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?

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