Consensual Unions and Religion in Brazil

According to the most recent World Value Survey (WVS) conducted in Brazil in 2014, roughly 78% of the Brazilian population disagreed with the statement that marriage is an outdated institution. This share has increased since 1991, when the first WVS wave in Brazil revealed that 71% disagreed with this statement. This temporal change may indicate that Brazilians’ beliefs on family issues have moved in a more traditional or conservative direction. Over the same period, the number of consensual unions has substantially grown in Brazil. For instance, the proportion of women between 25 and 29 years in a consensual union increased from 7.5% to 51.0% between 1970 and 2010 in the country (Covre-Sussai et al. 2015). This intriguing or apparent contraction raises at least two interesting questions: First, what is the real meaning of consensual union in Brazil? Is it close to what we call marriage? Second, are churches in Brazil truly able to influence decisions on family life?

The rise in consensual unions, which has been also observed in other Latin American countries, was recently associated with the potential secularization process observed in the region. In this sense, shifts in attitudes in the family, ethnic, and religious spheres might help to explain the cohabitation boom (a phrase coined by Esteve, Lesthaeghe and Lopez-Gay (2012)). Evidence of this association would indicates the possible convergence of some sub-groups of Latin-American populations to the pattern of the Second Demographic Transition (SDT). Among other aspects, the SDT diagnosis requires the presence of a rise in age at first marriage and a rise in pre-marital cohabitation (Lesthaeghe, 2010).

The case of Brazil, however, might be challenging, since it has experienced religious changes that may inhibit the diffusion of the SDT. As stated by Esteve, Lesthaeghe and Lopez-Gay (2012), “overall, the absence of indications of growing secularization in Brazil stands in sharp contrast to international trends” (page 74). Among other striking changes in its religious landscape, the growth in the number of Evangelicals is probably the most notable one. This group, which represented 6.6% of the population in 1980, rose to 22.2% in 2010. Recent growth is still rapid; between 2000 and 2010, the number of Evangelicals grew by 16 million followers (Alves, Barros and Cavenaghi, 2012).

The Evangelical movement in Brazil strongly addresses issues concerning family formation. In general, this approach is performed conservatively and explicitly. For instance, it emphasizes rules and values that disapprove of consensual union. But the data above beg the question: are these Evangelical values truly discouraging Brazilians from living in consensual unions instead of marriages? Studies of these associations using Brazilian demographic data are nearly nonexistent. In the article, ‘First conjugal union and religion in Brazil: Signs contrary to the Second Demographic Transition in Brazil’, recently published in Demographic Research, we examined the association of religion with entry into first conjugal union and type of first union (formal or informal) among women aged 20-29 years old in Brazil. We used representative cross-sectional data gathered from the 2006 National Survey on Demography and Health of Women and Children (Pesquisa Nacional de Demografia e Saúde da Mulher e da Criança − PNDS).

Our main results show that Evangelical women (Missionary and Pentecostals), when compared to Catholics, have much higher odds of being in a union for the first time (suggesting an early age at the time of union) and of engaging in a formal union. This finding contradicts the common outcome observed in Latin America that women in early unions prefer an informal union. In the last part of our study, we investigated only women who reported the same current religion as the religion in which they were raised. In this section, we assumed that those women never have changed religion in an attempt to establish the causal direction of the relationship. Our results again show strong evidences that Evangelical women prefer engaging in a formal union when compared to Catholics. In the context of a growing proportion of consensual unions in Brazil, the Evangelical movement may be inhibiting the increase, which otherwise would be even greater.

Overall, our results confirm the SDT assumption that religion (or secularization) is very important in decisions about union formation. With the significant growth of Evangelicals in Brazil and this religious segment’s preference for early and formal marriage, the diffusion of the conjugal pattern suggested by the SDT can be challenging. Much will depend on the continuation of religious changes in the country and on the strength of the churches’ mechanisms of influence.  In addition, the potential diffusion of the SDT in the country might vary according to Evangelicals’ socioeconomic and demographic profile. The most likely pioneers of the SDT are the younger and better-educated groups. Large congregations of Evangelicals emerged and grew among the poor, and it now remains the religious group with the lowest education and income levels in the country (Alves, Barros and Cavenaghi, 2012). Nevertheless, changes may have been taking place. Data from the 2010 Brazilian census show that one fifth of Evangelical women between 25 and 29 years had completed some tertiary education.

Finally, our study tried to shed light on the association between religion and family formation outcomes in Brazil. However, many questions are still open and one of them is partially intriguing: if almost 80% of Brazilians disagreed that marriage is an outdated institution, why have consensual unions substantially increased in the country?


Alves, J.E.D., Barros, L.F.W., and Cavenaghi, S. (2012). A dinâmica das filiações religiosas no Brasil entre 2000 e 2010: diversificação e processo de mudança de hegemonia. Rever 2(12): 145–174.

Covre-Sussai, M., Meuleman, B., Botterman, S., and Matthijs, K. (2015). Traditional and modern cohabitation in Latin America: A comparative typology. Demographic Research 32(32): 873−914.

Esteve, A., Lesthaeghe, R., and López-Gay, A. (2012). The Latin American Cohabitation Boom, 1970–2007. Population and Development Review 38(1): 55–82.

Lesthaeghe, R. (2010). The unfolding story of the Second Demographic Transition. Population and Development Review 36(2): 211–251.

Verona, A. P., Dias Jr. C. S., Fazito, D., and Miranda-Ribeiro, P. (2015). First conjugal union and religion: Signs contrary to the Second Demographic Transition in Brazil? Demographic Research 33(34): 984−1014.

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Ana Paula Verona

About Ana Paula Verona

Ana Paula Verona is an assistant professor at the department of demography at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brazil. She is also a researcher fellow of Cedeplar. She received her PhD in sociology from The University of Texas. Her research interests include fertility, sexual and reproductive health, conjugal unions, and religion in Latin America.

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