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The decline in Latin American Catholics has parallels in the United States, where significant numbers of both Hispanic and non-Hispanic residents were raised Catholic but have left the church. But in the United States, 18 percent of American Hispanics say they are religiously unaffiliated, compared with 8 percent of Latin Americans.
Among the other findings: The most Catholic country among those measured in the region is Paraguay, where 89 percent of adults are Catholic, and the least is Uruguay, where 42 percent are Catholic. Pew describes Uruguay as “far and away Latin America’s most secular country,” with 37 percent of the population religiously unaffiliated, after more than a century of secularization fueled by state policy.
Some indigenous ideas, such as belief in the “evil eye,” are widespread (held by at least one-third in each country). Throughout the region, practices like communicating with spirits, consulting with traditional healers and participating in spiritual cleansing ceremonies are more common among Catholics than Protestants. In Panama, indigenous beliefs and practices are particularly common.
The interviews were conducted from October 2013 to February 2014, and covered every Spanish or Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the exception of Cuba, where, Pew said, “fieldwork constraints and sensitivities related to polling about religion” precluded research. In each country, the margin of sampling error is three or four percentage points.
The main findings are unlikely to startle Pope Francis, who built strong relationships with evangelicals in his native Argentina. But the study is a reminder that, even as Europe and North America become more secular, the Catholic Church also faces significant challenges in some of the regions of the developing world it has long considered to be its future.