Putting the “Active” in Activism: An Interview with Sean Omar Rivera

Susann
Education Officer and National Coordinator–United CoR

A speaker from last month’s review of the first Black Nonbelievers’ Conference-at-Sea caught my interest: Sean Omar Rivera. I remembered him from UnitedCoR’s 2016 article “Remembering the [Hugs] at the Alamo,” where a group of student activists showed up at the hallowed Texas shrine to provide a positive face for atheism and made new friends and connections in that conservative state. I also remember that Sean challenged former San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, when she was quoted as saying “People not being in a relationship with their creator and therefore not being in a good relationship with their families and their communities and not being productive members of society.” After checking with various friends in the Austin Coalition of Reason and San Antonio Coalition of Reason, we were able to reach Sean for an interview.

Sean is 21 years old, and will be graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Multidisciplinary Studies (Political Science, Business, and Communication) from the University of Texas—San Antonio (UTSA) in May 2018. This will also be an exciting time for Sean and his partner, as they will be expecting their first child in May 2018.

Sean is also well-known and highly-respected within secular-friendly communities of San Antonio. He’s been the Public Relations Officer, Treasurer, and President of the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA); a Board Member of Freethinkers Association of Central Texas (FACT); Precinct Chair 3058 of Bexar County Democratic Party; the Vice President of Progressive Democrats at UTSA; an Intern and Fellow at MOVE San Antonio; and also an Intern with the Bexar County Democratic Party. Sean has also been active with political campaigns including:

  • Rick Trevino for San Antonio City Council
  • John Courage for San Antonio City Council
  • Rick Trevino for US House TX23
  • Robert Feria for San Antonio City Council

UnitedCoR: What prompted you to come out as a non-believer? Were you previously religious?

Sean Omar Rivera: I’ve been an open non-believer for eight years and a secular activist for seven. I began in my high school Secular Student Alliance and eventually became the president of my university’s SSA chapter (Secular Student Alliance of the University of Texas—San Antonio) and a board member with the Freethinkers Association of Central Texas (FACT). I’ve had the privilege of speaking at three conferences, visiting several podcasts, and expanding my work into social justice and political organizing.

I’ve spent over a third of my life as an atheist. I was raised Christian with a loosely Baptist leaning in a very open-minded family. When I was between 11 and 13 years old, I began to shed my beliefs at a level of which I wasn’t fully cognizant. Like many people I know, the fear of a “hell” kept me from asking the questions that needed to be asked; the questions that would ultimately lead me to the conclusion that the beliefs I had been taught were false.

One of my most memorable milestones happened during my second—and final—Bible camp. The year before, I was signed up by a family member without my knowledge, and reluctantly agreed to attend. My beliefs had been waning, but not enough to override the existential terror that stands in the way of deconversion. I eventually got into the spirit of things, and after a few groupthink-fueled call-and-response chants, I buried my cognitive dissonance and left the camp with a temporary sense of reassurance. Unlike my initial reluctance the year before, I was clawing at the gate to get into camp my second year.

The euphoria from my previous camp had worn off almost immediately… the glaring holes in my worldview had become too clear to look away from, and I saw this as my last chance to be “saved” and avoid hell. I looked for reassurance from my campmates. I looked for comfort from the daily sermons. I ultimately pulled a camp counselor aside for a three-hour-long exchange filled with circular reasoning and poor analogies. After the camp, I accepted that hell was no more real than the boogie man; I came to terms with my new reality, and adopted the label “agnostic,” which I would change to “atheist” several years later. I joined the Secular Student Alliance as a high school sophomore in 2011 and have been an activist ever since.

Some of the student members of the SSA—University of Texas—San Antonio

UnitedCoR: What are the challenges in Texas trying to change misconceptions from theistic communities, and what’s your advice for nontheists elsewhere?

Sean Omar Rivera: Needless to say, Texans live in a very religious environment. My university has one of the highest concentrations of religious organizations in the US. That being said, I’ve seen more issues within the secular movement in the past few years than I have seen in our interactions with the general public. Communities—especially young people and progressives—are increasingly accepting of folks who call themselves “nonreligious” or “no religious preference”. I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with hostile theists over the years, but, at least among millennials, I don’t see that caustic sentiment continuing. Most people reading this are probably aware that millennials are exceptionally nonreligious, that we are deconverting at faster rates with every poll, and that there are no signs of us slowing down in the near future. As our country becomes less religious, popular perception of the nonreligious will improve accordingly.

I believe all approaches have a place in our movement. Firebrands like David Silverman use blunt demonstrations to increase awareness and recondition the public away from a visceral response. More diplomatic figures like Anthony Magnabosco use the Socratic method to politely probe theists’ beliefs and ease them through their cognitive dissonance. Activists around the country employ dozens of other methods and philosophies that collectively work to tackle the same issue.

