Atheists in Cuba: Respected, Elected May 16, 2016

Atheists in Cuba: Respected, Elected

This is an article by Mark Kolsen. It appears in the current issue of American Atheist magazine. American Atheist magazine is available at Barnes & Noble and Book World bookstores in the U.S. and at Chapters/Indigo bookstores in Canada. Go to Atheists.org to subscribe or to join American Atheists. Members receive a free digital subscription. It’s also available from iTunes.

Cover Q2 2016

Cuba has always interested me. Although the United States government has subverted, and even overthrown, many left-leaning Latin American governments, the Castro government has, since its 1959 revolution, successfully resisted all such attempts. Despite Cuba’s poor human rights record, the nation’s people have one of the world’s most admired educational and health care systems (as Michael Moore demonstrated in Sicko.) Moreover, Cuba’s constitution officially designates it a “secular” state. As a closeted leftist-Atheist who teaches in a parochial high school, I had always wondered how I’d feel if I lived in a nation where everyone accepted me.

I first visited Cuba in 1979, when Jimmy Carter permitted Americans to enjoy its beautiful beaches. As a tourist, I learned that Cubans sharply distinguished between U.S. government policies and the American people, whom they considered friends. (It’s not just Americans; today, the friendliness of the Cuban people is known throughout the world.) When I returned in 1998 to write a story on religion in Cuba, I discovered that churches, synagogues, and worshipping at home were all tolerated by the government, but only if the faithful practiced quietly. At the time, the government considered religion a threat to the Cuban revolution.

Last Christmas, I decided to return again to Cuba. My first mate and I wanted to enjoy Cuba’s beautiful beaches, but I was also curious. I had always wanted to know how many Cubans were truly Atheists, like myself. And I had heard that researchers were having an easier time gathering information about Cuban’s religious beliefs.

Last March, for example, Univision, the New York-based Spanish-language media conglomerate, conducted a poll of 1,200 Cubans. In that poll, 44% of the respondents said they were “not religious.” The U.S. media widely interpreted this number as a reflection of Cuba’s repressive communist government. In reporting on the poll, The Washington Post said that because of their communist history, Cubans are “just not into religion.” But even before the Univision poll, the U.S. media had long depicted Cubans as suffering economic and religious suppression, especially during the holidays.

With my curiosity heightened by this new information, I spent eighteen days interviewing thirty Cubans in four different cities: Holguín, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Santa Clara. This was not a scientific sample. I conversed with random Cubans when the opportunity for in-depth conversation presented itself. Their ages ranged from seventeen to sixty, and they all had different occupations. Almost all were married and had children. From this small sample, I have concluded that the Univision poll has been misinterpreted and has reinforced some media misconceptions about religion in Cuba.

First, contrary to some media reports, the Cuban government has radically changed its policies since 1988. Today, as PBS recently reported, people of all beliefs and persuasions practice openly and freely. During my interviews, almost every Cuban said that the government tolerates all religions. Since Pope Francis’ visit Cuba last September, the government has even spoken kindly of its old nemesis, the Catholic Church. Of course, the Cuban government monitors and restricts religious organizations, especially those critical of government policies, but the Cubans I interviewed all boasted about “total religious freedom” in Cuba.

Cuba’s new tolerance of religion might distress Atheists who have viewed communist countries as our planet’s lone bastions of rational non-belief. They might even cringe at reports that Cuba has been undergoing a “religious revival” and that Christian proselytizers — especially Jehovah’s Witnesses—are now going door to door throughout the country.

Jorge, a Cuban Atheist geography professor who moonlights as a tour booking agent, bitterly confirmed that he often sees Jehovah’s Witnesses on the streets, and that Cuba’s “illiterates” are occasionally converted, which he considers dangerous because of their anti-scientific attitude towards Western medicine, such as its prohibition against blood transfusions.

In my view, however, Atheists should not herniate about Cuba’s new tolerance of religion.  Once government policy softened, a so-called “revival” had to be expected. But despite this “revival,” most Cubans are not, as you will see, interested in becoming religious.

The media are also misinterpreting Cubans who say they are “religious” or “non-religious.”  When 44% of Cubans told Univision they were non-religious, what they really meant was that they didn’t belong to a specific church or practice any prescribed rituals. Several of my interviewees used the term “fanatics” to describe practicing churchgoers. They considered the fanatics to be a small minority, an observation confirmed by media reports that while 60% of Cubans might call themselves “Catholic” only a small percentage attend Mass.

Alan Lengevin, a retired Canadian professor who now lives with his Cuban wife in Santa Lucia, says that on any given Sunday, the local church is “practically empty.” He added that with average monthly incomes of thirty dollars, most Cubans spend their time trying to make a living and don’t think much about going to church.

Ailen, a Cuban-American whose family lives in Medio Luna, said that in Cuba, “economics, not religion” is what really matters. Flying from Kansas City, she regularly visits her family, carrying with her consumer items that are prohibitively expensive on the island. On this trip, she was lugging a large television set which was much cheaper to purchase in the United States, even after she paid stiff customs duties in Cuba.

On the other hand, the 44% “non-religious” Cubans are not necessarily non-believers. In my conversations, I asked each person to think about the beliefs of ten random friends. Most said that a majority of their friends do believe in god. Although the numbers varied, seven or eight friends were, on average, identified as believers, and two or three were identified as Atheists.  But Atheists should look closely at what they mean by “belief,” and especially at what Cubans mean by “god.”

