EL MONTE, Calif. — The Pew Research Center shows that over the last decade, there's been a gradual but significant increase in the number of people identifying as atheists. The United States lags behind other countries in this regard, the trend is growing, especially among younger people.
In El Monte, one woman has started a LatinX atheist support group here. She says it's especially hard for people in the LatinX community to be open about their atheism.
Retired from her military career, Arlene Rios has been hosting meetings of a Latino atheist group at a local El Monte coffee shop for over a year now. Rios said the group is a response to one of the challenges for atheists, that is, how to find each other without the structured community afforded most religious organizations.
Rios grew up in a Catholic family, but her life took a path that led her to question things.
“I had done a tour in Gitmo, in Guantanamo Bay, and that really kind of sealed the deal for me,” said Rios. “I decided, yeah, I don't believe in [religion] anymore.”
Rios attended a “Reason Rally” in 2012 which was an eye-opener for her as she had no idea how many other atheists there were out there. It also gave her a sense of how great the need is for support groups for non-believers and those questioning.
“Everybody was so nice [at the rally],” she explained. “I'm like, OK, if these people don't believe in God, then why are they so nice?”
The Pew Research Center says 9 out of 10 Latino households identify as religious, it is ingrained in the culture. Naturally, breaking from religion caused major fallout for Rios. Her father couldn't believe her decision and told her family to pray for her. Rios’s sister Graciela took it particularly hard.
“My sister, she basically disowned me for like seven months,” said Rios. “She wouldn't talk to me, and that really affected me. It affected me so much that I had to go see a therapist.”
Graciela Rios, who now supports her sister, agrees that families can make it hard to come out as an atheist.
“It’s very devastating,” said Graciela Rios. “Some of them will completely outcast you and not talk to you, and so sometimes you are at odds with your own family because you're not sharing the same faith.”
Losing family support can be isolating which is why Arlene Rios believes hosting these meetings is so important.
“Even though we didn't see eye to eye on things,” explained Graciela Rios, “we've always supported each other, but I do feel that I've gone through a process in my life where my whole religious identity was really shaken up and what I had believed for the past 20 years wasn't necessarily the case.”
While Arlene Rios believes family support is important, it is more important for her to be true to herself and in the end…
“They can't really tell me what to do, you know, because I've lived my life and I've had my experiences,” she said.
Rios said anyone, atheist or otherwise, can attend the atheist gatherings she hosts once a month. To her, it is most important to keep the conversation going and to make sure everyone knows they are not alone.