Interview with Shirley Rivera – State Director, American Atheists (Puerto Rico) & Founder-President, Ateístas de Puerto Rico

by | May 30, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Shirley Rivera is the State Director for American Atheists (Puerto Rico) & the Founder-President of Ateístas de Puerto Rico. Here we talk about her life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Starting from some backdrop, what was family background?

Shirley Rivera: I was born in Puerto Rico. My family is from Puerto Rico. We grew up Christian, Protestant. That is most of the religion. My family, specifically, is Christian, but they do not practice. They follow it, but do not practice. I grew up in a normal family: mom, dad, sisters.

We grew up on the north of the island. I didn’t attend church when I was little. I simply decided for myself. I was attending by myself for 2 years. But nobody forced me or invited me to attend the church. I grew without somebody forcing me to attend the church or practice any religion.

Jacobsen: How was early life with respect this not being forced into a religion? For instance, some pivotal moments in education or in personal life as you were growing up. That may or may not have been influential on personal secular views.

Rivera: In my early years, to me, they did this baptism, like the Protestant way. I go into it. I think that is the only that my family made me do. I wasn’t old enough for some other stuff. Most of the values or ethics comes from Protestantism. In attending church, I never before attended it much.

The type of morality and ethics that they rose me in was Protestant Christianity. I think that have a lot to do with how I was raised and how I grew. At the same time, what helped me becoming secular, it was probably the opportunity to meet people as I was growing from other religions.

I mother was raised fro Norwegian people. She had more roots there. My dad’s side of the family is pretty liberal people. They also didn’t attend church. I think that combination probably make me more open-minded to other types of beliefs, religions, and all that type of stuff.

Jacobsen: You have also been featured on television, on YouTube, in articles, based on both activism and atheism. When you’re thinking atheism, as there are different flavors of it, what is it to you? In addition, how does this then get translated into some of the activist work?

Rivera: So, I guess this impacted me. Not only the religious are practicing the empathy around me, but probably how my parents raised me, I have those senses of what is morality. I do not like to say the word morals, but I like the word ethics as this seems more appropriate to say.

So, I guess, this type of concept of hell for people, and so on. I wanted to teach people the sense of helping each other. It is being strong in your point of view. That is the most important thing, whether religious, secular, humanist, or atheist. Most of us have a strong point of view.

But not everybody push that view above and beyond. I think how they raised me make try to push far on that point of view. It is one of the things for activism. You want people to have the same point of view. So, you become more militant and consistent around the spread of your point of view.

My point of view now is their religions are a social problem. We cannot continue to give privilege to them as they are not contributing anything positive in our society. That’s why I consider it important to be militant and to have empathy, and show to the rest that we can be secular and a good person.

We can help the people no matter the religion or non-religion. I guess the empathy and the sense of community in how I was raised is one of the most important things to give me power to empower other people to express themselves, and to push their point of view above and beyond.

Jacobsen: How did you come to found Ateístas de Puerto Rico as its President? What tasks and responsibilities come with that position?

Rivera: Yes, I was in Puerto Rico. Then I moved to Oklahoma. I remember. Before I got back, I was in touch with a humanist group. I was helping them doing videos, articles. I was working in Oklahoma in the media. I was writing and all that stuff.

I met people during that time from South America who wrote secular articles and made secular videos. I was involved with this humanist group. I worked in Puerto Rico. They were humanists. It was the only secular group there. When I moved to Puerto Rico, I started working in the media doing articles and activities with people to make a group.

They made a group. I started helping them. Later, I saw an atheist community without someone representing. I am an atheist. I am not a humanist. I think humanist is a way to leave. But it’s not a point of view. You can be a humanist. But I am an atheist because I do not believe in any God. I do not think that group have any representation on the island.

Other friends and I think that we need a group, an atheist group, where we can represent our interests. After all, we started our atheists groups and pushed other types of activism. At the time, I remember. The Christian people tried to push their gender perspective on the schools.

They were pushing anti-abortion laws. At the time, it was a gay marriage controversy. There were a lot of things going on. Nobody was lobbying. Nobody was protesting. That was when the group and I said, “We have to do something.” My friends, other folks, and I made a meeting and decided to do it.

After that, everything else came up. We have an organization, a webpage, and so on. We have become an important organization on the island. The only thing that I have done in Puerto Rico is working with older groups like women’s groups and other secular groups.

Those who have had trouble lobbying. Now, we have a legal team. We have someone running for the department of education. We lost a municipality on the island as the mayor was doing praying days with money from the government. We did that one.

We have doing all of that stuff, i.e., separation of church and state, while trying to do media. There were a lot of atheists who know about the group now. It is important to create the group. We have been going since 20013. That was when the group was born. We have been growing.

Jacobsen: How did you become involved with American Atheists as well as being the state director now?

Rivera: It is pretty funny how I meet American Atheists. We knew about the organization from a long time ago. One day, we got the groups. We started. One day David Silverman showed up in Puerto Rico and said, “I want to meet with you guys.” We meet with him (including other secular groups).

He said, “We have to meet you,” and so on. He showed up. He didn’t know about us. But he heard about us. He was interested about bringing American Atheists to Puerto Rico to make a convention to meet the other atheists in Puerto Rico.

That was the time that I met the other atheists in Puerto Rico. It was the first ever convention in Puerto Rico. A year later, they make a new program for stronger local groups. They have been supporting the local groups. That is when they offered to me if I wanted to be the state director and help with American Atheist community.

