I recently attended a talk by PZ Myers at Murray State University. It was titled: The Inescapable Conflict Between Science and Religion. The talk, as you might expect, was really good, but that is not exactly what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about one of the questions that caught my attention after the presentation. A student asked, “How can we attract more African Americans to our group and have a more diverse atheist community?” PZ answered the question by saying: “Ask the African Americans in the audience and they might be able to give you a better answer than mine.”
Over the past year, there has been an increased concern about the lack of diversity in the atheist movement. I am Puerto Rican and an atheist, and following PZ’s advice, I am going to address this concern regarding my minority group, the Hispanic community. Some of the arguments might apply to other minority groups, and some might not.
Realize that atheist groups are all different in their composition and there is no such thing as a panacea to fix the “problem.” In the case of the Hispanic community, there are subgroups within it and this makes the issue even more complicated. Because the Hispanic community is comprised of many countries and cultures, we have to take into consideration this diversity.
If you want a short answer to the question of how to attract the Hispanic community to atheist groups I’m tempted to say two things: good food and good music.
If you want a longer answer, though, allow me to point out a few things that could help your group be more open and understanding of Hispanics:
- Understand our cultures. We don’t expect you to know the most intrinsic details of each country’s culture, because in some cases, we don’t even have that knowledge ourselves. What we would like is some general understanding of Hispanic culture. Not all Hispanic atheists are former Catholics and not all Hispanics like hot and spicy food. Some Hispanics (like Puerto Ricans) are U.S. citizens because of being a U.S. territory, some speak Portuguese (Brazilians), etc. If you lack the knowledge of a specific country or culture, not making the mistake of generalizing will suffice. Also, familiarize yourself with Hispanic and Spanish atheist writers; there are many and their work has been translated into English.
- Try not to use the term “America” to refer to the U.S. I know it’s widespread and most of the rest of the world uses the term, but most Hispanics find it offensive. We constantly see atheists from the United States using the term “America” to refer to the U.S. especially in conferences abroad, and many Hispanics consider it arrogant. America, to the rest of the people that live in the “New World,” means from up in Alaska, down to Patagonia in Chile/Argentina. Using the term America to refer to the U.S. will alienate most Hispanics and they will feel it as a rejection. Atheists are usually very specific with terminology and definitions, and being specific with this particular term can determine how welcoming Hispanic atheists will feel.
- Most Hispanics are living a double life. Hispanics that came to the U.S. to live are still very attached to their country of origin. Most Hispanics speak a language outside their homes and another in their homes. Besides the activism aspects of atheism, like promoting separation of church and state, they are also interested in other social aspects like racism, undocumented workers, and immigration. It’s worth pointing out that immigrants are constantly changing the religious/non-religious makeup of different countries. Being aware of these demographic shifts can make us feel more welcomed.
- Discrimination is not foreign to Hispanics. Hispanics and atheists in the U.S. are both groups that are discriminated against. You could say that that common experience unifies us in a sense. I believe Hispanics tend to feel welcomed in atheist communities, partly because atheists know what it’s like to be considered an “other.” I have heard atheists in the U.S. say that Hispanics tend not to want to be open about their atheism because they would prefer not to be a “double minority.” Two things about that: I am a double minority and I have no issues with it. Also, once we are in one minority group, adding another makes no difference. I have friends that are “triple” or “quadruple” minorities. One of the moderators of my podcast is gay, atheist, and Hispanic, and he has no issues about it. If there are Hispanic atheists who would rather not add other minority categorizations to their lives, I have yet to meet them.
- Understand nonverbal communication between cultures. Hispanics, in general, have less personal space than Americans. Hispanic culture is usually warmer and less distant than Anglo culture. We speak with our hands, hug all the time, greet friends with a kiss (in some countries, like Spain, we use two kisses), and touch you when we speak. Obviously, this could make some people feel very uncomfortable, possibly even threatened. Especially after all the issues with sexual harassment in the atheist community, it’s important to avoid confusing these gestures for ill intent. Most Hispanics who have been in the U.S. for a while recognize the difference and act accordingly, but Hispanics who have been in the U.S. for a short period might not recognize this.
- There will always be subgroups in large communities. In the same way that you have subgroups in politics or society, you will always have subgroups in the atheist community (like Hispanic American Freethinkers). This is something the atheist community in the U.S. has to accept and understand. It’s important to point out that longing to be in Hispanic-specific atheists groups is not a rejection of the atheist community as a whole. Most atheists will participate in both and will feel part of both. It’s just nice to be able to speak Spanish and spend time with people who share our heritage.
- Integrate the Hispanic community into atheist conferences. In the same way that we are more aware now to include female atheist speakers when we plan conferences and gatherings, we also need to include members of other minority groups in speaking panels and activities.
- Do not obsess about diversity. Diversity is important and we want to include everybody in our community, but when we obsess about it, we usually obtain the opposite results. Talking all the time about how “it’s great that you’re here because we need more of you” will most certainly put people on the spot and make them feel like they are outsiders (or “tokens”). Diversity is desirable but it must be organic. We can increase diversity by following the recommendations I just laid out, but when we focus excessively on increasing diversity, the majority will get tired of the subject and the emphasis will push minorities away.
The addition of minority groups can enrich the atheist community and bring forth new ideas about how to work on the issues we all care about. Hispanics know, for example, what it’s like to not have separation of church and state. We know what it’s like to have the government pay religious schools millions of dollars to handle public education (and indoctrinate children in the process). We know what it is like for the government to have a concordat with the Vatican. We also know what can be done to change this and keep religion and government separate.
Latin American countries have been fighting the encroachment of religion into the government for centuries. In many cases, we have managed to build a wall of separation between the two. The Hispanic atheist community in the U.S. and in the world is growing and we are focused on building more secular societies. It is simply common sense to join forces, bring together the atheist community in the U.S., and make this movement a global force to establish secular societies. A secular society will not only help reduce discrimination against atheists, but also the bullying of smaller religious groups by the religious majority. It’s a goal that would benefit everybody and requires the cooperation of our diverse community.