The Washington State Tri-City Herald ran a lovely story last month profiling a local atheist: Atheism – A belief in the here and now. Fernando Aguilar, the story’s subject, is the kind of person every atheist should strive to be like: a dedicated and courageous humanitarian, an outspoken activist, and a loving family man.
When mortar shells were exploding near Fernando Aguilar in Iraq, he didn’t pray to God for help.
He doesn’t believe God exists. And his long-held conviction didn’t change when he traveled to a war zone.
Aguilar, 55, of Walla Walla, is a civil engineer and his work has taken him to some of the most dangerous places in the world. He’s been to Iraq twice and Afghanistan once since 2003, helping to build water systems, hospitals and schools.
He’s also done relief work in Southeast Asia and volunteered in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.
Using the skills he has to benefit others is part of the code Aguilar lives by.
I thought at first that Aguilar was a soldier, but I misread the article the first time: he’s a civil engineer whose work rebuilding vital infrastructure took him into active combat zones. Still, in either case, he’s another living refutation of the cowardly and slanderous insult that claims there are “no atheists in foxholes“. Atheists, no less than anyone else, can and do believe in improving the lives and welfare of their fellow human beings, even to the extent of putting themselves in danger to do it. This is an inspiring illustration of the humanist principle that happiness and well-being are values to be pursued with the greatest of passion.
Aguilar is also an activist who’s worked to defend the separation of church and state from those who would infuse religion into government:
Aguilar realized he was an atheist when he was 24.
He’s not afraid to speak his mind when it comes to God. He believes people should be able to pray, read Scriptures and practice their faith. But he doesn’t think religion belongs in courts or schools.
He’s been active in the national American Atheists organization and once clashed with the Walla Walla City Council because members were starting the meetings with prayer. The council eventually went to having a moment of silence.
And, like many atheists, Aguilar lives out the philosophy that life’s brevity is what makes it precious and valuable, and is why we should make the best use of it we possibly can. He exemplifies that principle in raising a happy and prosperous family, and in using his abilities to help others wherever possible:
He believes that when you die, your mind and consciousness die too. That urgency gives his life meaning.
He tries to be a good partner to Yvonne and a good father. He has a daughter in college and son who’s a teacher, and he beams when he talks about them.
He tries to help other people when he can. That’s what he believes in.
Real atheists like these provide a powerful counterexample to the stereotypes we too often encounter. I’ve often said that, the more the public gets to know actual atheists and see what we really stand for, the more sympathy and accord we will win. We’ve long been kept down by insulting caricatures, but if we want to refute those, the very best way is not through argument, but through the examples of our own lives.
No doubt there are countless people like Aguilar and his family out there, people who’ve simply never attracted the media attention enjoyed by more prominent commentators. But we don’t need to go through the media to reach others. By showing that atheists are good people in our own lives, we can make a difference for those around us. It may take longer than using the mass media, but I believe that it’s ultimately a far more effective and persuasive method.