Guatemala is an officially secular country with constitutional protection for religious freedom. However, since 97% of the people are deeply religious—with 65–70% Roman Catholic and the rest mainly evangelical Protestant—most of the population and the leadership think “religious freedom” means “the freedom to be religious.” They don’t think it means “freedom from religion.”
A bill to require mandatory bible classes in the public schools has recently been introduced in an effort to curb violence and drug use among the young people in that troubled nation.
But the whole country is not religious. When the newly formed Guatemalan Secular Humanist Association (Asociación Guatemalteca de Humanistas Seculares, AGHS) decided to protest the unconstitutional initiative, their spokesperson Carlos Mendoza was heckled, booed, and forced out of a public hearing in Congress by an angry crowd of Christians, including a number of ministers. You can see the incident here:
Here is an English translation:
CARLOS: “This violates the National Education Law. This initiative violates the Law of the Integrity of Children and Adolescents where it is guaranteed that education in Guatemala should be secular. There are legal fundamentals. They are violating international conventions to educate . . . .
CROWD: “He has no basis . . .”
CROWD: “Protect the children!”
CROWD: “Cast out Satan!”
CROWD: “Out, out. Throw him out!”
CROWD: “Protect the children!”
CARLOS: “ . . . the people . . . of Guatemala . . . we . . . and the nonbelievers . . . who consider that science . . . we Guatemalans have . . . our children . . . the church and the state . . . the Guatemalan state . . .”
CROWD: “Protect the children of Guatemala!”
CROWD: “Out! Out! Out!”
CROWD: “Take him away!”
CROWD: Cheers when he is removed.
Carlos Mendoza admits he was shocked when the rude heckling started, and then grew into a room full of shouting believers. His fear turned to consternation after reporters came to his defense, shocked that a country of free speech would be so disrespectful to peaceful dissent. “The fear has passed,” Mendoza said, “but I still have a deep sense of sadness because I realized that religious fanaticism is trying to penetrate the Guatemalan state institutions, especially the system of public education in order to indoctrinate children and young people in one particular worldview, which corresponds to medieval times.”
Looking at the faces of the angry shouting crowd—some raising and jabbing their hands in what looks like an exorcism—we can see the danger of religious divisiveness and the blindness of dogmatic faith. Nobody is telling those believers and preachers that they cannot promote bible reading in their homes and churches. Carlos and his humanist friends are reminding the government that the public schools must remain neutral and secular in order to protect the religious freedom of all citizens.
I know Carlos Mendoza. He is a kind, generous and intelligent man. When I visited Guatemala last year for the inaugural event of the AGHS, which attracted more than 350 people to the Cine Lux, Carlos took a day of his time to give me a personal tour of the Iximché ruins outside of Guatemala City, using his persuasive skills to convince the gatekeeper to let us in after hours for private access to the site. We saw the ancient Mayan altar, now sometimes used for Roman Catholic worship in a country still ravaged by religious oppression.
Carlos and the AGHS are embarking on a brave journey to battle intolerance and divisiveness. They deserve our praise. They also need our support. If the bill passes, they want to sue the government. If you would like to help, visit http://igg.me/at/secular-education
AGHS President David Pineda (and daughter Abi), me, Treasurer Carlos Mendoza, summer 2014
Carlos Mendoza showing me the Iximché ruins