An Address to Hispanic Freethinkers

This year, I made a New Year’s resolution to learn Spanish. In a world of many cultures, I’ve always felt somewhat embarrassed that I never learned to speak another language, and with the increasing influence of Hispanic people and culture in the United States, Spanish was a rational choice. Both while going to graduate school and working in multicultural New York City, there have been times it would have helped me to speak it, and the next time the opportunity comes, I intend to be prepared. So far my vocabulary is still frustratingly limited, but I intend to see it out.

I bring this up because of a greatly interesting article by Laurie Goodstein in this week’s New York Times, and one that gives every atheist another good reason to learn Spanish: For Some Hispanics, Coming to America Also Means Abandoning Religion. According to this article, many Hispanic immigrants coming to America, as they assimilate into the culture, are falling away from their religious backgrounds and becoming secular. Some money quotes:

The increase in the Hispanic population has meant a proliferation of churches. But even when their own churches are thriving, Hispanic ministers say that most Hispanics they approach are not interested.

“Church is not very popular,” said Francisco Hernandez, who is pastor with his wife, Connie, of the Iglesia de Dios Alfa y Omega, a Pentecostal church with 400 members. “The majority don’t go, and those who go, go one time.”

“They come, they adopt the American way, and part of the American way is moving towards no religion,” said Ariela Keysar, associate director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford.

In past posts, I’ve often discussed the landmark 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, a sweeping 50,000-person study which found that the proportion of non-religious Americans has almost doubled in ten years, from 8% to 14%. According to the Times article, a Pew survey to be released this month found that Hispanics claim to be non-religious in similar proportions as the rest of the population, ranging from 14% of Cubans to 7% of Mexicans who identify as secular. This concordance serves as good general confirmation of the ARIS results. But there is one important difference:

But, in contrast to many of the non-Hispanic Americans who identify themselves as secular, most of the Hispanics say they were once religious…

Of the Hispanics who claimed no religion, two-thirds said they had once been religious. Thirty-nine percent of the Hispanics who said they had no religion were former Catholics.

It should not be surprising – though it is encouraging – that many secular Americans were raised that way rather than breaking away from religious indoctrination. This indicates that nonbelief and unorthodoxy are truly gaining a foothold, establishing and perpetuating themselves in society. And it is likewise encouraging to see that immigrants, even those who come from more religious cultures, can be sufficiently encouraged by this freethinking spirit to adopt it themselves when they arrive.

It is not surprising that Hispanics in their native countries have higher levels of religiosity. Historically, the Catholic church has had enormous influence in these countries, was once established by law in most of them, and still is in some. In recent years, Catholicism’s power has waned somewhat but is still vast, and evangelical and Pentecostal Protestant denominations have largely filled the gap in any case. In an atmosphere permeated with religion, with less of the visible religious diversity that exists in the United States, many people will adopt that religion simply because it is the expected cultural default. For that reason, we shouldn’t get too concerned about comments like this:

…many Hispanics in Richmond said that even though they no longer attended church, their religion remained important to them. This confirms research findings that Hispanics who said they had no religion represent a small subset; many more Hispanics are living rather secular lives but still identify themselves as Catholics or Christians. The phenomenon is similar to that of “cultural Jews,” said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

In all but name, these people are already secular. They cling to religious labels because that is what they have been brought up with, because its language and symbology is how they feel connected to their culture. But it no longer represents a serious engagement in their lives.

No doubt another reason for this transition is the shocking demands some churches place on their members:

Ms. Lemus, a first-generation immigrant, said that this year she had kept all of [her resolutions], except going to church — and spends Sunday mornings at the gym….

“I need God in my life, but I told the pastor, I get sleepy,” she said. “You have to stay in church from 1:30 to 5. I think if services were shorter, more entertaining.”

Three and a half hours of church at a sitting? It’s small wonder that many people are becoming fed up with a religion that places such unreasonable demands on their time, especially for the many Hispanic immigrants who are struggling to make a living. It shouldn’t be overlooked as a selling point that atheism grants people the freedom to use their time as they see fit.

The one common concern I read in this article, which ties back to my point about why atheists should know Spanish, is that many Hispanic immigrants – including those who are becoming non-religious – describe themselves as worried that they have become too materialistic, that their lives lack an underlying and unifying tradition. This is a valid concern, and if we atheists and freethinkers want to consolidate and build on the gains we have made within the Hispanic community, we should be taking steps to address it.

