As a digital nomad, I’m currently experiencing life in a country that separates church and state and has no official religion (guaranteed by the Constitution) but still privileges Christianity.
No, it’s not the US. It’s Colombia.
On a recent trip to the grocery store in Medellín, I picked up a book by Alejandro Gaviria Uribe, a well-known nonreligious political figure and former presidential candidate here. Titled En defensa del humanismo or “In defense of humanism,” the book came as a bit of a shock in a country where 73% of the population is Catholic.
In an April 2017 interview, near the end of a six-year term as Colombia’s Minister of Health and Social Protection, Gaviria Uribe came out of the closet as an atheist. The backlash was swift. Another politician, Alejandro Ordóñez, even called for his resignation based on an accusation that, as a non-believer, he was “promoting the culture of death.”
“Would you leave the health and the education of your family in the hands of an atheist?” Ordóñez asked rhetorically.
Gaviria remained at his post until 2018 and, as mentioned in Humanists International’s 2021 Freedom of Thought Report, “He is credited with fighting for women’s reproductive rights and regulating the cost of medicine, among other achievements.” He was even a candidate in the 2022 Colombian presidential election, though he did not make it past the primaries.
En defensa del humanismo is a collection of speeches Gaviria has given and some reflections on the environment, the future of Colombia, the culture around how we view life, the pain through the pandemic, and a little bit about our capacity to dream.
I noted only one reference to secularism in the 125 pages of Gaviria’s book. But much like in the US, the legal separation of church and state does not stop a majority of Colombians from believing that those who don’t follow God shouldn’t be political leaders.
In 1991, Colombia revised its Constitution to remove all references to the Catholic Church, its official religion between 1886 and 1936, and declared all faiths and churches equally free before the law. This revision gave individuals the broad right to individual autonomy and general freedom of action accordion to one’s own beliefs, limited only by the rights of others and the law. It also included freedom of expression and freedom of the press and banned censorship.
Gaviria’s gentle defense of humanism in his book did not save him from the discrimination of being an outed atheist, and he didn’t make it past the primaries.
Colombia just doesn’t seem ready for a nonreligious president. Like the USA, it’s a secular state in name only. And While Colombia is more religious and stigmatizes atheism more than the US, the Freedom of Thought Report rates both Colombia and the US at the level of “Systemic Discrimination” in the category of “Family, community, and society.”
Opinion polls have regularly suggested that most US citizens would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate if they were atheist. One survey indicated that “No other trait, including being gay or having never held elected office, garnered a larger share of people saying they’d be less likely to support the political candidate.”
So it’s unlikely that either the US or Colombia will elect an (out) atheist as president any time soon. But we have had nonreligious public officials in the US before. There was an atheist in Congress for 40 years.
Pete Stark was the first openly atheist member of Congress. He served as a US Representative from California from 1973 to 2013 (which, in my opinion, is way too long for anyone to fill an elected position–but I digress).
In 2008, the American Humanist Association named Pete Stark Humanist of the Year, and he served on their Advisory Board. He introduced a bill to Congress designating February 12, 2011, as Darwin Day and, in the same year, was one of eight lawmakers who voted to reject the national motto, “In God We Trust.” Unfortunately, he succumbed to his leukemia in early 2020.
So who do we have now in the way of influential secular folks in the US government?
Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) is a favorite of the US secular community, especially after leading the second impeachment against Trump. Raskin and openly atheist Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA) co-founded the Congressional Freethought Caucus in April 2018 with their colleagues Congressman McNerney (D-CA) and Congressman Kildee (D-MI) with the support of the American Humanist Association and the Center for Freethought Equality.
Jamie Raskin himself does not identify as nonreligious. He identifies as Reform Jewish. In fact, Congressman Huffman is the only nontheistic member of the Freethought Caucus.
Is that label important? Not really. The work they’re doing for secularism and freethought is far more notable.
But there is something different about wearing the identity of “atheist” as a public official. There’s stigma. It’s a heavier (pardon the idiom) cross to bear. Surveys have shown that 60% of U.S. citizens (and 75% of Evangelicals) have a less favorable view of atheists than most other belief groups.
Most US Americans still don’t trust nonreligious people with authority.
And perhaps that’s what another notable secular advocate in Congress—Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ)—had realized when she decided to wear a cross on her neck during legislation on voting rights. Senator Sinema is the first US Congressperson to openly identify as religiously unaffiliated (and swear in on a copy of the Constitution rather than religious text).
But rather than shining as a beacon of pride for the 23% of US Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated, Sinema has taken stances in Congress that have brought shame to the secular community. Most recently, she and Joe Manchin (D-WV) blocked a Democrat effort to return to the talking filibuster for voting rights legislation to pass the Freedom To Vote and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement acts, which ultimately failed by a vote of 48 to 52.
That was a massive blow to voting rights in the US, and Sinema has rightfully lost donors and support because of it. Sinema seems to have no problem playing roles that serve her, including wearing the identity of “religious none”—but only when it’s useful for her.
So that invites the question: Does aligning with nonreligious values mean political death?
When a religious majority has such an ill view toward atheists in power, their perceived higher power has more influence in elections than secular thinking. Then we are left with societies that legally separate church and state, but still privilege believers in power.
Yet research has shown that the happiest nations on Earth are also among the most secular.
And, as Phil Zuckerman notes, “with their extensive systems of welfare-capitalism, they experience the highest degrees of freedom in the world, while also the lowest levels of inequality.” And the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group of more than 110 nonreligious Members of Parliament and Peers demonstrates that, given the right cultural climate, secularity can indeed be an open identity in national governments.
With 29% of US adults identifying as religious “nones,” up from 16% fifteen years ago, the nation certainly seems like it’s on the right path to accepting more nonreligious political leaders.
Latin America, too, shows trends of declining Catholicism while secularism – but also evangelicalism – is on the rise. Religious nones or “ningunas” have quadrupled over the last 25 years to make up 16% of the population in Latin America.
It seems we’re headed toward broader cultural acceptance of nonreligious public servants in the Americas, but we should certainly count on it being met with resistance from evangelicals.
I dream of days when national populations will trust the ethical nonreligious to govern without posturing to the religious. I just hope I’m still alive when religious identity is no longer viewed as a qualification to fill a role as a public servant and openly identifying as nonreligious is no longer viewed by the majority as untrustworthy.