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Media is already hyping the visit of Pope John Paul to Cuba as a confrontation between religious freedom and "official atheism." Atheists need to affirm their commitment to a free and open secular society -- and warn that the Vatican's notion of "freedom" is significantly different from that held by many Americans.

Web Posted: January 18, 2020

When Pope John Paul II arrives at Havana airport on Wednesday, January 21, we may witness another stage in a historic geopolitical shift which began over a decade ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union. By all accounts, Fidel Castro and his regime are in their twilight days, one of the last redoubts of state communism. The aging Cuban President presides over a economic disaster brought about by a number of factors -- everything from a U.S. embargo, the end of subsidies from Russia, and stiffling economic centralization. And Castro has enforced his version of Marxist orthodoxy by constructing a police state that rivals those of other communist dystopias; one thinks of the Stasi in former East Germany, the Securitate of Nicholai Ceaucescu, the bloated NKVD and its line of successors in the late and great Soviet Union. Civil liberties, an offspring of the Enlightenment project, are under steady attack in the United States of course, but 90 miles from the American coastline, in Cuba, they are non-existent.

John Paul's excursion to this small island nation is described as something resembling the Second Coming, a confrontation between freedom -- as represented by the Vatican -- and an oppressive, dictatorial orthodoxy based on "official atheism."
    All of which raises questions over the exercise in journalistic hyperbole reflected in news media coverage about the papal visit to Cuba. John Paul's excursion to this small island nation is described as something resembling the Second Coming, a confrontation between freedom -- as represented by the Vatican -- and an oppressive, dictatorial orthodoxy based in "official atheism." Kenneth Woodword of NEWSWEEK magazine could hardly contain himself, writing in the current issue that "we are watching two of the last actors in a dying century's deadliest drama, the battle between God and militant, state-sponsored atheistic humanism." Another Newsweek reporter, Brook Larmer, in a story headlined: "For five historic days, religion will confront revolution..." reminds us that "Castro, 71, has outlasted eight U.S. presidents in his 39 years as an officially atheist dictator." If it is a confrontation, however, that fact seems lost on Castro, the "maximum leader."

    "We should all participate in the Masses," Castro declared this past weekend. He urged "a great reception" for the Pope, adding, "We will show that a socialist, communist revolution is capable of respecting all believers and all non-believers.."

    "I myself will be at that mass," Castro added, referring to the Sunday, January 25 gathering in Havana's vast Plaza of the Revolution.

    Church leaders can hardly conceal their glee at the prospect of Pope John Paul taking his religious road show to Cuba and performing mass in front of a million or so faithful and would-be faithful. Miami, Fla. Bishop Thomas Wenski told CNN that the church is looking "toward an eventual transition (in Cuba) -- and that seems like a matter of time -- we look forward what kind of transition it will be.(sic)" He advanced the dubious proposition that, "The stronger the church is in a situation like Cuba, the better the chance that the situation will be more peaceful, with a more democratic outcome."

    Atheism, secularism and the separation of state and church are sure to take hits from media and political leaders in the next week. We are incessantly reminded that Castro instituted something called "official Atheism" upon coming to power nearly four decades ago, when he declared that religious rituals such as Sunday mass interfered with the sugar cane harvest. Although the Roman Catholic Church was never banned outright in Cuba, members were prohibited from joining the ruling Communist Party. Churches and religious schools were closed; it is worth noting that much of the loss in the clerical ranks was due to the expulsion of foreign priests. The present Cardinal of Cuba, Jaime Ortega, was grabbed by the secret police and hurriedly rushed off to one of the new "re-education" camps.

    In 1969, Castro's government no longer recognized Christmas as an official holiday; but a decade later, a gradual thaw had set in, as the Vatican began to publicly criticize the U.S.-led embargo on Cuba. The demise of the Soviet Union and a precipitous end to subsidies then motivated Castro to seek new allies, and financial aid as well. He turned to the church-operated Caritas Cubana, the only nongovernmental organization permitted to distribute medicine, food and other humanitarian aid.

"Official Atheism" -- But Is It Atheism?

    Fidel Castro's turbulent relationship with religion and clerical institutions mirrored the experience of communist leaders in other times and in other countries. The same might be said of nearly any political leader, of course, who seeks to consolidate state power and eliminate any threat from potential rivals -- a category which frequently includes the clergy. For communists, however, "atheism" was a consequence of a specific view of nature and human history expressed in the philosophy of Dialectical Materialism. Historical forces were explained in terms of economic stages of development; these in turn reflected a series of basic laws inherent in material organization -- the conflict of opposing forces, and their combination into new and "higher" states. The German philosopher George Wilhelm Frederick Hegel (1770-1831) described a theory of history using a similar narrative, but for Hegel this evolutionary process was based on "spirit," rather than "matter." Marx "turned Hegel upside down," and posited a dialectical process in history based on material development.