The work to push those so they have more support for the groups here. Yes, I have been doing this, already, for three years the AA work as state director. I help the group. They also support us with materials and all the stuff that we need.

I think that it is a good program; that they do to help others. The investment in local groups is the best way in starting to spread and grow the atheist community.

Jacobsen: Over your three years at AA, and as with your work the president of Ateístas de Puerto Rico, what are some lessons to impart to secular women who want to be leaders or who want to be leaders in their earlier years?

Rivera: I think the atheist movement needs more women. This idea about men handling things is everywhere. I think Madalyn Murray O’Hair founded American Atheists. I think women are speaking out now more than ever with women’s rights. All of that stuff and realizing how they have been oppressed during all this time. Even with the work, it is still very different in the genders. In the atheist community, most of the leaders are men.

Most of the time, even in our culture, we say, “No, we are not like that.” But we are still promoting it, quietly. I think the last couple of years. Women have been speaking out. They have been more militant. It is in the Women’s March. Women are speaking out militantly for women’s rights and reproductive rights.

In the atheist community, we need more presence. In my group, we are only two ladies. I say, “Hey, do you want to get involved?” Some of them have kids. Some of them have families. It is something that we still have to work on it, as they can do it.

Jacobsen: How can the secular communities in general, especially in North America, be responsive to an increasing want of prominence and of a voice for women, whether in representation or in the dynamics of the communities?

Rivera: I think all communities, secular and non-secular, need more women’s presence. If we say, we are better than 20 years ago. There is still a lot to do. We need more presence. The leadership are almost all men! You can see that. There is no balance. You do not see that balance.

A woman is still with the quiet oppression. They don’t think that they can do anything. They still are thinking that they can’t because this, or that, or this. There are excuses. They are scared. You can see it when a man is still talking. The woman is still quiet.

It doesn’t matter is atheists, humanists, agnostics, whatever. You can see this in government. When a woman tries to speak out, they do not deal with her arguments. Because they still think the woman is inferior to them. They grow in the same environment. Atheists and Christians, and Muslims, grow in the same environment.

Even if we think that we do not agree with that concept of the role of women, inside of them, they still have oppression. This is why I see the in the scientific community, in the atheist community, in the secular community, how the majority of the leadership is gentlemen. There are no ladies.

Jacobsen: If we are talking about concrete, practical and timely actionables or action items, things that can be done. What can be done? How can the secular communities – let’s say in North American in general or Puerto Rico in particular – include more women in leadership, simply not in a symbolic way?

Rivera: I think this is societal work. With the secular community, we try to push that in our environment. For example, if you turn to an atheist woman, and say, “Hey, run for the leadership of this secular group,” she will probably say, “No,” because she has kids, “No,” because she has husband, “No,” because she has work, “No,” because, because, because… It is not that the community didn’t give her opportunities.

It is because in her environment. In her mind, she has a concept of what role she has. In her mind, she becomes a wife, becomes a mom. It is not a leader. In her mind, she cannot understand that she can do anything and can do everything at the same time.

Even if we offer to do this or that, in the secular environment, it is hard work to empower the woman first. They need to believe that they can do it. The people have to support them when they make this decision. But often, the people without supports to give, want the work from her.

You want the work, but you do not support her decision and what she wants to do. That’s what I think with the supports and the environment; it is a big problem.

Jacobsen: If you were to anticipate some responses from secular men, whether the membership or the leadership, what would be the responses? How would you respond to their responses?

Rivera: When you try to put the picture forward of how the women are oppressed, they don’t see it. Because the role is in their mind. Most of the leaders, like I said, are men. But they are thinking that if they do not do it. Things are not running as they are supposed to do it.

In their mind, they think the women are not capable of doing it. That she is not capable of doing it. That she is not capable of taking on the position. That is part of the problem. We have nothing to lose.

Jacobsen: Any recommended organizations, books, or speaker?

Rivera: In Puerto Rico, we have great secular professors. We have a physics professor at the University of Puerto Rico called Ramon Lopez-Aleman. The intellectual minds are there. He is one. We have a guy from Panama. He wrote a book called “The Imaginary Friend.”  It is a great book. I guess it is the first atheist book written originally in Spanish.

I think what we have right now is most of the best resources like this. It is people who speak Spanish. We have a bunch of books in Spanish. But there are not many writing originally in Spanish. He is originally from Argentina. I think in Latin America; they have a lot of power in their activists.

You can see Colombia. There are so many. They are so excited. They believe in what they are doing. They understand and believe in what they think is important in what is secular in the community. Even if they have their own idea of how they can be secular, there are scholars of this in the society.

We have those great speakers in the island: Ramon Lopez-Aleman, Richard Thoma, and Salvador Lugo, and others.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Rivera: I would like to ask about being an atheist in a different country, whether a colony or whatever people want to call Puerto Rico. I can see from outside from meeting a lot of people from around the world. I can see how their cultures are still influenced in making laws and divisions between people.

For me, sharing time with all of these Latino community, black community, white community, and so on, I can see those divisions in secularism. We have to try to break those and teach to the rest of the world that we have to be together. We have to stop pre-judgment. We have to stop stereotypes. We are supposed to do more. I expect more from the secular community. Sometimes, it is how we have the same pre-judgment and stereotypes to the people. We are supposed to set an example.

I think atheists have to understand that we are all humans; and we have to teach this to the rest of the world. That no matter where you are born, no matter what language you speak. You have to have empathy with the rest, be kind.

Jacobsen: Thank you fork the opportunity and your time, Shirley.

Rivera: Thank you, thank you for this time, I appreciate the interview.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

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