Does Social Change Need God?

It would be naïve to discount the influence of religion on social change. Civil disobedience movements, from Leo Tolstoy’s communes in Russia to Gandhi’s civil disobedience to Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights marches, all shared a strong grounding in religious teachings. And with good reason; the Gospels offer an inspirational example of how to change the world, as do other religious texts.

But today, the predominance of religion in the West is on the decline. Over the centuries, Enlightenment thought eroded the central role that religious texts had in our interpretation of the world around us. Science and reason now drive public discourse. So too, we can imagine this applying to social change; “there but for the Grace of God, go I” would hardly seem like the mantra of the poor hoping to pull themselves up by their boot straps. Philosophers from Ayn Rand to Karl Marx have derided religion for a reliance on external forces and irrational explanations as opposed to one’s own efforts and logic.

Yet, in Brazil, social change and the Catholic Church remain very much connected. I was surprised by this, to be quite honest. One of the first projects I was involved in here in Pirajá was a celebration for Dia de Criancas, a Catholic holiday celebrating children. My host parents, along with many others, organized a celebration for the children on the weekend of the holiday, hoping to bring in parents and their children. But in addition to the toys and candy for the children, they had information sessions about groups working in the community. Economía Solidaría, a group promoting independent communal economic organization, and Pastoral Familiar, offering family counseling and support from a basis in the Catholic Church, hoped to reach out to the young parents in Pirajá.

Specifically, it was the pamphlets passed out for Pastoral Familiar that took me by surprise. The Mission Statement read (my translation):

“The evangelical mission of Pastoral Familiar is the defense and promotion of the person at all stages and circumstances of life and defense of Christian values ​​for marriage, personal relationships, and family.
Therefore, it is essential to promote union inside and outside the Church, to defend life in all its stages, and stimulate and guide actions for the family.

  • Make the family a community of Christians;
  • Ensure that the family is a sanctuary of life;
  • Rescue the family and its core values essential to society;
  • Transform the missionary family and the domestic Church.”


At first blush, I felt that their mission was too, well, evangelical; that it emphasized the adoption of Catholic dogma before all else. I doubted how encouraging single mothers living in poverty with children unable to access adequate education and health services to embrace Christ, our Lord and Savior, was addressing the real issues. I had come across many similar services in downtown Nashville, religious based homeless shelters, mostly, that sought to solve chronic homelessness and unemployment with Bible study classes.

But there is more to the Catholic Church in Pirajá. Unlike in the United States, where suburban congregations support and operate shelters for urban homeless populations, this was the community mutually supporting itself. Instead of a paternalistic attitude that ‘we’ know better, the Catholic Church is looking to bring the community together to share the burden of social ailments. The Church is not the end, but the means through which it connects the people of the community to help each other. Rather than “there I go but for the grace of God,” it is “there I go but for the grace of my community.”

But before I finish, it would be remiss to ignore the downside to this approach. By predicating the support of the rest of society on the acceptance of a certain dogma, the church, in effect, coerces society into a certain belief. This is especially dangerous in Salvador, where, despite the predominance of Catholicism, Candomblé, a religion grounded in African tradition, still has a strong support. The divisive nature of this approach can be seen in the people; many times, I’ve heard those who practice Candomblé called ‘devil worshippers’.

There is an almost tragic irony in this conflict. Like Pastoral Familiar, Candomblé is deeply rooted in a philosophy of communal empowerment. They want to create stronger bonds among the Afro-Brazilian community in Salvador to help them overcome the discrimination and marginalization they have been, and still are, subjected to. For groups pursuing the same end, these divisions are petty and trivial.

Ideally, the community could come together to support each other without the pretense of religion to serve as the tie that binds, therefore allowing each individual to independently decide on their religious beliefs. But perfect freedom of religion seems an irrelevant philosophical luxury in the face of poverty and misery.