    This materialism left little room for religion and the church, and the subsequent development of communist states suggests that "atheism" was incorporated into a broader and more suspect ideological doctrine dispensed as an intellectual rationale for the exercise of political power. As a result, the authoritarian excesses of communist regimes, the emergence of the cold war, and the political power conflict between religions and most western governments on one hand, and the emergent Soviet Union on the other, gave "atheism" a undeserved black eye. It didn't matter that atheism -- a rejection of the belief in a deity and the omnipotence of clerical institutions -- had existed in one form or another for centuries, and that atheists could be found throughout the world, not just on the Central Committee of a ruling Communist Party. Nor did it seem to matter that atheists, especially in the west had often labored for the best aspects of the Enlightenment agenda -- civil liberties, rights for women, restraints on the power of autocratic, authoritarian states, emphasis on the liberatory aspects of the scientific enterprise, and state-church separation.

    The late atheist philosopher Lord Bertrand Russell (1972-1970) had challenged the communist activist and theoretician Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) not only on the oppressive politics in Marxian states, but the very intellectual foundations of Dialectical Materialism as well. The "official atheism" of communist states turned out to be less a case for atheism, critical thinking and intellectual independence, than it was a set of didactic cants which rationalized a monopoly on political power. Through the 1950s and beyond, "Godless communism" and "atheism" were linked in a shotgun marriage by media, church, and political interests. Atheists ran for cover, and even state-church separationists went to considerable lengths to distance themselves from the dreaded "a-word." Other secularists cited their unswerving allegiance to religious creeds, and sought to establish their credentials as anything but atheists.

A Future for Atheism, Secularism

    Fortunately, that state of affairs has begun to change. Atheists are slowly coming "out of the closet" and have begun to talk seriously about the need for their own civil rights movements and independent organizations, and a distinct atheist presence in the battle for state-church separation. For too long, the defense of the First Amendment has been left to religious groups who happen to accept the need for "religious liberty." While we can and should collaborate with these believers -- when and where possible -- there are very genuine areas when atheists must go it alone. Our battle against "special rights" for religious believers and legislation such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act , or even the court effort initiated by American Atheists in San Francisco to remove (and not "sell") the Mt. Davidson cross are all good examples. The MURRAY v. CURLETT is another object lesson, and one that came in the midst of cold war phobia against "godless communism." The significance of MURRAY was not just the fact that it challenged prayer and bible verse recitations -- other cases did so as well. MURRAY went a step further, and for the first time in the history of American jurisprudence openly, proudly, and unabashedly declared, "Your petitioners are atheists." It was the first legal statement of its kind of behalf of atheist civil rights, and state-church separation from an openly atheistic position.

    But what about "official atheism"?

   History in our time has demonstrated that what passes as state-sanctioned atheism -- forcible, coercive acts against those who happen to believe in a religious ideology -- often do not work, fail to achieve enlightenment in the general population, and clearly violate the rights of individuals. After decades of "official atheism" in Russia, there exists the unpleasant prospect of a religious revival in that society -- one that jeopardizes whatever positive achievements were made by the late Soviet regime. The case throughout Eastern Europe is similar; there, people have finally succeeded in casting off some of the trappings of autocratic despotism (even if it did rationalize itself "in the name of the people"), but religious ideologies and movements are thriving -- and competing for followers. Communist societies did not -- and could not, by their very command structure -- provide the sorts of educational and other institutions which foster the very qualities atheism requires to thrive. Atheism is, after all, based on freedom of though, intellectual independence, a fierce willingness -- and ability -- to question creeds and doctrines.

   To thrive, then, atheists need their own organizations and resources, and a social and political climate which provides a "level field" with religion. Religious groups have traditionally displayed hostility or ambivalence toward any diversity in the believer marketplace. Prior to the American Revolution, colonies had their own "official church," often supported by tax money. In some cases, to exercise basic rights, own land, even hold office, one had to embrace membership in this established church. The Disestablishment of these churches is one of the great, yet ignored parts of American history.

    And what about that "level playing field"? Atheists need civil liberties, not just for themselves, but for everyone else as well. Atheism is, first and foremost, an intellectual disposition, and one which is best demonstrated in a free, open and unfettered exchange of ideas. Atheism cannot be indoctrinated, "believed in" like some religious or political creed, or conveyed in rote slogans and a body of dogma. It requires thought, consideration and deliberation. Atheism cannot be taught or achieved at the point of a gun.

    It may well be that the majority of even educated persons will never be atheists, and that statistically atheists will remain a minority. Part of the appeal of the religious belief may reside in the wiring of the human brain, and our propensity to embrace beliefs without rational evidence. Even as a minority, however, atheists can and should labor for another part of our agenda -- the defense and growth of secularism.

