Two and a half years ago, I came out to my relatives as an atheist. This mattered because ours was a close-knit family, and next to blood, what held it together was religion. Together with the sacraments, we have yearly Christmas reunions, and the organizers put their devoutness at the center of every celebration.
This devotion overflowed into the family mailing list. Most of the e-mails I received from the Yahoo Group were religious chain letters. They often began with “This is a true story” (although a quick visit to Snopes.com would debunk this), and they’d often end with “Forward this to seven people and a miracle will happen.” Aside from the hassle of deleting such messages, my increasing interest in secular issues and literature made the letters more annoying.
One day, I’d had enough. I decided the mailing list needed a more rational perspective. So I forwarded an essay by Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization that protects the separation of state and church in the U.S.
The essay criticized religion with logical arguments, meticulous research and hard evidence. Most of my relatives were lost at “criticized religion.” Some even admitted that they didn’t read the entire essay. Because Dan Barker disparaged religion, they disparaged Dan Barker. They said that he was an attention craver (papansin) who had nothing better to do with his time. Most of all, he should be ignored because he was an atheist, they said.
Then I told them, “So am I.”
That I did not get their support is an understatement. I was told that I was wasting my intelligence, that I should not argue with my elders because that was disrespectful. But it was my intelligence that led me to my conclusions, and it was out of respect that I expected them to understand my arguments. After a few days, the exchanges stopped, but no closure was reached. I guess ignoring my arguments the way they ignored Dan’s left them content.
But I wasn’t content. I still had thoughts that I needed to share, and my family wasn’t the group I could share them with. So I looked for one. I found a group of Filipino atheists online. I was glad to finally find people who thought the way I did, and I wanted to meet them as soon as possible. I figured that since Filipino atheists were few, the ones that did know each other would be close friends.
I was disappointed. I learned that though the group had been in existence since 2005, they seldom did anything other than discuss on mailing lists and comment on each other’s blogs. They seldom met, and at each meeting only a handful would show up. I told the group about my disappointment, and soon we were debating the merits of changing the group into something more than a mailing list, of spreading freethought to Filipinos in all corners of the world, both online and off. So I left one mailing list argument and found myself in another.
But unlike the family mailing list, this was the kind of discussion that I needed. Although I was a newbie, they focused on what I said rather than who I was. Arguments were met with counterarguments, and it was obvious that these people placed merit on reason. They took nothing on authority, tradition or faith. We were arguing, but as early as then (January 2009) I already knew: I was home.
We finally agreed to have more face-to-face activities and projects. The first Filipino Freethinkers meetup was held on Feb. 1, 2009, and it was attended by 26 people. (Happy second anniversary, FF!) Since that day two years ago, we haven’t looked back. For two years we’ve had regular meetups, now attended regularly by more than 30 people. The last one had around 40. We have regional chapters in Davao and Cebu, a recognized university chapter in UP Diliman and university chapters forming on four other campuses. We’ve hosted several forums, fun activities, a film fest and even an Excommunication Party. We’ve participated in rallies and outreach programs, were guests on a TV show and several radio shows and have supported causes in line with ours.
We’re still active online with our website (filipinofreethinkers.org), a forum and Facebook pages reaching thousands of freethinkers all over the world. The Internet has allowed us to collaborate with other freethinking communities in Southeast Asia — Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia. We now correspond with freethought leaders we once only looked up to, including Dan Barker, whose essay helped start my own journey.
Looking back, I now think that I came out to my family not out of annoyance but loneliness. I was looking for people who thought the way I did. Thinking for yourself can be lonely. But it doesn’t have to be.
As a member of Filipino Freethinkers for two years, I’ve realized that it’s more fun and fulfilling to think for yourself with others. We don’t always agree. In fact, we argue quite often. But don’t all families?
Red Tani is the founding president of Filipino Freethinkers. A designer and communications consultant, he promotes freethought through his writing, university lectures, TV and radio appearances and public advocacy of secularism. He has been facilitating twice-a-month freethought meetups for more than two years and still loves every second of it.