If it were only the different worldview, it might be easier to be a Hispanic-American atheist in the United States. The US was born secular, and that spirit of permissiveness has made sure that no individual faith can claim a majority. Roman Catholicism is the single largest denomination, and they and the agglomerated flavors of Protestantism together claim most of the United States’s people, but no faith can call itself the faith of Americans. No faith is a given of American-ness the way Romanian Orthodoxy is for now built into the Romanian condition, or Twelver Shia Islam into the Iranian. It is only by eliding the differences between Christian sects and pretending that fundamentalist Protestant home-churches have more in common with liberal Catholic non-church-goers than they do with Twelver Shia Islam that the people of the United States become a “Christian people,” and Americans who profess to some other faith, or none, become something Other.
If it were only refusal to partake of the rituals, it might be easier as well. There is more to Hispanic-ness than the Catholicism that characterizes most of us. Someone who doesn’t attend the local church’s Christmas show or baptize their children is still more odd than threatening, if they make the right apologies.
But there’s an elephant in the room that turns a Hispanic-American’s “I don’t believe” from mere blasphemy and cultural denial and rebellious affectation into a writ of enmity against kith and kin, no more and no less than treason. A big, red elephant emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.
Atheism is nothing new. As a conclusion, it appears in virtually every culture that has ever been studied, usually very quietly. Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian practices often assume it, with the idea being so taken for granted that the versions of these systems that invoke supernatural entities seem weird and syncretic by comparison. The Western thinkers whose writings most actively explore atheism go back centuries, and were a defining influence in the Enlightenment period whose ideas gave us modern science and the United States’s founding principles alike. When an American hears about atheism, hir mind should reach for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Friedrich Nietzsche and H. L. Mencken and Denis Diderot and Robert Ingersoll and Madalyn Murray O’Hair and, if we’re being generous, Hypatia and Benjamin Franklin.
Instead, xe reaches for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Atheism only rarely had an organized or deliberate vehicle for its propagation, Eastern ideologies notwithstanding. That came to a thudding halt with the emergence of Communism. Built into the collectivizing ideology of Lenin and Mao and Souphanouvong was Marx’s famous “opiate of the masses” quip, the idea that religion serves to quiet the nightmarish pain of existing in an uncaring world and in particular the horror of patriarchy and capitalism. The Communists actively suppressed religious organizations and sentiments, permitting them to operate at all only if they subordinated themselves to the new totalitarian states they fought to establish. Surprisingly quickly, vast swaths of the world became officially, aggressively atheist.
US political culture latched onto that, at least as much as it latched onto the Communists’ anti-capitalism and far more than it cared about Communist suppression of art and science. Atheism has resided amidst the spectrum of American creeds since before there was an America, but in the 1950s, it was declared a foreign agent. The US’s conflict with the Soviet Union and its client states became, not just a duel of political systems, not just two superpowers meddling in everyone else’s affairs to install ideologically compliant proxies, but a cosmic struggle between the godly and the godless. That’s when “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, that’s when “In God We Trust” was added to our paper money, that’s when the United States’s official motto was changed from the historically significant “E Pluribus Unum.” It was an appropriate change. We were no longer One from Many; those of us who truck not in gods were expelled from the One, to be regarded as traitors and sympathizers with the enemy at best. And when the flow of refugees from the Communist world started, thousands upon thousands of new Polish Catholic and Ukrainian Catholic and Korean Protestant and Vietnamese Confucian and Cambodian Buddhist refugees hard-coded that narrative into the American psyche. For these unfortunates came not only to escape totalitarian personality cults that elevated Pol Pot and Kim Il-Sung to the status of minor deities, not only to seek economic opportunity never to be had on collective farms, but for the right to believe.
Communism is gone now. Most of the countries that once ascribed to the Communist path have abandoned it, even Russia, and the four that remain (China, Laos, Vietnam, and Cuba) have changed so much that Lenin would find them unrecognizable. In particular, all four permit far greater freedom of religion (de facto, if not necessarily de jure) than the “hard” Communist states of the 1970s. But the association remains. Generations of Americans grew up equating “atheist” with “Communist” with “traitor,” and “Christian” with “patriot” with “American.” Even now, twenty years after the Communist heartland disintegrated and seven years after The God Delusion, the association remains reflexive. Atheists are Communists are the enemies of truth, justice, and the American way.
My parents are in that generation. The Cuban-American community in the United States exemplifies that generation. They fled Communist Cuba while it was actively suppressing the Roman Catholic Church and then grew up in the United States during the most volatile period of US-Russia-Cuba relations, hearing at every turn that those damn dirty atheist commies that had actively oppressed them were the devil incarnate.
Latin America has an equally ignominious tradition of right-wing fascist rule allied with the Catholic Church, from Augusto Pinochetto Fulgencio Batista, but we don’t talk about them as much. It’s not as easy to preserve the narrative of the godly versus the godless, the hard-nosed God-fearing entrepreneurs and soldiers versus the ivory-tower liberal elite and lazy benefit-seeking farmers, when you know that the Catholic Church participated in creating thousands of desaparecidos for the benefit of a CIA-backed military junta and the leftists and atheists were fighting them.
That is the environ into which today’s Cuban-American atheists must wade. We are not only apostates against whatever faith our parents claim, we are apostates against the United States’s civic religion and spies for our nation’s imaginary enemies. No matter our politics, we are equated with the monsters that expropriated millions, destroyed Cuban agriculture, and made Cuba dependent on Soviet and then Venezuelan petrodollars for its survival. They look at us and they see the villains who slashed throats all across Peru and the guerrillas who use the profits from cocaine and kidnapping to wage a bloody insurrection in Colombia. They can demonize any prominent atheist as an anti-American and anti-Latino, a would-be collaborator with the thieving, totalitarian caudillos to come. But those of us who have those atrocities in our background and fail to hate everything that was ever associated with them—the (poorly implemented) concern for the poor, the antipathy toward institutional sexism, the hard-edged determination to improve the medical system—we earn a special level of hatred and fear from our own kin.
Which makes the Hispanic-American community’s growing affectation for the atheistic ideology of that other most famous political “philosopher” deeply ironic. Hispanic-American liberals and atheists alike can be permanently discredited by their country and their families for smelling like Communists to ignorant, jingoistic observers—but those who preach the exact opposite political movement’s atheistic gospel get to keep their cultural identity without question and are lauded as superior Americans to boot.
I earlier wrote that there is a space in Hispanic-ness for those who have no use for religion and who will not truck in its destructive foolishness. And that is true. Every Hispanic liberal that is plainly, obviously not a Communist, every Hispanic atheist who takes just as hard a line against the evil that sent millions of Cubans to the United States as they do against the evil that keeps our teenage pregnancy rate so high—we break down that association bit by bit.