Colombians will rarely ask you your religion. Why would they, when “Catholic” is the default faith in this South-American country, where makeshift shrines to the Virgin Mary can be found in most public spaces and ¡Bien, gracias a Dios! serves as the natural response to “¿Cómo estás?”
But when I do have to explain my beliefs, as a secular humanist recently relocated from Canada to this beautiful, complex social context, I draw heavily on the second part of that phrase: humanist. In my still-improving Spanish, I tell inquisitive locals that I believe humans are responsible for most of our problems, so it is our responsibility to address those problems, irrespective of whether or not some grand cosmic agent is overseeing all.
In this worldview, I am joined by people from many faith traditions. Not every spiritual person is a humanist — many genuinely believe that humans are vile creatures that must despise themselves and give all unto the glory, say, of a god forgiving us for being born vile in the first place — but not every atheist is, either. Misanthropy takes on many forms.
But for the people who do share in a hopeful concern for their fellow human beings — including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Baha’i, Hindus, Sikhs, and Pagans— I try to live by the principle that we are united more by our interest in taking responsibility for the betterment of our communities than we are divided by our distinct cosmologies. (Even if, from time to time, we differ fundamentally over what will truly better our communities. Obviously, at those junctures, our dissonant notions of valid evidence can create grievous impasses, and some hard lines must be drawn.)
When I describe my beliefs in this manner, though, I find quite a bit of rapport even among the deeply religious in Colombia. But why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t Colombians, spiritual and atheistic alike, be particularly well-positioned to appreciate the importance — even when difficult, especially when difficult — of confronting the problems that human beings create?
In Medellín, for instance —a vibrant, multifaceted city of 2.5 million in a country known for fifty years of guerrilla warfare and thirty of drug-cartel tyranny—you can visit Centro Casa de Memoría: an integrated museum, library, and public park that serves as testament to Colombia’s desire to grow beyond its histories of violence by facing them head-on; an active forum for victims of displacement, kidnapping, torture, mutilation, and murder to reclaim their voices. And if you visit, you can hear, among other things, a testimonial claiming that Colombia, of all the world’s nations, has the most experience with peace.
And it’s not wrong.
In the last 30 years, Colombia has undergone 10 peace processes — including, most famously, its signature peace deal in 2016 with FARC (then-called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; now the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force). The country is currently in the middle of another peace process, with a paramilitary group called the ELN (National Army of Liberation), while dissident FARC factions and smaller paramilitaries engage in brutal criminal activities, especially in areas with high indigenous populations. With all these formal processes and crises requiring measured government response, Colombia does indeed have more firsthand experience in the active construction of peace than, say, Canada, where terror attacks are culturally seen to reflect problems with peace elsewhere, which have somehow slipped through our borders.
Colombia’s peace-building project continues this weekend, too, in the form of its first presidential election post-FARC-deal. While the world continues to react in horror to one of Colombia’s neighbours, Venezuela—a resource-rich nation of starving, oppressed citizens under Nicolás Maduro, recently re-elected under the most abysmally undemocratic circumstances— Colombia is about to undergo the first round of an election with huge consequences for the stability of its hard-won peace.
Earlier this week, Slate.com published a critical review of Venezuela’s election, treating it as yet another sign of “Latin America’s New Authoritarianism.” The essay is a good summary of fears arising in the wake of Maduro’s continued dominance, but in indicting the South American continent for faltering democracy, it fails to address Colombia’s impending presidential election. In so doing, the article casts too passive a shadow over peoples often actively responding to such threats to human dignity. Even amid the decline of Venezuela, to say nothing of the profound meddling of other countries (the U.S., for instance, has further strained the government’s peace deal with FARC by pursuing related drug trafficking arrests on Colombian soil), Colombia is making a valiant effort to keep calm, measured governance at the fore of its politics.
These are nuanced issues, of course, which I will unpack in future pieces reflecting through the Colombian example on how faith-based and secular societies alike must share in the struggle with big-picture questions of retribution, forgiveness, restorative justice, and surviving and unlearning cultures of violence.
For now, though, I want to emphasize where Colombia inspires.