    Secularism, too, works best in a free, open society. Secularism requires that government maintain a neutral position in respect to religion, one that neither promotes nor inhibits religious ideologies. Actively combatting religion -- banning religious groups (as in Cuba, Turkey, Russia) violates individual choice, and has the effect of transforming religion into a false "liberatory" ideology. Militant Islam, for instance, has become a rallying cry for those in the Middle East revolting against certain political and economic elites, many of which are seen as proxy regimes for the west. In Poland, the Roman Catholic Church skillfully employed its resources to capitalize on a popular revolution toward westernized democracy. The Church quickly made efforts to ban abortion, institute censorship and curb criticism of religion. Poles soon realized that they had nearly replaced communist regimentation with a suffocating, clerical paternalism.

    Atheists and other nonbelievers need to point out that for many religions, including the Roman Catholic Church, terms such as "freedom" are not meant to operate in the same sense as they commonly do in the Enlightenment or civil lexicon. While Pope John Paul II continues the church's legacy of opposing communist governments, the religious vision of what society should be like is in critical respects a stark contrast to the classical liberal tradition. At a meeting of held last November in Rome, for instance, Catholic prelates took turns lambasting the United States, technology, global development and the "permissive" and secular nature of modern culture. Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh denounced the "heavy emphasis on the individual and his or her rights" and the "privatization of morality." Wuerl also lamented the fact that both morality and religion are "seen by many as matters of purely personal and private concern, such as a hobby or an appreciation of music, but without a proper role in the public arena."

And What About Fidel? The Church's War on Secularism, Progress

    The Church has much to gain through John Paul II's upcoming excursion to Cuba, as possibly does Mr. Castro.

    Roman Catholicism remains the predominant religious organization in North and South America, but at both ends of the hemispheres there is dissent, fragmentation and with globalization the threat of secularist consumerism. In the belief marketplace, there are aggressive challenges from Protestant groups (which the Vatican derisively labels "sects") and even new age groups. One goal of Pope John Paul's visit to Cuba will be to establish an organizational beachhead. About 4.7 million of all 11 million Cubans are baptized, but as elsewhere, those figures would grossly exaggerate any claims as to the number of doctrinal believers. Only about 150,000 attend mass with any regularity. That number is dwarfed by the 1 million or so active Protestants; in addition, there are 7 million Cubans who practice Afro-Cuban religions which fuse nativist superstitions with some Christian trappings. Some observers estimate that up to 70% of Cubans, far from being atheists in this climate of "official atheism," practice Santeria, a mixture of beliefs and rituals transmitted through the African slave trade. And the Cuban government, far from embracing atheism and reason, subsidizes the Santeria movement by funding museums and trips for priests abroad. Santeria elders even demanded a meeting with Pope John Paul II during his visit, a request turned by down Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega.

   As it did in Eastern Europe, the Vatican is positioning itself as a symbolic beacon of political freedom. The editor of a small independent Catholic magazine in Cuba, Dagoberto Valdes, told NEWSWEEK recently that, "The church is the ultimate sanctuary, the last redoubt of freedom." Atheists should ask, "by what standard?" In the United States and elsewhere, it is the Roman Catholic Church not only leading the fight against gay rights, abortion and other civil liberties, but against many of the trappings of modernity -- affluence, consumerism, a cosmopolitan ethic. Richard Rodriguez of Pacific News Service noted in a column appearing in the January 8, 2020 Los Angeles Times "Pope and Castro aren't such Strangers" that, "The America's last Marxist and the Polish anti-communist reject hedonism, capitalism and individualism." He notes that Fidel Castro was raised a Roman Catholic, and that "Priests in Rome tell me that the Vatican loathes the spread of Western hedonism. Rome expects the West to be saved by the East." Of Fidel, Rodgriguez adds that "there remains something almost Victorian about Castro's Havana today by comparison to the bawdy pre-revolutionary years..."

    Whatever the shortcomings of either socialism or capitalism, the Vatican has never seriously abandoned its Quixotic enchantment with the Middle Ages and the medieval ethos, "a place for everyone, everyone in his place," a controlled, static, hierarchical social order first challenged by the Renaissance, and swept aside, for the most part, by the Enlightenment. Today, the world's major religious movements -- Islam, Orthodoxy, fundamentalist Christianity and conservative Roman Catholicism -- stand, in their own distinct ways, as promised antidotes to many of the problematic and tentative aspects of modernity. It is that modernity which, after Castro, John Paul seeks to confront. Having survived feudalism, monarchies, fascism and communism, the church now must confront its ultimate adversaries -- secularism and freedom.

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