I’m writing this while on the road with the Caravan of Mothers of Missing Migrants, a collective whose children were disappeared on the migrant trail by cartels, government agents, or traffickers. For these women, the world has already ended. It ends every time they wake up and confront life without their children.
The mothers credit religion as the reason they survive the end of their worlds. As they travel, they carry laminated images of their kids around their necks—forming an iconography of forced migration. When they gather in schools, churches, and public squares, they engage in a devotional ritual of sorts, placing these photos in tidy rows, inviting passersby to stare into the eyes of the disappeared and invoke their presence. They share testimonios, which are part prayer, part manifesto, and part incantation. Every morning, they pray to God for resilience. They say He gives them the strength to participate in this caravan and denounce US empire. Notably, the mothers on this pilgrimage are not looking for pity. They are mobilizing to demand the decriminalization of migration.
In the United States, there is a misconception that religion is synonymous with white Christian nationalism or that it hinders movements for liberation—that it encourages docility and conformity with the status quo. This is certainly not the case with the Caravan of Mothers, who draw on religion to defy gendered and racialized expectations, or with the sanctuary movement, which I have studied extensively. In the 1980s, ministers, priests, and laypeople across Mesoamerica created an underground railroad to harbor and shelter Central Americans fleeing US-fueled civil wars. They established networks of care and defied the Reagan administration’s proxy armies, citing faith as their justification for breaking the law.
The US prosecuted sanctuary workers at the Sonora-Arizona border for offering safe passage to refugees. After the FBI and INS infiltrated their movement, 11 workers were indicted on alien smuggling charges. In a letter I found in the University of Arizona archives, the Rev. John Fife—one of the movement’s more prominent figures—notes that “the church in the US is coming under attack. What the Reagan administration calls conspiracy is simply the ministry to the persecuted that is fundamental to the church’s actually being the church.”
The United States insists on making a distinction between church and state—imagining faith as a private, “deeply held” matter. Some even argue that secularism leads to more democratic societies. This is a Western and Protestant understanding of religion, one that fails to grasp how—in the context of the Americas—separating the sacred from the secular is a product of colonialism. Secularism refuses to recognize the religiosity of the modern nation-state: the sovereign, the ritualistic jingoism, the devotional labor. My citizenship ceremony in the summer of 2019 resembled a religious ceremony. President Donald Trump spoke to the crowd about this country’s “sacred laws” and the “holy responsibilities” of new citizens. We sang the national anthem and waved our red, white, and blue American flags. There was ritual and repetition, there was worship, and there was a recounting of this country’s mythological origin story. Religion is not going away, nor is it distinct from everyday life.
Religion offers my collaborators the language and practices to envision a more just and free world. When I write that we need religion, I am not referring to creeds and churches, sermons and Sunday school. Religion opens up possibilities for ritual, transgression, intimacy, material culture, pilgrimage, and sacrifice. For the Caravan of Mothers of Missing Migrants, religion offers a theory of salvation that is rooted in the present—a set of practices for enduring and sustaining one another in the face of overwhelming loss and violence.
Those who insist that religion poses a problem for liberation are not paying attention to racialized people across the Americas. In the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder, Black Lives Matter activists built an altar for neighbors to grieve and create a “space of healing.” Alejandra Molina reported on Apache efforts to protect Oak Flat—a “blessed” place and ceremonial site. Theirs is a struggle that tribal leaders insist can “only be won through spirituality.” The Mothers of Missing Migrants tell me that only their religion gives them the strength to confront government agents and denounce the conditions that cause displacement.
In the US, too, religion shapes every aspect of our political and cultural life: from Lil Nas X riding a stripper pole to Hell to a conservative Catholic supermajority deliberating on the Supreme Court to humanitarian workers in Arizona placing water in the desert for migrants. The mothers I am traveling with for the next week embrace religion to organize for justice, even as governments, cartels, and traffickers (many times these are one and the same) make their struggle nearly impossible. For them, religion is a way of nurturing community and helps them imagine a world in which their children are home and safe and smiling.
