Cubans love the pope and the Catholic Church, but they’re just not that into religion

Religion in Cuba is complicated, and a new survey on the island offers a rare snapshot of religious identity in a Communist nation with deep Catholic roots.

Eight in 10 Cubans gave positive ratings to Pope Francis in the survey of 1,200 Cuban residents sponsored by Univision Noticias and Fusion networks, including 92 percent of Catholics. Francis's strong ratings may not be too surprising given his generally strong ratings around the world and role advocating for normalized relations with the United States, a shift Cubans overwhelmingly support. Cuba's Catholic Church is also well-liked, with 7 in 10 rating it positively, including majorities of non-Catholics.

Cubans gave a far more surprising responses when asked "What is your religion?" Fully 44 percent responded that they were "not religious," while 27 percent identified as Catholic, 13 percent as Santeria or Order of Osha, 2 percent each for Protestant or something else and 9 percent gave no answer.

The total share of Christian identifiers in the survey, 34 percent, is far lower than the share estimated by the respected World Christian Database (59 percent). In particular, the poll finds about half as many Catholics (at 27 percent) as the WCD (44 percent). Alternately, the percentage in the poll saying they are not religious (44 percent) is far higher than the WCD's net estimate of atheists and agnostics (23 percent).

So is the poll capturing a gigantic shift away from the Catholic Church? There are signs of this elsewhere in Latin America, but differences in Cuba are more likely a result of differing methods of counting religious identifiers. The exact source of WCD estimates is not clear, but they tend to rely on denominational membership reports rather than surveys of identification. Given that very few baptized Catholics attend Mass regularly, according to a priest interviewed by the Catholic Reporter in 2006, it's likely many would choose to identify as "not religious" rather than Catholic when a survey explicitly offers this (as the Univision/Fusion poll did).

A similar survey finding was seen in a 2006 Gallup survey of Cuba's two largest cities Havana and Santiago, with 54 percent of respondents identifying as agnostic, while just 25 percent said they were Christian, according to WCD's tabulations of the poll.

While the poll did not ask whether respondents were baptized in a Church, one indicator does suggest a non-religious identifiers include a many nominal Catholics. Fully 82 percent of non-religious respondents have a favorable view of Pope Francis and 68 percent rate the Cuban Catholic Church positively, similar to that of the population overall.

The tenuous nature of religious identity in Cuba appears to be a residual from decades where religions were suppressed by the government and atheism was a prerequisite for membership in the ruling Communist Party. In 1992, Cuba announced itself as a secular state, but allowing religious groups greater freedom to practice. The history was detailed in depth by Jill Goldenziel in a 2009 Journal of Law and Politics article.

Coupled with that troubled past, the latest survey indicates religious identity is just as complex as it ever was.