Nova Consciencia — “New Conscience”: Dan Barker

By Dan Barker


Dan (center) with freethinking guitarist Romério Zeferino and popular singer Sandra Belê in Campina Grande, Paraíba, Brazil. Sandra, a Carirís Indian, showcases the music and stories of her small dusty town of Zabelê. Romério and Sandra own a video production company that documents the culture and history of the Brazilian northeast. (Photo by Antonio Ronaldo P. da Silva)

Every summer for the past 17 years, there has been an incredible “anti-Carnival” event in northeastern Brazil during the pre-Lenten week of revelry that grips the rest of the country in a frenzy of excess. The “Encontro da Nova Consciência,” in the inland city of Campina Grande in the northern state of Paraíba, is a five-day multicultural interfaith gathering that promotes tolerance and world peace. Campina Grande is located in the “sertao” (Portuguese for “backcountry”), an area that has long been known as a crossroads of art, culture, and religion.

I was invited to Nova Consciencia this year to represent atheism, and was very happy to go down there, not only because it was my first trip south of the equator, but because while Madison, Wis., was being buried in the worst snowfall in remembered history, it was summer down in Campina Grande! I was (literally) warmly received, not only by the nonbelievers, but by the other groups as well, especially by the local musicians. I was the only representative from the United States at the conference.

This year’s huge gathering on Feb. 1-5 drew representatives from groups as diverse as Wiccans, Hare Krishnas, Buddhists, Sufis, Muslims, Catholics, astrologers, tarot readers, palm readers, animists, shamans, healers, “Espíritas,” Afro/Brazilian syncretic religions–such as Santo Daime, Umbanda, and Orisa–Marxists, Masons, Presbyterians, Methodists, UFO-logists, various smaller religions, as well as gypsies, indigenous groups, feminists, environmentalists, vegetarians, aromatherapists, animal-rights and gay-rights activists, musicians, dancers, authors, poets, role-playing gamers, artists, filmmakers, educators, archaeologists, scientists–and, yes, a strong contingent of atheists, agnostics and skeptics who are welcomed as a part of the fabric of diversity. Sponsored by the city and the state, and supported by the national Ministry of Culture, opening ceremonies are conducted by the mayor and the governor and other dignitaries from the government and the university. The entire city is awash in a tropical outpouring of music, singing, dancing, arts, and crafts, with an overriding sense of a diverse yet united humanity.

The only people who do not show up are the evangelicals. Well, they do show up, but only to picket the “evil New Age” event. Evangelicals come to protest tolerance.

On Feb. 2, I told my story, “Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist,” to a packed room at the university, followed by many questions. Although I had been studying Brazilian Portuguese in preparation for the trip, I gave that first presentation mainly in Spanish, with one of the Spanish professors helping to translate a few non-cognates into Portuguese.

On Feb. 3, I gave another presentation in a larger lecture hall at the university, an optimistic talk about “Atheism in the United States and the World,” accompanied by atheist professors Rogerio Nascimento and Sebastian Sanchez. Since I was gaining confidence with the language, I gave that second talk in “Portunhol” (a mix of portugues and espanhol), which they all said they understood if I spoke slowly. Although I talked for 20 minutes, the professors were more loquacious. The attentive crowd did not want to leave the room even after four hours(!), staying to ask informed questions and continue the dialogue.

Before that second presentation, two people excitedly came up to me with the new book, Deus, um Delirio (The God Delusion), by Richard Dawkins, and asked if I knew about it. Talk about an international blockbuster! I was pleased to be able to show them the part in the book where Dawkins briefly mentions my deconversion experience.

The next morning, in the huge Municipal Theater, I participated in a roundtable discussion–“Freedom of Belief and Respect for Religious Diversity as a Human Right”–sitting at the table with representatives of Japanese Buddhism, Hare Krishna, and gypsies (who have concerns of cultural discrimination). With the help of notes, I was able to give the entire presentation in (broken) Portuguese.

I was also invited to do a televised interview about my story, and a taped interview by Prof. Sanchez about the teaching of evolution in public schools in the United States.

On Feb. 5, I played piano and performed at a school of music, accompanied by local guitarists and singers of immense talent. At the end of the meeting, Jorge, the music teacher, said, “Let’s all sing together,” and I was surprised to hear what they chose: John Lennon’s “Imagine”! I asked them, “Do you know what those words mean?” and they said, “Yes, of course!” It was one of the most charming moments of my life to hear “No hell below us/Above us only sky” sung by a roomful of people in a Brazilian accent. That song–and freethought–are truly international.

As far as I could learn, there is no organized atheism in Brazil. Ninety percent of the population identifies with the Catholic Church, although many of them mix their faith with local Brazilian/African traditions and the church there–where liberation theology is strong and priests are not always in line with the Vatican–looks the other way. That very week, the government was handing out morning-after pills at Carnaval in Recife, to an obligatory but impotent (pun intended) protest by the church.

I asked Romério Zeferino, an agnostic guitarist and film producer, how many of his musician friends are religious, and he replied, “All of them.” But when I asked him how many of those people go to church, he laughed and replied, “None of them!” He said he is interested in publishing my freethought book for children and in pushing for secularism in his country. Other atheist authors and activists I spoke with might be prompted to start a group in Brazil, though the economic situation will make it difficult.

I gave Romério and singer Sandra Belê an idea for their first freethought song. Driving around the country, I noticed that although the poor barely have enough resources to put milk on the table, they all seem to have plenty of money for Carnival, the lottery, beer and church. (It’s nice that “cerveja” (beer) and “igreja” (church) happen to rhyme in Portuguese.) Maybe soon we will be hearing an irreverent forró-style song from nonbelievers south of the equator!

Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist.

Freedom From Religion Foundation