True, atheism does not have the elaborate structure of mythology and ritual that has built up around many religions; but there is no reason why an atheist cannot also have a deep sense of spirituality and an understanding for what is most meaningful in life. We should be reaching out to the Hispanic community, and that is the message we should seek to convey. Regardless of race or culture, there is a spark of freethought in every human mind that has the potential to burst into bright light, and that potential is something we should cherish and nurture. Are not the freethinkers of Latin American heritage our brothers and sisters, just as are the freethinkers from every other nation and society in the world?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://ayamerabbitvalley.org Susan

    This is a very interesting post! I live in a “Bordertown,” El Paso, TX. Basically, we’re right next to Ciudad Juarez, on of the largest Mexican cities. You can see Mexico by standing on the roof of my house and looking South.

    However, I’ve always felt that people in this town are extremely religious. I should also say that El Paso is predominantly Hispanic. Most people here are bilingual. Believe me, I’m learning Spanish quickly! ;) Most people, when they find out that I’m an atheist are surprised and, to be honest, a little apprehensive. I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t have a large amount of faith in Christianity. I know there must be other atheists, humanists, etc, in town, but we’re not very connected, obviously.

    When I am able, I would like to start a group for atheists, or at the least, skeptics in the area. I think that’s what we need down here. We need to know that we’re not alone.

  • http://ayamerabbitvalley.org Susan

    This is a very interesting post! I live in a “Bordertown,” El Paso, TX. Basically, we’re right next to Ciudad Juarez, on of the largest Mexican cities. You can see Mexico by standing on the roof of my house and looking South.

    However, I’ve always felt that people in this town are extremely religious. I should also say that El Paso is predominantly Hispanic. Most people here are bilingual. Believe me, I’m learning Spanish quickly! ;) Most people, when they find out that I’m an atheist are surprised and, to be honest, a little apprehensive. I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t have a large amount of faith in Christianity. I know there must be other atheists, humanists, etc, in town, but we’re not very connected, obviously.

    When I am able, I would like to start a group for atheists, or at the least, skeptics in the area. I think that’s what we need down here. We need to know that we’re not alone.

  • valhar2000

    I do not share your optimistic interpretation of that article, Adam. I got from it the impression that there are hrodes of people who are dissatisfied with a studgy and dull form of religiosity that they were used to, but who also feel at a loose end living a secular life. It seems to me that these are prime targets for those active, enthusiastic and bombastic evangelical megachurces that infest the US; and, as we know, those churches spouse some of the most pernicious views to be found within modern american society.

    As an aside, I am Spanish myself; good luck learning it!

  • valhar2000

    I do not share your optimistic interpretation of that article, Adam. I got from it the impression that there are hrodes of people who are dissatisfied with a studgy and dull form of religiosity that they were used to, but who also feel at a loose end living a secular life. It seems to me that these are prime targets for those active, enthusiastic and bombastic evangelical megachurces that infest the US; and, as we know, those churches spouse some of the most pernicious views to be found within modern american society.

    As an aside, I am Spanish myself; good luck learning it!

  • Polly

    I applaud your decision to learn Spanish – for that matter ANY 2nd language :). My opinion on the matter is summarized: “English first, but not English only.” There’s an old joke about how we in the US are a monolingual group while most other peoples are at least bilingual. (I’ll spare you a retelling.)

    As for the main point of the article, those percentages looked very low. And like Valhar2000, I have to wonder if they simply won’t all just become protestant evangelicals. My wife discounts Catholicism as equivalent to non-belief. Her main reason for this stance is that she observes out-of-wedlock babies and lots of guilt-free pre-marital sex in virtually everyone who calls themselves Catholic. To her, and the Pope I might add, this is a HUGE sin.
    Personally, I think anyone who assumes a religious appellation and then blatantly contradicts its tenets ought to reconsider whether the label still fits and abandon it. Maybe then we’d see some really promising results in the surveys!

    Speaking of immigrants and religion: In the Church I (occasionally) attend, there’s always the lament that many in the community are “lost.” This is partly due to many having come from a former Soviet republic where atheism was the default, not an exception. My own best friend growing up who was born over there – who I tried to convert, LOL! – regarded religion as a business capitalizing on dupes. He literally laughed in my face when, in response to his question, I told him that a repentant murderer could get into heaven, knowing that I believed a nonbeliever would end up in Hell. Religion teaches some bizarre ideas. This is obvious to anyone who wasn’t indoctrinated their whole lives.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    A remark on valhar2000′s comment:

    I got from it the impression that there are hrodes of people who are dissatisfied with a studgy and dull form of religiosity that they were used to, but who also feel at a loose end living a secular life.

    Yes, I agree. And that’s why we need to reach them! Obviously, the battle is hardly won; what we have here is not yet a victory, but rather an opportunity. They’ve taken the first step out of religion, and we can encourage them to go farther by showing that it’s not necessary to be religious to enjoy the kind of spiritual, meaningful life they rightly value.

