MANILA, Philippines – Religion has been in the spotlight these past few weeks, from the Black Nazarene, to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, to Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines. I write this a couple of days before the latter. He will have been two days in the country by the time this is published.
As the token atheist at Team Supreme, I was asked to give a take on the Pope’s visit. At first I didn’t think I had anything to say because, as contrarian as it seemed my role ought to be, I was honestly very chill about the whole thing. There are some preparations that I deem overboard and pakitang tao, but nothing I would wish to discuss at length, or which hasn’t already been brought up.
As the head of the Roman Catholic Church, he is naturally looked to for guidance. And he has been inspiring many, whether Catholic or not, with the things he says. As I was telling one of my editors, I have nothing against any of that. For starters, I feel like it is their event and not mine. I could argue that it is my tax money being spent on it, but I didn’t agree to have it spent on Obama’s visit either, so… Lastly, I do appreciate an event that brings people together to celebrate something that they find meaningful. As long as it hurts nobody, it is something I would rather not micromanage or nitpick about.
The Pope’s communicated openness towards the LGBT communities and other faiths and non-faiths does help. I don’t know Pope Francis personally, and am always skeptical of PR and reports — especially if they come from the Church, considering its current state. But from the information that has been made available, he seems to represent what religion ought to have evolved into by the 21st century. And this is made even more significant in the wake of tragic, faith-inspired events.
What I appreciate the most about this Pope is that he seems to have an understanding of where he ought to apply his beliefs, and where his judgment would be out of place. He knows when to speak to, and of, his God, and when to put that aside and regard people by their own account. It’s simple and commonsensical, but huge in a world where many still tend to see you through the filter of their beliefs — from your virtue and value as a person, down to how well you might be doing psychologically.
As someone who doesn’t have the privilege of subscribing to her country’s biggest religion, here are some of the comments and trains of thought that I’m quite used to being subjected to:
“They are lost because they don’t have God in their lives.”
“Their lives are sad and have no meaning.”
“They have no morals.”
“Why are you atheist? What are you angry about?” (You’d be mad too if people automatically assumed you were angry, prompting you to defend yourself unnecessarily.)
“They clearly believe in God. They just pretend not to.” (Yes. I am so f*cked up inside that I have to lie to myself in order to get through each day. There is nothing condescending about you thinking that at all.)
“Hay, may the Lord be with you na lang.”
All this usually without the slightest effort to consult atheist literature or question an atheist in person and listen without prejudice. People ask their priests/pastors about us, the actual subjects, and think they have us all figured out. To be fair, faith-inspired offense isn’t directed exclusively at atheists. It seems to be a mere byproduct of difference in beliefs, affecting people wherever they may stand.
Division and offending religion
The recent discussions about where to draw the line on religious blasphemy and free speech are related to this. Obviously someone who doesn’t share your views on the sanctity (or existence) of a certain deity is more prone to walking all over it and thinking nothing of the consequences. I try not to be that a-hole, although I do have honest opinions that may have that effect. And while I believe in choosing the time and place, I will speak my mind when I feel it matters.
The thing is, I have my own convictions spat upon too, as seen in the examples above. But since I don’t have a contemporary mythology that I’ve declared to be sacred, it seems to matter less. My question now is why would I or anyone need that in order to command the same amount of respect? The same gravity of issue? Why do we allow intangible ideologies to be more important than flesh and blood? Than the people and things that are actually here to be witnessed? Here to be loved and here to be hurt.
As a member of the minority, I have learned to consistently let things slide off my back. I do it for my own sanity. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said that it’s easier to put on a pair of shoes than to wrap the earth in leather, and I agree. But why can’t traditional religion do the same? Traditional religion that boasts of the biggest gods. I’m not saying that anyone or any institution should readily accept abuse, because I don’t plan on doing that either. But there’s a difference between standing up for yourself and being unforgiving — demanding to have the law on your side, thinking people should take all the necessary side steps so as not to offend you at all costs, and even killing on the extreme end. From where I’m standing, it looks like a ridiculous privilege. We all have convictions. And we all offend, whether intentionally or not.
Where can we meet?
“Do good. We will meet one another there,” Pope Francis was quoted as saying. I like this not because it throws non-Catholics a bone, or a chance to redeem themselves. