representation. Not necessarily fixed forms. Each of them made his/her own cutting, created his/her own combinations, built his/her own symbolic system. That datum caused me to question the religious transit experienced by people who claim to be religious, and the main motivators of such spiritual nomadism. What would be the motivations of men and women who experience spiritual transit and develop a kind of "kaleidoscopic religiosity", with no permanent commitment to a specific religious institution? In the field of symbolic reciprocities, how do they see the traditional meaning creating institutions?

But another aspect called my attention. In an attempt to build such specific symbolic system, one element stood out from all the others. Despite the plurality of religious feelings concentrated in that geographical space, everyone, with no exception, claimed to pursue a kind of spirituality that drew them "closer to nature". They conferred to nature an intense symbolic content, developing rituals that evoked the four elements (earth, water, fire and air), meditating, singing and joining ecstatic experiences enabled by music, dance or the ingestion of hallucinogen herbs. In the evaluation of their religious trajectory, when questioned about the influence of religion on their distance from nature, a significant number of people stated that religion is not accountable for such distance, but the demands of daily life, that engage us in many different activities and deny us a greater contact with nature. For such reason, there is no problem in attending any church and practicing rituals that exalt nature. These are not considered to be incompatible with the attendance of Sunday services, for example. Each of them, at its time, responds to the demands of the "Brazilian spiritual wanderers".


The current renewal of spiritual interests indicates a recomposition of the relationship between religion and modernity (Hervieu-Léger, 1993), not denying the theory of secularization, which postulates the progressive disenchantment of the world, but relativizing it, intensifying the attenuation of the already ephemeral dividing line between the profane and the sacred.

The "crisis in the traditional institutions that create meaning" (Brandão, 1994:23) attests that the religion which is understood as an organizing force of society has been losing that place, moving to the secluded places of private experience. The process of "laytization"/disenchantment of the State and the consequent "decentralization" of religion are evident. Unfortunately, due to the objectives of this presentation, we will not linger on this aspect; but as to signification, despite the disenchantment of the State, we notice a strong religious movement in Brazil.

This movement is a strong indicator of the symbolic demand of the Brazilian society and, following such demand, we have an endless offer of symbolic goods. Thus, the religious subject experiences a constant religious mobility. He/She keeps moving, in a religious nomadism that derives from the plurality of religious models that coexist in the modern society.

Gilberto Velho, when writing about the relation between "individual and religion in the Brazilian culture" (1999:49-62), alerts us of the coexistence of different cognitive systems in a single society. Understanding the beliefs system as the "observer’s construction", that is, his/her experiences "define and delimit religion in itself as a social and cultural experience that build meaning" (56), Velho observes that the religious field, despite having a meaning order that is linked to a belief (disindividualizing aspect of religion), favors individualizing situations, enabling the faithful the personalization of his/her beliefs system. Thus, the passage through several beliefs system enables the religious person to establish his/her own combinations, which are temporary, varying according to his/her specific demands.

The proliferation of many different religious movements and the spiritual transit are indicators that the "official religious models" are being replaced with (or coexist with, or are part of) changing, competitive religious references, responding to the demand of the people of faith. Among the features of these movements, it is important to notice that they are not based, necessarily, in a tradition, and, frequently, they do not engage in the development of a religious ethics. Its composition occurs in the continuous moving of individual people who try to select from the many religious possibilities those elements that are closer to their immediate yearnings.

The phenomenon of the religious transit is, then, the typical effect of that plurality of religious models, and it has a specific way of responding to that plurality. It suggests a disincarnated spirituality, that is, "with no cultural or religious territory rigidly delimited" (Luz, 1998, p. 4), with no need to base itself in a foundational fact, allowing the interaction of the most different creeds, and relativizing the spiritual domain (Velho, 1995). The attenuation of religious boundaries, the religion "without a place", the hybrid religious forms are the product of a generalized relativism in the contemporary world.

In Brazil, as in other parts of the world, the faithful is not so faithful to his religion anymore; he/she passes through many religious expressions. The religious profile of the Brazilian men and women can be highly changeable, favoring one religious aspect in a certain moment, and another one a moment later. When collecting witnesses for the "Kaleidoscopic Religiosity" project, at Methodist University of São Paulo, I found religious biographies full of "passages" through various systems of beliefs, which I now synthesize.

Originally from the Presbyterian Church, Mrs. Edileusa always considered herself an "exemplary" believer. She was baptized, attended church and had family devotions with her parents. After some time without attending church and an argument with the pastor because he did not want to celebrate her wedding due to his fiancée being Catholic and her absence from church, Edileusa started attending the Catholic Church near her home. Edileusa’s husband, although Catholic, also attended a Spiritualist temple, which she did not agree with. Such disagreement was over when Edileusa, after a few years of treatment, could not get pregnant. She sought help in the Spiritualist temple and also in the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. For her, "if we seek the good, every religion will do, because every religion belongs to God".

Carlos, son of a single mother, started his religious trajectory in Candomblé, in São Paulo, where he joined his mother in "every celebration". With time, he withdrew from the Candomblé and developed other interests, attending "one church or another", but he never found himself in "any of them". The move from São Paulo to Goiânia caused "great changes" in his "way of life", including his religious life. Carlos met Lúcia, a Catholic girl, who attended the Charismatic Renewal Movement, which is very expressive in that city. In "respect to her", Carlos started attending the RCC meetings, was baptized and confirmed. He got married in the Catholic Church and, today, he attends the Spiritualist Federation with his wife, and "once in a while" he attends some RCC meetings.

Ludimila, a young physical education teacher, says she never fit in any religion. Her parents were divorced and "far from church", and she says she has "no religion". However, she attends some meetings of the Spiritualist Irradiation and she "often" visits an alternative community in Alto Paraíso, where she practices Zen meditation, participates in "sacred dances" and seeks "communion with nature".

Mrs. Edileusa, Carlos and Ludimila are examples of this religious mobility that has become more intense with the appearance of a number of spirituality movements that lessen even more the bonds with a specific religious tradition, relativizing the commitment and the faith itself. If the change of religion meant a real "metanóia", implying a radical change of life, marking the biography of the converted forever (Prandi, 1999) and demanding his faithfulness, today maybe we can’t even speak of a change of religion or a change of life, and maybe the "faithful" type should be rethought. The notion of "transit" seems more adequate, because, while the notion of "conversion" implied the denial of the previous religion and life of the converted and the establishment of a rigid commitment with the chosen religion, the idea of "religious transit" admits the "walk" through several religions (even if, in some cases, there is a preference for one or another), does not demand intestinal changes in the way of life of the "transilient" and exempts or attenuates the commitment.

In the case of the growing participation of religious people from many religious expressions in movements of ecological spirituality, we found out that for most of the interviewed people such participation is complementary, combining peacefully, with no feeling of guilt, elements of their religious traditions with those evoked by the group of ecological spirituality. We can observe that in the statements of two women that participated in a group of circular dances that meets periodically in Alto Paraíso:

"I’m Catholic (…) I love Alto Paraíso. I always come here to participate in the sacred dances. When I dance with these people I find peace of mind. I’m sure Jesus danced. That is why he could communicate so easily with the people." (Interview granted to me in Alto Paraíso - GO, June 05, 2000.)

I am a daughter of a fetishistic sorceress, but when I got married I moved to the Catholic Church. I like the Church, the homily, the music, but it lacks more nature. In the Umbanda yard we feel the nature more than in the church. Dancing here I get connected with the universe and I return home with more energy to live my daily life." (Interview granted to me in Alto Paraíso - GO, June 05, 2000.)

These combinations, told so naturally by these two women, constitute the religious biography of many people in Brazil.

The emergence of "ecofeminism" and that which is conventionally called "New Age" intensified the proliferation of movements of ecological spirituality in Brazil, intensifying also the "two way religious transit", that is, the no need to abandon or change from one religious tradition to another. For those who participate in groups of sacred dances, rituals of ecofeminist spirituality, rituals of remembrance of nature divinities etc., there is no shock between these ritual practices and the religious tradition they claim to belong to. They take part in these rituals and "return" to that religious tradition they elected as their "preferred" one. Thus, they can move without punishment in many different spaces, involving from rituals of remembrance of goddesses and the worship of the earth to the development of techniques of Zen meditation and alternative medicine.

In a meeting on ecofeminist spirituality that happened in Brazil in 1998, 97% of all participants declared themselves as members of Christian confessions. The great majority was Catholic (80%) and the last 17% was distributed among Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians. Keeping their religious tradition, these women walk through plural religious spaces and moments, but they declare themselves particularly attracted to the ecological spirituality.

That temporary/transitory religiosity, indicative of a recomposition of relations between Religion and Modernity (Hervieu-Lérger, 1993:7), or of a composition of relations between Religion and Post-Modernity, crosses various discourses, recovering elements of distant traditions and associating them to the new; assimilating or developing techniques of "consciousness dilatation" (Terrin, 1996:21), aiming at the self-development; and sacralizing nature through the discourse of the ecological consciousness (Terrin, 1996:16; Luz, 1998:1).

In the movements of ecological spirituality, traditions are combined and reinvented, an aqueous cosmovision is created, adaptable to the temporary demands of those who appreciate them. A cosmovision that, using the words of the famous Brazilian poet and composer, Vinícius de Moraes, is "infinite while it lasts".


BRANDÃO, C.R.. A Crise das instituições tradicionais produtoras de sentido. In: MOREIRA, A., ZICMAN, R. Misticismo e Novas Religiões. Petrópolis, Vozes, 1994.

HERVIEU-LÉGER, Danièle. Religion et Ecologie. Paris. CERF, 1993.

LUZ, Leila Amaral. Carnaval da alma: comunidade, essência e sincretismo na Nova Era. Rio de Janeiro: Tese de doutorado apresentada no Museu Nacional do Rio de Janeiro, 1998.

PRANDI, José R. Religião, Biografia e Conversão: Escolhas Religiosas e Mudanças da Religião. trabalho apresentado nas IX Jornadas sobre Alternativas Religiosas na América Latina. Rio de Janeiro: IFCS/UFRJ, 1999.

TERRIN, Aldo Natale. Nova Era. A Religiosidade do Pós-Moderno. São Paulo. Loyola, 1996.

VELHO, Gilberto. VELHO, G. Religião e modernidade: roteiro para uma discussão. In: Besta-Fera: recriação do mundo. Rio de Janeiro: Relume Dumará, 1995.

VELHO, Gilberto. Projeto e Metamorfose: Antropologia das Sociedades Complexas. Jorge Zahar, 1999.


Sandra Duarte de Souza

R. Dr. José de Queiroz Aranha, 32 apto. 235

Vila Mariana São Paulo -SP

CEP 04106-061


Tel/Fax. (11) 5539-5260


The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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