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In recent years, international scholars have been developing new methods to understand two challenging belief categories: religious believers without affiliation to any religious institution, and those who define themselves as unbelievers—the “nones.” Several quantitative studies have reported clear disparities among the countries in Latin America.

This article explores the characteristics of these two groups based on qualitative research that focuses on the way individuals live their relationship with transcendence (the belief in something that is beyond the empirical) or with nonbelief in the city of Montevideo, Uruguay.

The Pew Forum Latin American survey (2014) showed an important variability of “nones” in the continent. The most highly religious country in Latin America is Paraguay, where only 1% of the population claims no religious identity. Mexico includes 7% without religion, Brazil 8%, and Argentina 11%.

Uruguay is a dramatic outlier in that 2014 study, with 37% claiming no religious affiliation, the highest percentage in Latin America. This includes 24% who hold some level of religious belief but claim no affiliation, 10% atheists, and 3% agnostics.

The percentage of atheists and agnostics has risen even higher in recent years to a combined 21% in 2019, highlighting an unusual relationship of Uruguayan culture to religion in an overwhelmingly Catholic continent.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Paraguay and Uruguay—both relatively small countries in central South America, separated by just 300 miles and a single Argentine province, both of which threw off Spanish colonial rule in the same year (1811), both with a strong Catholic history but no official state religion—find themselves on opposite ends of the religious spectrum of the continent. The reasons for this striking disparity, especially the irreligion of Uruguay, will be explored in a future article.

This article emerges from “The transformation of lived religion in urban Latin America: A study of contemporary Latin Americans’ experience of the transcendent,” a major study supported by the John Templeton Foundation. It is qualitative research that attempts to understand the way regular people live their lives in terms of transcendence.

160 interviews with 80 people were conducted in the cities of Cordoba (Argentina), Lima (Peru), and Montevideo (Uruguay). Religious leaders and journalists or specialized academics were excluding from the intentional sample.

The interviews were done in two personal meetings with each interviewed person using a semi-structured guideline that explored diverse moments in their lives and the meaning or impact those moments had on them, as diverse topics and personal itineraries in relationship to beliefs or non-beliefs. The sample was intentional and tried to collect the diversity of beliefs or non-beliefs that exist in each city.

For this article, we use the term “unaffiliated” to define these persons that say they believe in God/transcendence but without the mediation of any religious institution. We use the category “atheists” for people who express no belief in God/transcendence.

Among the unaffiliated, the importance they give to the search for their own spiritual way is important. It is a way without boxed or predefined responses by religious institutions or groups. At the same time, they clearly distinguish spirituality from religion, even when different meanings of both terms are expressed.

In their search, they borrowed elements from diverse religious or spiritual traditions. Some of them understand that proposals coming from religious institutions are centered in their own beliefs of institutions, rules, and precepts.

They visualized spirituality as a lived personal experience that does not require belonging to religious institutions or adopting predefined beliefs. This appears like a clear differential question between believers who defined themselves as part of religious institutions and believers without institutional affiliation.

The unaffiliated group is very heterogeneous, both in personal experiences and in perspectives. The researchers paid special attention to the way people in this group understand the relationship between spirituality and religion (which often appear as contradictory terms), the way they develop their spirituality, and whether they use the word “spiritual” to mean the experience of personal balance and inner peace.

How the unaffiliated understand spirituality and religion is very important because the emphasis on lived spirituality is clearly important to them. They make a clear distinction between the two terms, even though the meaning of “spirituality” is not always entirely clear.

As the unaffiliated interviewees said in their own words:

Spiritual is any person who nourishes his spirit with something. Smelling the perfume of a rose, contemplating the beauty of a sunset is a very spiritual thing. Spirituality is something else. It feeds on intangible things and recognizes a divine essence in all things. Religion is a connection in the subject of each person with a nucleus that adheres to the same.


I associate a religious person with an institution. I associate it with a herd of people following one who preaches something that is blind to its own effect. I associate it with manipulation.


If I think of a religious person, I think of a person placed under an institution or under the banner of a religion, but I feel that a spiritual person can be a religious person but can also be someone who is not religious and is committed to things that are not are seen, or practice meditation, or do good things but not under the name of any religion.


There are two strong elements in the way our sample of the unaffiliated of Uruguay understand spirituality: the claim of individual freedom and the power to compose their own beliefs independent of any institution.

Many of the unaffiliated see religious institutions as spaces that do not allow people to find their own way and are not oriented toward personal growth and self-realization. They believe that religious institutions are made to impose their own visions and that the believers must stay within those parameters and fulfill the obligations set forth by the church.

Religious socialization

Many of the interviewees were socialized in the Catholic tradition, whether through family, school, or both, but their own experience leads them to believe that the institutional propositions of the Catholic Church limit their own search possibilities.

Some people in this group see themselves now as socialized completely away from religion. There are some who come from a clear and absolute atheism or cut themselves off entirely from experiences or topics related in any way to religion.

Many of the unaffiliated believers interviewed have had experiences of transcendence, whether through personal or institutional experience. For some, experiences with religious institutions led them to distance themselves, while for others the motives are more focused on their personal searches that must transcend institutional limits to continue.

The experiences of passing through structures of some churches with negative experiences in varying degrees of intensity and affectation also appear as elements that have contributed to cultivate the relationship with God outside these institutions.

Some interviewees have explicitly anti-clerical positions:

I’m very anticlerical, shall we say. For me, the whole Catholic Church has historically been shitting our lives. Let’s say: the missions, the Inquisition, everything. All wrong. They ask for forgiveness from time to time more or less, and they continue. Now pederasty. Did you see the movie Spotlight, I imagine? And I’m telling you, Jesus is a character I like because I’m a Westerner, because I was educated in that. What criticism can you have for Jesus? Very little.


