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In a church of their own, Latino atheists fear no God. But Mom? That's another matter

Brittny Mejia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

"Though he grew up Catholic, too, I get the feeling he just kind of goes through the motions for the sake of keeping the peace with my mom," he wrote. "I guess I do the same thing when I'm home visiting."

Another Reddit user emphasized "how deep-rooted our cultures are in superstition."

"In a nutshell, if you're not Catholic, you're not one of the 'normal' ones, so it can be very tough to fit in," the user said. "My hope is that other atheist Latinos will help normalize atheism in their respective communities."

Seven people gathered on the second Sunday of November for the meetup, oblivious to the churchgoers heading into the Starbucks after services. Rios rooted through a Loteria wallet for cash so she could grab coffee to keep herself warm in the chilly air, as she handed out Atheists United newsletters.

They are open about their nonbelief. Rios' black T-shirt read "Secular Latinas." Beltran has an atheist tattoo on his wrist and a sticker on his truck promoting Atheists United Secular Latinos of San Gabriel Valley.

The majority of Beltran's co-workers in the Commerce Public Works Department are Latino, and all are religious, making him the "butt of all jokes," he said. Often, he questions their faith.

After a co-worker explained that his own daughter was disabled because of all the bad stuff he did in the past, Beltran questioned believing in something that would punish an innocent 4-year-old for a grown man's alleged sins.

When a friend died, Beltran said he called another co-worker to tell him about his pain. That colleague had once asked him: Do atheists actually mourn death?

"We don't correlate it to religion," Beltran said. But when "we lose someone, our hearts are broken."

Although some friends worry about him being a nonbeliever, he stands by his moral code.

"I don't know about you guys, but when I finally decided to say I was atheist I felt like this huge weight just fell off my back," Beltran told the assembled nonbelievers. A murmur of agreement ran through the circle.

"I wanted to scream and tell everybody," he said.

At times, though, being a nonbeliever has come at a cost. After Flores' sister gave birth to a son and it was time for the baby's baptism, she told Flores she wanted him to be the child's godfather.

"But you being an atheist," she told him, "I had to go with someone else."

Leticia Flores-Mejia considered Flores, she said, but "the church that we went to, the godparents did have to be Catholic."

Beltran ran into a similar roadblock. When friends wanted him to be their son's godfather, it was the priest who said no.

 

"Apparently I couldn't because, how am I supposed to teach their son about God and the Bible if I'm not a believer?" Beltran said.

"Technically you can teach it," Flores said, "just not the things they want."

That Sunday morning, the group of seven talked about hobbies -- including running an atheist and agnostic Latin dance workshop. And recent European vacations -- including a visit to a church that urged tourists not to help the false poor but to "help the real ones" with an offer to the parish.

They cite evolution to disprove Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve and their immediate descendants, asking if God is OK with incest. There is comfort in swapping stories about people who don't understand who atheists are.

"You don't believe in God? But you're so nice," Rios has heard.

"You can't be an atheist, because you're such a sweet guy," said Beltran's friend, who asked him not to talk to her children about religion.

When these atheists go to church, it's for weddings, baptisms, or funerals. Beltran and his wife were married in their backyard. Rodriguez Jr. and his wife were married at City Hall.

Still, remnants of their past lives remain. At times they say "bless you" when someone sneezes, or "oh my God" when something surprises them.

The Last Supper hangs on Rios' wall, reminding her of her childhood; Beltran still has rosaries; and Rodriguez Jr. has a packet of "Bible stuff" from his first Communion that his grandmother sent when he moved to California.

There's only one Virgen de Guadalupe in Rios' home -- a print of the Virgin Mary depicted as Princess Leia holding a gun.

She put it away, after her grandmother visited, took one look -- and called it blasphemy.

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