    Also, I don’t think the percentages of Hispanic freethinkers are that low. As the Times article points out, they’re fairly comparable to the percentage of nonbelievers in America as a whole – a little lower, perhaps, but that’s not surprising considering the highly religious backgrounds many of them emigrate from.

  • GH

    ‘My wife discounts Catholicism as equivalent to non-belief. Her main reason for this stance is that she observes out-of-wedlock babies and lots of guilt-free pre-marital sex in virtually everyone who calls themselves Catholic. To her, and the Pope I might add, this is a HUGE sin.
    Personally, I think anyone who assumes a religious appellation and then blatantly contradicts its tenets ought to reconsider whether the label still fits and abandon it. Maybe then we’d see some really promising results in the surveys!’

    If any of this where true than you’d have exactly zero religious people. It shows a lack of understanding about the tenets of the religion. No religion on the planet expects it’s adherents to be perfect and toe the line. They expect to offer forgiveness when you fail. Your no less a catholic because you have sex. You just haven’t been perfect.

  • Polly

    @GH:
    Two points:

    1)The first comment is not my position. I couldn’t care less what people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms…backseats, kitchens, fireplaces, etc. But, my wife is a perfectionist and this obviously plays into her views on morality and religion. BTW, she (and I) upheld the ideal, if you know what I mean, saving it for after the wedding.

    2)The 2nd comment was more of an off-the-cuff remark by me so I probably need to explain. I think what’s going on has less to do with honest “mistakes” than a total indifference to the tenets of the faith. Now, here, I’m going to play amateur psychologist and say that the indifference stems from a lack of actual belief (or a complete ignorance of all but the most iconic symbols associated with that belief).
    Deep down, I don’t think people (Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise) really believe what they think they do. They just haven’t been exposed to a culture of skepticism. They haven’t considered other options. Once they start questioning their own presuppositions, you’ll see a large shift away from the religion of their parents.

    Why do you think Dobson and his ilk are so concerned about the youth of this nation? Because they KNOW, once those kids go to college, chances are good that the next generation will abandon the faith in droves.

    You will probably disagree with me, but my point was not that perfection is a Catholic requirement, rather, my focus was on why there’s such a failure rate among believers in general (again, ANY denomination) to adhere to their principles. The Church (Christendom) also teaches the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Here, too, it makes little sense that believers aren’t equipped to better handle temptation…unless there really isn’t any help at all?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    As Polly points out, the problem is not that Catholics occasionally transgress the rules set by the Vatican authorities, it’s that most Catholics actively reject those rules. Poll after poll finds that overwhelming majorities of Catholic believers deny the medieval and irrational edicts of the Pope regarding birth control, masturbation and extramarital sex – as well they should.

  • http://undiscoveredfuture.blogspot.com Rebecca

    Good luck learning Spanish; I’ve found the language very enjoyable.

  • José

    Hey, I am myself a natural born Atheist. Not even as a child was I able to accept all that weird talk and rituals I was being forced to put up with at church in my native Mexico. Believe me, I never met another Atheist during my whole life in Mexico. There were plenty of pseudo Catholics who never went to church and did not feel any other moral obligation towards their church. Most people now see the need for a change in the church, like allowing priests to marry and women to become priestesses, and they will even laugh at the cardinal’s ridiculous statements, but they’re not ready to stop calling themselves Catholics. That would mean you’re breaking apart from tradition. In Mexico, separation of church and state is a belief strongly upheld by most of the people. You can teach evolution all you want and nobody raises an eyebrow. Secularism doesn’t happen to Mexicans in the US, it’s carried along with their identity. The faster pace of life in America and the need to fit into a new society makes if easier for them to carry on being non practicing Catholics. However, they will tell you they still believe in God.
    Good luck with your Spanish, as you can see I’m still struggling with my English…

  • José

    Hey, I am myself a natural born Atheist. Not even as a child was I able to accept all that weird talk and rituals I was being forced to put up with at church in my native Mexico. Believe me, I never met another Atheist during my whole life in Mexico. There were plenty of pseudo Catholics who never went to church and did not feel any other moral obligation towards their church. Most people now see the need for a change in the church, like allowing priests to marry and women to become priestesses, and they will even laugh at the cardinal’s ridiculous statements, but they’re not ready to stop calling themselves Catholics. That would mean you’re breaking apart from tradition. In Mexico, separation of church and state is a belief strongly upheld by most of the people. You can teach evolution all you want and nobody raises an eyebrow. Secularism doesn’t happen to Mexicans in the US, it’s carried along with their identity. The faster pace of life in America and the need to fit into a new society makes if easier for them to carry on being non practicing Catholics. However, they will tell you they still believe in God.
    Good luck with your Spanish, as you can see I’m still struggling with my English…


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