Gustavo Morello, S.J.

Lived Religion in Latin America: An Enchanted Modernity

Oxford University Press, 2021

231 pages


Reviewed by Oscar G. Chaidez

Considering long-held ideas regarding the relationship between modernity and religion, the title of Gustavo Morello’s most recent book, Lived Religion in Latin America: An Enchanted Modernity, might come across as an oxymoron. Such perception, however, is nothing more than the symptom of the lack of tools to understand religion outside the so-called West. Morello, a Jesuit and sociologist, this time opts for a scrutinizing look at old concepts such as the secularization theory, the religious-economy paradigm, and even the popular religion approach, in favor of a fresh “lived-religion” framework that portrays the citizens of Latin America as inhabiting what he calls an “enchanted modernity.” 

Lived Religion in Latin America is Morello’s reflections on a transnational, multi-year religious study. Titled “The Transformation of Lived Religion in Latin America,” the research project involved compiling, qualifying, and comparing data regarding the religious patterns of diverse social groups in three different cities of Latin America: Cordoba (Argentina), Lima (Peru), and Montevideo (Uruguay). The aim of the study was to “understand how contemporary urban Latin Americans, […] from different socioeconomic status and generations experience transcendence in everyday life.” Morello contends that since Latin Americans experience different modernity than Europeans and North Americans, it only follows that they also experience religion differently. Subsequently, resources traditionally used to understand religion in the “North Atlantic world,” including but not limited to the secularization theory (relevant to Europe) and the religious-economy paradigm (mostly applicable to the US), cannot really be used to understand religion in Latin America.

In what ways is modernity lived differently in Latin America? How does this manifest in the religiosity of the region? To answer such questions, Morello looks back at the cultural and religious histories of Latin America, paying special attention to the ways in which cultural forces have influenced religious movements across time and vice versa. At the core of the book lies a reasonable claim: Latin America’s historical specificities have rendered the region with a religious particularity. Opposite the secularization theory and religious-economy paradigm that fail to explain religious practices in Latin America, Morello proposes a “lived-religion” approach akin to the “popular religion” one that originated in Latin America but much more open to human agency.  

According to Morello, for many Latin Americans, especially those of the lower social strata, to be religious means to inhabit an “enchanted modernity.” That is, modernity has not resulted in a decrease of religion in the region (as the secularization theory seems to imply), but instead in a transformation in religious practices rooted in the creative autonomy of believers. This means that a religious person might be able to hold seemingly contradictory practices or beliefs. A person may identify as Catholic, for example, but may not necessarily attend mass every week and may, at the same time, routinely attend Protestant congregations with friends. Thus, what may otherwise be perceived as “improper” religious practices in other parts of the world, is simply a way for Latin Americans to make sense of their lives, in the end, a reflection of their ambiguous and contradictory “lived modernity.” Through this, the author points at the ironic way in which modernity has not necessarily translated into progress for many Latin Americans but instead resulted in challenges like structural poverty, growing inequality, and environmental exhaustion, among others.

Indeed, Morello sets out to explore the relationship between modernity and religion within the Latin American context, observing the way in which different cultural and historical backgrounds yield different modes of experiencing religion. Using an object elicitation method to delve into participants’ religious practices, the researchers asked them to bring articles or photos of themselves that they deemed meaningful. The participants were at complete liberty to choose the objects and were often even responsible for photographing them. Also important to the researchers was having a significant representation of lower SES (socioeconomic status, the unit used in the study to measure social backgrounds) participants, considering nearly half of Latin Americans belong to this group.

The latter half of the book largely consists of Morello’s synthetic analysis of the data elicited by the project’s participants. In Chapter Four, the participants construct an image of God as a personal, singular being who has plans for them, but also an entity capable of granting them miracles and someone they can count on for protection and aid. Chapter Five, titled “Latin Americans’ Way of Praying,” pays heed to the myriad of forms that prayer may take for participants, many of which are not necessarily prescribed by religious institutions or, conversely, perceived as religious by the secular society. Thus, in the Latin American context, a set of factors that defines a person’s religiosity based on the embodiment and the senses is more conducive to understanding it than traditional components like confession and Sunday Mass.

The book’s last chapter explores religion in Latin America’s public sphere. While this region has been heavily influenced by the French model of laicïté, whereby there is a firm separation between church and state, religion is welcomed in the public sphere when it empowers people or otherwise speaks on behalf of the oppressed. A clear example of this is the participants’ reception of Pope Francis’s opinions on matters like the market economy and same-sex marriage.

Lived Religion in Latin America takes on a sociological approach to understand how religion is lived by many Latin Americans. It does so in a clear, eloquent manner, free of unnecessary scientific jargon. From the outset, Morello is careful to define what he means by such terms as religion and modernity, and it is apparent that he has great respect for his study’s participants. In fact, as he makes the reader aware, the value of his study derives from what his study’s participants can teach us about religion, many of them from a lower socioeconomic status (which, as he mentions, is not only indicative of the Latin American people, but of the world’s population at large). Ultimately, this book presents a nuanced look at religion and the ways in which it is lived in a specific region of the world.