I am a Roman Catholic by default. That means I didn’t get to choose what faith to follow. I was born and then baptised as a Roman Catholic without my approval, as most of us were.
Although a Roman Catholic, I was raised in a family where I wasn’t forced to put on my Sunday dress and go to church mechanically. Both my parents are not devout Catholics. We only went on special occasions like birthdays and Christmas, to say our thanks to Jesus. I also remember reciting the holy rosary with my mum before going to bed, but I never learned the process by heart.
The Philippines is one of the most religious countries in Asia. The figures may vary from different sources, but the percentage of religious people comes around 90%; 81% being Roman Catholics, 6% are Muslims and 3% belong to other Christian denominations. That being said, one can easily imagine what it’s like being a Filipino atheist: you always have to prepare yourself to come under fire.
In high school, my friends and I attended the Wednesday mass after school hours (I forgot what it’s called). And in college and some time after graduating, I only went to church because the guy I was enamored with did too. To put it simply, my religiosity was superficial. It never occurred to me, that touching moment with god that most believers say they experience; not the close, personal relationship with him. And it also never occurred to me to question myself about his existence. I just believed…blindly.
When I started reading books by Kurt Vonnegut, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche and other nontraditional writers, I began asking questions. Their books are what radicalised my relationship with god and Roman Catholicism. Apart from these books, all the other ones I’ve read radicalised my perspective of the world. I started choosing what kind of people I allow in my life, what hobbies to spend my time on, whose opinion I should value. I started conversing with open-minded people from different parts of the world. Most of the people I talk with on a regular basis are either agnostics, atheists or deists.
I began to value reason over faith. I began to doubt claims that don’t have any proof. I simply started asking questions. I started to feel responsible for myself. Now, I choose what I will to do and oblige myself to embrace whatever the consequences are. I do not beseech any divine intervention. I do what I can and either thank or blame myself for the result.
So, unlike some atheists, I don’t have any traumatic experience to account for my non-belief. Many of you will probably say that my world shrank from the time I lost my delicate faith. Yes, it did. And it is one of the most liberating moments of my life. My cup runneth over.
It came to me almost naturally to let my family know that I am a non-believer. Perhaps it was partly because of the less strict religiosity in the family, and partly because of my stubbornness. They knew they couldn’t dictate or alter my volition, so they simply let me be.
It’s not a serious domestic issue. It never was. Although my mum would lightly convince me from time to time to still believe in god by reminding me of the good things that have been coming to my life. I insist to give the credit to myself and the people who help me achieve them.
However lax my family is about my spiritual makeover, it is not by any means the result of my upbringing. This radical change is all on me, and not a consequence of any lack of guidance on the part of my parents, as some people might think.
With my Christian friends, it is also not a serious matter. They would make light comments about it, but that’s just about it. We don’t discuss religion. They are very respectful of my non-belief, or at least respectful enough not to express their disagreement vis-a-vis—a Filipino trait that I sometimes lack.
These are however not the typical responses from an atheist’s family and friends. There are cases where they hide their atheism because they are afraid of the stigma. Parents can, at the very worst, disown them, and their friends, abandon them. But these days, I think, Filipino teens and young adults are not inclined to being rigid about religious matters. It is however still taboo around older audiences. If you are a Filipino atheist, expect some crossed arms and raised eyebrows.
Atheists are probably one of those groups who are commonly misunderstood. There are so many misconceptions about us. One of them is the popular yet downright wrong idea that “we are devil worshipers.” This claim reflects an extreme misunderstanding of atheism. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in god; not just the Christian god or the Islamic god, but every god, humans all throughout history, worshiped. Consequently, we do not believe in anything god is related to—heaven, hell, angels and satan. No, we don’t believe in them.
Regarding morals, people say that atheists do not have a sense of morality. I hate to break it to you, but we do. We just don’t get our morality merely from a book: not out of the expectation of a reward of heaven nor out of the fear of being punished and sent to hell. We do good things because we think it’s right to be kind and humane. We do not do it for any remuneration. We don’t harm others because it just isn’t right, plain and simple. And then there’s the fear of being incarcerated and being stigmatised by the society. In addition, there is the idea that we choose to be atheists just so we can sin. I am not an atheist so I can steal from and murder anyone I want. I do not condone irrational violence the same way I do not condone irrational thinking. I live by my creed of not harming anyone physically. I have to specify “physically” because I cannot assure anyone any immunity from the emotional offence that may be caused by my mouth or my pen. However, I will also not deprive anyone of any remedy that either my mouth or my pen may confer.
