Atheism in Colombia: Not as Different as You Might Think

Atheism in Colombia: Not as Different as You Might Think August 4, 2018
One View of Dawn in Medellín: Same Sun, and Similar Atheism! Photo by Maggie Clark, 2018

I had the opportunity a few days ago to read a column on atheism in El Espectador, and to delight in how easy it is to find like-minded thinkers even in a country as overtly Catholic as Colombia.

Valentina Coccia’s “Una vida sin Dios” is a meditation on whether one needs religion to live a full and happy life, and it’s an op-ed that wisely focuses inward, using the example of her own upbringing, with a deeply religious mother and an atheistic father, to show how different views can co-exist. Coccia does not use the term “humanist” to describe herself, but I feel ideological kindred to many of her sentiments all the same.

A sample translation, to give English readers a taste of the tone in Coccia’s piece:

Por otro lado, muchos católicos y cristianos fervientes afirman que Dios tiene un propósito para la vida de cada uno, y que debemos seguir con obediencia sus preceptos para tener una vida feliz y para realizar una labor útil a la sociedad. De acuerdo a lo que mis padres me enseñaron (y esta es una enseñanza que viene de ambos a pesar de sus enormes discrepancias a nivel espiritual), pienso que el único propósito por el que vivimos en comunidad es hacer de la vida de otros un espacio algo más feliz, ameno y sencillo para todos. Este es el propósito de vivir todos juntos en el mundo: ser un soporte para los demás a través de nuestra compasión, misericordia y demás cualidades, haciendo de nuestra convivencia algo más ameno y llevadero. Un hombre que vende autos debe hacerlo con el ánimo de hacer felices a sus clientes; una madre con una familia numerosa debe ayudar a sus hijos a crecer de la mejor manera; un músico debe difundir su obra de arte para que le llegue al resto del mundo. Si podemos hacer mejor la vida de los demás, creo que nuestro propósito en este mundo se ha cumplido.

On the other side, many Catholics and Christians fervently affirm that God has a plan for everyone’s life, and that we must follow obediently His precepts to have a happy life and to do good work for society. According to that which my parents taught me (and this is a teaching that comes from both in spite of their enormous differences on a spiritual level), I think that the only plan by which we [should] live is making in our [communal] lives a space somehow happier, more amenable and simple for all. This is the life plan for all of us in the world: to be a support to others through our compassion, mercy, and other qualities, making of our co-existence something lighter and more bearable. A man who sells cars must work with the intention of making his clients happy; a mother with a large family must help her children to grow in the best way; a musician must spread his work of art so that it reaches the rest of the world. If we can improve the lives of others, I believe that our plan in this world has been accomplished.

A lovely sentiment, and–if you can believe in the possibility of positive comments for online articles!–well met by a body of thoughtful responses to the original op-ed.

But should the possibility of pleasant and measured discourse around atheism in Colombia surprise anyone, really? What makes us so sure in North America that we have a lock on sophisticated spiritual and cosmological debate?

In my time in this beautiful, complex South-American country, I have encountered the usual range of opinions about atheism–and that, unto itself, has been the most enlightening possible result of my education in religion here.

On the more resistant side of the spectrum, I remember living with two loosely Catholic believers-in-Christ–doctors who believed that science alone could never explain all of human behaviour–and listening to a body of hurt surge from family histories of guerrilla violence to meet the claim, by a non-theistic Colombian one day over dinner, that the church was an unnecessary social institution. These two doctors were certainly curious about my own atheism–and one, a little threatened by it–but they generally maintained that my atheism was simply a sign of North American affluence, because for the poor and suffering in the world, a belief in Christ was surely the only logical response. For Colombians in particular, they maintained, a belief in a god was necessary.

