Apr 9, 2013

Atheist seeks to free Hispanics from faith, community

What holds American Hispanics to their faiths? Community.

That was the claim made at the American Atheist's 2013 convention in a talk by David Tamayo about how to reach out to Hispanics. According to a conference report, Tamayo thinks a substantial number of Hispanics in America are skeptical of religion -- even "natural atheist allies" --  but trapped by their families and their communities, and their needs for the infrastructure and social support that religion provides.

Whether or not this is generally true, it is the case that this is what happened in Tamayo's own life, as he told a Virginia newspaper last year. The paper reported:
Tamayo cites his own life as a case in point. Raised in a Catholic household, he described himself as an extremely devout youth who even pondered whether to become a priest. 
By the time he realized he was an atheist at around 40, it still took him years to explain his beliefs to his parents, who remain skeptical, he said. 
He has been asked not to attend marriages of friends and why he hates God. He feels uncomfortable discussing his beliefs at work, where a prayer group meets regularly.
Tamayo said many Hispanics, especially younger Hispanics, are religious mostly for such social reasons. It's not belief, per se, in these of individual propositional statements one mentally affirms, that makes them religious, but social reality. The good that religion does in their lives is the good of community and support systems -- somethings he thinks freethinking groups and networks can replace. And should replace. And must.

The promotional material available from Tamayo's website, though, takes a different approach. There the approach is more New Atheist, in style, depicting non-believers as heroic and strong for the ability to dispense with the fictions relied on by the mentally and morally feeble. A brochure that's billed as something that can be given to family and friends, for example, states:
Some Hispanics live without the fear of imaginary beings and superstitions. Some of us put our hope in science instead of prayer, witchcraft, or homeopathic medicine [....] Sometimes we have struggles, heartaches, disappointments, and trials just like anyone else, but we solve our problems without the comfort or help of imaginary beings such as angels, ghosts, gods, fairies, or even chupacabras.
Such statements seem to be more about affirming atheists in their non-belief and promoting antagonism towards the religious, rather than outreach or recruiting allies or giving people community support alternative to the established religious communities. Perhaps their are other forms of outreach, though, that Tamayo and other atheists are using to reach Hispanics and, as the conference commentator put it, "unlock the demographics."

"Unlocking the demographics" has brought about a lot of interest in Hispanics, recently, political and religious. A number of Catholics have been talking about Latin American immigration as a source of possible spiritual renewal. Political conservatives have speculated that "mass immigration" could save social conservatism in America.

The most interesting comparison for atheists wanting to reach Hispanics, however, might be Pentecostals.

It strikes me, at least, that American Hispanics joining Pentecostal churches can face similar serious opposition from friends and family, of the same sort that Tamayo describes. These matters of faith are matters of communal rupture. In addition to the questions of specific beliefs and practices, it can be issues of community and support and connection that are decisive in such conversions or de-conversions.

Arlene Sánchez-Walsh, for example, a professor at Azusa Pacific University, writes that for many, becoming Pentecostal means a life of tension with fathers and mothers, siblings, aunts and uncles. Of herself, she writes:
I was born and raised Catholic, and you can ask just about anyone who made this sojourn to Pentecostalism, whether through a dramatic Damascus-like narrative, or, like me, through a painful year-long process of searching, it is, as my colleague Fr. Allen Figueroa Deck has written, "a familial rupture" that separates you from the weddings, funerals, quinceaneras, and family get togethers that have marked our lives for years. Where, if they are anything like the family gatherings I have had -– the dancing, drinking, and partying is part of the package. As my colleague tells me, once the music played at the weddings, his Pentecostal mom took her kids and left–before all the craziness ensnared her impressionable young boys. Well I don’t know anything of that high-tension piety, I don’t know what its like to have one’s faith played out on that field -- and perhaps one reason why I study this community, is because I am trying to understand how my community lives, how it worships, and if I ever will cross over from the feeling I have had for nearly 20 years, that I am an interloper.
One of the ways Pentecostal churches help Hispanics maintain the decision they've made, despite family and social pressures, is a steady flow of anti-Catholicism. A sustained fusillade against the church, its teachings and practices, works to counteract or at least tempter the tolerance new converts might otherwise have for the validity of family members' faith. Promoting antagonism -- such as public displays of disapproval like leaving a party when the dancing starts -- is one strategy. Another, though, is exactly what Tamayo was talking about at the conference of atheists, Easter weekend.

At least one of the ways Pentecostalism has helped converts maintain the decision they've made is to offer alternatives to the communities they've known.

A third-generation Pentecostal woman (who's now pursuing a degree in the sociology of religion) writes, for example, of how her whole life, growing up, was wrapped up in her church. Erica Ramirez writes:
I spent my adolescence at Westover Hills Assembly of God, in the Northwest side of San Antonio, completely immersed in the life of the community there. I sang in the choir and was part of the youth group. I went to camps and conventions because I wanted to. I imagined there: I imagined myself whole, I imagined the world meaningful; I envisioned a future for myself that replicated the most healing experiences I have had in my life -- I would lead worship I would help people. It was simplistic, but it was a safe space to be, emotionally. I could remake myself in the space of that church and people would, people did help me.
It's this sort of social reality, and especially the attendant personal imaginaries, that Tamayo is saying would have to be replaced by freethinking associations in order for Hispanics who are actually (he says) already skeptical of religious claims and supernatural stuff, to be freed from what they don't believe.

"There isn't anything a church can do that a secular organization can't do," Tamayo told the Virginia newspaper.

It's not clear to me that, strictly sociologically speaking, that's true. But it does seem right that if your goal is to de-convert American Hispanics and liberate them from the "comfort or help of imaginary beings,"talking about the existence of supernatural realities may be less important than offering social replacements for baptisms, confirmations, funerals, feast days, family prayers, and all the other ritual, social ways in which beliefs are communal realities.