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Food for free thought: An interview with Red Tani and Kenneth Keng


There are many ways to spend an otherwise superstitious day. April Fool’s Day, which was also Palm Sunday, was spent at the Filipino Freethinkers (FF) annual forum, which to an outsider felt like a reunion of advocates and friends bound by particularly anti-Church rhetoric. I will stand corrected about the latter as I sit down with Red Tani and Kenneth Keng, President and Reproductive Health Advocacy Director of FF, respectively, though of course the more important if only because more controversial labels are those of atheist (for Red) and Episcopalian (for Ken). In a conversation after the five-hour forum, Red and Ken prove that over and above those labels, and FF’s belief in reason, science and secularism, they possess a clear sense of nation and change, the issues they hold dear, and the fact that readers might have more in common with them than you think. The word, ladies and gentlemen, is freedom.   Katrina Stuart Santiago (KSS): I was told that the main organizers of this forum are atheists, but that you didn’t want to make this known as an atheist gathering. You guys call yourselves the new gays, because many atheists are still in the closet.   Red Tani (RT): I did say that that’s a common misconception that we are focused on atheism. But it’s more accurate to say that we are very accepting of atheists, and a lot of our members are atheists, but as far as saying that we promote atheism, we don’t. We promote a culture that would be tolerant towards atheists, or any other religious identification or ideology. But it’s not that we have as a goal the promotion that is there is no God.   Kenneth Keng (KK): If one of FF’s goals was the active promotion of atheism, then I most probably wouldn’t be part of it, because I’m not an atheist.  
'You can’t be free, if your mind isn’t on the most basic level,' says Red Tani.
KSS: So, this notion of atheists being closeted…   RT: There are different levels of being closeted. Like you can be closeted for yourself, like you won’t accept it to yourself. But there are also those who are closeted to their girlfriends, or to their immediate families…   KK: But the LGBT community has its own set of very serious problems. Speaking as an outsider here, I see it hanging out with the atheists in FF, that there’s a real problem of discrimination here.   KSS: But isn’t this kind of discrimination to begin with something that you experience by default when you’re critical in this country?   KK: Yes, but that this is the case doesn’t make it just.   KSS: Absolutely. But isn’t it possible that using the notion of being closeted is also a romance with thinking differently, or not believing in Catholicism as it is practiced here?   RT: Well there’s a wide spectrum. You can say that atheism is at the far end of being different or being discriminated against. Because when you say that you’re Catholic but there are some things you don’t agree with, people will say, ah yes, ako rin naman eh. But when you say you’re an atheist, you threw the baby out with the back water, iba na ‘yon. Are you evil? What’s keeping you from killing me right now? May mga gano’n kaming nakukuhang comments.   And similar to the LGBT plight, we have members who go to the meetups and say if I didn’t hear about you guys, I most probably would’ve killed myself already. And there are some who have attempted to take their lives because they feel so alone, not just for being atheists, we have deists and agnostics too, but it’s even more so for this identification of being atheist. Kasi it’s something that you choose eh, unlike being a homosexual. And when you’re out about it, when you’re not closeted, it’s a further choice pa. You could’ve just kept quiet. When you’re an atheist, you have to go the extra mile and declare it. So 'yung pag-blame sa ’yo ng ibang tao, lalo na 'yung very religious, is more pa, because of the degree of choice involved in that public display.   KSS: My discomfort with listening to FF for the first time today though is that it sounded like at its core was just anti-Catholicism.   KK: We say that FF is anti-any-ideology that puts at its forefront the systematic oppression of women and of minorities, and of their rights. And in that sense the largest most obvious institution that does this with the most degree of non-accountability would be the Catholic Church in this country.   RT: As far as the premise goes, maybe you think about faith. Faith is antithetical to what free thought stands for, which is really rational investigation. And there is a similar shift that’s going on now among religious groups, the Episcopalians of which Ken is a member, went there already. They have a different way of seeing religion, of believing, of understanding the Bible. That’s happening with Catholics in the Philippines now, there’s a shift in identity where, I no longer have to follow what the Pope says, but I can stick to my Catholic roots and Catholic identity and make it my own. So that’s something that The Vatican is really against, they’re against any form of ethnic Catholicism, cafeteria Catholicism. Mas gusto nila na definite lang, very dogmatic. That’s where we intersect, where there are freethinkers, who are also Catholics. Those are the people who we welcome into the group.  
Kenneth Keng says their group is anti-any-ideology that oppresses women and minorities.
