PATAS, A Spark of Reason in the Philippines

The First Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Convention was held in Manila on Saturday April 21st by the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society (PATAS). This event is notable in that it came into being from a grassroots organization started on Facebook only just over a year ago. The ambitious work of its members, its chairperson Marissa Torres Langseth and president John Paraiso, drew a crowd of around 150 supporters and speakers from many organizations around the world. Don’t be fooled by the size of the turnout; this is truly a spark in a tinderbox.

The vast majority of people in the Philippines are fervently religious, the country being predominantly Roman Catholic with an Islamic population in the south, and it is also highly superstitious. At the convention we learned of the power of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, where voters are outright coerced into election choices under the threat of excommunication. Even more alarming is the church’s stance on birth control, abortion rights and, women’s rights. The church’s influence has led to overpopulation with a majority of Filipinos living in poverty, where AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase. Lack of basic education and the threat of damnation for rational family planning plague the population. Undue meddling in the government by the church has allowed it to maintain control since it was forced onto the Filipino population by the Spaniards.  But times are changing. As Marissa Torres Langseth wrote in the preamble to the convention, “No more hiding, no more lying—we are coming out…Our tools are logic, critical thinking, reason, science.”

The convention recognized local Filipino, Poch Suzara with an award as one of the pioneer freethinkers in the Philippines.  John Paraiso spoke about the history of Philippine non-belief, and Red Tani, President of Filipino Freethinkers, talked about both the history of secularism in the Philippines, and his group’s involvement in present day activism—dealing with a critical reproductive health bill (RH) which the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is trying to block through fear and threats of excommunication. Mr. Tani’s approach to activism insists on keeping the high moral ground; it is peaceful (on the part of his group as least) and uses satire as a weapon against religionist patter.  Ilving Tabios Zamora made a short, emotional call-to-action first in Tagalog, and then in English in which he condemned the effects of Catholicism, Islam and other religious interference with Filipinos. He said the atheist movement in the Philippines must be led by Filipinos, for Filipinos and closed by saying, “We’d rather be dead in a country that is alive, than alive in a country that is dead.”

PATAS also drew support from the international community. Atheist Alliance International’s (AAI) President, Tanya Smith, talked about issues of contraception, abortion rights, Catholic control, AIDS, women and sexual abuses and AAI’s role in advocacy, education and affiliation; Roar Johnson, vice president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU,) spoke of his organization’s fight for human rights, dignity, and respect; and Sven Berg Ryen introduced IHEYO in Asia and youth atheism. Several speakers from the U.S. also presented. Norm R. Allen, Jr., Institute for Science and Human Values (ISHV) spoke and graciously donated several books to PATAS for its creation of a resource library for atheists.  Dan Barker, author of Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists and co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), captivated the audience. He said that while there is no purpose of life, but there certainly is a purpose in life, and that is finding a problem to solve and working toward that in this (our only) life.  David Orenstein, New York City Atheists (NYCA) Anthropologist talked about the joys of atheism, and recommended living a secular life with freedom and dignity. Jeremiah Camara, author of Slave Sermons and Doubting Thomas, had the crowd laughing with his wit as he tackled serious topics such as African-enslavement in America and compared it to Filipino-enslavement by the Spaniards. He said people in the past were forced into religion of their oppressor. They may have pretended to adopt the religion to avoid death or violence, but somewhere along the way, they forgot they were pretending. And Mark Tier, author of When God Speaks for Himself, presented a marketer’s approach in how to deconvert the theist.

One thing is certain—the convention was a success! The resolve of Filipino atheists is strong. The crowd was active, enthusiastic and engaged. PATAS has created a voice in this historic convention, the first of its kind in the region. Like the “shot that was heard around the world” PATAS will fuel atheism as it grows into a force to be reckoned with in the Philippines.