I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Amy Mihyang Ginther.
Jadai Bergolla Echevarría Alonso is an emerging fiction writer and personal essayist whose topics of interest include Latinx-American rights, the Latinx diaspora, feminism, human rights, and diversity in media. She is left-handed and really wants the world to know that left-handed scissors are a damn joke. She also spiritually identifies with Oscar Isaac’s mustache.
Hi, Jadai! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your religious background?
I am a 25-year-old Cuban-American woman whose childhood basically included a pu pu platter of religions (I also just wanted an excuse to type ‘pu pu platter’). I was raised in Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Santeria growing up. My upbringing was filled with conservative Jews and Christians, and what I can only describe as an Ina Garten-approved, locally-sourced drizzling of organic witchcraft.
My grandfather was a Babalao for almost three decades of his life, which is the high priest in Santeria. My mom is still a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. Despite the eclectic madness of those influences, I’m the anomaly in my family in that I don’t believe in anything. At all. I have self-identified as an atheist for a long time now, even while I was still going to Kingdom Hall meetings and learning about my family’s history with “sympathetic magic” as a teen.
I don’t believe in god or any deities. I don’t adhere to organized faiths. What I do believe in is that you can be an atheist and still be spiritual in your own individual way, funnily enough.
I’d love to know what being an atheist means to you now. What have you constructed for yourself that’s meaningful?
Personally speaking, viewing atheism as a worldview that naturally evolved on its own in my life is emphatically more realistic than my atheism being an adverse reaction to having had a religious upbringing. That’s not the case at all. Because my religious upbringing was so convoluted to begin with, there’s no aha moment in which I knew I didn’t believe in god or knew which religious influence was the proverbial nail in the coffin. Oddly enough, it never even felt like something I “became.” Being an atheist is something I simply always was, but didn’t fully admit to myself until I grew up due to the guilt that I had associated with it as a child. Selfishly, what brings me the most delight in being an atheist is no longer having to get up early on the weekend to attend a religious meeting or go out preaching under the scorching Miami sun every Saturday morning. Back in the ’90s, Jehovah’s Witnesses would have bible study once a week in someone’s home, a weekend Kingdom Hall meeting (with sermons and reviewing the weekly edition of a religious magazine known as La Atalaya), and a weekday Kingdom Hall meeting in the evening (with smaller sermons, a “sketch” of sorts going over a religious topic, and a weekly review of another religious magazine known as ¡Despertad!). That’s not counting the assemblies and special ceremonies, all early in the morning and some lasting three days long. That was 15 years of my life. At this point, sleeping in is the best type of sin.
As a whole, atheism renders forth a sense of oneness within me where there was once such a fractured sense of identity in regards to faith. I always felt like my religion switch was defective growing up because I’d recite these prayers and attend these meetings while the words just rang hollow in my ears. I wanted to believe in god. I don’t know if I thought that if I just kept faking it, then it’ll become real like some self-imposed holy Stockholm syndrome, but it never worked. I’d preach longer hours with my uncle and try to answer questions during meetings like a good girl, but it was pointless. I’d question everything. I was a little girl reading the Old Testament thinking, “WHOA, and I thought Hansel and Gretel was disturbing.” I used to frustrate the hell out of my uncle, who is a Jehovah’s Witness elder to this day, with questions about hypothetical scenarios during our bible study that he simply didn’t have the answers to. One particular conversation that comes to mind was when I asked him if a trans woman went through sex reassignment surgery, and then converted to the faith, would she therefore be respected as a woman under the eyes of God after all of her sacrifices? If only true Christians get saved, then what about all of the good people of different faiths? How is that just? I thought it was nonsensical and outdated thinking, but I always kept my disbelief to myself. I couldn’t comprehend how you can be so sure of your own faith if you never learn about other ones, as well. My abuelita almost whooped my behind with her chancla when she discovered that I was visiting a relative of mine, who happens to be a Santeria priestess, about the initiation process of the craft. I wasn’t intending to go through with the rituals (which don’t get credit for being as intricate and physically demanding as they are), but I simply wanted to know. There’s still a great divide within my family between the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Jewish relatives, and Santeros. Their disconnect was palpable to me growing up, which is such a damn shame.
As an atheist, I can visit any relative and speak about religion without feeling the disapproval of another relative burning at the back of my mind. I can celebrate birthdays. I’m not living in fear of the end of times. I don’t aspire to heaven or paradise, or believe in the afterlife. I just want to make the most out of the life that I have and that’s it. I can attend my Christian friend’s Christmas party and my Muslim friend’s wedding ceremony at a mosque because there’s no forced invisible line in my life anymore between the “worldly” and the “righteous.” I don’t judge others by a checklist of sinners and saints, or feel the need to align my worldview with any holy work. My morals and ethics have remained the same. All that’s changed is my perspective on what I can and cannot do, which is no longer defined by religious guilt whenever what I wanted went outside the bounds of the three faiths that I was exposed to. Finally accepting the fact that I don’t believe in any religion or god, and that’s perfectly alright, was a spiritual awakening in and of itself.
