I often wonder how my life would have been different if I had undergone a secular immigrant assimilation process. My former faith within Pentecostalism not only shaped my identity, but augmented my ability to assimilate into the American culture. Subsequently, this led me to explore how nonreligious narratives help immigrants better acculturate to western society. Despite my interests originating in personal exploration, emergent studies within religion and sociology show that there are many factors that come into play when considering social and cultural assimilation.
Following up on my most recent post, Liberations of Immigrant Women in Western Religious Conversion, I will draw on a comparative analysis to consider secular immigrant assimilation processes. Women’s experiences during their migration process contribute to their cultural and social identity formation. Many studies point to the established idea that religion is a key variable in influencing immigrant assimilation, particularly among the Latino community. “Faith plays an important role in their lives: 74 percent of Latinos say religion provides a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a bit’ of guidance for them” (Philanthropy Roundtable).
One study in particular, The Case for Secular Assimilation? The Latino Experience in Richmond, Virginia, examines how Latinos gain forms of empowerment and social acceptance into a culture, devoid of religious affiliation. The sample consists of Catholics, Protestants, other religion, and nonreligious in the Richmond area. Immigrants have often found ethnic solidarity in western religious conversion, particularly in adopting a Protestant identity. This conversion can lead to economic integration, civic participation, educational attainment, and cultural adaptation. However, could a secular assimilation process promote heightened egalitarian values?
While this area is under-researched, scholars such as Cavalcanti and Schleef have explored the immigration experiences of secular Latinos in the U.S. During my former years within the Pentecostal sect, I never remember hearing the word ‘secular.’ We called them ‘non-believers,’ ‘heathens,’ or ‘lost souls.’ We were conditioned to believe that there were two basic types: those who didn’t know of Christ and those who knew but chose to follow the sins of the world. Back then, I never would have believed that people can choose to be non-believers and still live fulfilling lives.
In fact, I didn’t truly believe this till my early 20s. During my first study abroad in the UK, I met people from a number of different ethnic backgrounds who identified as secular by choice. Most knew of Christ, but chose secularism. According to the study, second-generation Latinos were more likely to identity as nonreligious in comparison to first-generation immigrants. As a second-generation Romanian-American, I felt more empowered to make the foray into secularism, leading to my detachment from religious community and family.
While I believe everyone can make that choice – a life altering decision to transition from a religious system to secularism – I realized my parents, first-generation immigrants, didn’t embrace or recognize the freedom I discovered. Unlike me, their assimilation process was confined and regimented. They could not imagine disassociating from a belief system that augmented their well-being and adaptation into United States. Their socioeconomic status, lack of educational attainment, language acquisition, and community were interwoven with their religious assimilation. Their religious affiliation also established and upheld patriarchal values and ideologies within my family unit.
While millions of immigrants in the U.S. find and develop an identity and community through the affiliation of a religious organization, it’s important to consider other options available to non-natives. I must agree that my participation in the U.S. Pentecostal church did, in fact, reinforce my integration into the American culture, but it did limit and explicitly and implicitly prohibit aspects of cultural pluralism. For example, my ethnic identity and cultural heritage was insignificant and secondary in the church. This process led to the social and psychological repression of my ethnic identity. It just no longer mattered.
My race only enforced the ethnic-repressive process, because my whiteness meshed with the sea of white bodies within the congregation. I was an American. I was molded and refined into an American Pentecostalist. As with any strategic operation, there are advantages and disadvantages to consider. While I lost my mother tongue and aspects of my cultural heritage, I gained opportunities to more effectively assimilate into a country I would permanently dwell in. As first-generation immigrants, my parents did not feel they had similar leverage in terms of seeking other religious systems, higher educational attainment, liberal forms of political participation, or egalitarian views.
As the study cited above demonstrates, “…nonreligious Latinos can be involved and integrated into the community even if they do not belong to a religious community. None of the nonreligious Latinos surveyed reported any greater stress or hardship in becoming acculturated to the Richmond area than the rest of the sample.”
It’s understandable that immigrants want to acclimatize to a new country’s standards, and that they might find immediate solace in observing other immigrants practicing in religions associated with the new country. The combination of these elements leads to the reinforcement of western religious conversion and/or religious assimilation. As the U.S. still maintains and upholds religious values and systems, immigrants find it easier to incorporate religion in their assimilation. As the study indicates, the nonreligious are less likely to be immigrants.
Further exploration lies in how the governance and infrastructure of immigrant assimilation processes can better serve individuals by adequately and informatively providing alternative options to their assimilation. If more nonreligious, diverse resources were available to both religious and nonreligious immigrants in the areas of economic empowerment, gender equity, civic engagement, and political participation, I believe the assimilation process would undergo radical changes.
Andreea Nica is a freelance writer, scholar, egalitarian, and yogi. She holds a M.S. from the London School of Economics and Political Science in Gender, Media, and Culture Studies. Andreea also holds a B.A. in Psychology from Northern Arizona University. Currently, she is writing her memoir on transitioning from Pentecostalism, focusing on institutional power, subjectivities, and socialization. She is the Founder of OrganiCommunications, empowering startups and social enterprises in strategic and digital communication ventures. Andreea plans on pursuing doctoral study within Sociology, focusing on Gender and Sexuality Studies. She is the author of 2 blogs: OrganiCommunications and Progressive Thinking. You can find her in Seattle, WA. with her partner and kitty, probably doing yoga.@convergingearth @integratedcom