This is a guest post written by César J. Baldelomar. César is currently a student at the Florida International University College of Law. He has written several articles on politics, culture, and religion.
Though I grew up in a moderately Catholic household and attended Catholic institutions from age three until my college graduation from St. Thomas University, I felt a constant struggle between accepting what others were saying I should believe and what I thought was the intuitive, rational choice. Yet it is only now that I finally have the courage to publicly state that I am an atheist.
Perhaps my struggle was made more poignant because I was raised by Latino parents in one of our country’s most socially conservative cities (Hialeah, Florida). That may have been why I decided to go into religious studies as a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School (HDS). An institution renowned for its trend-setting scholarship and social progressivism, HDS was my top choice for the study of religion, ethics, and politics. I refused to attend another Catholic institution that would not allow me to pursue my intellectual curiosities, including the history and intellectual underpinnings of freethinking.
During my last year there, I took a course titled “American Unbelief: From the Enlightenment to the New Atheists.” It was a chance to explore, academically and personally, the tenets of atheism and agnosticism. More importantly, with a vast array of academic resources readily at my disposal, I was free to research why Latinos in the United States were unwilling — even afraid — to declare their non-theistic status.
To my surprise, I discovered that over 2,000,000 Hispanics consider themselves religious “Nones,” meaning they don’t identify with any religious organization or spiritual practice. I began to wonder how many of these Nones were actually atheist or agnostic but hesitant to identify as such. This, in turn, led me to focus on and criticize media portrayals of all Latinos as extremely religious, honoring the Virgin Mary, or celebrating Christmas around a makeshift nativity scene. What message does all of this send to those Hispanics who identify as nonreligious?
It’s quite simple: shame. Denying our existence reinforces the stereotype that all Hispanics are religious or spiritual, when in fact a significant number of us are not. Remember also that many non-religious Latinos, especially young ones, remain unaccounted for because religious, political, and community leaders simply assume they are Catholic or Protestant, thus effectively ending any conversation before it even begins.
I taught religious studies and philosophy in high school in Boston and Miami for four years, and I can say with confidence that the majority of my Latino students doubted the existence of God. They viewed religion as antiquated and dogmatic. Still, they felt that eventually they would “find Jesus” or “return to their childhood religion” because of familial and societal pressures. Latino families tend to be extremely close knit, often forming an intellectual, social, and spiritual cocoon around their children. An unfortunate result of this “familial cocoon” is the expectation that children will live according to traditional “family” values, including following a faith tradition.
I believed from an early age that Jesus did not exist and that God was simply a man-made invention. Yet I felt shame in saying such things publicly, partly because of my background, and partly because of the pressures in our society.
With the Latino population growing in the U.S., it’s time for that community to acknowledge that many within it do not have a belief in God. There are a number of things Latinos struggling to identify as Nones can do right now to start changing that: Seek support from atheist and freethinking websites that focus specifically on Hispanic identity (such as Latino Atheists or Hispanic American Freethinkers); encourage dialogue with Latino theists about the merits of freethinking in the modern age; and develop educational and multimedia materials that actively engage questions of ethnic identity in relation to nonreligious or religious belief.
By straightforwardly addressing the questions of identity and freethinking, we become visible to the Latino community (and to others) — perhaps encouraging other Hispanic freethinkers to emerge from the shadows. Once we become partially visible, we may begin to influence an entire generation of Latinos, who will in turn, through their votes and perhaps active political participation, shape public policy and education in our country. Shifts in family values and traditions will accompany these political and educational changes. Yes, we Latino Nones have our work cut out for us, but with a little patience and persistence, we will be able to overcome the shame that many of us felt and continue to feel for thinking differently.
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