My favorite aspect of atheism is that there is no organized form of it. There’s no guidebook. It simply is as it is defined by you. I’m not an atheist because I caught the hate bug for religion. If you believe in a certain faith, then that’s wonderful and I hope it brings you meaning. There are extremists and bad people in every group, from theists to atheists, and the handful of douchebags should never take away from the good people who are part of the same belief or non-belief system. Not to go Pollyana over here, but it’s a beautiful thing to be able to share and learn from each other. My personal meaning just comes from not having any theology at all. I have constructed my atheism to be open-minded and loving, without the need for religious guidance. I trust myself to be a good person without it. Being an atheist is simply being free of yellow and red traffic lights that I believed should have never been there in the first place.
It’s so interesting to hear your perspective, because I can sometimes think, even now, of some sort of religious faith as the ‘default’ and atheism is something you arrive at or learn about. When in your case (and in many other cases, I think!) it’s just the natural way of looking at the world. How remarkable that there are so many different faith traditions within your own family!
Have you found that atheism is something you talk much about with your friends or family? Do you find that people have a strong reaction to it, or is it generally accepted as a part of who you are?
With my mom, thankfully, it’s completely understood and accepted, and we’ve openly discussed it a handful of times. I’ll still go to Passover/Memorial with her to this day, but it’s just for the nostalgia. She was downhearted years ago when I first really spoke to her about it, but it faded quicker than I expected it to. There was a part of her that always knew that I never fully believed in god or any dogma. I was a stereotypical good girl, but I always argued against points being made in a sermon to her after a meeting, was too radical in my opinions on social issues, liked not only secular sources of entertainment, but ungodly ones like Harry Potter and The Power Rangers (yes, THAT was banned), and I’m very political when JWs are supposed to be uninvolved in such affairs. I never snuck out to parties, but sneaking out to get my voter registration card was a major act of rebellion. My atheism was a badly kept secret that I kept even from myself when I was growing up, but I fully accepted it by the time I became a young adult, and thankfully so did my mom. She’s both gracious and a firecracker. I love my mom more than anything in this world. She’s physically 4’10” and can barely lift a 12-pack box of coke, but has the internal strength of a WWE superstar. I am blessed with the momma I have who is an inexhaustible source of unselfish love.
As for the rest of my family, I wish I could say, “everyone’s cool, no bad blood here – ain’t life grand??” but that one would be a bald-faced lie. I really don’t talk about it much with my family. Or, well, you know… ever. I now live far away from my most devout relatives, so it was mercifully at the bottom of the list of subjects we would go through while catching up. Many would consider me an apostate whom must be avoided at all costs, even though I never went through with a baptism or any “official” initiation because it always felt hypocritical to ever do so. A few relatives that come to mind would have emphatically strong reactions. I’m not even kidding when I say that if I were to admit to being an atheist, I’m pretty sure I would get disowned by some family members on the spot. If I followed a different faith, then a handful of them would greatly condescend but ultimately let me be. No faith at all? They’d put the “SHAME!” lady from Game of Thrones to shame. I feel like the most reverent of my relatives, who happen to be the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jewish ones in my life, would inevitably be the most severe. I’m Sephardi Jewish on my abuelita’s side, and the relationship with that side of the family tree has always been turbulent at best due to her falling-out with some relatives before I was born. My mom has been trying to make amends with them since as long as I can remember, even trying to brush up on her Ladino. My mom’s name, the names of my aunts and uncles, and my own name are all Spanish-Hebrew derivatives. It’s imperative that we retain that facet of our heritage, but this would cut me off for good. There’s no Christian-like version of hell in Judaism, but my Jewish family would pretty much place me in the Gehinnom category of people once the cat’s out of the bag. I couldn’t even claim to be “culturally Jewish” because they despise the term, thinking it’s cheap without the pious context attached to it. It’s all gut-wrenching.