KSS: Regarding the idea of the Catholic Church hierarchy being the main oppressor, is it not feudalism? Or global capitalism? Which brings me back to the question of possibily romanticizing the narratives of being victim. Of course there are victims, which is even truer in this country and its layers of victimization. But considering the fact that FF is an online venue, we speak in English, social class is an important consideration. How do you navigate this as well? So you don’t turn …   KK: … into elitist mental masturbators? Some of us have.   RT: … they’re not here.   KK: One of the reasons we like going out and working with as many NGOs as we can, is it keeps us grounded in that sense. I mean on one hand, there are some problems we might have that are very particular to our social class. But one of the things that’s very handy to know is that there are people who are in far worse conditions than us. And we think at least that in the process of practicing our ethics, we are able to put ourselves in the way of those people, and in the same environment as those people, and continually engage with those people through the NGOs that have allowed us to help in whatever way we can. As long as we keep going out there and we’re not locked in our nice conference rooms and our Starbucks coffee shops, at least going out there keeps us grounded.   RT: We are aware of the other more pressing problems in the world, like I agree with the problem of capitalism. But even so, we recognize a problem that irks us particularly, something that we’re equipped to handle, and we work on that. Kasi if we work with the mindset that I’m going to go out and solve the biggest problem in the world, you’d be frozen. Kami, we know that we can do something to improve the Philippines in this small regard, and nobody else is doing what we are doing, so that’s a niche that we fill. As far as all the problems go, like I said earlier, I’m actually also an anarchist, but that’s a problem that will have to wait. I want to solve that din, and the problems of capitalism and class, but ngayon ito ang kaya namin, so this is what we put our time into.   KSS: You guys are labeled radical anti-Catholic Church activists. Can you define that for me?   RT: I want to make it clear: anti-Catholic Church hierarchy. We emphasize that, because there is an ongoing shift in identity, here and the world, with the average Catholics, the majority of Catholics – in the US 98 percent use contraceptives and they call themselves Catholics. So there’s a division between orthodox Vatican Catholics, and those progressive Catholics who choose for themselves. And I’m an enemy of the Vatican Catholics. I’m a radical enemy, radical in the sense that no one usually speaks out against these people in the way that I, or we, do. There’s no holding back, no holds barred. Of course we say anything with a rational grounding, it’s not name-calling, it’s not cursing, it’s always based on rational and scientific arguments when we criticize them. But I guess it’s radical in the sense that in the first place, there’s even criticism going on, and in the second, that it’s of this degree. Like Ken says, we’re blaming them for such oppression, which is really the case, and covering up child abuse. We don’t blush when we do this criticism, because it’s true, people just aren’t talking about it. And this is important because it’s the Catholics who should be talking about it but aren’t.   KK: There are a few, but they are few and far between. Like the Catholics for Reproductive Health is a group whose membership is large, but it could be larger if it included all Catholics who are for RH. But just by putting on that T-shirt, in an environment that we’ve created where declaring that you are for the RH Bill and being Catholic, is apparently anathema. If anything we’d be happy to help them take back their Church.   RT: I prefer “make their own church.” It will never happen, to take that back, because it never really belonged to them, it always belonged to the hierarchy.   KK: Yes, we don’t agree on that.  
Tani and Keng believe reason, science and secularism are the best means to ensure that everybody has the right to freedom.
KSS: The enterprise of criticism in this country is questioned for talking about things that are wrong or oppressive about nation, instead of celebrating the good. How do you respond to that?   RT: Well you can go the destructive route, but it’s not enough to just criticize religion. What are you replacing it with? What ideology are you going to use? And we have ours, we promote reason, science and secularism. Our slogan is not “The Church Sucks”. It’s more of our positive values that we bring, and whenever we criticize the Church it’s from that value set. It’s not really always seeing the negative. We are exercising in the best way possible the positive values that we want society to consider, and possibly practice rin.   KK: My sheltered upbringing led me to believe that despite its problems there are positive things about the Philippines – that this is a democratic country with free speech, where we can work out problems with reasoned discussion. But the more I went out there and attempted to do that, the more it became apparent to me that it is not. I tried to express feelings about RH and Church meddling, and they arrest my friend the next-door neighbor. I try to go to the Cathedral and have a rousing college-debate kind of thing, and I get told for my mother to abort me. I tried to discuss modern history, which I took a minor in and had more than a small academic interest in, and tried to discuss the Kissinger report in Congress with somebody, and he hits me. All of these things become more and more apparent. Fine, we should focus on the positive, but at the same time I want to make sure that there is a positive to arrive at, and that it fulfills the hype. I need to live in this country, and my kids will have to grow up in this country, and if I want to keep telling them about the happy myths about its democracy, and its freedom, and its free speech, then I need to make it very clear to everyone where those myths break down.   KSS: What’s the most crucial thing about this value system of reason, science and secularism, the one word that’s at its core?    RT: Freedom.   KSS: And why is that important?   RT: You can’t be free, if your mind isn’t on the most basic level. When it comes to a societal level, it’s very easy to enslave others when you have the means to fool them or coerce them, by whatever means – superstition, pseudo-science. We argue that on some level slavery’s still here. It’s just that the chains are not as heavy or as obvious, but they’re there and are as much a cause for concern. When you are protected by reason, science and secularism, you are freer to express your own individuality. This is what’s most important to us, it’s freedom. And reason, science and secularism are the best means to ensure that everybody has the right to this freedom.
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