Puerto Rican Secularism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

After digging the data from Pew for my previous post on atheism and non-religion in Puerto Rico, I decided to dig a bit deeper. I found more interesting pieces of information about the state of secularism in Puerto Rico. By secularism I mean not just the religious identification of people, but also their attitudes about religion and politics, as well as morality and public policy. The information can be divided in 3 types: good, bad, and ugly.

The Good

A majority of Puerto Ricans think the government should stay out of religion and that religious leaders should stay away from politics. Nearly 6-in-10 (58 percent) think that “religion should be kept separate from government policies.” Of course, this is something that elected officials have not been very good at, with the main example being the issue of susbtance abuse treatment I alluded to in my previous post.
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Another hopeful sign is that a majority think that “religious leaders should not have an influence in politics.” This means that most people probably don’t like the many religious ceremonies often endorse or attended by elected officials.

In an unrelated note, though important for education policy. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Puerto Ricans believe humans and other animals have evolved over time. This is encouraging, given the prevalence of religious schools, especially those run by Pentecostal ministries.

The Bad

Those are the good news, now the bad. In terms of views on social policy, even if most Puerto Ricans are religion/government separationists, their views on morality are very conservative. Take the example of same-sex marriage. While it is now legal, thanks to the Supreme Court recent decision, at the time of polling last year only one-third (33 percent) favored allowing people of the same sex to marry legally.

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The patterns of support among religious groups are predictable. Similar to what scholars find among religious groups in the United States, as this post by Public Religion Research Institute shows, Puerto Rican Protestants are the least supportive. Only 1-in-5 (20 percent) Protestants favor same-sex marriage. The percentage of Catholics in favor of same-sex marriage is nearly twice that of Protestants (39 percent) but still low. Even the religious nones in Puerto Rico are not fully in favor of same-sex marriage. Just under half (49 percent) of Puerto Rican nones favor same-sex marriage, a percentage much lower than the more than three-quarters of nones favoring same-sex marriage in the United States.

The Ugly

Support for same-sex marriage is low and so are the views on the morality of same-sex relationships. More than 6-in-10 (62 percent) say that same-sex relationships are immoral. Still opposition to same-sex marriage not as high as opposition to abortion. About three-quarters (77 percent) of Puerto Ricans consider abortion should be illegal and that abortion is immoral (74 percent).

Puerto Rican secularism needs to evolve. There are some positive signs regarding attitudes toward religion and government. However, religious belief is likely behind attitudes on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. Fortunately, religion is not a large factor affecting belief in evolution. Another silver lining on social attitudes is that the vast majority do not think contraception use is immoral. The nones should take the positive signs and use them to change Puerto Rican politics and society harnessing those positive attitudes on religion/government separation.

Tropical & Godless: American Atheists in San Juan

American Atheists is having a regional meeting in Puerto Rico this weekend. When we think of Puerto Rico and religion, there’s an assumption that all of the people in the island are Catholic. For example, in the 2008 exit polling of the Democratic Party Presidential Primaries the media companies in charge of the Exit Poll Pool decided to leave religion out of the Puerto Rico questionnaire. This issue was addressed by my former colleague Mark Silk who promoted a comment I had made in a previous post on that primary. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of research polling on religion in Puerto Rico. Luckily, the Pew Research Center included Puerto Rico in their large study of religion in Latin America last year.

According to the Pew poll, 8 percent of Puerto Ricans are what they call “religiously unaffiliated.” They’re basically people with no religious identification. The majority of Puerto Ricans still call themselves Catholic, but a large segment of the population, one-third (33 percent) to be precise, are Protestant.

What about atheists? The topline results of the poll (page 33 here) show that only 1 percent of Puerto Ricans identify as atheist. We must remember, though, that religious identification and religious belief are two different things. It may well be the case that some people in Puerto Rico do not believe in a god, but do not identify their religion as “atheist.” I know, because I am one of those persons who refuses to identify atheism with religion.

Fortunately, Chapter 3 of the report includes a discussion on religious beliefs. It does not seem to be the case that there are more nonbelievers than self-professed atheists. Ninety-nine percent of Puerto Ricans claim to believe in God. This makes the 1 percent figure of self-identified atheists and non-believers consistent with one another.

PR_rel2015But we must not despair. Eight percent of the adult population are religious nones. Although 91 percent of them claim to believe in God, we need to understand these numbers in their context. Many of these nones may be going through a process of rethinking their beliefs. Only 3 percent of Puerto Ricans claimed that they grew up with no religious affiliation and that number has nearly tripled.

PR_nones2015The Nones in Puerto Rico are mostly former Catholics and Protestants. The growth of the Nones in Puerto Rico is not just the case of non-practicing (or nominal) Catholics just admitting they don’t really have any attachment to the old religion and that’s encouraging news. Nearly 30 percent of Nones are former Protestnts, so even people from the group that has the highest rates of church-going and belief are leaving.

Considering how pervasive religion is in Puerto Rico, this is a big deal. This is a place where substance abuse treatment is openly religious, and addiction is classified as a “spiritual ailment.” This is a place where education, little by little, has become privatized and taken over by “nonprofit” ministries. A place where the police organize traffic stops to preach. I did not identify as an atheist until I moved to New England after graduating from college. I identified myself a “deist,” a believer in a higher power. The very secular culture of New England made it safe for me to be openly atheist. I did not feel that comfortable being an atheist in Puerto Rico.

Maybe the high visibility of the convention, combined with the introduction of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and groups like Humanistas Seculares de Puerto Rico and Ateistas de Puerto Rico openly challenging the privilege religious organizations have in everyday government functions will change the dynamics. And the future seems bright. The Pew poll also shows that the nones in Puerto Rico are, on average, 7 years younger than Protestants and 10 years younger than Catholics. I wish I had institutions I could rely on two decades ago. Hopefully the new generations of non-religious Puerto Ricans will experience the freedom I couldn’t feel. 

Featured image: Humanistas Seculares de Puerto Rico