Among those interviewed were also some who value the importance of religions or take distance from positions that see religion as the cause of alienation or curtailing of freedom:

Those things can happen to us no matter where we place our faith. We just have to be awake and caring for the freedom of the spirit that seeks the truth. It is a weakness due to human vulnerability that we are going to want to always cling to something, and that we are capable of denying other things that might be very valid and enriching to someone else. Sometimes if we lock ourselves in, we deprive ourselves of that, which can lead to war, confrontation, and denying the truth of the other. That’s the tricky thing: If you were to devote yourself to atheism for a while, be an atheist and nothing happens because you have to experience it. But if I deny that another person has his faith in something else, then life does not flow between beings, and we believe that we have a monopoly on truth. That is a dangerous thing.


The atheists

Surveys show a high percentage of atheists and agnostics in Uruguay, 21% in 2019 as stated by Opción Consultores (up from 13% in the Pew study of 2014 cited above). Our survey found 38% defining themselves as Catholics, 17% as believers without religion, 10% from other Christian traditions, and 9% from other religions.

Two types of experiences could be distinguished in the life trajectories of the atheists interviewed: those who had had some degree of involvement with a religious institution at some point in their lives, and those who have had no such experience.

For the first group, the institution with which they were affiliated ceased to have meaning for them, as did the beliefs about God the institution expounded. For the other group, everything associated with religion sounds alien because it is not part of their life experience or meaning system.

Based on the high percentage of atheists in surveys on religion in Uruguay, and comments like those above, it is possible to speak of an “atheistic tradition” that involves intergenerational transmission over time.

In almost all cases, the interviewees do not connect their transition to atheism with a single issue or event. Instead, they mention various factors including painful experiences and perceived injustices at religious institutions, criticism of the inflexibility of religious institutions, processes in which they widened their social universe, personal growth, etc. The trajectories of the interviewees are diverse, but at least three different trends can be identified.

First, interviewees who opted for atheism mentioned the inflexibility of religious institutions that at some point in their lives led to a break and rupture with the church. Here “inflexibility” is also understood as the church’s insistence on a single way of living, with more emphasis on accepting one’s truths than getting involved with people’s life processes.

On the other hand, some interviewees described how experiences of personal losses affected the meaning of God and led to questions about whether He existed. In some cases, this led them to abandon their beliefs altogether.

A third possible category has to do with criticizing the positioning of the churches in terms of social justice, a commitment to certain values associated with defending society’s most vulnerable members, and certain contradictions within religious institutions in this sense.

The surveys also revealed aspects that contributed to the transition to atheism. Never described as a sudden decision or attributed to a single cause, the transition is always described as a life process with several components.

The vast majority of those interviewed said they were atheist by conviction, not because they were opposed to churches or believers, although some do reject Christianity.


An analysis of the interviews with the group of unaffiliated believers shows an attempt to distinguish between the concepts of religion and spirituality, as Heelas and Woodhead propose. In other words, these people are drawn to forms of spirituality that help them with the deepest and most sacred dimensions of their lives but reject proposals to live their lives in accordance with external principles (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005).

In relation to atheism in Uruguayan society, it is a phenomenon that dates far back in Uruguay. Atheists can be classified into two groups, the inter-generational atheists and the “converts,” that is, people who did not grow up atheist but came to atheism after previous religious experiences of some kind.

At the same time, considering the way believers relate to or understand their belief in transcendence, there are also various postures we could summarize in two categories: militant atheists, and indifferent atheists.

Militant atheists take a clear stance against religious beliefs and reject religious institutions or traditions such as Catholicism and Christianity. Indifferent atheism involves not seeing other people’s beliefs as an issue one needs to reject or struggle against. The presence of this position reveals a transformation of ways of living as an atheist in Uruguay, where once anti-religious and anticlerical stances were predominant. Though a previous study on university students showed a continuing strong presence of militant atheists within this group, there were indifferent atheists as well (Da Costa, 2010).

Among both atheists and the unaffiliated, one common thread was the importance of personal autonomy to live according to what they believe, whether believers or atheists. This prototypical demand of modernity (Beck, 2001), even in times of multiple modernities (Einsestadt, 2000), appears present not only among unaffiliated believers and atheists but across the whole religious universe—both those with institutional ties and unaffiliated believers, as mentioned by several works (Carozzi, 1999, Glendinning and Bruce, 2006).

The demand for individual autonomy is a fact in contemporary societies that is also expressed in constructing personal identities among both believers and nonbelievers. These are the people who build their own universes of belief, plucking elements from diverse origins and applying them in a concrete way to their specific individual situations, grounded in the complexities of their daily lives.


Beck, Ulrich. 2001.  Living our own lives in a world run amok: individuation, globalization and politic, in Giddens, Anthony,  and Hutton, Will. (eds), Global Capitalism. New Press

Carozzi, María. 1999. La autonomía como religión: la Nueva Era. México. Alteridades. Vol 9 N° 18

Da Costa, Néstor. 2010. Valores y religiosidad en jóvenes universitarios en Uruguay. Montevideo. Universidad Católica del Uruguay

Eisenstadt, Samuel. 2000. Multiple Modernities in Daedalus. Vol. 129, núm. 1, pp. 1-29.

Glendinning, Anthony and Bruce, Steve. 2006. New ways of believing or belonging: is religion giving way to spirituality? The British Journal of Sociology, 57.16.

Heelas, Paul., and Woodhead, Linda.2005.  The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Néstor Da Costa is an Uruguayan sociologist specializing in Sociology of Religion. He is a full professor and director of the Institute for Society and Religion at Universidad Católica del Uruguay.