Los Angeles-based Social Studies teacher Sergio Ortega-Rodriguez talks to Black Skeptics about the complexities of being a Latino atheist and parent, bucking cultural traditions, the need for humanist educational centers, and becoming active in freethought community circles.
What is your cultural/religious background (i.e. were you raised in a religious household) and when did you make the shift to your current belief system? I have considered myself an atheist since birth and have always been open about it with relatives, neighbors, co-workers, and even strangers. My parents tried to raise me Catholic, but I have never been a believer. Of course I had doubts when very young, but they dissipated in my mind since I was about three years old, and completely when I was about six.
How have atheism, freethought and/or secular humanism shaped your world view? I have always been a free thinker which brought me the gift of being an atheist. Atheism has helped me see the world and people the way they really are. It has made me understand how cultural traits can become so engrained in people’s minds; they cannot detach themselves from such ideas. Too often I see religious people being too naïve when it comes to interacting with others and about issues. Being an atheist has also helped me realize education is essential in understanding the world and make rational choices that benefit others, not only a small group as is the case with religious groups.
How can atheism, freethought and/or secular humanism be promoted to appeal to larger numbers of Latinos?
Most Latinos I have spoken to fear retaliation or rejection if they “change” their views. Interestingly, this does not always occur if they change from one religion to another; but it will if a member expresses atheist concerns. I have people tell me they could not tell their parents, mostly their mother, they do not believe in god. When asked, I have told them being honest is a positive trait, but they still fear hurting their parents’ feelings. One told me he does not want his 80 year-old mother to die thinking he has doubts about god’s existence.
As a coordinator of the Atheist United Spanish group, I know Latino parents are interested in their children’s and in their own education. I would suggest we use terms that denote precisely this. If I were to add a term, it would have to include the word education. An educational site, or a cultural center, or an education center would do.
I also know a large number of Latinos value family, thus, family meetings would be very influential in this sense. Latinos also like to share traditional foods which serve as an incentive to gather. Traditions are deeply embedded into the Latino family’s social fabric. Thus, I think it would help tremendously to make it a tradition not to believe.
What has your experience been with relatives and other Latino/ people of color community members?
I have always been very open about being an atheist. My whole family knows I am since I was a child and, if they do not support me in my views, they are willing to debate and/or listen. Fortunately I have a very supporting family that chooses me over a deity. (At times I tell them that, ironically, they are proving to me they do not believe in the god they say exists. I add this is what separates many families in the U.S., a trait I noticed since the first time I came to the U.S.)
But, when it comes to other Latinos in general, they do not comprehend why I would want to be an atheist. In their view, I am rejecting a whole generation and its traditions. I realized long ago it is because they cannot conceive—much less desire—to feel as an outcast. Needless to say, they do not assimilate the fact that I do not see being an atheist a matter of choice. When I was younger, I could not justify why people believe in any god, until I realized religion is deeply embedded into people’s lives. So much so, it blinds them from seeing –or seeking—other points of view, much less accept them. And, ironically, atheism is to them the worse of choices, even when they do not see it as one.
Close friends listen to me and tell me our friendship is more important. Most see me as family, but they warn me others do not see me as they do. I notice also their children agree with me and I have read that new generations are, if not anti-religion, nonreligious. I have had friends arrange conversations/debates with religious people just to see if someone can convince me, which obviously has not happened. People invite me to their religious services and I go. But, when I invite them to a CFI, for instance, they say their church does not allow them to attend such events. When I point out the unfairness of them nor reciprocating they easily dismiss my comment.
Similarly, I see agnostics and curious religious people are more on the atheist side than on a religious site. And, once they initiate the process, it is practically impossible to go back to being religious. Such is the power of reason for people in general are smart when specific points are rationalized. This is why religious leaders do not promote critical thinking in any way. If they did, the percentage of atheists would skyrocket practically overnight. Besides, there is something inherently wrong when a child tell you s/he is following “the true religion” when s/he has not known others to be able to compare them. And this phenomenon happens with all the adult religious population also.
I also learned to appreciate my life and other people’s lives better. I realized early on morality is based on respect, which religions obviously lack. To me it is an insult when religious leaders assume certain life aspects and assume we all should follow them. It is also disrespectful on their part to expect everyone to believe in a god when there is no rational, much less obvious proof of their god’s existence.
Many people think I am one step from becoming religious simply because “everyone is.” Interestingly, they are in awe when they realize I have deeply thought about the reasons why I am an atheist. And I feel comfortable talking openly about being an atheist. In fact, I feel proud not only of being an atheist, but also for not becoming a religious person.
Only six months ago I found a niche at CFI in Hollywood where I feel very comfortable. I had never thought of myself as a secular humanist, but I came to realize I follow closely this ideology. I also belong to both Atheists United English and Spanish groups. We meet at the CFI building once a month. I soon realized that, had I known of CFI twenty years ago, I would be a member now for that long. Before then, I read widely not thinking much about how I was practicing secular humanism and my favorite, free thinking. I would say the role came naturally to me. Pondering about the repercussion religions have on people and on societies as a whole made me realize there was no other position I could take that could benefit large groups and individuals.
If you have traveled and/or lived in other areas have you noticed any regional differences in acceptance or “tolerance” of Latino atheists
I travel to Mexico an average of once a year and talk to people all the time about the evangelist influence there. When I arrived in the U.S. over twenty years ago, Mexico was 99% Catholic. Now I think it is about 70%. Since religion is more uniform there, I can see how influential it is since most people cannot—or will not—dare to contradict a whole culture, much less its superstitions. I have witnessed pilgrimages that block traffic for hours and no one protests. I love learning, but instances like this would not make any sense in a bright world. This also happens in the U.S., and the variety of religions only prove to me god does not exist since those who say he talks to them always contradict each other.