Raul Martinez is a Mexican humanist, children’s author, and comedian who is a board member of the American Humanist Association. From his home in Nevada, he’s been a long-time activist for Las Vegas Atheists, and in 2011 became one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Nevada for the right of atheists to perform marriages. He spoke with Johnny Monsarrat for this interview about his new series of Sunday gatherings for HALV, Humanist and Atheists of Las Vegas, which sparked worldwide attention.
RDF: You moved to the US from Mexico and became a citizen in 2001. What was it like being an atheist in Mexico City? Or did you convert after you arrived here?
Raul Martinez: Nope, it happened while I was still in Mexico… Whether you practice or not, 90% of the population consider themselves Catholic, but in spite of that, the government is rather secular. Part of that has to do with the Cristero War, a battle against the Church that the government led many years ago. The Church had become so corrupt and had taken so much power, land and money that there was a revolution against it… Even today, if a politician makes a statement to the media that even closely mentions any sort of affiliation towards religion, they’re really criticized; they just don’t do that.
RDF: So there are a lot of lapsed Catholics in Mexico?
Raul Martinez: Yes, that is true. It’s a very traditional thing to get married in a church, get baptised, and do the rest of the sacraments, but there are people for whom those are the only times in their life that they go to church.
Raul Martinez: Back in the 1980s, my dad was fascinated with Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and The Skeptical Inquirer… That’s when he first read the Humanist Manifesto. I remember when he shared it with me and asked me what I thought about it, this whole philosophy as an alternative to religion.
RDF: That’s unusual, to have the parents convert the kids. Usually, it’s the other way around.
Raul Martinez: That is how I began in this movement. I did not have many problems in Mexico City, but then we moved to Puebla. I went to High School there, one owned and ran by Jesuits and that’s where I started dealing with, I wouldn’t say fanatics, but definitely people with a stronger faith… It was the first time that I remember standing up for myself and defending my views instead of going with the flow.
RDF: That took some courage to talk back to your teachers… but I sense from speaking with you that it might have come naturally.
Raul Martinez: (laughs) I managed to stay out of trouble with teachers, some of whom were priests. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, but explained to one of them that I wasn’t a believer and there was really no point in me going to church. He just excused me and I left. It wasn’t a big deal to him, but it was a big deal for my classmates that hated going. (laughs) They’d come into the library and yell, “Atheist!” (laughs)
RDF: You beat the system, just by asking! They should have done the same thing.
Raul Martinez: I liked that I could go to the Library and actually learn and study something new, instead of going to church with my classmates and repeat the same thing over and over every week.
RDF: In addition to your full-time job and leadership roles in the humanist community, you’re also a Humanist Celebrant which, for people who don’t know, means that you can perform marriage ceremonies. How did you win Nevada’s permission to do that?
Raul Martinez: I first applied as an atheist for the right to perform weddings, and the court denied my application on the basis that I did not belong to any organized religion. The ACLU took that case with me and a couple of other plaintiffs… I’m still not satisfied, because even now that notary publics can solemnize a wedding, priests/ministers/pastors and other religious characters don’t have to become a notary public to perform weddings. So the law is unequal in that sense; we’re not receiving equal treatment and a religious test is in effect and being applied in Las Vegas. At that point, I was tired of fighting the government so I decided that I could serve my community better by becoming a humanist celebrant while avoiding the hassle and the restrictions of becoming a notary public.
RDF: Vegas is known for its drive-through and Elvis weddings. Do you have any crazy stories?
Raul Martinez: A friend of mine and his now wife held a Day of the Dead wedding, with full makeup, like zombies. It was a lot of fun.
RDF: You just started a new series of Sunday meetings for the Humanist Association of Las Vegas and Southern Nevada that others may take as a new model for bringing nonbelievers together. Your location is beautiful.
Raul Martinez: We found this wonderful place with its gorgeous gardens and we hope that’ll attract more families with children to our meetings. We want to have a program for kids of families who currently don’t have anything to satisfy that need. That’s our alternative for them.
RDF: I have one of the flyers here and it’s pretty compelling. It says, “Highly dynamic, multiple guest speakers, games and prizes, musical performances, family friendly, free food, and free drinks.” Now I wish I lived in Las Vegas!
Raul Martinez: Well, we won’t have food in every meeting. (laughs) That was a one-time thing, but the rest will continue in the same way. It’s a more dynamic program. Instead of having a single speaker on a pedestal, we have various speakers that talk about common interests. It doesn’t have to be so “dry.”
RDF: What are the emotions people feel going to your event?
Raul Martinez: It’s inspiring for everyone. It’s refreshing for a non-believer to talk, interact, and just have a normal conversation and fun with other people without always having the God reference there, without being afraid of stepping on someone’s beliefs.
RDF: What would you like to say to other groups that may want to model their own gatherings after yours?
Raul Martinez: The central message of our Grand Spring Celebration was that we may have many labels. We may call ourselves Atheists, Agnostics, Freethinkers, or Humanists… but to the rest of the world, our label and message must be just one. It should be united. That’s what I hope Humanist and Atheist groups can do. This is how all of us can get together in a single voice so that we can actually affect change.
Read more about HALVASON at www.halvason.org, find the Day of the Dead wedding on Youtube, Part 1, Part 2, and see video of the Grand Spring Celebration, the Humanist event in Las Vegas. Raul’s website for Humanist weddings is www.vegasmodernweddings.com.