The woman pictured giving science lessons to children in a poor part of Alabang close to the Philippines’ capital city of Manila is Jahziel Tayco Ferrer, an atheist who believes that far too many children in her country are being exposed to dangerous Christian propaganda.
Determined to bring a humanist world view to youngsters, Ferrer – who was exposed to Accelerated Christian Education as a child – became a volunteer for Humanist Alliance Philippines, International (HAPI), one of three secular organisations in the country who run weekend “schools” and food programmess as part of a concerted effort by atheists to promote secular, humanist values in a society dominated by religion.
Ferrer told Michael French of The Atlantic:
I got this idea from the Baptist Church. They’re helping the community and, while helping, they’re also spreading the gospel. So if they can do it, why can’t we?
The Philippines has a population of 98 million and is one of the most deeply religious countries in the world. More than 80 percent of Filipinos self-identify as Catholic, with most of the rest belonging to a variety of other Christian denominations, according to the 2015 Philippine Statistical Yearbook. A small percentage is Muslim. Less than 0.1 percent of the population say they have “no religion”.
HAPI volunteers believe that challenging religion is a necessary prerequisite for developing Filipino society and ending its stark economic inequality.
Advancement comes through science, technology, and social justice. The country has a lot of potential – people just need to change their minds. You can’t rely on a deity to get yourself out of poverty, you have to do it yourself.
I read the Bible and every time I read it I felt so guilty. Everything that you do is a sin.
She said her parents were enthusiastic Baptists and that her father was:
The type of man who liked talking about the apocalypse. It really scared me to death.
Between the ages of eight and 10, Ferrer went to an Accelerated Christian Education school. After qualifying as a teacher herself, she taught at a Christian school run by her mother.
I felt uneasy. There was a pastor that would regularly come to school to show very young children in kindergarten films about hell. I believe that is one of the reasons why people stay in that religion, because of the fear of going to hell.
It wasn’t a fear Ferrer found easy to overcome. Despite all her doubts, she didn’t give up religion until last year, at the age of 29. Her decision to “come out” as an atheist devastated her mother.
I am the only girl in the family. It really hurts her that I have ended up like this.
In the heavily Christian society of the Philippines, non-believers meet with little respect, and they sometimes become targets of open hostility – as the founder of HAPI knows first-hand.
Marissa Torres Langseth, above, known as “Miss M” among volunteers, now lives in the United States. But she is a stalwart of the Philippines’ fledgling atheist movement, having previously set up the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society (PATAS) before leaving to start HAPI.
When Langseth first started this work, she received torrents of abuse online, including being called “a whore” and the “Bride of Satan”.
That’s how Filipinos think. They view atheists as Satanists: somebody who believes in demons and evil, who has no moral values and who doesn’t have any meaning in life.
My mother would go to church to ask for food and clothing and money. Most Filipinos think that God provides. It will give a lot of people common sense when we let them know that there really is no God.
Like Ferrer, Langseth has borrowed tactics from the Christian missionaries around her.
The founder of Filipino Freethinkers, Red Tani, above, is a website designer who was raised in a Catholic family in Manila.
Somebody told me to get them while they are young. That’s what pastors do, right? The benefit is exponential growth.
Throughout my entire primary and secondary education, even throughout college, I did not even hear about the idea of atheism. Isn’t that something?
We don’t promote atheism, but what we do promote are the ideas that would make atheists feel safe in a country.
His aim, he said, is to make sure that Filipinos who are questioning their beliefs realise they are not alone.
More than a handful of times, there will be someone who will attend a meet-up and say ‘If you guys did not exist, I would have killed myself a long time ago’.
Tani is perhaps as close as any of the Filipino atheists gets to enjoying a high profile. He appears on TV, writes a newspaper column, and maintains a heavy online presence. He jokes that he’s known in the Philippines simply as “The Atheist”.
When asked whether he wants to become the Filipino Dawkins or Hitchens, he replied:
A lot of people have been wanting me to be that kind of person, the cheerleader of atheism. I’ve done that sometimes, but I’m more of an activist for human rights and secularism than I am a spokesperson for atheism.
Tani has been a vocal critic of the Catholic Church’s involvement in politics. He campaigned strongly for the passing of the controversial Reproductive Health Bill, which will see the government provide free birth control to the nation’s poorest people. The bill had been held up for over decade because of strong opposition from the Catholic Church.
According to Tani, politicians are often too easily influenced by religious leaders because of family ties or longstanding friendships. The sheer number of Catholics in the Philippines, he claims, makes it easy for bishops to influence the public on political issues.
But there are signs that this influence may be on the wane. Most of those who campaigned for the Reproductive Health Bill were in fact Catholics who refused to toe the bishops’ line. A survey undertaken in 2010, at the height of the debate, showed that 69 percent of Filipinos supported the bill.
Another survey indicated that the number of Catholics attending church every week had fallen to 37 percent in 2013 from 64 percent in 1991. It also found that nine percent had considered leaving the Church completely.
But Jayeel Cornelio, a sociologist at Ateneo de Manila, a university founded by Jesuits, dismisses the idea that non-believers are gaining in strength:
It’s almost unimaginable to think of a Filipino who is not a believer. [Atheists] preach to themselves, so it creates a feeling that they are growing in number. With all due respect to what they do, their discourse does not necessarily resonate with the ordinary Filipino. In a country that has a lot of issues about healthcare, education, basic quality of life, to talk about high philosophical stuff might not resonate.
Michael French concluded:
The new atheists of the Philippines may speak in a softer voice than their more militant counterparts in the United States, but they believe their voice is gradually getting louder.