-Analysis-

SANTIAGO  The specter of atheism is haunting this most Christian of regions, Latin America. From Mexico to Argentina, dozens of voices and groups of freethinkers, atheists and agnostics are demanding to be heard and calling for more secular structures in their countries.

Most don't seek to convert the religious but instead to ensure that their own rights are respected in countries where separation of church and state isn't often a flimsy legal concept.

These activists want "respect for diversity," says Argentine engineer Fernando Esteban Lozada, Latin America spokesman for the International Association of Free Thought. 

Four years ago, Lozada, who has organized four annual national atheism congresses in Argentina, took legal action against the Jesuit-run El Salvador University, or USAL, in Buenos Aires, for discrimination "based on religion." USAL's charter calls for a "struggle against atheism." It was drafted in 1974 by the country's then-ranking Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis.

Argentina's National Institute Against Discrimination (INADI), which is part of the Justice Ministry, ruled in Lozada's favor, though USAL has yet to eliminate the contested principle. Discrimination in education, traditionally a bastion of Latin America's Catholic Church, is a chief concern for atheists and agnostics. In Chile, almost half of Catholic schools require baptism certificates of prospective students and parents' church wedding certificates for admission — and these are not private schools, but institutions receiving state subsidies. 

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet's socialist government is expected to reform this system — against Church opposition. Meanwhile, the Chile Atheist Society has published its list of truly secular schools for the spring term that begins in March. 

Author and political analyst Cristóbal Bellolio says it is "important to have an organized and visible atheist community paying attention to the debate." He says that, until recently, television channels never invited dissenting non-religious voices to debates on morality or religion, based on the opinion that "only the representatives of churches are valid speakers."

While most Latin American countries implemented the separation of church and state decades ago, public rituals that irritate non-believers persist in some. In Peru and Chile, mass is celebrated at national festivities.

These are presided over by the archbishops of Lima and Santiago, and attended by state dignitaries. And many government buildings are still decorated for Christmas.

Leaning toward Uruguay 

There are currently 60 million Latin Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic, according to a November 2014 Pew Research Center poll. That's 8% of all Latin Americans, though non-believers are more numerous in some countries in percentage terms: 11% in Argentina, 16% in Chile, 18% in the Dominican Republic, and 37% in the continent's most secular country, Uruguay.

Other studies — in Chile, for example — suggest growing numbers of non-believers and shrinking numbers of Catholics. 

Indeed, the declining number of Catholics is one factor that has helped non-believer growth in the past 15 years. In 1970, 92% of Latin Americans identified as Catholic. Pew's poll shows this has fallen to 69%. While people may have been less honest in their declarations in 1970, the scandals of recent years, namely over child abuse and corruption in the Church, have no doubt driver some former Catholics to Protestant denominations or away from religion altogether.

Fear is certainly a factor in declarations of faith: A Gallup poll has shown that 5% of Saudi Arabians said they were atheist or agnostic, but could not say so in public. At the other extreme, in a liberal setting such as Sweden, official religion has been declining for decades now.

Holding on to his bible. Photo: Sociedad Atea Chile

The website adherents.com, which gathers global statistics on religion, currently counts all Christians at 2.1 billion or just over a third of the world's population. They are followed by Muslims, numbering 1.5 billion, then atheists and non-believers, numbering 1.1 billion, or 16% of the world's population. These are then followed by Hindus and Buddhists.

In 2011, Northwestern University scientists developed a mathematical "forecast" of religious tendencies in coming decades. The result of the study, "Modeling the Decline of Religious Affiliation," showed that those describing themselves as non-religious were the fastest-growing minority. The study concluded that religion could disappear in societies where it was perceived as not useful enough.

A changing Francis?

Atheists can be perceived as immoral, or even wicked. "They call us satanical and see us as amoral people," Mónica Moreno Rubio, an organizer of the First Atheist Congress in Mexico, told a local agency.

Most non-believers base their ideas on universal humanism and empirical scientific methods, and associations around the world have begun campaigns to clarify some of their positions.  

"Don't worry for those of us who are good without believing in god," the Mexican Atheists Association slogan goes. "Worry for those who need to believe in god to be good."

Studies on atheists around the world show that they are on average more educated, more tolerant and more liberal — and surprisingly, know more about religion than the average believer. That could partly explain Latin America's growing atheist movement.

"I have the impression we are waking from a state of lethargy in matters like abortion, same-sex marriage and religious influence in schools," Bellolio says.

Many Catholics hope perhaps that the Argentine Pope's enormous popularity will reverse the flight of believers. Yet a good image appears not to sway non-believers. "I don't think Francis is enough to revert the decline of Catholicism in Latin America, but it could stop the bleeding," Bellolio says. 

Lozada says, "Bergoglio shed his skin to return as Francis, leaving behind his sins, his violence, intolerance and explicit authoritarian character." He recalls a speech the now-Pope gave as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, on USAL's 20th anniversary. "Fighting atheism is to fight the negation of all transcendence, and affirm the presence in our history of the Living, the only Living One," he said then. "Fighting atheism in its various forms is to affirm transcendence."

Lozada admits the Pope is good with the media, but thinks his effect will pass. "At the end of the day, the Church's doctrine remains the same and is against all that has been won in human rights."