Alan and I are atheists. We don’t believe in god. This is an unpopular believe to have in most countries around the world, including where we are from (Venezuela and Mexico) and where we live (U.S. and Mexico).
Being from a predominately religious country makes it quite easy to avoid answering a question about your religion. I was born in a catholic country, graduated from a catholic high school, was baptized and confirmed. I am, for all intents and purposes, a Catholic.
But, I am not.
For Alan it’s even more complex, since Judaism is commonly used as a race/ethnicity (it is not) rather than a religion. Being from a Jewish family automatically makes you Jewish in most people eyes. Alan was born in a Jewish family, went to Jewish schools, had a bar-mitzvah, didn’t have friends who weren’t Jewish until he was 15 (and he lived in Mexico City, where less than 1% of the population is Jewish!). For all intents and purposes, he is Jewish.
But, he is not.
It would be extremely easy for us to avoid the religion question, but we choose not to. I find this similar to the decision of not wanting kids. It’s very controversial, and also very easily avoidable (answering the “you don’t have kids yet?” with “nope, not yet”). But why should we avoid it? Why do people avoid answering any question at all? Because you don’t want to be judged, because you don’t want to be shamed, because you don’t want to have to explain yourself. I understand, it’s taxing. It takes time and effort to explain to someone that you can be a good person and not believe in god (how is this still something people actually doubt??). But, we choose not to avoid it. Just as we want to help normalize the decision to be childfree, we want to help normalize the decision to not believe in god.
Although statistics are hard to measure, there is no denying that atheism is growing around the world. Regardless, people are so often shamed and demonized by this belief that they are not vocal about it, and this perpetuates the stereotypes about who is an atheist and what does it mean to be one. I think this is specially true in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa, as those are the areas with less amount of atheism, but it’s also true in the Unites States.
Do you know of any US politician that is openly atheist? Probably not, because there are basically none, and this is not because they all actually believe in god – I can assure you many don’t – but because being open about it can easily cost you an election. Even the few that are not religious go to great lengths to not call themselves atheists, such as congressman Jared Huffman in 2017 characterizing himself as “humanist and non-religious” because “atheism seems to bring with it the notion of being anti-religion as opposed to non-religious, and I prefer non-religious because I just want everyone to make their own religious choices. I’m not against them having religion.” But being an atheist doesn’t mean you are against anyone having a religion. And unfortunately this sort of public discourse just perpetuates the negative connotations around atheism. The simple truth is that many politicians don’t say they are atheists because it could very likely cost them their political careers. But, the more they do this the more atheism becomes tainted, it becomes a bad thing to be. A Gallup poll done in 2019 tested the willingness of Americans to vote for “President of Various Backgrounds” and almost at the end of that list – after black, catholic, hispanic, jewish, a woman, gay, lesbian, young, muslim – was atheist, with only 60% of people saying they would be willing to vote for an atheist. This is much better than the 18% found in 1958, but still, it’s certainly not high, and based on who we actually elect to office I have my doubts about that self-reported number. At the bottom of the list? socialist, which could become its own separate blog post…
I am not here to try to convince anyone to become an atheist, I know that is a lost cause and it is not worth it. People can believe whatever they want, and there are many reasons people choose to believe: to find solace in difficult times, to find meaning in life, to explain how the universe came to be, or simply because they were raised that way. Those are all valid reasons. My objective in writing this is twofold:
1. To try to normalize what is a perfectly reasonable belief, to not believe, in order to encourage atheists to be proud and religious people to be acceptant
2. To highlight the importance of the separation between state and church, which at least in the US (and many other countries) it’s very much intertwined, and harmful
It turns out the above two things are very much connected. So, why is atheism demonized in the first place in the Unites States? Interestingly, even though many colonists came to America in search of religious freedom, that freedom only extended to other religions, and popular belief at that time said atheists couldn’t be good people and shouldn’t be brought into the social contract. So, it was shocking that the founding fathers (Jefferson in particular) decided to separate church and state by creating a “godless constitution” and enacting a “wall of separation”. But that didn’t stop the general population from stigmatizing atheism, and denouncing anyone who was critical of religion. Then, blasphemy and sabbatarian laws were enacted across the country and many states didn’t even permit non-believers to give testimony in court (!). Finally, the Cold War.
At the height of the war the threat to America was Communism, and as things began to get more heated Eisenhower decided to demonize communism by demonizing atheism. “From the root of atheism stems the evil weed of communism,” congressman Louis Rabaut declared. This was a Holy War, and the communists were bad, specifically because they didn’t believe in god. Eisenhower was incredibly successful in this campaign. He got Congress to add “One nation under God” to the pledge of alliance, a prayer breakfast appeared on the White House calendar, a prayer room opened in the Capitol, and he replaced the US motto (“out of many, one“) with “In God we trust“, and posted it in all government buildings, public schools, and even our currency. Two centuries after the founders wrote a godless constitution, god was put right back in it. The fear of communism became the fear of atheism. Although it has been decades since the Cold War, for many that fear hasn’t gone away, as evident in the Gallup poll from above: the worst two things you can be is atheist and socialist. Alan and I are pretty screwed.
But what is the harm? You might be wondering. Well, there is plenty of harm in this commingling of state and church. First, it can (and does) lead to public funds being used for religious aims, such as schools becoming instruments of the state’s preferred religion. It leads to the ostracizing of not only atheists but believers of other religions, when for instance the pledge of alliance gets instituted in recitals in schools or official prayer time is led by the government (even if, or specially so, if you don’t have to participate). It leads to public money being restricted for reproductive care based on the employer religious beliefs. It leads to discrimination in the name of religion, for instance with marriage equality and transgender rights. As a whole, it leads to the rise of fundamentalism.
Church and state should be separated, totally and completely. There should be no “In God we trust” posted all over government buildings, no taxpayer money funding religious institutions and religious schools, no employer deciding what women can and cannot do with their bodies, no discrimination based on who you choose to marry. Period.
Now that we are at the end of this blog post 😅, I think I should probably define what I mean by atheism, since there are conflicting definitions out there. At its most basic, atheism is “the absence of belief in the existence of deities”. According to this, if you believe that we are “all connected” or that “we have souls”, but don’t believe in a god/deity, then by definition you are an atheist. However, I think the more popular understanding of atheism goes beyond not believing in god, and includes not believing in any after life – basically that once you die nothing at all happens, that this is the only life we get, that there are no grandma’s in heaven watching over us or criminals in hell paying for what they have done.
It’s becoming increasingly common to label oneself as “spiritual but not religious”. But the definition of that is even more fluid. Usually, being spiritual means having an individual practice linked to finding a sense of peace and purpose, and it often goes hand in hand with yoga/meditation practices, astrology, and the existence of an after life. You could believe in god and call yourself spiritual, or not believe in god or an after life and still call yourself that. I think that fluid (and positive) definition is what makes it such an appealing label, much more so than the tainted atheist one.
We are atheists through and through, we don’t believe in god or in an afterlife. But, that doesn’t stop us from believing in plenty of other things. First and foremost, we believe in ourselves and in each other. We believe that most people are inherently good. We believe in the healing power of nature. We believe that traveling and exposing oneself to other cultures and ways of living is the best antidote to ignorance and hate. We believe that how you react to what happens to you is much more important that what happens to you. We believe in the glass half full. We believe in you.
We believe in peace and love, my friends!