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The sticks and stones of free thought


It seemed perfect really: it was April Fool’s Day and a Filipino Freethinkers (FF) forum was happening on the other side of the city. I was late by a couple of minutes (having kept from this side of the world for many years), but arrived to FF head Red Tani talking about the order of the five-hour day. Right there I thought: ah interesting conversations about reason, science and secularism.   But of course this wouldn’t actually be just conversations but year-end assessment of sorts, narratives of the successes that FF had the past year, inclusive of media mileage and growth in membership, rallies joined and projects mounted. That these mostly revolve around the Reproductive Health Bill campaign and freedom of expression, and that these two are necessarily tied to the Catholic Church and Catholicism as practiced in this country, is no accident. Talking to Tani and Kenneth Keng after the forum, it becomes clear that this is a function of working with what – or who – they have. In the ideal world, free thought would take up all of their time; in the real world all of FF’s members have day jobs to keep.     Which isn’t to say they don’t live up freethinking, as I imagine they do anyway, regardless. That is, regardless of whether they declare to the world that they are atheists or agnostics, regardless of whether they begin conversations with it. I keep asking Red, the avowed atheist, throughout our conversation: why the need to declare atheism at all? Ken doesn’t need to keep saying he’s Episcopalian after all. Doesn’t this “I’m an atheist” bit fall into the pits of romanticizing disbelief, too?   The answer is as forthcoming as it can happen on these shores: yes, it might. And yet there is the fact that atheism – the belief in no God – is also reason enough to feel like one is pushed into a very tight corner of this purportedly Catholic country. There is the fact of feeling alone, where finding community might actually mean survival. That FF becomes this community is but one of its functions, too.   Yet my discomfort with it, with these grand declarations of “I’m an atheist!” is that it removes from what can only be more important things about free thought in general, about the Filipino Freethinkers in particular. Here is a group that I wish existed when I was younger, when I had yet to have a sense of what it is that ails this country, and the kind of conservatism that informs our judgments of the world and our inability to deal. Had FF existed when I was in my 20s, it would’ve saved me from a crisis or two, and by that I mean those times when institutions I believed in broke my heart.   Which is to say that while it can only be great for a generation of Pinoys to grow up with a sense of free thought existing on these shores, this doesn’t remove the probability of romanticizing this sense of being different, of being pushed into a corner, to ends that are just about being able to say it. It also begs the question: so what?   Because if you live critically in this country, you’d know that any kind of tangential thought, any kind of creativity that is different from the mainstream, is met with sticks and stones. Because if you are one to assess situations rationally, call institutions out on their limitations consistently, realize this is a worthy task even when you might only be speaking to yourself (and your mother), then you know there’s no need for grand declarations of disbelief.   You’d know that these declarations of “I’m an atheist!” or “I think the Catholic Church hierarchy is oppressive!” is like a big bright banner that can and will translate to a smaller audience for free thought. That smaller audience is the bigger injustice compared to those sticks and stones, if one is to consider the fact that the task at hand is to generate better discussions about the issues of the day, if we are to consider that the point is to counter the kind of limited thinking that Pinoy Catholicism wreaks.   Which to me is really free thought's, and FF’s, more valuable task here. And it’s one they are not alone in facing. It’s in that sense too, that these declarations of disbelief and disillusionment rub me the wrong way: free and critical thought exists without it, creative and tangential thinking exists beyond it. In fact if you know where you come from when you speak, when you know your backbone like the back of your hand, what is more relevant is what you say to this side of the world about the issues of the day. The only thing more important than that is consistency, and maybe the ability to survive the punches thrown your way.   Then again, maybe that’s what FF’s for really. Like a halfway house for those who fall victim to these absurd times when Pinoy Catholicism and rabid conservatism are so in the fabric of our daily living that we’ve come to embrace these without thinking.   There is no undervaluing what they do, but when what’s being done within the organization is being done as well beyond it, when this same kind of thinking, these same campaigns, are happening regardless of it, there lies the risk of having such a romance with our own beliefs, our own words.   The declarations of “I’m an atheist” being met with cheers from the group that gathered for FF on April Fool’s seemed too AA for comfort. And while I get the humor and irony of thinking disbelief is something we all need to recover from, I imagine that would be lost on much of the audience we’d like on our side.  
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