Straightforward coverage of Umbanda

How often does a reporter get to write about the 100th birthday of a religion? The Miami Herald, no stranger to covering off-beat religions (at least from the perspective of a reader in the United States), has a rather unusual story on the “uniquely Brazilian religion” of Umbanda.

The story is rather positive and takes an outsider’s perspective on the religion. For a story that is serving to introduce the religion for the purposes of commemorating it’s 100th year in existence, it covers all the basics. The story focuses appropriately on the religion’s history and has the benefit of presuming that the reader knows little or nothing about Umbanda:

Umbanda has been a natural fit for a country where many believe in the everyday presence of spirits and omens. What’s drawn the interest of international scholars is the religion’s unmistakably Brazilian bent, which has won it fame as the country’s only home-grown faith.

Umbanda’s Brazilian focus is most obvious in its pantheon of spirits, which includes popular folk figures such as the rogue, who’s a fixture of street culture here; the freed slave known as the preto velho; and an indigenous warrior known as the caboclo, who can appear adorned with feathered headdresses and bows and arrows.

Worshipers also can be possessed by someone from the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, a cowboy from southern Brazil or a poor ranch hand. In its use of Brazilian folk mythology, it’d be as if worshipers in the United States were possessed by cowboys, astronauts and blues singers.

The story’s introduction, which is not included in this post, follows the stereotypical lead for a story about a religion outside the mainstream. It describes from an onlooker’s perspective someone being possessed by a spirit. Perhaps it’s just too difficult for reporters to resist painting that word picture of the seemingly defining experience of the religion.

Thankfully, as faithful story finder Chris Chase pointed out, it moves on to discuss the religion in terms of more relevant information such as Brazilian nationalism and the influence of 19th century spiritualism.

That event launched what would become a potent mix of African religions, Roman Catholicism and the teachings of 19th-century French spiritualist Allan Kardec. The religion now claims as many as eight million devotees and more than 100,000 temples around Brazil.

Many temples are holding special ceremonies this year to celebrate the religion’s centennial, which is as much about survival as it is about spirituality.

Throughout the early 20th century, Brazilian governments, alarmed at the religion’s intense ceremonies, outlawed its practice, forcing many worshipers underground. Although the religion is legal now, Brazil’s mushrooming Pentecostal churches still regularly condemn Umbanda and other Afro-Brazilian religions as the work of the devil.

A quick point about the numbers cited in the story. I am curious how many of the religion’s faithful live in the United States. I’m sure there are some Florida and Miami residents who would be curious if there are any estimates on the number in their area.

As for 8 million practitioners cited in the story, the linked above Wikipedia article cites a sociological study that says there are 30 million practitioners, but that includes people in Uruguay, Argentina and the United States. I’m not one to necessarily put a Wikipedia fact above a fact vetted by a newsroom, but it would be interesting to know more about how extensive this religion is and whether it is growing or not.

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  • Jerry

    I wondered if you were going to pick up this story – I almost passed it along. I do agree with your analysis of the story with one addition – one of my oft repeated hot buttons. How about a sidebar with in on spirit possession in other religions from classic Christian exorcism to Tibetan Buddhist rites. Maybe there’s no room on the printed page, but on the web it would be nice for those interested to be able to put compare and contrast such aspects of this religion with similar beliefs in others ones.

  • Dave

    Jerry:

    I like your suggestion. But I’m on this board because I agree with its basic premise: The press doesn’t get religion. Can the MSM be trusted to provide such a summary competently and without bias?