After the very traumatic deaths of my grandparents, there came a domino effect of more horrible events, including my mom losing her job for over a year and my falling gravely ill, leaving me needing two emergency surgeries with no insurance, and we had to live with a relative for a short time before we could gradually get back on our feet. What breaks my heart is knowing that, if that particular relative knew that I was an atheist at the time, they would have unquestionably kicked us out on the street. That’s not even an exaggeration. I’m deeply in earnest here when I say that there’s no doubt in my mind that this person would have never wanted any contact with me ever again, and would have forced us out as soon as they could. That’s the tragic part of revealing it. I’m the same person, but not in their eyes. I’d be tainted for good. The fact that I’m doing this interview proves to me that I don’t want to be inconspicuous about it, come what may. If they google my name and find this, then I’ll deal with the aftermath. Honestly, if your love for someone is so flimsy that their lack of theology can easily dwindle it, then how inconsequential was that love to begin with? If that’s the case, then I’m better off for it. I’d rather have no love then a second-rate version of it.
My friends are beyond terrific and couldn’t care less about my atheism, but that’s also due to the fact that I don’t readily associate myself with assholes if I can help it. I have friends who are religious believers, I have friends who believe in nothing, and I have agnostic friends who don’t know what to believe. I love them all the same. It’s not like we sit around incessantly debating theology or anything. It doesn’t lend itself as an everyday topic of discussion. Also, I have friends who are followers of the same religions as some of my family members, but their reactions would be polar opposites. My problem is never with religion, but with conservatism. They often coincide in fanatical religious people, yes, but I’ve met a few conservative atheists who can give some religious conservatives a run for their money. (And if anyone is fanatical about Ayn Rand, then run for the hills.) At the end of the day, the right people – regardless of who they are and what they do or don’t believe in – won’t treat you any differently. That’s the perfect response I’ve gotten so far. The potential bad reactions I might receive dim in comparison to those.
Have there ever been ways in which you’ve felt sort of ‘left out’ of the mainstream narrative about atheism? Ways in which you’ve had to confront or grapple with the Straight White Maleness of the New Atheism?
The issues are inflexibility and bigotry, and I really don’t feel connected to any mainstream atheism that promotes those very things, as well. I do feel left out in the sense that I’m neither militant nor connected to the most vocal atheistic opinions out there, which tend to be from – as I believe the formal moniker is – angry white dude piss-babies. It just doesn’t represent me in the slightest.
Straight White Maleness of the New Atheism sounds like an indie metalcore band comprised of Richard Dawkins fanboys. You wanna talk about terrifying?
Unless you do your philosophical homework and learn about concepts like practical and theoretical atheism, or positive or negative atheists, it’s rare to find any mainstream portrayals based on those old-school theories. Instead, atheists today tend to be primarily depicted as militant, condescending and volatile, with an extremist political agenda, all while spewing bile at believers. While those people do exist, it promotes the fallacy that atheism is solely a masculine, belligerent group of godless people. You struggle with the shadow that douchebros have given the label.
Hatred is not and should never be the secret sauce to atheism. That is the worst misconception to grapple with. There are a bunch of nonjudgmental, empathetic, “live and let live” atheists, and confronting the negative stereotypes head-on is key. There are a bunch of people out there who don’t wear their atheism as a threat or ego trip. Atheism is simply part of my reality, just like the fact that I’m left-handed or that I still have a fervent love for Spice Girls fashion. I strongly support separation of church and state in government affairs, and I strongly support religious freedom.
Straight White Maleness of the New Atheism and Old White Dudes Loving Jesus and Guns are two sides of the same coin in this country. Religious fanaticism bleeding into politics is ugly, and there are obviously women and minorities who are major participants, but it’s undeniably a conservative, hetero-male-dominated field of expertise. That killer combo keeps evolving, one recent example being from the Tea Party movement into basically the big backers of Trump’s presidential campaign, sort of like how the Empire fell but evolved into the First Order. Same goes for the antagonistic, mostly hetero, white male-centric perspective of New Atheism. Militant atheists would be just as ugly if their disdain for believers makes them treat faith like a contagious disease that must be treated. I guess that makes atheists and theists who fall into the peaceful, neutral category the Rebel Alliance-turned-Resistance members.
Jokes aside, more stories need to come out in order to promote a healthier representation of atheism and take the reins away from assholes. Just like the Westboro Baptist Church is not a good reflection of Christianity, I’ll be damned if Richard Dawkins or the dudes in YouTube comment sections are going to be the poster child of atheism. The reality of atheism, being that it encompasses countless people from all walks of life and opinions across the world, should be reflected in its social identity. More women, more people of color, more minority groups, and more points of views offering different expositions to the term: That’s what’s needed to inspire positive changes to the label. That’s what’s needed for social progress in general.
It’s great to have open-minded, multifaceted stories out there from those of us who have no faith and those of different faiths to break the status quo. All of those narratives matter. We need a diversity of people sharing a diversity of opinions, period.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.