By Sal Villarreal, founding member of the Secular Latino Alliance
This article was originally published on Medium. It is reposted here with permission.
I was raised a nonpracticing Catholic in a superstitious household. I wasn’t baptized in the faith, nor did we really ever attend church, but we were taught to believe in Jesus Christ, to pray our Hail Marys, to ask the saints for help, and to watch out for the Cucuy. We had a Bible in the house, but my mom kept it wrapped in a blanket in her dresser and we weren’t allowed to touch it. We said our prayers nightly (not personal ones, but the kind you just recite). “Our father, who art in heaven. . .” You know the deal. Being the firstborn, it was my job to lead my siblings in these prayers nightly. It made me feel proud, like my brothers and sister were looking up to me in some way. I felt like I was making Jesus proud.
It was around the age of nine that I first became afraid of death (I realize now that that was the same year that Selena Quintanilla died). My parents would watch a lot of scary movies with us in the room. They would tell us to cover our eyes during the worst parts, but I was a curious child, and I always peeked through my T-shirt. I think the Poltergeist movies had the biggest effect on me. I remember crying to my mom one night that I didn’t want to die, that I didn’t want to end up in the bad place. I cried and hugged her, and just remember feeling utterly terrified that that was a possibility. She looked at me and said, “Mijo, you don’t have to worry about that for a long time. Just believe in Jesus and pray to him and everything will be alright.” That temporarily satisfied my fear, but not my curiosity about death and the afterlife.
Exploring Other Viewpoints—and Practicing Wicca
When I got to my teenage years, I began questioning god and religion a lot. By the time I was fourteen, I had decided that Catholicism didn’t make much sense and so I started to explore other religious viewpoints. I enjoyed the naturalistic and occultist viewpoints of the Wiccan religion and thought that it really made more sense to have a god and goddess aspect to the deity instead of just the common male god (in the Trinity) that I was used to. Also, the idea that there was no hell and that when we died we went to our own version of a Summerland before reincarnating was very comforting. For the next five years, I considered myself a Wiccan. I read everything I could get my hands on about Wicca and tried to practice it as best I could.
My mother, while very firm in her belief in Jesus, had become a rather liberal Catholic by this point. Sure, she was upset that I had left Catholicism, but while other family members chastised me for believing in witchcraft, she was simply satisfied that I believed in some kind of god. While she didn’t exactly encourage me, she didn’t discourage me either, which gave me a lot of freedom to explore on my own.
Rediscovering Christianity: I Held On as Best I Could
When I started dating my wife at the age of nineteen, she was attending a fundamentalist American Baptist church. This worried me, because most of the Christians I had encountered told me that I was going to hell because of my beliefs, that I was worshipping Satan. But she didn’t say any of that to me, and I really wanted it to work out, so I started going to church with her. This was my first real exposure to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
For a while, I scoffed at the way the church practiced Christianity. They preached about love and kindness towards your neighbors while also preaching intolerance towards “sinners.” But I tried really hard to look past what I disagreed with and accept the message anyway. Eventually, after reading the gospels for myself, I thought that Christianity had started to make sense. We continued to attend that church for a few years, all the while going to Sunday school and trying really hard to be good Christians. Eventually we moved to my uncle’s nondenominational church in my old neighborhood and were married there.
My uncle preached like a Southern Baptist televangelist, but it was absolutely enthralling. I became really excited about being a Christian and decided that I should dive right into the Bible. That was where things started going the other direction for me. I read the Bible from cover to cover. When I finished, I remember thinking, “Well, that didn’t really make much sense.” I just could not reconcile the loving god of the New Testament with the warrior god of the Old Testament. So in an effort to understand god better, I decided to look into other religions again. I read parts of the Quran, the Book of Mormon, and the Bhagavad Gita, and I looked into nontheistic religions such as Taoism and Confucianism. That really brought the doubt back that maybe this was all ridiculous. But I held on to Christianity as best I could.