In October 2021, Tennessee had one of the worst Covid-19 infection rates in the country. The governor, Bill Lee, responded not by imposing mask or vaccine mandates but by declaring a statewide Day of Fasting and Prayer. He asked “people of faith” to implore a merciful God to heal Tennessee. A month earlier, North Carolina’s lieutenant governor, Mark Robinson, had not blamed America’s school-shooting epidemic on the easy access to semiautomatic weapons or the lack of mental health care options for teenagers but on a dearth of religion; if children were taught to worship God and Jesus Christ, Robinson preached, there would be no such gun violence in America. And in June, as Utah was experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history, Governor Spencer Cox didn’t offer any legislative solutions to the climate crisis. Instead, he urged Utahans to pray for rain. Through prayer, the governor explained, “we may be able to escape the deadliest aspects of the continuing drought.”
Such moral obscenities illustrate the pernicious potential of religious faith at the highest levels of government: It is deliberate inaction piously masquerading as meaningful solution; it is indifference camouflaged as care; it is superstition that mollifies but fails to ameliorate the real sources of suffering.
Given the threats we face today—a melting planet, pandemics, decaying democracy, a Trumpian Supreme Court, emboldened dictators—relying on or pleading with magical gods, supernatural powers, or capricious spirits will not do a thing. Only we can help ourselves. We need clear eyes and sober minds. We need data-driven decision-making, empirically based regulations, scientifically rigorous problem-solving, local/global cooperation, humane economics, and ethical legislation. Not faith.
Faith can be a balm. For individuals contending with abuse, oppression, insecurity, illness, and addiction—to say nothing of hunger—faith is a nearly universal source of comfort. The assurances that everything will be OK in the end; that suffering has a deeper purpose; that there is a higher, loving power that will come to one’s aid are religion’s best-selling products. And if such faith offers succor in times of despair, it does some good. Furthermore, when faith is bolstered by a caring religious community, embellished with meaningful rituals and linked to one’s ethnic heritage, it can be a source of strength and inspiration. And when it is melded to progressive politics, a force for justice, too.
But as for actually addressing what needs to be solved, faith by itself is impotent. Praying, as the entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee is said to have quipped, is like sitting in a rocking chair: It keeps you busy but gets you nowhere. Promises of heaven and threats of hell are distractions; appeasing the spirits of ancestors is futile; ingesting the flesh and blood of a deity’s son is useless. Rather, we need to rely on the human capacity with the best record of success: reason.
Reason—not faith—is what produced the Covid-19 vaccines and has allowed us to stamp out so many horrible diseases, manufacture birth control technologies, harness sunshine and wind for energy, develop socialized health care, improve farming techniques, and so on. And when reason is wedded to humanist values—compassion for the suffering, fairness, justice, political equality, and economic democracy—the results are far better than what religion can muster alone.
Consider, for example, those democratic nations doing the most to combat climate change, such as Denmark and Finland; or successfully keeping violent crime rates down, such as Japan and South Korea; or ensuring women’s reproductive rights, such as Uruguay and Canada; or championing human rights, such as Australia and New Zealand—all of these nations are among the most secular societies on Earth, with the lowest rates of church attendance, prayer, and faith in God.
Similar correlations hold true within our own country. Those states that have done the best job of fighting Covid-19, such as Vermont and Washington; have among the lowest violent crime rates, such as New Hampshire and Minnesota; ensure women’s bodily autonomy, such as California and Massachusetts; take climate change at least somewhat seriously, such as New York and Colorado, are also those with the lowest overall rates of religious faith and practice. Their residents—and legislators—are more likely to rely on education, scientific findings, medical expertise, and humane ethics than prayer, genuflections, or Bible study.
At the individual level, secular men and women are much more likely than their religious peers to get vaccinated, understand climate change and want to fight it, support abortion rights, favor gun control, champion LGBTQ rights, back affordable health care for all, want to help refugees, and oppose the death penalty. These nonreligious men and women do not rely on faith to make the world a better, fairer, healthier place. Rather, they are guided by reason and infused with humanistic ethics. Such an orientation is where we should—must—seek our solace and direction.