Another firm, mistaken thought about atheism is that it is a religion. No, no, no! It is not a religion. It lacks all the tenets to be a religion. There is no organized set of beliefs, nothing or no one to worship. Contrary to popular belief, we do not worship science, although most lean toward scientific pursuits.
No, we do not hate religious people. While we hate religious ideologies, we do not necessarily hate those who practise them. There are some who speak strongly about their irreligion, but there are also some who are very moderate about it. I, for one, can poke fun at one religious belief, but I can still be in friendly terms with those who embrace it. We also do not hate god. We cannot hate what we do not believe in.
Not every atheist can be labeled intelligent. One can be an atheist and still believe ridiculous claims like the earth is flat or that homeopathy can cure. If there is anything that glue us together, it is the lack of faith in any deity. Atheism doesn’t guarantee intelligence.
There are countless numbers of misconceptions about atheists. Some say we created cancer, then there’s the undying Hitler, Stalin and Mao arguments. All of those wrong ideas about atheists I just laugh at. I try my best to make others understand, but if I see that my explanation is too complex for them to comprehend, then I just let them be.
How Atheism Changed My Life
In the realms of my social life, nothing much has changed. I can credit this to my very limited public exposure. I don’t interact too much with people on a daily basis, and in the course of this minimal interaction, I am only conversant with a few chosen friends. So far, none has been explicitly violent toward my non-belief. But I am absolutely certain that there are people who disagree with me, and I genuinely accept this.
In the way how I approach things and how I view the world, I have been more tolerant and open about certain topics that are usually frowned upon by the society. Topics such as homosexuality, abortion, racism, contraception, female sexuality, I’m not really afraid to talk about. I don’t feel uncomfortable at all about these things that are usually considered taboo in Christianity. Such forbearance keeps me from harboring prejudiced views. And such leniency is the reason why most of the people I talk to are non-Filipinos. These things are customarily unmentionable in a Filipino conversation. And I think that it is worthy to mention that I do not engage myself in any relationship with a Filipino because of my nontraditional views. No Filipino mum would want to marry her son off to an atheist. Haha.
On the coattails of espousing atheism, I have been more skeptical. I reject credulity. I do not easily believe claims that do not have any substantial evidence. I refrain from acknowledging or sharing on my social media accounts information coming from ambiguous sources—a common Filipino practice.
I have learned to see events unfolding before me, like the beautiful colors of sunsets and the diversity of flora and fauna as products of naturally occurring phenomena (atmospheric optics) and evolutionary processes, respectively, and not creations of a supernatural being. I began to want to understand these events in a scientific light and not merely say that some invisible deity forged them. The belief that everything that happens is a labor of an intervening god is nothing but pure intellectual laziness for me. By no means am I saying that I know or understand everything, but not knowing or understanding everything does not posit the belief in the divine as a rational option.
My life has altered significantly the day I adhered to atheism. But the biggest change atheism has brought into my life is the sense of self-responsibility. Like I mentioned earlier, I no longer seek divine help. I have already let go of the idea that “god will provide”; I must do everything that I can to provide for and preserve myself. Or that “god will do the rest”; I must do everything, from beginning to end. This is in no way trying to say that I look at myself as omnipotent. No, as a matter of fact, I have never felt more human before—frail and vulnerable. But despite this reality of weakness, I delight myself in the thought of being accountable for all of my actions. I do not say “Thank God” when I pass my exams, but I congratulate myself for a job well done. I do not tell myself, “God has a better plan” when I fail to accomplish something, instead I reflect on my actions, find out where I blundered, then tell myself “I’ll try again and if it still doesn’t work out, I must carry on.” I don’t say “I feel blessed” when I have food on my table, for that is the most narcissistic thing to say. Imagine that while god is putting food in your mouth, he is ignoring millions of starving children. What ever makes you think you’re so special?
It takes reason and boldness for one to become an atheist and even more of the latter to come out as one in a very religious country. I do not have any reservations to confess my atheism publicly, for public opinion has little to no import to me. My story is not reflective of all the Filipino atheists. Theirs may be a little more dramatic, but it all boils down to one end result, and that is freedom—freedom from the fetters of religion, of imposing dogmas and naive beliefs.
If I am indeed wrong, if it turns out that someone has acquired an empirical proof that there is a god, then I will humbly accept my mistake and concede. After all, this is what atheists have ever asked for: a proof.
All credit goes to CynthiaAP for her beautiful reflection of life as an atheist in her home country, from the post Being a Filipino Atheist: A Personal Story.
This is my third of the Insight guest posts, providing a glimpse into the lives of atheists around the world and an opportunity to connect with bloggers of a similar nature. If anyone would like to contribute theirs, feel free to comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for sharing your story!