Scott Douglas Jacobsen: When did you find yourself explicitly irreligious?
Oscar Gabriel Pineda: I can’t really point out the exact moment when I stopped believing in God. It wasn’t an epiphany, an emotional catharsis or a tragic moment, like it happens to other people. To me, it was a process that took a couple of years.
My childhood wasn’t traditional, in the sense that I grew up being exposed to two very different and quite opposite worldviews. On one side, my mother and her family are evangelical Christians; on the other side my grandfather was a distinguished scientist in his field, who, like my father, was an atheist.
I heard magical and religious explanations for things every day, since for different reasons I spent a lot of time at my maternal grandparents’ house. Even though I did believe the overall story of Christianity when I was a kid, it never really took root in my mind or became a part of who I was.
In part, because at the same time that I heard the Christian version of things, I also heard the scientific one. My maternal great grandmother took the time to teach me how to read when I was 3 years old; I owe my love of reading to her.
My father and my grandfather always encouraged me to question everything that I read or heard, and to look for natural explanations for things I didn’t know; I owe my love of learning about science and my skepticism to them.
Armed with these tools, I kept finding things that just didn’t make any sense. If the world was created by an all-powerful God, who created that God? If that God had the power to rid the world of evil, why didn’t he do it?
When I asked these sorts of questions, I was told to go look for answers in the Bible, which contains the Absolute Truth about everything. I did, and far from finding answers I ended up with even more questions, the God that I found in those pages was violent, jealous, vindictive, misogynistic and cruel.
He didn’t seem to know a lot about cosmology, mathematics of zoology. Weird stuff, considering what millions of people around the world believe. The years passed and I progressively distanced myself from religion and all those things. I watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on TV.
There, he showed me that there is an endless source of awe and meaning to be found in science and philosophy; a sort of naturalistic spirituality that didn’t require me to believe very improbable things about the Universe to make me feel a part of something greater than myself. I never told anyone about this because I knew I would hurt my family’s feelings.
But then I started to pay attention to the horrible things that religion, belief in God, in the supernatural, in eternal life after death, could inspire in people. Yes, there’s a good side to God and religion, but there’s also a dark one, and it isn’t mild. Not just at that precise moment, but throughout history.
That finally inspired me to speak my mind about all of these things and to start being open about my atheism. To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, I took the risk of thinking for myself and found much more happiness, beauty and wisdom that way.
Jacobsen: What seem like common moments of people losing their religion, to you?
Pineda: Talking to many different people who lost their faith, I find that nearly everyone has the same feelings that something is just not right with the whole God story, although what triggers those feelings is different from person to person.
Whether it’s reading those awful passages in the Bible, or seeing how people use religion as a cover for their own hatred, or just learning a bit about science, I have found that nearly all people who were once believers share the same feelings of uneasiness and intellectual struggles when they start realizing that what they have been taught as the truth, isn’t so pretty or so true after all.
And when this happens, people can feel bad and “dirty” and guilty, and even think that they are alone. That they are bad for thinking this way, and that they should just keep quiet. A few days ago we asked people on our social networks to tell us why they walked away from religion and it was a formidable experience.
Many, many people opened up and some of them told their stories publicly for the very first time. Losing your religious beliefs can be a painful process, but it doesn’t have to be.
Jacobsen: How does the landscape of the country dictate the morals and norms regarding sex and language?
Pineda: Well, even though Guatemala is a secular State, 87% of Guatemalans are Christian. About half of those are Catholic and the other half practice some form of Protestantism, the largest one being evangelical Christianity.
They are also deeply conservative when it comes to social issues, especially human sexuality, and many groups who identify as “pro-life” group together and lobby in Congress and the media to try to prevent anything resembling equality for the LGBT community, evidence based sex-education, or a smart conversation about what the best way to reduce abortion rates, childhood pregnancy and maternal mortality from ever happening.
They say that they want abortion rates to go down, and most reasonable people agree with them. But then, instead of having an honest conversation about how we can achieve that, they resort to absurd distortions and outright lies.