Colombia, like Brazil, has been an especially powerful ally to the Venezuelan citizen in these last few years. Both borders have been overwhelmed by refugees, and both nations have been working to help as much as possible their fellow “Americans.” When the refugee count skyrocketed, Colombia in particular worked for as long as it could to engage in productive and accommodating solutions, like changing its visa structure to help Venezuelans stay longer, conducting a census to assess populations of greatest need, and soliciting IMF aid to help with the influx.This is by no means an easy task, of course, and life for Venezuelans in Colombia ends up being, for many, no better than life for many internally displaced Colombians: persons from smaller towns and indigenous lands, who had to flee to bigger cities due to environmental disaster, or guerrilla/paramilitary, cartel, and even police violence. Worse still, the Venezuelan crisis has polarized the presidential election, with many citizens here just as afraid as many right-wing U.S. citizens seem to be about their country “becoming Venezuela” if the government shifts left-of-centre.
Thus, while in January there was a strong chance of electing a moderate like Sergio Farjado—a mathematics professor with mayorial experience in Medellín, and a man with a plan for educating the country’s poorest to elevate economic prospects for all—the race now lies between Iván Duque, a far-right leader supported by brutal-strongman/past-president Àlvaro Uribe, and Gustavo Petro, a radical leftist with an M-19 guerrilla past.
This is a troubling state of affairs for Colombia’s fragile peace, since Duque’s hardline stance does not bode well for the continuation of peace processes using the delicacy (some would say weakness) that President Juan Manuel Santos employed in the last eight years. Some would rather that Duque take a more retributive approach to people who have engaged in internal warfare—a fact that accords with the assassinations of FARC members well into its first run as a peace-time political party.
And yet, this state of affairs is predictable, isn’t it? In Canada, the U.S., and Europe, we too find ourselves constrained by such binary politics: the idea that, in order to defeat one possible threat, we have to rally unanimously behind a single other figure. Sometimes the other is “the lesser of two evils”; others times, a fine candidate—but either way, any knee-jerk shift to pooling behind one opposing force still diminishes the strength of a full democracy. In so doing, we forget that governments often function better when compelled to powershare between parties representing a range of citizens’ interests. We forget that compromise is a critical part of democracy’s resiliency.
This binary tendency affects atheists and theists in public discourse, too. For how many years now have atheist spokespersons found avid audiences by railing against social oppressions sanctioned by divine authority and its human protectorate? And for how many years have defenders of faith railed against social structures imputed as the natural end-result of atheism, in which strongmen rule as if considered godheads?
Let’s bypass the middle-ground fallacy, shall we? I simply want to point out that an underlying sickness should be of pressing concern to spiritual and secular humanists alike. Without automatically equivocating between extreme positions, we need to keep the danger of dehumanizing binaries at the fore of our sociopolitical discourse.
This isn’t an easy ask, of course, but it is one of the reasons I moved to Colombia: to break out of the norms and range of solutions presented by North American discourse—on religion, on secularism, on political reform in general–and see what other dynamic conversations can be drawn upon to become a better humanist.
In this endeavour the cultural differences, of course, are obvious: I am a secular white North American living in a faith-forward latinx country where Catholics, atheists, and persons from other faith traditions share in the daunting task of rising above an active body of violent history and its aftermath, the likes of which most Canadians are highly fortunate not to associate intrinsically with wars on their native soil.
And yet, amid this whirlwind of differences there is sameness, too: enough that I strongly believe aspects of Colombian culture, to date generally lost under North American fascination with sensationalist thrills like Narcos, can and should be drawn upon to improve our own social contracts.
Granted, even in the birthplace of magical realism, you will not find a magically more enlightened people. We all have our tribalist fears and personal demons—and so, tomorrow, Colombians will struggle, as citizens the world over do come election time, to make a good choice for their country without being fully consumed by their fears of other countries’ fates. And they will probably get it “wrong”, the way citizens the world over have been getting it “wrong”, even at the supposed “end” of history created by liberal democracy, for some time now.
Here, however, exposure to life’s fragility is more routine than in most parts of North America, and with that routine exposure comes more opportunities to test the worth of one’s humanism. Whether drawn from a well of faith, or simply the belief that we as humans have a hell of a lot of work to do, the strength of our convictions is only as strong as our practice—and if my time in Colombia has already taught me anything, it is that our practice is most sorely lacking when we permit our politics, of faith as much as of governance, to be confined to rigid poles.