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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Sixth place — Persons of color essay contest: Colleen Avila

Change and tradition

FFRF awarded Colleen $1,000.

By Colleen Avila

My father will take every opportunity to educate a person on the fact that potatoes are not from Ireland. They’re from Peru, I’ve heard him say countless times. They were stolen from indigenous land and transplanted in Europe, a perfect example of disremembering of history, in which the people like my father’s gran

Colleen Avila

dmother, born from the land, are given no chance to be heard. This is why my father doesn’t call himself Hispanic. Not because he’s not proud, but because he is proud — he is proud to be a brown man with Quechua blood, to be a father of first-generation American children who will extend on the opportunity he has given us past discrimination and hate. He speaks Spanish, but he is not Spanish. He calls himself Latino, Peruvian. He does not want to be associated with the white, Spanish conquerors who committed atrocities against our native peoples.

I have taken these lessons from my father and I have used them to guide my intellectual life. Thus, I am not just a nonbeliever because I simply do not believe. I am a nonbeliever because I do not agree with the systems of organized religion, which have historically been used to justify theft from and violence against indigenous peoples. The history of Western religions like Catholicism are inextricable from the history of imperialism and conquest. Being free from religion has enhanced my life by liberating me from those ties to oppression, allowing me to be especially critical of the Western norms and constructs that I see around me (many of which are derived from religious mores). So many unreasonable and even abhorrent things are enabled by the idea that we must adhere to the standards that have been laid out before us. This intellectual stubbornness fails to acknowledge two things: One, that perhaps the traditions of the past were not perfect in the first place; and two, that an evolving society necessitates evolving standards. By being nonreligious, I believe I am not only distancing myself from the doctrines that influence imperialist, antiquated thought, but I am distancing myself from the past itself, in order to learn from it and to look forward toward a society that is more just, open-minded and empathetic.

Yet despite its connections to colonialism, there is often great reliance on religion in communities of color. Particularly in black and Latinx communities, Christian and Catholic beliefs persist, deeply entrenched in our culture by time and need. But why should it make sense to use the religions forced on us by white settlers to help us cope with the problems the white settlers created for us?

There is a plethora of empathetic, change-oriented young people in our communities, who have seen their parents’ hardship and who crave a better life for themselves and their families. Our engagement in the secular community may be through learning our own forgotten history, and rejecting the religious tradition that has contributed to chronic social, political and economic strife among us. Just as we honor our culture and our families, we must learn to honor our resilience. We must think critically about our own history so that we can begin to pass the torch onto an educated youth, who are freethinking and poised to uproot the beliefs of our elders. We can hold respect for past ideas, but we don’t have to perpetuate them if change is needed.

Colleen, 17, is from Monrovia, Md., and attends Washington University, where she plans to study visual arts and neuroscience. She enjoys drawing and painting, and her art has received local and regional awards.