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Conversation with Jonas Sousa on Humanism in Brazil


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/07/12

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there any family background in secularism and humanism?

Jonas Sousa: No. Most parts of my family are Presbyterian and some are neo-Pentecostal.

Jacobsen: Brazil is a hugely religious country. One in which the general culture is filled with faith-based thinking and proclamations, and representation, from the bottom, the normal believer, to the top of authority, Jair Bolsonaro, in the country. How did Brazil become so religious?

Sousa: Although our Constitution is a secular one; I think Brazil never was a non-religious country. Since the Portuguese Jesuits came in the colonial era, till the modern age when neo-Pentecostal church’s rise to power in the ’90s, religion always had been a part of our daily lives. So, I would say Brazil has always been religious.

Aside from his ministries that are religious leaders, I don’t believe our president himself is religious. Most of his so-called faith display acts, such as his baptism at Jordan river, are just misleading just to gain more popularity among his Christian voters — the major chunk of Bolsonaro’s voters.

Jacobsen: Why is Roman Catholicism the main faith of the nation now?

Sousa: I think our colonization by Portugal can explain that, but I don’t think Catholicism is the main Brazilian faith anymore. There had been a huge shift towards neo-Pentecostalism since the ’80s.

Jacobsen: How do this religious language, iconography, and social attitudinal set influence political life in Brazil?

Sousa: From my point of view, as a humanist, I can say that there is a huge influence. As we have no secular tradition, in the mind of an ordinary Brazilian citizen, it is said that a religious person is a person with honour and moral values, someone you can trust. On the other hand, an atheist is said to be immoral and prone to doing bad things.

Some malicious politicians take advantage of this to win more voters.

So, what we see during election campaigns are politicians who visit churches, use the pulpit as a political platform, great religious leaders trying to convert to a political career, because they know that their followers will trust them. It can be said that the Brazilian wants a moral leader more than a statesman.

Jacobsen: As a humanist, what are some of the issues faced in the light of the aforementioned representation and domination of the Christian religion in Brazil?

Sousa: I feel we’ve been facing daily threats to freedom, democracy and a constant menace of rights withdrawing, mainly the rights of minorities had struggled to acquire. On an interpersonal level, I can say we humanists and atheists are seemed by religious people as people without morals. Since Bolsonaro’s election, my humanist fellows and I feel like every day we’re on the brink of a fundamentalist coup.

In 2018, Debora Diniz, an anthropologist researcher working with gender issues was exiled after receiving death threats by Christian fundamentalist groups. One question that worries me the most is: We regularly see some religious leaders and institutions having political privileges increased in ways that affect minorities.

Jacobsen: What are some of the positives of the Christian religion in Brazil?

Sousa: In the past, cities used to develop around Catholic churches. Some cities have universities now because there were catholic universities first.

Jacobsen: Why is religion repressive and bad for women in Brazil? What forms does this take?

Sousa: Since religion is still relevant to the morals of our people, we are far behind some countries on women right’s matters. For example, abortion is still a crime in most of the cases and because of that, economically vulnerable women turn to dangerous abortion methods and sometimes dies in clandestine abortion clinics.

Jacobsen: Why is religion repressive and bad for men in Brazil? What forms does this take?

Sousa: I never thought about this question. I think religion’s repression is heavier on women. But I can say men from African root religions, such as Candomblé, have been a long time persecuted. In the past by police, nowadays by neo-Pentecostal people. Gay men like myself, I have many gay friends who struggle to come out to their families because of the religious morals of their family. Once they are independent financially, things seem to get a little better.

Jacobsen: How would a liberalization of religion and an increase in critical thinking, scientific literacy, and gender egalitarianism improve the lives of ordinary and well-to-do Brazilians?

Sousa: I think we’re able to make better choices in our lives and politically wise. We improve our lives’ quality. We will be able to find science-based solutions to our daily problems. With women’s freedom, we can grow in wealth and artistically as a society.

Jacobsen: What makes freethinking, humanism, and secularism appeal to you? How does this compare with the Catholic religion?

Sousa: Well, I can’t compare to the Catholic religion, since I was born in a Presbyterian family. Humanism to me means freedom and the future. I was a gay kid born into a Protestant family. Just being me was a sin. Every day I was taken by this fear of going to hell. I was only 10 years old and thought about suicide every single day to end this torture. There was no one I can talk to. Then after some History classes on how religion was created and after reading Catherine Clément’s La Voyage de Théo, I started to question what was god, sin and hell.

Then I become an atheist at 16 years old. I’ve never heard about humanism till I was 24 years old, marching against a fundamentalist and obscurantist congressman. Humanism appeals to me as atheism with a plus. Since is it’s a movement based on reason, it not only antagonizes religion as some atheists do, humanism proposes political guidelines for a fair and egalitarian society. Humanism does not give ready-made answers, it compels you to search it for yourself. That’s why humanism appeals to me the most.

Jacobsen: Now, Humanism and non-religious worldviews have had a tough run, in terms of penetrating Central America and South America. One, why?

Sousa: I can’t say anything about Central America, so I will skip that. But I don’t know how to answer about Brazil either. I think authoritarian ideas have more appeal to Brazilian masses. I guess difficult access to education may be the answer. In the past, only the upper class and the whites of urbanized centres had access to education. Besides that, the influence of the Catholic church in politics never opened the country to the development of a secular tradition. That’s a subject I would like to study more.

Jacobsen: Two, what are the ways out of the quagmire of stagnation or slow growth of Humanism and non-religious worldviews in Central America and South America?

Sousa: That’s the question I wish I could know the answer. There are many obstacles, since our education doesn’t value autonomous and critical thinking, and lacks humanist books. As I volunteer as the main editor on “Humanistas Brasil” Facebook page we’re asked a lot about books and reading suggestions on the subject, but there is no book about humanism in Portuguese to suggest. Most of the Brazilian people don’t read in English. So I think what lacks the most is good books on humanism. I hope someday we can translate books such as Robert Norman’s On Humanism to everyone.

Jacobsen: Any recommended authors, books, or speakers?

Sousa: You guys have plenty of humanist authors out in Europe. Robert Norman’s book helps me to understand what humanism is. I like to watch videos from Stephen Fry, Andrew Copson and Alice Roberts. They speak eloquently about humanism. But I would like to suggest writers as José Saramago and Machado De Assis, a fiction writer of the XIX century who used some anticlerical passages on his books. Also, I’m soon to publish my first short story where I try to input my humanist values so please keep an eye on.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts based on the interview today?

Sousa: I would like to thank you for this opportunity and to let you guys know that there are humanists in this part of the globe too. We are working hard to be stronger. If you want to help in order to the globalization of humanist I would like to ask all European humanists associations to invest in more humanist books and other materials translations such as online courses, in languages such as Portuguese and Spanish. Please, take this in consideration.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Jonas.

Sousa: Thank you. Please follow our page on Facebook: and follow me on twitter: @travessia87. See you next time.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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