Just this Tuesday we (Humanistas Guatemala) were invited to a radio talk-show to discuss the billboard campaign and a woman called in to voice her opinion about it. She said that it was a clear attempt to impose the “LGBT agenda” on everyone and described our science-based approach to sex-education as “books that teach 3 year-old children to explore their body.”
That is not only dishonest, it is patently cruel, considering what women and children are suffering from, stemming from the fact that a large percentage of Guatemalans, especially those in poor, rural areas, have no access to information about sex, family planning or even contraceptives.
Jacobsen: What have been effective tools in the fight against superstition?
Pineda: The antidote to superstition is always scientific knowledge, but that by itself is not enough. The way that scientific knowledge is delivered taking into account how people come to believe things and how those beliefs connect with deep personal emotions is very important.
If you go out and tell people that astrology is bullshit and that only idiots believe in homeopathy or prayer, because of all of these scientific reasons, you will probably only offend them and maybe even reinforce their beliefs.
If, instead, you take an empathetic approach, admit that everyone can be fooled into believing weird things, and show people that there are real negative consequences caused by those beliefs, you have a much higher chance of changing their mind.
Jacobsen: If you could take a single exemplar, who would it be? Why this person?
Pineda: Carl Sagan. He was a very important part of my journey towards skepticism and one of the first personal heroes I had growing up. In his books and in his Cosmos series I found the answers to a lot of the questions I had about the Universe, and learned the importance of applying science, philosophy and critical thinking to my everyday life.
I also found a profound naturalistic spirituality in his ideas. The fact that we are not the special creation of some omnipotent being, but that we are a collection of star stuff that evolved over billions of years in this pale blue dot circling an average star in an average galaxy, and how that makes us a way for the Universe to understand itself gives me a sense of awe and wonder that has stayed with me all my life.
Jacobsen: Any recommended books for those wanting to learn more about irreligiosity?
Pineda: Asides from the genre classics ‘Why I’m not a Christian’ by Bertrand Russell, ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins and ‘god is not Great’ by Christopher Hitchens, I strongly recommend books that deal with irreligion in a more positive, indirect way.
‘Cosmos’ by Carl Sagan is a wonderful book that shows the richness of the scientific worldview and its capacity to provide feelings of awe that are widely believed to be only found in religion. Once you are done with ‘Cosmos’ you will probably want to go ahead and read all of his other books.
‘The Varieties of Scientific Experience’ is probably a great follow-up. Christopher Hitchens compiled a great collection of essays, excerpts and poetry from many different authors from different places and different times called ‘The Portable Atheist.’
It features writings by people as diverse as Lucretius, Omar Khayyám, Hume, Darwin, Freud, Spinoza, Hobbes and Einstein. Finally, Richard Carrier wrote a splendid book called ‘Sense and Goodness Without God’ that builds an entire naturalistic philosophical system from scratch.
Jacobsen: What have been some of your main contributions to the irreligious community?
Pineda: I wrote about the subjects of irreligion, humanism, science, philosophy and criticisms of religion for an online journal some years ago. Now, I am Vice President of Humanistas Guatemala, a legally established organization in Guatemala that defends the separation of Church and State, and the rights of non-believers and people whose rights are infringed upon by fundamentalist religion.
Jacobsen: What are the main impediments to the free practice of living a life they choose themselves — for the irreligious?
Pineda: Mainly, the prejudice against being a non-believer, which was recently confirmed by a paper in Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-017-0151?ncid=edlinkushpmg00000313), in combination with States that privilege religion in the public sphere and therefore impact the cultural landscape.
Jacobsen: What are your near-future plans?
Pineda: For the moment, we are focusing on our billboard and social media campaign to reach out to non-believers and believers who share humanist values. That is going great so far. Lots of people have contacted us to express their gratitude and their support, and in the next months we will work hard to provide the things they’ve been looking for, community-wise, in an organization like ours. We also want to strengthen our position defending the separation of Church and State, which is one on the main issues affecting Guatemalans, not only non-believers.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Oscar.