The only tactic I feel is being neglected is local political engagement. The secular movement—at all levels—needs to involve itself in the political sphere. Whether some members of the movement like it or not, this is where change happens. I’ve worked on several political campaigns, but I’ll never forget the sting that came with a 28-vote loss that prevented my favorite city council candidate from entering the runoff. I remember spending 30 minutes of my time pleading with a secular friend, with no success, to stand up and cast their vote at the on-campus polling site directly next to our room. We ask ourselves why zealots from the “religious right” are constantly grabbing at high-level political offices, but we stick our noses up at the small, local races that kickstarted their careers.

[Note from UnitedCoR: Sean’s got a good point on this analysis…check out the American Renewal Project’s “Issachar Training”!]

If you want to combat the religious right, find an election for your city council, sheriff, local school board, or judge and get to work right away. If your state’s voter registration laws are as strict as Texas’s are, work to register underrepresented communities that are most likely to vote for secular values. For example, most of my work with the progressive nonprofit, MOVE San Antonio, is aimed at registering college students and young people. If there are no secular-friendly candidates within reach, run for a position yourself! Most local political parties have precinct chair positions and many municipal governments have appointed positions on boards and commissions. I became a Democrat Party precinct chair after the 2016 election, and I am seriously planning to join a municipal commission after I finish my classes in the spring. The positions are relatively easy to acquire and they are a great educational opportunity for anyone planning on a future in political activism or public service.

UnitedCoR: How does nontheism play into your activism for social justice, and how do you encourage nontheists to get involved?

Sean Omar Rivera: I got my start in the secular movement. Before edge-lords, trolls, and the alt-right elbowed their way to the centerstage, this movement taught me the importance of standing up for marginalized groups: especially those that I have the option to look away from. For any nonbelievers who need a reason to involve themselves in social justice, I will reserve the “doing what is right for its own sake” lecture for another day and give a more selfish argument. For those of you who are simply atheists—not black, brown, gay, transgender, or female—and if you are only concerned with what the movement can do for you, then please listen. I’m convinced that if you don’t put your foot down now, and make your movement stand up for other marginalized groups, then it will die from starvation, or at the very least, devolve into an ideological wasteland so overrun with racism, misogyny, and other forms of hate that even the most privileged of you will not want to touch it with a 10 foot pole.

From my perspective, the movement has been hemorrhaging women, LGBTQ+ people, and racial minorities for years. This really doesn’t do justice to the real losses of those who chose to never join in the first place. It embarrasses me to say this, but I can’t count the number of times that I have seen women, transgender people, and members of minority communities walk into my organization, hear one of our members go on an intolerant rant, and uncomfortably slip out of the room never to be seen again. Some may view these people as “purists,” which I find ironic, considering that most of the people I hear this argument from are purists in respect to their atheism. They are often the type who would rather cooperate with a group of intolerant atheists than a group of tolerant Christians or tolerant Muslims or tolerant whatever religion they follow. They, like a member of multiple marginalized groups, seem to be willing to isolate a single part of their identity and use it as a litmus test for others to comply.

Regardless of the groups you identify with, everyone has a limit. I work in several movements, and have found larger numbers of atheists in those environments than I have in my entire time in the secular movement. The Black Lives Matter movement? Filled with atheists! Various LGBTQ+ movements? Overflowing with atheists. Immigrants’ rights, economic justice, and intersectional feminism…Do I even need to answer this? These are not just minorities, women, or LGBT folks who were turned off by the secular movement, these are heterosexual, white, cisgender, male atheists, the traditional poster children of atheism, who made the conscious decision to steer clear of the secular movement to distance themselves from the intolerance it is becoming increasingly known for.

If you turn your nose up at social justice work and want a single-issue secular movement, then you are passively expelling those of us who do not have the option to overlook the challenges we face outside of atheism, facilitating an environment that is unpalatable to our more privileged allies, and starving the movement of the numbers it needs.

UnitedCoR: In your opinion, where has the secular movement succeeded in taking a stand for social justice?

Sean Omar Rivera: The secular movement is amorphous, so it may be easier to answer this question by highlighting a specific organization instead of assigning success to the movement as a whole. The movement has done a spotty job representing racial minorities. Organizations like Black Nonbelievers have done a great job at filling in that desperately-needed niche. I had a great time speaking at their first conference-at-sea last month, and it ended with tearful testimonies thanking Mandisa Thomas (President of Black Nonbelievers and Coordinator of the Atlanta Coalition of Reason) and the Black Nonbelievers team for giving us a break from the exhausting realities we deal with in our daily lives. If anyone has suffered from religion, it is the African-American community, and the sooner our movement adopts the spirit of Black Nonbelievers and provides a more diverse support network, the better.

