Emmanuel Donate is a member of the board of directors for the Hispanic American Freethinkers. Professionally he works as a mathematics, science, and martial arts teacher and as an immigration and family law attorney. He has a B.S. in mathematics from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus and a J.D. from Mercer University, Walter F. George School of Law. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Georgia where he has completed an M.S. in Physics and is finishing his dissertation in Astrophysics with a research focus in radio astronomy.
I am one of seven directors of the Hispanic American Freethinkers. My position on the board is a bit unique. I was HAFree’s attorney for four years prior to joining the board in 2016. My biggest role on the board has been to advise on legal issues. This ranges from controlling content that gets released to the public to writing, researching and editing documents that pertain to HAFree’s non-profit status or our intellectual property.
What’s your family and personal background in terms of freethinking? What was your experience of becoming, of living, as a freethinker? Your moment of awakening?
I became a freethinker at 16. I had been raised Catholic and was living a life of a lot of privilege. My family didn’t have a lot of money but my father was in the military so we lived well, we were provided for and we travelled often. I had good grades and made enough friends to make school life mostly pleasant and enjoyable. When I was about to enter high school, my father was in the process of retiring from the military and so we moved back to Puerto Rico.
When I went to school in Puerto Rico, I faced a large culture shock that took me into a big depression. My solution was to pray more and get more involved with the church. The idea was that I was facing these difficulties because I had strayed the path and that if I were more dedicated God would help put things back in their place. Things only got worse as I got more into religion.
Eventually I realised the praying wasn’t working. I didn’t know who to talk to or what to read since everyone around me was a Christian. In an amazing stroke of luck, we got our first Internet connection at home around this time.
The Internet gave me way to do research that was covert. I could read about philosophy and any questions I wanted without getting in trouble with family. I found pantheism and at the time it made sense, so I stuck with it. As time passed I lost the label of ‘pantheist’ but continued to evolve my thinking patterns into what I am today.
Culture in Puerto Rico is very religious. People there are more willing to come out and claim atheism, secularism, or freethinking more freely now. However, it was mostly unheard of when I was a teenager in 1997. I didn’t find friends who had the same ideas until I was in my second year of college.
In general, the process of becoming a freethinker was difficult for me because it included a culture shock, the loss of my religious community support system, and a lack of support from my family and friends. Once I found that group of friends in college, being a freethinker became much easier. I was able to develop my relationships and ideas within a supportive and inquisitive community. I’ve kept all of those friends and, now, thanks to HAFree, I’ve made even more friends across the globe who share the same ideas and want to contribute to a greater community.
What makes a good freethinker?
I hesitate to answer this question because it seems like it includes a moral/value judgement. I am not the right person to say what makes or doesn’t make a good freethinker. I’m more confident in talking objectively about what makes a freethinker rather than a good freethinker.
The scientist in me says that a freethinker is a person who fits the definition of a freethinker. Obvious right? If you form your opinions based on logical reasoning and evidence and you do not from your opinions on the basis of tradition, authority, or faith, then I would say calling yourself a freethinker would be accurate.
Subjectively, I’d say that whether someone is a good freethinker depends on whether that someone is a good person. Who are you in the world, what do you do? What is your way? I don’t think there is a way to define that in words. If the people around you feel that you are positive force in the world and you happen to be a freethinker then I would feel that you are a good freethinker.
There was a time where I thought that freethinking could be associated with a code of values, but I don’t believe that to be true any longer. I think I believed this because religiosity is always connected to a code of values. So it seemed natural that once you left your religiosity, whatever occupied that space would include a code of values. However freethinking as a lifestyle necessitates that you assume fewer things to be true or objectively clear-cut.
Freethinking does not occupy the same space as religion in the mind because it functions as a negation of knowledge. Religiosity imposes a foundation of information from which to draw conclusions about reality. As a freethinker, you question yourself and ideas far more often than when you are religious about any given fact or opinion. When you are less sure of your knowledge. it is harder to develop an objective code of values around that knowledge. Hence, there is no cut and dry way to establish goodness solely on the basis of words. Your goodness is a function of your self; only those that interact with you could ever tell you if your self is any good.
Where do you most differ from mainstream freethinking in its definition, aims, and activism, if at all?
