Atheism, Peru, and Betsy DeVos

Boy Scouts will now be accepting transgender kids, right? Great. Atheists and agnostics are still prohibited.

In terms of our “appeal” as a minority group, atheists almost always rank about where goblin sharks would rank on a list of cute animals: Dead last. We’re not even ugly-cute.

Nonetheless, the number of atheists in the USA is growing: The Pew Research Center found that we went from about 1.6% in 2007 to 3.1% in 2014. And that doesn’t count the 9% or so of the American population that denies belief in any God or universal spirit yet bizarrely doesn’t identify as atheist on surveys (despite literally fitting the dictionary definition). The religious landscape in the USA is shifting.

Living in Peru as an atheist has been… a series of poignant experiences. I’m atheist in what is undeniably Catholic country. Thankfully, my Peruvian friend group is composed of tolerant and naturally curious people, so my personal encounters regarding religion have been mostly painless. However, the way the Catholicism here permeates the country’s legal and education systems is deeply troubling. And all the religious symbols, as innocuous as they might seem to locals, are a constant reminder of the depth of my own “other-ness”. A single government office, like the one we’ve visited several times for my immigration forms, tends to boast on average at least two creepy saints-in-a-box. Mini chapels and plaques with religious proclamations are common as well.

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Betsy DeVos, who almost unsurprisingly became today the USA’s Secretary of Education, pulls a stunning balancing act: She is at once totally unprepared to do anything good, yet highly prepared to a lot of harm. It’s hard to hit that sweet spot of offering both ineptitude and insidiousness, but she strikes it.

DeVos is grossly inexperienced and unqualified.

DeVos is also the worst kind of religious. She’s not “lead to Christ by example” religious or “all are welcome” drum circle religious. She’s zealously religious. She’s if it makes me uncomfortable then it’s evil religious. And now that she’s seized power, she’s a special kind of threat at the very least to the increasingly respectable percentage of Americans comfortable enough to openly express disbelief in any gods at all.

My mom told me a story once about attempting to join a Bible study group. The randomly selected prompt for the day was “Have you ever had any doubts about your faith?” My mom went first: “Yes, of course, and this is one time when.” The other women in the group responded with pursed lips and grim silence, then shuffled quickly along to the next question. There was no room for doubt in their cult.

DeVos is like those women. Her lack of doubt is terrifying.

It is arrogance, and it is dangerous.

Mother Jones analyzed 15 years (1999 to 2014) of the DeVoses’ tax filings. Of about $100 million donated, half went to openly Christian organizations. In terms of education-related donations, $8.6 million went to private Christian schools versus about $60,000 to public schools.

Just over $1.2 million went to the Action Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, which is bent on “integrating Judeo-Christian Truths with Free Market Principles.” According to these guys,

Liberty flourishes in a society supported by a moral culture that embraces the truth about the transcendent origin and destiny of the human person. This moral culture leads to harmony and to the proper ordering of society. […] the family is the primary inculcator of the moral culture in a society.

Like DeVos, these people are dangerous. They have no interest in church and state separation. They have no interest in alternative perspectives of the world or of life. They have no interest in sharing this country and its resources. And in the world they dream of, there is no place for me.

In addition, although drops in the bucket for billionaires, $232,390 went to the Foundation for Traditional Values, and $275,000 went to Focus on the Family. The former organization’s mission is “to restore and affirm the Judeo-Christian values upon which America was established.” The latter aims at “nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide;” its resources strive to help parents “build into [children] a biblical worldview of gender and sexuality,” in which marriage is “intended by God to be a thriving, lifelong relationship between a man and a woman.”

These are people who do not want art unless it praises them. These are people who do not want debate unless it celebrates their blindness. These are people who would break the spirits of the different and smother the very children who could otherwise best lead us into a future guided by grace.

If you think being tolerant and sharing are things a good human being should do, this administration has betrayed you by granting DeVos power.

The voucher system proposal is troubling, religion aside. The science on voucher systems is inconclusive. Chile, which has one of the world’s longest-running voucher systems, hasn’t exactly found success with the approach. Notably, in the USA, the voucher system would also inevitably siphon off funding from already struggling public schools.

But the real risk, in my eyes, and I strongly suspect the real attraction to DeVos, is the potential for indoctrination that a voucher system would offer: According to a U.S. Department of Education report published in November of 2016, a survey of all private schools in the USA in 2013-2014 indicated about 33,600 private schools in existence, constituting roughly 25% of all schools in the country. To be fair, size of school matters a lot, and private schools are small; only about 5,400,000 students (10% of all US students) attended private schools that year. However, 69% of private schools, enrolling 79% of private school students, had a religious orientation or purpose. Just less than 1% were Islamic schools and students. The rest? Different flavors of Christian.

Regardless of how the administration eventually dresses it up, DeVos’ motivation to support the voucher proposal seems clear. The private school system is an excellent tool to help advance her vision of society, which ideally would enjoy a comfortingly narrow definition of diversity.

Significant criticism has cast DeVos as a conniving power-grabber planning to benefit off the backs of poor and disabled children. That may be true. She has responded repeatedly that she loves children. That may also be true. My deepest concern, however, is not about her greed or love of children. It is about this woman’s zealotry. I am afraid that she genuinely plans, as she has said that she does in an interview with POLITICO, to use the education system as a tool to build her god’s kingdom and to put her church back in a seat of primary and central power in every community.

Please, if you teach or have children, be more vigilant than ever. And please be prepared to defend all the children who don’t fit in. It is my suspicion that at greatest risk will not necessarily be the disabled, who DeVos will view as “acceptable” within her world norms, but those who challenge what DeVos views as traditional Christian gender norms, those whose beliefs or whose family’s beliefs clash with DeVos’ specific Christian agenda, those who are Christian but define their Christianity differently enough to stand up to DeVos, and those who are smart enough to reject DeVos’ efforts (and I am confident that there will be efforts given her past snubs toward the Common Core) to integrate indoctrination masquerading as science and culture into public schools.

And if DeVos does not terrify or enrage you, if her appointment does not cause you any alarm or grief or rage, please, re-evaluate. The peace you are enjoying is privilege incarnate.

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4 thoughts on “Atheism, Peru, and Betsy DeVos

    • That high! Hah. I got to live in England for a year (and travel in Europe) and the funniest repeated response I got from people finding out I was an atheist despite being from Kentucky was disappointment. They’d been hoping to interact (for the first time in their lives) with an actual cavemen-rode-dinosaurs believer.

  1. I am atheist in Peru, my wife is Catholic… but the troubling thing is not religion, but opression and symbols of colonialism which comes to mind. The only ray of truth, if Jesus existed he would have had a dark complexion..lol

    On the otherhand How do people Know I atheist, I just go my normal path in my daily life of respecting difference😊

    • Thank you so much for commenting! It’s often hard for me to separate the religion from the colonialism here. I’m trying to read more Peruvian history too (while keeping up with the chaos in the USA now!).

      The nice thing in Peru has been that I’ve gotten shocked responses when people find out that I’m atheist (I’ll tell them if they ask), but that shock is almost always followed with curiosity, not horror or outrage.

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