Atheists Searching For Their Place in Heavily Catholic Philippines
Manila. Marie Kristine Gumapac used to fight with her family because they could not even set aside one hour each week to attend Mass.
Now, the 29-year-old engineering student fights with her family because she no longer believes in God.
“It’s hard sometimes. I don’t really talk about it much,” she said of her non-belief. “But if people ask, I do tell them that I’m an atheist.”
Gumapac, who once sang in a church choir and was born on Christmas Day, said she left the faith in 2009 after being turned off by disturbing and tasteless practices in Catholicism and years of questioning.
“Now if I want something, I don’t go asking God to please give me this and I promise to be like this. When I want something, I work to get it or ask help if I need it,” she said. “If I have questions, I don’t look up, I search on the Internet.”
Gumapac was among about 100 atheists, agnostics and freethinkers who gathered in Manila recently for an annual forum promoting “reason, science and secularism” in Asia’s largest predominantly Catholic country.
With an estimated 80 percent of the Philippines’ population adhering to the Roman Catholic faith, the participants said life as atheists was initially lonely and difficult before they met other non-believers.
But the community is “growing rapidly” as more people realize how progress is being impeded by “very archaic and conservative beliefs” promoted by an influential Catholic church, said Red Tani, president of the Filipino Freethinkers, a group of non-believers and secularists that has organized the forum since 2009.
“What we offer most of all is a safe place for people to speak about things that are usually taboo, especially in a conservative country,” he said.
Tani, who has been an atheist since 2007, three years after he abandoned Catholicism and tried out other beliefs, said non-believers used to only “meet up” on the internet, but they decided they needed to be more public to push for reforms.
“We wanted to bring our message — reason, science and secularism — to the mainstream, especially secularism in government and legislation because we want something that will benefit everyone and that caters to everyone’s interests and not just to one religion,” he said.
Bishop Ted Bacani, vice chairman of the Commission on Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, sniffed that while atheism was an option, it would not take root in the country where belief in God was deep-rooted.
“The atheists may be growing, but they are still statistically insignificant,” he said. “You are like a crazy person if you do not believe in God.”
According to a study released by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago this month, less than 1 percent of Filipinos do not believe in God, compared to 84 percent who do and have no doubts about it.
Tani, a 29-year-old web developer and consultant, said that since becoming an atheist, he had become “less anxious” and more productive.
“I used to be afraid that I will go to hell if I would sin,” he said. “I was very afraid because I really believed in a literal hell. But now, there’s none of that.”
When he used to turn to prayer in difficult situations, Tani said he now does “more planning, more doing, no more praying.”
For Garrick Bercero, being an atheist has made him appreciate life more.
“Atheists in general don’t believe in an afterlife,” he said. “As an atheist, that helped me find life has more meaning behind it. If you believe that this is your only life, that these are the only moments you’d be experiencing, that makes every moment more precious.”
Bercero, a 22-year-old resident scientist at a museum in Manila, said atheism had also helped him become more understanding and forgiving of the others, even those who condemn him for his non-belief.
“If you’re of a scientific mind-set, you understand that people have psychological predispositions that are not of their control as opposed to when you’re religious, you believe that people have free will, they have complete control of their actions,” he said.
Bacani insists that many atheists still believe in God and just don’t know it.
“These so-called atheists love with a great altruism, they really love their fellow man and even have a passion for justice and what is right and good,” he said. “Those people really believe in God in their hearts, but they will not admit that.”