Uruguay is as secular as Switzerland or Germany and it just legalized abortion. Only 41 percent of the population see religion as important in their lives, the lowest in South America. Given that poorer countries are generally more religious, one would expect Uruguay to be more devout than Germany. Why is religion so weak there?
Religion declines in wealthy countries because the quality of life is better. Conversely, poor countries experience more difficult living conditions -- hunger, disease, violence, vulnerability to natural disasters, etc. Religion serves as a security blanket that helps residents to cope with their problems at an emotional level.
So how could Uruguay be so secular? Whenever one finds that a poor country is secular, the first explanation worth checking is Communist suppression of religion, after the manner of Vietnam. Yet Uruguay has never been a Communist country. If anything, the country tended to the opposite extreme with a history of right-wing military dictatorship.
The history of religion in Uruguay
A history of Communism cannot explain the relative weakness of religion in Uruguay. Yet history does matter. It turns out that Uruguay's religious history is very different from most of South America,
Uruguay had a relatively small population of Native Americans. So there was less activity by Christian missionaries. Moreover, the small population of Native Americans was unusually resistant to conversion.
Consequently, the Catholic Church did not establish the substantial presence that it had in other South American countries from the time that European colonization began. After independence (in 1828) the country moved in a secular direction beginning with the recognition of civil unions in 1837.
Complete separation of church and state was written into the constitution of 1917. By that date, divorce had been legalized and religious instruction was banned from state schools.
So the government took concrete steps to reduce the power of the Catholic Church without actually repressing religion as Communist governments did. This political climate would have made it easier for secular-leaning Uruguayans to ignore the Church.
The quality of life
About 41 percent of Uruguayans have no religious affiliation today and church attendance is low even for those who do have a religion. So how can a country that is twice as poor as a typical western European country be so secular? The answer may be that the quality of life is higher than would be expected for a per capita GDP of $15,656 (corrected for local cost of living). A good quality of life for the general population reduces interest in religion, as illustrated by Europe's leading social democracies such as Germany, France and Sweden.
Uruguayans also enjoy a good quality of life. Their life expectancy is comparatively high at 76.4 years (compared to 78.5 for the U.S.), implying decent public health, good health care, low infant mortality and the absence of serious disease epidemics.
Uruguay is one of the most highly developed countries in its region and ranks 48th in the world in terms of the Human Development Index that factors in education and health, as well as economic development.
Some of the strides in public education are impressive. In 2009, Uruguay provided a laptop and Internet access (where available) to every school child.
Although it is a small country with just 3.3 million inhabitants, Uruguay has all the features of a highly developed country. Average family size is small at 1.87 births per woman. Laws are humane and tolerant of diversity. Gay marriage and gay adoption are permitted, for example. Government is characterized by low levels of corruption.
So whatever domain in the quality of life one cares to investigate, Uruguay comes across as a very good place to live. Calling it a Utopia would be an exaggeration, but the secularism there is definitely associated with a good quality of life. Moreover, the quality of life is better than GDP numbers alone would suggest.
Once again, actual earthly pleasures trump religious pie in the sky.