First of all, most Cuban theists I spoke do not subscribe to any particular theology. When pressed about their theism, they often cited their “family’s beliefs” and also rejected god as supernatural. Gabriel is a an English teacher who moonlights as a cab driver and also has a small business importing meat from Europe. Calling himself a “Catholic,” he said, “I’ll tell you what god is. It’s all this,” and he pointed to the mountains, trees and fields we were passing. As for an afterlife, “I don’t buy that,” he said. “Dead is dead.”

Marcos, an entertainer, simply equated god with a “greater force” in the universe, while Robert, a hospital nurse who supplements his income by peddling peanut brittle, equated god with “loving everyone.”

Javier, a sixty-year-old businessman who runs a popular casa particular (hostel) in Trinidad, even chided me for suggesting that most Cubans believe in the supernatural. “Everybody here is educated,” he said, and, with some exceptions, Cubans reject concepts of heaven and hell, or life after death. At university, he explained, you are either an “idealist” or “materialist,” with “materialists” accepting the traditional Marxist view of history espoused by Cuba’s Communist Party. By Javier’s account, Cubans today are less religious and more idealistic insofar as they no longer accept the Communist Party’s philosophy of history. When he said, “I don’t think you’ll find many materialists any more,” Javier was equating Cuban theists with idealists. While “god” is their term for non-materialist forces, he doesn’t think this implies a naïve belief in the supernatural.

The bottom line: although interviewees typically identified seven or eight friends as believers, many of these friends may well be Atheists insofar as they do not believe in the supernatural, and instead equate “god” with “nature” or other planetary forces.

Cubans who do believe in the supernatural usually have one reason beyond their family’s traditional beliefs:  living in a very poor country, they want “god’s help.” Eduardo, a middle-aged hostel owner in Cienfuegos, clearly is well-to-do by Cuban standards. Yet he told me he looks to god when “I need something.”  Ailen told me her mother embraced Santeria (a synchretistic Caribbean religion) when her niece recovered from an illness after her mother prayed.

In Holguín, this mentality has been fostered by the Sanchez family, former plantation owners whose patriarch once promised god and his community that if his daughter recovered from an eye problem, he would build and support the church in Santa Lucia.  Although their property was expropriated more than a half century ago, the family still sends yearly checks to maintain the church.

Joel, a tour guide, said that when people read about world events, some fear the world is going to end, and so they feel obliged to pray in order to save themselves. Rudy and Enrique, two middlemen who sell a talented artist’s work in the Guardalavaca crafts market, put it bluntly: “When people get into shit, they turn to god and pray. Otherwise, they don’t care.”

And what about those—perhaps the twenty percent—who explicitly identify themselves as Atheists?  Unlike Atheists in the U.S., they are treated as social and political equals.   Different faiths and non-believers coexist easily: “It doesn’t matter:  we don’t ask, we don’t care,” Grabiel said.

Junior is a thirty-four-year-old member of Cuba’s non-secret Society of the Freemasons, which has 30,000 members in 300 lodges throughout the country. He told me that the society accepts members with no regard to religious belief and that during meetings, lodge members are actually forbidden from speaking about politics or religion. The society has one primary purpose — to help other Cubans — and believes that religious and political distinctions only enable conflict and war.

Other Cubans echoed Grabiel and Junior: Atheists, like everyone else, are respected Cuban citizens. In elections for the municipal, provincial, and national assemblies, candidates for office are nominated by various mass organizations. Political dissidents may have problems getting elected, but when it comes to religious affiliation, Atheists are regularly nominated, and Atheists are regularly elected.

As for their origins, openly Atheist Cubans also seem to validate Phil Zuckerman’s view in Society Without God that people’s Atheism comes from many different directions.  In Cuba, some hail from families of non-believers, including ex-party members. Others, like Adolfo, a cab driver, believes that god could not exist, given the amount of evil in the world.

His theme resonated with others. Hermis, a seventeen-year-old married bus boy expecting his first child, said that his teachers had argued that if god existed, he/she/it would be helping the poor.  Hermis also said some of his friends are Atheists because god never answers their prayers.

On the other hand, three adults said that, as in the United States, young people constitute the largest percentage of Atheists.  The youth, they argued, are more concerned with their appearance, their friends, and their connection with the internet, a preoccupation depicted in “Cyber,” painted by Cienfuegos artist Irving Torres Barroso. Barroso, who has a warm and inviting studio in central Cienfuegos, believes that moral values have eroded in Cuban society. The images in his paintings are dripping black to symbolize this decay. Eduardo, the Cienfuegos hostel owner, thinks that Cuban youth “only believe in themselves.”

Older Cubans may have good reason to criticize their youth’s disregard of family and other traditional institutions in pursuit of self-interest. After all, this complaint about the younger generation has been around for millennia. But it bothered me that nobody attributed young people’s Atheism to their knowledge of scientific cosmology and evolution, two subjects that are clearly moving Western youth — even in the United States — away from religion.

But as I pondered Torres’ painting, and as I observed Cuban youth talking to each other and into their cell phones on the streets, I recalled the words of Daniel Dennett: “What is particularly corrosive to religion isn’t just the newly available information that can be unearthed by the curious, but the ambient knowledge that is shared by the general populace.”

Indeed, as more Cuban youth get “connected,” and as more tourists bring Western ideas to Cuba, open Atheism among young people will undoubtedly grow in Cuba. Moreover, as Cuba’s economy continues to improve — it has clearly done so since 1988 — fewer people may conceive the supernatural as an answer to their problems.  In a few decades, we may even, for the first time, see a Third World nation whose people, as well as their government, is mostly Atheist.

Mark Kolsen is an American government teacher in suburban Chicago. He is a big fan of the Four Horsemen and the late Victor Stenger, and he strives to understand all facets of scientific cosmology’s standard model.

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