Trying to Convince My Wife—and Losing My Own Faith
When my wife started pulling away from Christianity after our son was born, I felt like I was failing her by not being a good Christian leader. I bought her books to try to help her reconcile Christianity with the scientific ideas she had started to read about. Then I learned about the Ken Ham / Bill Nye debate. I remember thinking “Ok, maybe this will help. We’ll watch this Christian go up against a respected member of the scientific community and have a respectable conversation. That should help her understand that it’s ok to believe in Christ and science.” Man, was I wrong.
We watched the debate, and when it was over, I was dumbfounded. Ken Ham, whom I had been rooting for going in, was (in my opinion) an idiot. How could he be denying so much of what science had to say about our existence, when there, right there, was the clear and scientifically backed evidence? He just kept going back and saying “I have this book,” which clearly wasn’t scientific and didn’t refute a single idea that Bill Nye presented to him. It was then that I realized that the church that had helped me “find Christ” believed the same way that Ham did. They rejected the science of evolution, and they believed in a literal six-day creation and a six-thousand-year-old Earth. I had just ignored it before.
I started watching a lot of YouTube videos about atheism. I googled “Atheist Church” in an attempt to find like-minded individuals to talk to (“church” being the first word I thought of to find community). That’s when I found Kansas City Oasis and the Kansas City Atheist Coalition. Here were people like me, people who didn’t need a god to be good. People looking for community outside of church.
I realized shortly thereafter that there weren’t very many open Latino atheists that I was aware of. Atheism, or at least the atheists who were outspoken, seemed to be primarily composed of older white males. But in Facebook discussion groups I had experienced Latinos such as myself asking for guidance in dealing with coming out to Latino family members as atheist. And I had seen responses that didn’t quite grasp the way Catholicism pervaded every aspect of Latino daily life. Clearly there was a need for secular Latinos to reach out to other secular Latinos. There was a need for Latino atheistic support, and for more Latinos to be open about their atheism.
Coming Out: How Would My Mom Take It?
So I decided to officially come out of the atheist closet to my family with a Facebook post that read: “I think Latinos need to know that it’s ok to be secular. It’s ok to leave religion behind. It’s ok to not believe in god.”
I posted this at about one in the morning my time. When I woke up the next day, I had quite a few supportive comments from some of my friends in the KC atheist community. I did, however, have a few not-so-supportive comments from extended family members.
The worst one was from my cousin, who asked how my mother took the news. With that one simple comment, she really reinforced the difficulties Latinos face in coming out as atheist. That one comment carried with it the weight of fear and guilt intended to keep me in my place, to warn me not to step away from the herd. But it really did beg the question, how did my mom take the news? I know my family, and I know how my mom’s sisters are. As soon as the news reached them, they’d be on the phone giving my mom an earful. So I decided to call her first to head them off.
When she answered, I immediately asked if she had gotten any phone calls. She said no, why? So I told her about my Facebook post, and the reactions of three of our family members. She said, “Oh yeah, I saw that post. I was gonna ask you about that.” She then proceeded to tell me that it was ok to believe in both science and religion, that I didn’t have to go full atheist. I said, “I know that, Mom, but I just can’t make myself believe anymore.” Her response was better than I could have ever hoped for.
She told me that if I didn’t have any evidence, then I shouldn’t feel obligated to believe. She said she knew that she raised us to believe, but she also raised us to think for ourselves. She said it didn’t hurt her that I didn’t believe anymore, that I was still her son, and that she still loved me. She said she didn’t care what anybody else thought about it. She’s always gotten stuff from her sisters about her parenting skills and it’s never fazed her. She doesn’t give a damn about what they have to say. We’re her kids, and she’ll support us no matter what we decide to believe.
Creating a Community
Having my mom’s support really inspired me to help others like myself. So with the help of a few friends, I started an online community for Latino nonbelievers: a support group for people who have gone through similar transitions and for people who are struggling to come out. I hope that it helps promote positive atheism in the Latino community, and I hope that one day, we’ll see more and more Latinos coming to reason.
To learn more about the Secular Latino Alliance, see:
Membership Group: http://www.facebook.com/groups/secularlatinoalliance
Image by Jesus Perez, co-founder of the Secular Latino Alliance