Humanitarian aid as an atheist

Out here on the border, social change and spirituality seem to be closely linked. Almost all of the migrant aid centers on both sides of the line are organized by churches, and while the group I’m with, No More Deaths, is secular, it has its roots in Tucson’s Unitarian Church and Catholic liberation theology. This is nothing odd—there’s a long history of religion inspiring social work and activism. Jesus was pretty clear about that whole “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” thing, and there have been no shortage of church-organized homeless shelters, Catholic orphanages and some pretty radical priests talking shit about capitalism since then. Worldwide, it’s not all Christians, either, and if I were better informed about other religion, I’m sure I could come up with dozens of other examples from all over. The desire to help the less fortunate in the world is often seen as a key part of a deep spiritual calling.

My companions for these two weeks are all Christian. I’m with one other No More Deaths volunteer—a Unitarian minister from Georgia named Jeff—and the shelter we’re working with is run by a guy named Phil who lives here in Agua Prieta and is Episcopalian. I asked Phil yesterday about the preponderance of faith-based aid out here, and told me that in his experience, people who don’t come from a faith tradition tend to burn out doing this work faster.

“Why?” I asked him.

“I think it’s hard to deal with the suffering out here without some way to make sense of it,” he said.

He’s not wrong. Last time I was on the border, I was out in the desert putting out water and food for migrants crossing. I went out there expecting to find tragedy, a misguided series of policies which united in a particularly deadly way in the Altar Valley of southern Arizona. What I found instead was deliberate cruelty, overt racism and a series of policies which were explicitly designed to funnel people into the desert, knowing they would die there. Many No More Deaths facilitators describe the Arizona borderlands as a low-intensity war zone, and that’s how I felt during the brief time I was there.

When I went home, it was hard to process all of this. I withdrew from my friends and spent a lot of time drinking while trying to write about what I’d seen. I had days where I couldn’t fathom the thought of being happy, because it seemed so wrong, knowing what I’d seen, knowing that what I had seen was such a small chunk of the whole picture. And I absolutely had nights where, lying in bed with tears running down my face, I thought, “I really wish I believed in God right now. I wish I had some way to convince myself that this would all be okay.”

That’s the thing about being an atheist. Because I don’t believe in God, I also don’t believe in absolute justice. I believe all kinds of evil people die and get away with the evil things they did. I don’t think Ted Bundy and Adolf Hitler are spending eternity in hell being punished for the lives they took—they’re just dead. I don’t think those who have been made to suffer in this life have any greater reward waiting for them, and I don’t think the scales balance in the end. The suffering I see on the border isn’t part of God’s plan or the result of our sin. It’s just awfully, cruelly wrong.

For me, knowing there’s nothing after death makes fighting for this world all the more important. Religion was used in the Middle Ages (and still is by some people today) to justify poverty, to keep the poor from rebelling by telling them that if they just stayed quiet and accepted their fate, they’d be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams once they got to heaven. I would argue that religion still fulfills that function in many parts of the world, at least for some people. For me, this world is all we have, so we’d better make damn sure it’s a good one for everyone. We’re not going to get a second chance. There’s no heaven waiting for us, nothing perfect after we die, so it’s that much more important to keep working towards a better earth.

It’s this thought that keeps me going, and it’s that thought that’s going to make these weeks a challenge. I think partially because of their belief in the afterlife, a lot of Christian work is centered around aid and charity. Feed the poor. House the homeless. Minimize suffering. Run a shelter. Here in Agua Prieta, I’m going to be working in a shelter which provides services to migrants who have just been deported. It’s important work, and I’m grateful that people are doing it. Putting water in the desert is important, life-saving work, too. But none of it gets at the structural, the systems that make these things necessary in the first place. Food banks are awesome, but anyone who thinks they’re solving hunger or poverty is naive at best.

This is the challenge of activism in the world today, and it’s all the more stark for those of us who think that death is just death. We need to make sure people have food today and migrants have a place to get medical care today. But if that’s all we do, we’re not making any progress. We have to find some way to make life better, measurably, systematically. I don’t know what that looks like yet, and I don’t know if the next two weeks will give me many ideas. What I do know is that as long as this wall is here, as long as we build our nation on racism, exclusion and the backs of poor people the world over, what we’re doing is absolutely, unequivocally wrong. It’s because of, not in spite of, my atheism that I feel called to work for as long as I need to to change that.

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Catholic churches and Catholic history

In terms of its practices, Catholicism has always appealed to me as a faith. I love ritual, love moments that are imbued with gravity. When I hear people reciting Hail Mary or the Lord’s Prayer, I feel the togetherness of believers all over the world, stretching back for century upon century. It’s incredible to me that over the course of human history, so many people have been united by a set of seemingly improbable beliefs. The Church is especially fascinating because virtually none of their practices are actually described in the Bible. There’s no provision for a Pope, for a hierarchy of priests. There’s mention of sacraments, but from what I’ve read, they don’t seem anywhere near as institutionalized as the Catholic Church has made them. Watching a mass, I feel like I’m witnessing the longest anthropological case study in history. This is what happens if you take people, with all of their ambition and flaw, and give them a holy text promising them eternal salvation. I always find myself wondering how many of the faithful lines up to receive communion truly believe that they’re literally consuming the body and blood of Christ.
I absolutely love Catholic churches. I’m not sure if it’s in spite of or because of my atheism, but Catholic churches and cathedrals have always fascinated me. They’re beautiful—lavish decorations, stained glass, statues of the Virgin Mary, and always the slightly grotesque Christ suffering on the cross. When I enter a church, I always feel weight inside, the accumulation of millennia of history. I believe that as a rule, institutions have secrets, things they’d rather keep covered up, things they know that the rest of the world doesn’t. The Catholic Church is one of the oldest institutions on earth, if not the oldest, and I get so excited just thinking about the sheer quantity of information they’re privy to, the intrigue and scandal and history that have occurred over centuries. In the cathedrals I’ve visited in Europe, my mind goes back to high school European history, back to the Crusades, the Great Schism, the Reformation and Restoration.
Here in Quito, I visited the Iglesia San Francisco yesterday. It’s in the same spirit as the European cathedrals I’ve seen, though I think it might actually manage to have more decorations per square foot. But the inside feels a bit different. There’s more gold. The Virgin Mary seems more emphasized (what does it say about our culture, I find myself wondering, that the holiest woman on earth is the one who was able to give birth without ever having to suffer through the sin of having sex?) The Lord’s Prayer is in Spanish, which doesn’t make it sound any more serious, but does give it an entirely different set of cultural connotations. My mind starts to go back to Europe, to monasteries made from stone. But then I remember that Catholicism has an entirely different history on this continent, and suddenly I’m remembering conquest, subjugation, smallpox. Latin America seems so Catholic today that it’s easy to forget how they got that way. Catholic beliefs and imagery are so present that I have to remind myself they came with the conquistadors.
When I think back on Europe’s long and bloody religious history, I can accept it as a given. The thought of a bunch of Germans slaughtering each other in the name of God doesn’t anger me. It’s a bit puzzling, a bit regrettable, but it’s history. But thinking back on the conquest of the Americas, knowing the role religion played in justifying that endeavor, I find it harder to be neutral. I can’t bring myself to be outraged for something that occurred five hundred years in the past, and I’ve always believed that religion served more to justify something that would have happened anyway, rather than as an impetus to slaughter. But still, remembering the blood woven throughout Catholic history, I think to more modern problems. The refusal to ordain women or let priests marry. The sex abuse cover-ups. The willful spread of misinformation about condoms. The construction of sex as something sinful and shameful, and the way that’s impacted women in particular.
As an institution, the Catholic Church both intrigues and terrifies me. I am angered by the people who have suffered at the hands of power, five hundred years ago and today. I am angered at the blatant sexism that underlies so much of what the church teaches. But as a faith, I still find Catholicism beautiful. I am heartened by the knowledge that No More Deaths, as well as many other aid groups for undocumented immigrants, have a Catholic background. I am inspired by the wisdom and humility I’ve seen listening to lifelong Catholics speak about their faith. I am drawn to stories about human imperfection, about people trying to be better in spite of themselves. I am drawn to the churches, to the intricate decorations, to their attempts, however flawed, to bring the Divine a little closer to earth.