Jose Alvarado was born in Mexico, where an estimated 90 percent of residents are baptized under the Catholic faith. Jose was among them. On this Psalm Sunday, most of his family was headed to church. But not Jose.
Jose goes to the Ethical Humanist Society in Skokie, Ill. Normally, this non-descript building brings in speakers on controversial topics. On the day we visited with Jose, it was folk singers. Which did not make Jose happy.
He joked that he was halfway interested until they started singing. The performers sang silly songs for the kids before they headed off to Sunday School. Only, this wasn’t Bible studies. It was mostly drawing and other activities. Jose’s 5-year-old daughter, Alina, sat quietly as older kids read Asian fables about floods and dragons.
A visit to the society on a Sunday is not how 39-year-old Jose was brought up. His family moved from Mexico to the West Side of Chicago when he was one. And as devout Catholics, many traditions followed them. He attended seven years of Catholic school and was at mass, at least physically, every day.
He says he recalls being bored and often sleepy.
“You just showed up, it was something you had to do before you went to class,” he said.
Jose really started questioning his faith in his 20's, while earning a psychology degree. It was then he began to worry that the devoted often unwisely rely upon their faith to make important life decisions.
Many Latinos, for example, have an unwavering belief that praying to their patron saint, La Virgen de Guadalupe, can fix all. Jose says they’re believing in something unproven by empirical evidence. Latinos say “Adios,” or “Go With God,” without meaning it as a blessing. These examples become routine. Jose wishes there was more active awareness of religion and how it affects the lives of its followers.
He says that it’s hard for poor, poorly educated people to really understand and explore their religion.
“When my parents got home from work late because they had been working 10 plus hours a day, there isn’t any real time to delve into the finer points of what’s really in the Bible. The way that it’s set up culturally, it’s not something people do on a regular basis, to think critically what their cultural beliefs are,” he said.
Jose says Latino clergy can forget about teachings on kindness when machismo comes into play. A friend sought protection against an abusive husband. And the priest called her a sinner, or a pecadora.
“The priest (called her) a pecadora, basically acknowledging that the man is the head of the household and that whatever she did, she needed to go through him first, and he pretty much sent her home,” Jose recalled.
But it was September 11th that really took Jose over the edge. The thought that people would kill thousands in homage to their God made Jose join a quietly growing number of Latinos who are becoming atheists.
Timothy Matovina, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, says it’s an unknown and, to date, largely unsurveyed part of the Latino population. He says surveys of religious practices show that more Latinos are saying they follow no religion and that could mean they’re non-practicing, agnostic or atheist.
Historically, the longer a family is in America, the more likely they are to leave their church, and this often causes divisions within families.
“Because it involves emotional, familial, ties of tradition, people are not just choosing a new religion, they are also breaking away away from the religion of their own families and ancestors,” Matovina said.
Religion is so seamlessly woven into Mexican culture that it’s often hard for atheists like Jose to ignore some of the pervasive customs. He’s even baptized his best friend’s son. But he no longer believes any part of the faith.
He was the first of the Alvarados to break away from Catholicism. There are five siblings. His sister followed shortly after. The person who had the hardest time with this has been, by far, their mother Josefa. Her faith guides her daily life.
“With my mother, this was praying the rosary, sometimes by force, and going to church, sometimes by force," Jose said. "There were little pinches under the arm if you got out of line. She was forceful and I know she meant well."
Jose’s mother now lives in El Paso, Texas. He calls her often, usually waiting until she’s gotten out of church. The two of them speak in the formal Usted. It's a sign of respect. He asks how mass went, makes a dig about it and quickly, the conversation turns heated.
Josefa regularly tells her son that she believes his and his sister’s souls are in danger. She’s told them that she knows she’ll end up in heaven, eternally worried about her children burning in hell. He argues that he’s a good person, a good father who lives his life morally. Isn’t that enough? But it’s not just his soul she’s worried about.
Those beliefs are what Jose calls superstitions. But he misses being able to connect with his mother spiritually. For example, the time he got a flat tire while on a road trip and serendipitously found a friend nearby who could help, his mother said that was God looking out for him. It’s a blurry memory for him now, but he recalls being somewhat comforted by that thought.
Still, he wouldn’t give up being an atheist. It provides too much freedom, he said.
“We really don’t know what happens to our consciousness. I don’t want to call it (a) soul, but we don’t know what happens to it. All evidence turns to it just being a light switch turning off. And I think that makes me value this current life more so than if I thought I had a reset,” he said.
His mom thinks Jose will have one last chance to "reset," to follow the light on his deathbed. He admitted to me that at her deathbed, he might lie and say he believes once again. But he’ll be saying it so she won’t worry that he’ll spend eternity in darkness.
Until then, he’s spending time trying to create a safe place for Latino atheists to gather and discuss heavy topics. He hopes to one day have a center built in a predominantly Latino neighborhood like Little Village or Pilsen.