Sean at the Black Nonbelievers’ Conference-at-Sea

UnitedCoR: Tokenism can be insulting. How can local groups grow their diversity while avoiding this?

Sean Omar Rivera: Remember, your goal should never be to “get a minority member,” but instead to “be an organization that minority members actually want to be a part of.” There’s a lot to unpack in that statement, and here’s why:

  • It means that there is little-to-no quantitative means of measuring success. Simply getting minority members is a quantitative goal, but it doesn’t guarantee progress. As a part of my work with MOVE San Antonio, I’ve had several confrontations with an extremist group of self-identified Confederate militiamen. One of their members, the one that they continually parade out to speak on their behalf, is black. Every time he speaks, the logic of what he was doing is written all over his face and is overflowing from his speeches: “If I am black, and I am a member of this group, then this group simply cannot have a race problem.” This, of course, was followed by speeches downplaying the importance of slavery, including an assertion that the existence of ancient Egyptian slavery—because of Egypt’s location in Africa—invalidates our grievances about slavery in America. Needless to say, if you approached any black person and asserted that this Confederate group had no problems concerning race because they happen to have a black member, you would be met with hysterical laughter.
  • It means you should improve your group’s representation solely because it is the right thing to do. Be aware of your motivations. If you are seeking minority members simply to meet an unofficial quota, to pat yourself on the back, or to demonstrate your moral fortitude to others, then you have already set yourself on the track to an unsustainable goal. Whether it’s a lack of intersectionality, intolerant sentiment coming from other members, or social neglect, your motivations will show up in the quality of service you give to your minority members and their level of involvement will drop accordingly.
  • It means that simply having minority members does not mean you are, or ever will be, out of the woods. Before membership in one of my organizations took a nosedive, over half of our numbers consisted of minority students. Several of our members were LGBTQ+, half of us were women, and the vast majority of us were Latino/Latina or members of other marginalized groups. If push comes to shove, and your minority members begin to feel unwelcome, you will have to make a choice about what is more important: a diversity of changeable attitudes or a diversity of unchangeable traits. You can judge an attitude to be unacceptable and you can ask a person to change that attitude, but you cannot reasonably do the same to involuntary traits like sex, orientation, or race. (For instance, I would never expel a member for being female, but I would gladly expel a member for being misogynistic. Hopefully you would do the same!)

If you genuinely want to avoid tokenism, then facilitate genuine minority participation through altruistic means and work to intertwine yourself in movements that marginalized groups care about. Intersectionality is not about losing a part of your movement, but about gaining a part of other movements to improve your own. If your organization involves itself in racial justice, then minority members will come. If it involves itself in the LGBTQ+ movement, then queer members will come. The same applies itself to all other marginalized groups. They are not looking for a “mascot position”: they are looking for support, and it is up to your organization to unambiguously demonstrate that support in words, and above all, in actions.

UnitedCoR: What do millenials bring to the secular movement that should be paid special attention to?

Sean Omar Rivera: Millennials have taken on a messianic image in many circles. We are supposedly the most educated, tolerant, forward-thinking generation to grace the earth with our presence. There’s a popular sentiment that once the millennials become active and gain institutional power, things will get better. On a grand scale, I believe there is some truth to this, but in the secular movement, I’m not sure. There is a difference between the impact that millennials will have on America’s religious demographics and the effect they will have on the institutional framework we refer to as the “secular movement.” We won’t stop dropping out of religion. There’s no turning back. We have access to unlimited information and perspectives through the internet. We exist in an environment that constantly highlights the hypocrisy of religion at the highest levels of organized society (my senator is Ted Cruz by the way!). Scientific progress is showing us that the wonders of the universe are more compelling than anything written in a holy book.

As far as our actual involvement in the movement goes, I honestly don’t know what is going to happen. If a representative cross-section of nonreligious millennials joins the secular movement, then I could see us doing a lot of good. If, however, the secular movement disproportionately attracts the more poisonous products of our generation, it could easily become another mouthpiece for the alt-right. I believe millennials will be a net-gain for society, but our amplified capacity to do good is only one side of the coin. That being said, we have an extraordinary level of activist energy and a growing passion for grassroots organizing that can help any group take off. My advice is to embrace intersectionality to attract the productive millennials the movement needs and to adopt our methods of online communication even if they seem silly, redundant, or difficult to use.

Thank you to Sean for taking the time for this interview. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanOmarRivera. And check out the organizations he works with: