Peru conference shows freethought expansion

By Dan Barker

It is heartening to see that freethought is alive and well in Latin America.

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker revels in the scenery and history of Machu Picchu while in Peru for the first international Latin American Freethought Gathering May 24-26.
FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor (hobbled by a broken foot from a fall earlier in Cusco, Peru) enjoy a brief respite during their Machu Picchu excursion.
Barker, front row center, poses with the other speakers at the Primer Encuentro Latinoamericano de Librepensamiento in Arequipa, Peru. The event was sponsored by FFRF and the International Humanist and Ethical Union, as well as about 25 local and regional atheist/humanist/skeptic groups in Latin America. Back row at far left: Richard Zavala; back row fourth from left: Hector Guillén.

The Primer Encuentro Latinoamericano de Librepensamiento — the first international Latin American Freethought Gathering attended by about 250 people — took place in Arequipa, Peru, from May 24–26. The event, primarily organized by ophthalmologist Hector Guillén and lawyer/author Ricardo Zavala, both of Arequipa, was sponsored by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the International Humanist and Ethical Union, as well as about 25 local and regional atheist/humanist/skeptic groups in Latin America, such as CFI Argentina and SNAP Peru.

Speakers from many countries described the growth of freethought and critical thinking in Central and South America and the continuing challenges to free speech, women’s rights, gay rights, sex education, human rights, science education, and state/church separation in countries still largely dominated by the Catholic Church and heavily influenced by pseudoscience.

I was honored to be invited to give the opening speech: “The importance of a secular state.” For three cerebral-packed days, we participated in or listened to 29 speeches, six panels, three workshops, and the formal presentations of five new freethought books written by Spanish-speaking authors.

Attendees came from 12 different countries, and the speakers represented Costa Rica, Peru, Chile, Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Argentina, as well as the United States and Italy.

As I listened to scientists, lawyers, doctors, bible scholars, historians, feminists, gay-rights and human-rights activists, I was struck by the excitement, intelligence and conviviality of all the participants. These people really want to combat dogma, superstition and irrationality in their laws and society. They want to live in a secular world free of religious coercion.

The conference occurred, coincidentally, the week after the resignations of all 34 Chilean bishops due to the priestly pedophilia scandal in that country and the pope’s complicity in protecting the image of the Catholic Church.

During my opening remarks (in Spanish), after noting that Peru has more than 3,000 varieties of potato, I quipped that the conference would surely be feminist in tone, since “Les gusta la papa, pero no el papa.” — “You like the (feminine) potato, but not the (masculine) pope.”

The influence of religion is definitely weakening in that part of the world — partly due to the priestly scandals — but the church is not eager to abandon its privilege. Most of the Latin American nations, although officially laicos (secular), are still considered “confessional” countries, under the lingering laws based on Catholic dogma.

Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay, Bolivia and Mexico all have Catholic-dictated wording in their constitutions to the effect that “life begins at conception.” The church has enormous influence in other laws, civil as well as military. The Holy See has been working diligently, authoring bills to promote religious instruction in the schools, to outlaw divorce, and to direct tax money to fund or repair churches. All South American countries have diplomatic relations with the Holy See and concordats with the Vatican formalizing the relationship between the church and the government.

For example, Article Three of the Bolivian Constitution says: “The state recognizes and sustains the Apostolic Roman Catholic religion. It guarantees the public exercise of all other cults. The relations with the Catholic Church will be regulated by concordats and agreements between the Bolivian state and the Holy See.” Argentina, Costa Rica, Peru, Panama, Paraguay and El Salvador have similar wording. Most Latin American constitutions invoke “Dios” in their preambles, and although they guarantee religious freedom to the people, the Catholic Church is granted a privileged status.

The consensus at the conference is that currently the most secular countries in Latin America are Cuba, Mexico and Uruguay — and Chile is “on the way.” The worst problems appear to be in Central America, with proposed legislation to insert bible teaching in the public schools and to outlaw speech that “insults religion,” even though most countries, on paper at least, guarantee freedom of speech. A recurrent theme at the gathering was that the best way to weaken the influence of religion is to laugh at it. No wonder the church wants to outlaw blasphemy!

At the end of the conference, the attendees produced the Arequipa Declaration, arguing for secular government and true religious freedom, which can be read on the Facebook page “Primer Encuentro Latinoamericano de Librepensamiento Perú 2018.”

The organizers are now planning a second conference for 2020, which may take place in Chile or Colombia.

¡Arriba el librepensamiento! (Up with freethought!)