I’ve been through a lot of changes in how I go about being an activist. I had a firebrand period where I argued against and criticised religion. This period coincided with the debates that made Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris a force within the freethinking community. I admired them, and during that time I emulated their behaviour. Going through law school also increased my willingness to engage in debate.
The debate-prone version of myself continued until about 2012 when I went back to school to do a PhD. Since that time, I have focused more on community and bridge building. Where law taught me to fight science taught me to reconcile. I wanted to find more ways of making the freethinking community get closer together and of forming conversation and positive communication pathways between the religious community and the freethinkers. Lately, I’ve had more success with conversation than I had with debate.
The current socio-political climate suggests to me that we have to do better about coming together and building a governmental system that is inclusive and protects individual liberties more than we have to get together to highlight our metaphysical differences in the public square. This is in order to come together in order to highlight our metaphysical differences in the public square. There is always a place for intellectual debate, and I always enjoy watching the debates. I certainly do not believe that the activists who are engaging in the debates or the firebrand activism need to stop or be less forceful. However, I don’t personally have that passion anymore. I leave that to those who have the controversies as their personal mission and enjoy their work from the side-lines.
What are the main reasons, within your experience, people become freethinkers? For example, arguments from logic and philosophy, evidence from mainstream science, or experience within traditional religious structures.
What I see the most are two things: i) people open-minded enough to have rational epiphanies and ii) people who have gone through some kind of trauma or difficult situation in which religion is directly responsible.
Most of my friends and family whose religiosity has eroded as adults continue to hold on to the idea of a “greater power”. The scientific and rational arguments are not lost on them when it comes to the fantastic parts of their core religions, but the god figure is still very present in their belief systems. On the other hand, the friends (I’m the only agnostic-atheist in my family) who lost their religiosity at a young age, say teenagers, were far more likely to burn the whole thing down and let go of the god figure.
The older a person is, the harder it is to get the to move on to the freethinking side of things and change their cognitive theory of the universe. If you base your understanding of reality on god for a long time, it will take a long time before you can pull that god pin out of your system without the whole thing crashing down around you. Although it does no physical harm to have your cognitive reality fall apart, it can include some psychological damage depending on your level of belief and engagement. It takes a good bit of mental fortitude to crossover to freethinking and start your model of the universe from the beginning again, especially if you have passed your youthful rebellious phase.
What is the best reason you have ever come across for freethinking?
For me it’s obvious that the success of science is the only reason any of us are here and particularly able to have this conversation. A freethinker accepts logic, reason and critical thinking and rejects tradition, authority, and faith as paths to knowledge. What this means is that when Kepler was trying to understand the orbits of the planets he put away any faith in an earth-centred universe. What we see is that in order for us to be successful as a species, it requires us to accept that we do not have real answers a priori; “real” meaning answers that accurately reflect our physical reality. Put very loosely, human ideas about how reality works are consistently wrong but we still convince ourselves we are consistently right.
Our tendency to think we are right and be wrong is very dangerous; it means we will continuously make mistakes. So how do we accept and take into account our error prone human nature when we are trying to decide how to live on the planet and amongst each other? Our philosophy and psychology have to take into account our natural state of being. The best way to do that is to think and act in such a way that our behaviour naturally uncovers our mistakes. We have to revisit and analyse our decisions, their consequences, and the implications of those consequences.
If we are to improve our state of living, as individuals and as a species, then we must be freethinkers. We must, as a species, adopt the understanding that we do not have all the answers and that everything must be questioned. It is the best way to safeguard against catastrophically wrong ideas that are the root of many of our traditional institutions and political discourse.
Two simple examples of this are the denial of climate change and the teaching of evolution in schools. These are ideas that are only accepted because of arguments founded in faith, tradition, and authority. A freethinking public would not likely be guilty of teaching creationism or denying climate change.
This is the greatest success of science and freethinking. The scientists made freethinking the foundation of their institution. With this foundation, science has been able to survive against traditional backlash for centuries. Not only has science successfully weathered human crises, but it has also been the driving mechanism for implementing the solutions to those crises as they have arisen. There is no better reason for free-thinking.
Is it more probable for freethinking to be accepted among the younger sub-population than the older sub-population?
