Brazil has been described as a Roman Catholic country for centuries. Until 1891 Roman Catholicism was the only official religion of Brazil. However, the situation has changed during the twentieth century. Although 64.6 percent of the population still identified themselves as Roman Catholic in the national census of 2010, this figure represents a significant drop from 73.6 percent in 2000 and 90 percent in 1970. At the same time the number of groups (populações) called Evangélicas grew (22.2 percent in 2010 from 15.44 percent in 2000). In this group 60.0 percent self-identified as Evangélicas de origem pentecostal, 18.5 percent as Evangélicas de Missão (e.g., Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists), and 21.8 percent were of unspecified origin (Evangélicas de origem não determinada). These figures show that while Brazil is still predominately a Christian country, it has become more diverse.
Statistical data on such a large scale as the national census say, however, little about religious belonging or practice. They can supply certain indicators but one has to keep in mind that the declaration of religious affiliation is a self-declaration. They also overshadow the bricolage of traditions which began in the colonial past and resulted in the establishment of traditions out of the merging of old ones. For many Brazilians Afro-Brazilian traditions such as Umbanda remain embedded in a Christian faith and enable them to be Christian and practice at the same time other traditions. Chesnut states that half of all Brazilians have visited an Umbanda center at least once, though most of them only sporadically, particularly during a personal crisis. The number of Brazilians practicing an Afro-Brazilian religion is much smaller, although Chesnut (2003: 106–107) still estimates that 15–20 percent of Brazilians (approximately 30 million) practice Umbanda or one of the other Afro-Brazilian religions. Chesnut calculates that the number of people practicing an Afro-Brazilian religion is even as high as the number of Protestant Brazilians and explains that the very different figure in the national census is the result of the enduring stigma attached to African-derived religions. The figures of the national census consequently represent only the official side of the religious composition of Brazil and hide the vibrant existence of popular or vernacular religious traditions.