MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) — In Uruguay, a nation of some 3.3 million people, more than half identify as “nones” — atheist, agnostic or other religiously unaffiliated — the highest portion in Latin America.

Uruguay has a long history of secularization. In the early 20th century, new laws banned any mention of God in oaths of office, and removed symbols, including crucifixes, from public hospitals. Holidays were secularized: Holy Week is known as Tourism Week. Christmas is Family Day.

Uruguay’s best-known “none” is former President Jose Mujica. Now 88, Mujica gained respect globally for his simple ways. He donated most of his salary to charity and declined to live in the presidential mansion. His social agenda included laws approving same-sex marriage and creating the world’s first national marketplace for legal marijuana.

In an interview with The Associated Press at his flower farm near Montevideo, Mujica reflected on his beliefs, Uruguay’s secularism and the global rise of the religiously unaffiliated.

Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

AP: What do you believe?

MUJICA: I believe there’s nothing — life is the adventure of molecules. And there’s nothing else.

AP: Would you like to believe?

MUJICA: Yes, but I can’t.

AP: Why?

MUJICA: You either believe or you don’t believe. I see all religions as very arrogant because the universe’s magnitude is so brutal, and yet they try to place humans as the epicenter. … Why would the universe value human life more than the life of an ant? … We’re just as fleeting. But I respect religions. …

Human beings are just a kind of utopian animal, and they need to believe in something. … From that point of view, I consider religions … because they perform a service of helping to live and die.

AP: Grievous mistakes have been committed in the name of religions. But religions also provide a sense of community, rituals, faith.

MUJICA: And limits … they help limit some negative tendencies of humans.

AP: You’ve lived through great challenges. … When you were imprisoned, what kept you going?

MUJICA: That I was going to get out to keep fighting … I’ve never felt defeated in the sense of being crushed, that it was all over. No! … Our guts rule a lot more than meets the eye. I know there are people born pessimistic. Even if they win the lottery every day, they always see the dark side. And others want to live.

AP: What do you think about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated?

MUJICA: In this evolution, the technological, technical and scientific advancement is probably influencing. That’s also a danger — a lack of humility; the arrogance to believe that we have all keys to human life. That’s a gross simplification in which we can fall, but it seems that it’s the evolution where humanity is heading to. There are societies that have been profoundly secular. One of them … is the Chinese society … it gives importance to thinkers, not so much religions.

AP: What are religion’s positive and negative aspects?

MUJICA: We’re programmed to want to live. But it’s not an intellectual decision. The organization of life is a hard drive that nature puts in us — to love life. And we want to live as long as we can. And we know that we die. Do you realize that it’s a brutal contradiction? … Since we don’t want to die, we need to build something that creates the illusion that not everything ends here … I believe we come from nothing. Paradise, and also hell, is right here … Just as some have built religions, some of us have built causes.

AP: How would you like to be remembered?

MUJICA: No! (laughs). Memory is a historical thing, out of a comic strip. … There’s nothing historical — years pass by and not even the dust remains. … I have a tree, a sequoia … and below, I buried my dog, Manuela, who was my companion for 22 years. When I die, they must burn me to ashes and bury me there. … That’s life: there’s always an end. Sometimes they’ll ask me, “How do you want to be remembered?” Vanity of vanities! Amenhotep IV was probably an important guy who had 300,000 people building his tomb for 20 years. But who remembers Amenhotep IV? Maybe some history buff.

AP: Why do people remember Jesus?

MUJICA: Because … we need shelter. I don’t believe — but it doesn’t mean I don’t respect religions a lot. Jesus was … a great political militant. He brought us a sense of equality, a love of life … I see him as a historical companion. And it transcended religion.

AP: You’re respected for keeping true to your convictions.

MUJICA: I live as I think. Otherwise, if I start living differently, I run the risk of thinking about how I live. … The Aymara people say: Poor is the one who has no community, no partner in life, who walks alone. When we have companions, we’re not poor. We have the most important thing: solidarity from comrades.

… They began to call me, “the poor president,” (but) they’re the poor ones! … if you must live in that government mansion, four floors just to get a cup of tea, I say: “No way!” … I prefer a small home that I clean when I can with my old lady. … I’m not poor, I’m comfortable — it’s different. … In life, you must learn to walk light in baggage.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.