Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil

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Bettina Schmidt, Steven Engler
Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion


Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, studying Brazilian religions is one of the most exciting yet frustrating fields for scholars at all levels. A key problem is the absence of credible English-language literature about many aspects of Brazilian life. Also, even those scholars who read Portuguese sometimes struggle to discern fact versus fiction in the myriad reports about Brazil’s diverse religious marketplace. However, the recently released Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil, edited by Bettina Schmidt and Steven Engler, fills a long-standing void of information about dozens of religions and religious practices created inside and outside of South America’s largest nation.

Even the most ardent reader might be initially daunted by this work’s 546 pages, and expect this book to take a while to get through. However, the very design of the Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil is friendly to those who have limited amounts of time (or brainpower) to read. While the introduction, at thirty-one pages, is somewhat lengthy, it offers a concise overview of a subject often complicated by Brazil’s unique racial, economic, cultural, and political landscape.

Every chapter is an independent resource in itself, and written to increase the knowledge of anyone from an undergraduate student to a seasoned scholar. None of the chapters are weighed down in unnecessary detail or jargon, making each one a quick yet satisfying read. As with most books in the religious studies field, the bibliography at the end of each chapter is loaded with more useful resources (in English and in Portuguese) than most scholars will have time to access.

The Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil is divided into three parts: “Religions in Brazil,” “Brazilian Religions in the Diaspora,” and “Issues of Brazilian Religions.” Thirty chapters, each roughly the length of an average academic journal article, comprise the book. The Handbook mentions at least forty different religions, including Batuque, Santo Daime, Vale do Amanhecer, Hinduism, indigenous practices among tribes such as the Atikum and the Xukuru, Islam, Buddhism, Mormonism, Judaism, and the various forms of Protestant and Catholic Christianity that comprise Brazil’s expansive religious scene.

Veterans of Latin American and religious studies will notice chapters from familiar scholars such as R. Andrew Chesnut, Kelly E. Hayes, Stefania Capone, Cristina Rocha, and John Burdick.

Chesnut penned one of this handbook’s most informative chapters: “The Spirit of Brazil: Charismatic Christianity among the World’s Largest Catholic and Pentecostal Populations.” In eighteen pages, the author of renowned books such as Competitive Spirits: Latin America’s New Religious Economy (Oxford University Press, 2007) and Born Again in Brazil: The Pentecostal Boom and the Pathogens of Poverty (Rutgers University Press, 1997) offers a breadth of qualitative and quantitative information. As usual, Chesnut’s research applies not only to scholars of Protestantism, but also to those who study African diasporic religions such as Candomblé. 

The Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil further cements its place as the new go-to work in the field by its explorations of varying religions. For example, even a seasoned scholar might be surprised by some of David Clark Knowlton’s revelations in the “Mormons in Brazil” chapter. He notes that although Germans brought Mormonism to Brazil, the average Brazilian Mormon now has a “dependency on the United States” (136) in the form of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. Knowlton also notes that the average Brazilian Mormon is emotionally tied to the politics and economy of the US.

Classic debates in religious and Lusophone studies, including what constitutes blackness in Brazil and if syncretism still has a place in Afro-Brazilian religions, are sensitively handled throughout the book. Two notable examples are Andreas Hofbauer’s “Blackness, Inequality, and Religion: The Case of Candomblé” and Roger Sansi’s “Objects and Images in Brazilian Religions.” Rather than relying on the same tried-and-possibly-not-true arguments, Hofbauer and Sansi each offer recent research and analysis.

Editors Bettina Schmidt and Steven Engler, who also authored and co-authored multiple chapters, did an outstanding job compiling an encyclopedia of Brazil’s incomparable religious diversity. Their discernment in separating fact from fiction, objective representation of conflicting viewpoints, and success at finally creating a comprehensive resource for the study of Brazilian religions is commendable. The Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil will hopefully serve as a model for future books in religious studies, Lusophone studies, Latin American studies, anthropology, and related fields. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephanie Mojica is a non-traditional graduate student at Harvard University Extension School.  She has studied a variety of religions as an Independent Scholar for 20 years.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bettina E. Schmidt is Professor of Study of Religions at University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Director of the Religious Experience Research Centre in Lampeter.

Steven Engler is Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Affiliate Professor of Religion at Concordia University in Montreal, and Professor Colaborador at the Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Sao Paulo.

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