Richmond, Va. – On Sunday afternoons, when the local Roman Catholic church holds Mass for Spanish- speaking Catholics, Edgar Chilin is playing soccer in a league with hundreds of Latino players.
As a child in Guatemala, Chilin attended Mass every Sunday. But after immigrating to the United States 25 years ago, he and his family lost the churchgoing habit.
“We pray to God when we feel the need to,” he said, “but when we come here to America, we don’t feel the need.”
A wave of research shows that increasing percentages of Latinos are abandoning church, suggesting that along with assimilation comes a measure of secularization.
Several studies show that Latinos are just as likely as other Americans to identify themselves as having “no religion” and to not affiliate with a church. Those who describe themselves as secular are a small minority among Latinos – as they are among Americans at large. But, in contrast to many of the non-Latino Americans who identify themselves as secular, most of the Latinos say they were once religious.
The Roman Catholic Church, the religious home of most Latinos, is experiencing the greatest exodus. While many former Catholics join evangelical or Pentecostal churches, the recent research shows many of them stop attending church altogether.
“Migrating to the U.S. means you have the freedom to create your own identity,” said Keo Cavalcanti, a sociologist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. “When people get here, they realize that maintaining that pro forma display of religiosity is not essential to doing well.”
A study of 4,000 Latinos to be released this month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Hispanic Center found that 8 percent of them said they had “no religion.” The figure is 11 percent in the general public. Of the Latinos who claimed no religion, two-thirds said they had once been religious. Thirty- nine percent of the Latinos with no religion were former Catholics.
Latinos from Cuba were the most secular national group, at 14 percent, followed by those from Central America at 12 percent, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic at 9 percent and South America at 8 percent, the Pew poll found. Those in this country whose heritage stems from Mexico were the least likely to say they had no religion, at 7 percent.
The American Religious Identification Survey – a study of 50,000 adults, including 3,000 Latinos – found the percentage of Latinos who identified themselves as having no religion more than doubled from 1990 to 2001, from 6 percent to 13 percent.
This change is happening even though many Latinos emigrated from countries steeped in religion, where saints’ days and festivals mark the passage of time, and grandmothers round up their progeny each Sunday for Mass.
“They come, they adopt the American way, and part of the American way is moving towards no religion,” said Ariela Keysar, associate director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
Each year, Diana Lemus – a real estate agent and owner of Happy Mart, a busy Latino market in Richmond – makes New Year’s resolutions that include working out more, getting out of debt, being a better mother and attending church once a week.
Lemus said that this year, she had kept all of them, except going to church. In fact, she spends Sunday mornings at the gym. She thinks her faith is important but said perhaps she has grown “too materialistic.”
“I need God in my life, but I told the pastor, I get sleepy,” she said. “You have to stay in church from 1:30 to 5. I think if services were shorter, more entertaining.”
Like Lemus, many Latinos in Richmond said that even though they no longer attended church, their religion remained important to them. This confirms research findings that Latinos who said they had no religion represent a small subset; many more Latinos are living rather secular lives but still identify themselves as Catholics or Christians.
The phenomenon is similar to that of “cultural Jews,” said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “You can feel very strongly about the Virgin of Guadalupe and believe your children ought to be baptized and still not participate in the Catholic Church or make it a major factor in your life.”
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