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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

2nd place — Michael Brown: Free of thought, but not free of color

FFRF awarded Michael $2,000.

By Michael Brown

Michael Brown

I’m an atheist.

I’ve never been totally convinced by religion. At age 6, I wanted to know where God had come from. At 10, I wondered why we had to ask forgiveness for being born “short of the glory of god.” At 16, I rejected the cycle of fear, ignorance and shame that religion depends on and decided to leave the church, and unexpectedly, a large part of my cultural identity.

As the child of a single Latina mother, I grew up depending on the Catholic Church. When my mom was paid so little that she could hardly keep the lights on, the church provided free babysitting services so she could work more. When my extended family was targeted with deportations, it insured we had basic necessities and helped us pay for lawyers. When our community experienced racism, xenophobia or violence, the church was our refuge center.

As I rejected religion, I faced rejection in turn. My family, friends and community leaders saw my rejection of the church as a way for me to try and embody whiteness. They were deeply hurt and saw my intellectual freedom as my way of saying I was too good to be Mexican. I was not invited to participate in quinceaneras and other community events. I was ostracized from my culture for rejecting a colonial imposition on my ancestors, yet I also struggled to find a place in atheist communities, as well.

The freethought movement often doesn’t understand the social conditions of why religion is so intertwined with identities of color, and this understanding is critical to making the movement open to people of color. In the wake of racism and tragedy, communities of color cannot find solace in the justice system. As I type this, Mexican toddlers are representing themselves in immigration court, and another unarmed black teen has been killed while running away. The violence and racism our communities face is often senseless, unpredictable and unrectified.

Church has historically been a place of refuge in the absence of equality, and the false assurance of God’s plan and an afterlife helps our communities mitigate the injustices we face. If the freethought community has any interest in being open and welcoming of people of color, it must advocate to address the social issues that allow religion to become the cornerstone of minority identities.

Within our own communities, we have to educate ourselves about the origins of our religious roots. Religion was a way to strip our indigenous identities away. Religion was a way to hold us down, and, even today, in the face of gross injustice, we are often told to hold our tongues because “it’s all part of God’s plan.” There may be no God, but there is definitely humanity, and white people benefit from our pious complacency.

I am Mexican. I am an atheist. Those identities are not exclusive commitments. I believe in the beauty of my language and culture. I have seen it in my mother’s hands, heard it in her voice and lived each day of my life. But I have neither seen nor heard from God, and until such a time that I do, I will not mask the very real needs of my community with religious teachings. I will live not for some future reward, or settle for the comfort the church may provide in the wake of injustice, but rather I will proactively fight for the justice communities of color deserve.

Michael, 24, is from Boston and attends Dartmouth College. He has donated his time to scholar organizations and college preparedness programs.