Similarly, then, when an atheist Colombian I know described from experience why it is wisest not to argue, say, about atheism with one’s devoutly Catholic mother, I understood that–as in the U.S. and Canada–not everyone would be amenable to the conversation. This knowledge made me cautious about disclosing to a newer Colombian friend my atheism–but since he tended to start the day with cheerful texts about remembering that nothing was possible without the Christian god, and that we were nothing without our saviour in Christ, it was only a matter of time before he noticed my lack of echoing language. When he asked about it, though, and I disclosed the reason I prefer expressing gratitude simply for the day, and the opportunities within it to do better for oneself and the world, he simply stopped using references to the Christian god and Christ in his morning missives. No alarm or attempted conversion whatsoever!

And yes, the subject of atheism comes up sometimes, too, in my work as a teacher-of-English in local businesses. While I teach many spiritual persons without any discussion of their faiths, I also happily taught one struggling Christian all the English translations for argumentation his devout mother uses against atheists–while also teaching his highly atheistic coworker the English names for some of the arguments he prefers in his anti-theistic practice. I may have been cautioned against discussing three themes with Colombians–politics, religion, and soccer–but in practice I have found most folks here to be entirely suited to adult conversations about, well… politics and religion, at least.

Indeed, these last two clients charmed me immensely, because, despite the strength of their respective convictions, they both work well together in their business, and accommodated my humanism well in turn. In one private lesson I even found myself becoming a point of reassurance to the struggling Christian, who worried that asking questions of his faith, while still taking strength from daily, private conversations with his notion of a godhead, made him a “bad Christian” (as both his mother implies, for his inattendance at mass, and his atheist coworker says teasingly, to try to strip him of his faith entirely). Meanwhile, in another one-on-one session, I found myself joining a review of adjectival forms to a general lesson in socioeconomic compassion in response to the atheist who described as “stupid” anyone who continues to believe in a god.

Suffice it to say, I find the work I do here to be an excellent use of my humanities education–but really, it’s the familiarity of these wide-ranging opinions about atheism that intrigues me most.

And yes, I know I shouldn’t have been surprised. As a student of 19th-century literature, I know full well that the non-religious spectrum is not nearly as recent as 21st-century media would have many believe. Before the Four Horsemen there were a whole slew of generational figureheads, like Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Anne Nicol Gaylor in the late 20th century; Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley in the early- to mid-20th century;  T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, and Herbert Spencer in the late 19th century; and John Stuart Mill and Ernestine Rose in the early- to mid-1800s. Thus, just as many Christian circles believe that theirs is the generation in which the prophesized end-times will at last arise, so too have atheistic movements tended to perform under the assumption that the time is finally nigh in their era, their context, for a full, sweeping acceptance of secularism. And every single time, they have been wrong.

If anything, then, an historical understanding of atheism should instead lead us to conclude that there will always be a range of metaphysical positions maintained by fellow human beings. For me, this makes a more inclusive humanistic practice the more reasonable and achievable goal in any era. What has delightfully surprised me here in Colombia, though, is the realization that, even in a country where Catholic iconography can be found at most every street corner, and where the word “Dios” is never far from grateful lips, the ability to be a fully practising secular humanist is by no means a greater challenge than in the overtly secularized world of Canada.

The other day, for instance, I was riding in the middle of a transport-truck’s front cab, between two cheerful local movers helping me haul a mattress and bedframe from the pell-mell chaos of Centro to a tranquil barrio in Belén. When the truck entered the fray of a major autopista–a congested stretch of highway where the likelihood of accidents was high–the young man on the left and the old man on the right made the sign of the cross in sync, out of a well-worn habit in the trade. Dear Godthe gesture seems to imply for Colombians at these junctures, thank you for all my life, my health, and my good fortune to this point, and–if it be thy will–the continuation of all three in the journey now at hand. 

As Coccia concludes in her op-ed, “debemos compartir el corto tiempo que tenemos en la más absoluta armonía, con un amor refulgente hacia todos los que viven en este mundo“: we must share the brief time that we have in the most absolute harmony, with a glowing love towards all those who live in this world.

And so in that moment, one of three fragile humans sharing that precarious stretch of time and space in so grand (and to me indifferent) a cosmos, how could I not share, too, in my fellow-travellers’ underlying hopes for such a positive end result?


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