Yes, but I think this is more a function of humanity than it is a function of freethinking as a concept. Young people are more open about things because in general they have learned less about life than older people. Even in religious or non-freethinking societies the young tend to be more revolutionary and looking for change, positive or negative.
Older people had to fight different fights and so they chose to ignore the fights they could not win or fights that weren’t as important to win. Younger folks walk in with the freedoms of those battles ready to take on new battles. The new atheist or freethinking revolution would not have happened the way it did a few years ago had it not been for the social civil movements other marginalised populations mobilised for in the past.
What are the popular community activities provided by Hispanic American Freethinkers?
HAFree offers monthly meetups encouraging its members to get together for social and educational purposes. Since its foundation in 2010, it has an annual picnic, sometimes inviting other secular groups such as Ex-Muslims of North America. Many of its members participate in “tabling” at conferences, festivals, and similar in order to inform the public about critical thinking, science, and scepticism of everything, especially the so-called “supernatural” claims. HAFree works with other organizations on everything from separation of religion and government issues, to educating people on death with dignity issues. HAFree also partners up with other organisations such as Humanistas Seculares de Puerto Rico and American Atheists to put together conferences that are beneficial to the communities we are trying to serve.
What are some of the demographics of Hispanic American Freethinkers? Who is most likely to join Hispanic American Freethinkers? (Age, sex, sexual orientation, and so on.)
Hispanics (a minority ethnic group in the U.S.) are made up of people of all races. Some are born here and some were born abroad. Some speak Spanish, some speak English only, and most are bilingual to one degree or another. Family backgrounds come from every country in the Americas and, even if not self-identified as Hispanic or Latino, they are all welcomed as freethinkers. Most members and supporters tend to be between age 16 and 60 with the bell curve leaning towards the late 20’s and early 30’s. HAFree has transgendered, gay, straight, male, and female, but we don’t keep much records on such demographics.
What have been the largest activist and educational initiatives provided by Hispanic American Freethinkers? Out of these, what have been honest failures and successes?
In the past 5 or so years, HAFree has provided speakers for a couple of dozen conferences, exposing the organisation and its members to the greater growing secular community in the U.S. These presentations throughout the country have helped inform mainstream Americans about the plight of Hispanics, including the specific targeting done by religious groups including Muslims, Jehovah Witnesses, Pentecostals, and Mormons just to name a few. HAFree gives seminars in high schools and colleges on critical thinking, careers in STEM, technology futurism, etc. and its members are often asked to participate in panels about minorities in secularism.
HAFree produces a podcast in Spanish whereby topics of science and controversial issues such as abortion are discussed as well as some debates with Christian pastors in the form of conversations about religion claims and counterclaims. Once or twice a month, HAFree members host the television show “Road to Reason – A Skeptic’s Guide to the 21st Century” in which religion, pseudoscience, superstitions, and other claims are carefully examined through the lens of science. HAFree produces a lot of online debates, brochures, t-shirts, bible stickers, buttons, and similar to help people understand better the flawed thinking of faith-based claims. In general, everything has been very successful.
On the weakness side, being an all volunteered organisation and one that is in general more mobile than most other communities (yes, Hispanics tend to move a lot), it is challenging to have continuity in some of the projects. This will sometimes lead to pauses in activities that were going well (i.e. you will notice some difference in times when publishing the HAFree podcast). Although the organisation is 100% volunteer, funding is extremely challenging because our target communities are already far less affluent than mainstream Americans and volunteers are already tasked in doing what they are most passionate about – educating people about freethought within the Hispanic/Latino cultural environments of our Nation. Currently, HAFree has been working in creating a documentary film about Latinos in the U.S., their beliefs, and challenges as both religious and freethinkers.
Who/what are the main threats towards freethinking as a movement?
The erosion of church and state separation is the biggest problem as far as I can see. Some parts of government and religion have never been separate, despite what the constitution says. If we can continue to win those battles and not lose ground on the battles we have already won, then I think the movement will continue to flourish and improve humanity. Otherwise, things will go back towards theocracy and the freethinking movement will have to start from the beginning again.
Any of those are great. The directors are all available on those platforms and any of us would enjoy talking with folks that are interested in talking to us.
Any closing thoughts or feelings based on the discussion today?
No, thank you for interviewing me. Please let me know if you have any follow-up questions you would like me to address.
Thank you for your time, Emmanuel.