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THE CONTEXT OF THE AMERICAS TODAY:
RELIGIOUS PLURALISM
by Clifton L. Holland
In the contemporary context of religious pluralism in the Americas, the older religious groups are now faced with the challenge of revitalization and renewal or of declining membership and influence in a modern world, where there exists a greater respect for each other's human rights and for freedom of religion, which means that most people now have the freedom of choice--to choose to remain in the religion of their parents, or to choose to affiliate with another religious group, whether Christian or non-Christian.
In the context of Latin America during the 1800s and 1900s, the tendency was for the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) to resist modernization and globalization trends, including the introduction of New Religious Movements (NRMs) in countries where the RCC was the dominant religious group, usually the official state religion. However, along with the transition to independence from Spain and Portugal and the rise of Liberal governments in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries of the Americas during the 1800s, the RCC was forced to face the liberalization of traditional laws and customs, including the approval of new laws allowing for "religious tolerance" and "religious liberty." This new freedom of choice--both politically and religiously--resulted in the development of the new context of political and religious pluralism that exists in most countries of the region.
Until the early 1960s, Latin America and the Caribbean witnessed the slow decline of the traditional religions and the progressive development of NRMs, mainly of the Protestant variety. It was the rapid growth of the Protestant Movement​, mainly the Pentecostal churches, beginning in the 1960s in most countries that caused great alarm and turmoil for the RCC, as its leaders witnessed the erosion of its membership and its leadership--a decline in the number of secular and religious priests (males) and religious workers (both male and female) and its inability to recruite new leadership for the priesthood and the religious orders.  Historically, in many countries of Latin America, the RCC was heavily dependent on foreign (mainly North American and European) priests and religious workers, and it had a poor track record in recruiting and training national priests and religious workers.
This internal crisis in the RCC led to a series of articles and books on the subject of "The Invasion of the Sects" authored by Roman Catholics who were fearful of the consequences of this new social and religious reality in their respective countries--the decline of Catholicism and the growth of Evangelicalism, especially Pentecostalism. However, in most of these studies, there was a lack of differentiation between those religious groups that are part of the Protestant Movement and those that are not, especially those that PROLADES has classified as Marginal Christian Groups (Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians, Christian Science, Unity, Light of the World Church, Mita Congregation, Voice of the Chief Cornerstone, Children of God, etc.). Moreover, many RCC authors also confused the situation by mixing in information about Non-Christian Religious Groups, such as the Moonies, Hari Krishna, Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, Theosophy, Rosicrucians, Gnostics, Buddhists, New Age, etc.
One of the main purposes of the RITA Database and the Classification System of Religious Groups developed by PROLADES is to help clear the fog of confusion about the origin, development and belief systems of the various religious movements, especially to help the general public to differentiate between those groups that belong to the Protestant Movement, those that are Marginal Christian Groups and those that are Non-Christian Religious Groups.
OUR COMMITTMENT TO RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE AND FREEDOM OF RELIGION
In the modern context of "freedom of religion" in the Americas, every member of every religious group (whether Christian or non-Christian) should be allowed to exercise their personal religious faith without discrimination or persecution, as guaranteed by the various laws of the land based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948), the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1996) and other international agreements regarding the tolerance of diversity in all of its forms and respect for the rights of the individual and minority groups.
Our motivation in creating the RITA Database is to add to our collective knowledge about religious groups of every kind in Latin America and the Caribbean regions, using the tools of the social sciences and enlisting social scientists and other interested researchers in this process, as well as to encourage tolerance of diversity, respect for human rights and the free exercise of religion without discrimination in every country and throughout the Americas, Spain and Portugal.
The Scientific Study of Religion in Latin America and the Caribbean is a discipline that needs to be encouraged and respected by all, especially by those who are committed to a particular religious faith as well as by those who profess no religious affiliation or belief system. The lack of tolerance and respect for other people's human rights and their religious freedom is a social disease that needs to be cured, regardless of the source of the disease--religious fanaticism and any form of persecution by any group against any other group is a violation of our collective human rights in a free society.
PROLADES is dedicated to upholding these principals and values as we pursue our research and information goals, and we are willing and eager to work with any person or organization in any country of the Americas (and Spain and Portugal) that respects and lives by these guidelines, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof.
We welcome inquiries about our research activities and training programs, and we are eager to find individuals and organizations in each country of the Americas, Spain and Portugal that are interested working with us in accomplishing these stated objectives. Currently, we have a working relationship with individuals and organizations in more than 70% of the countries of the Americas via e-mail and Internet services, and we hope to achieve at least 90% coverage by the end of this year.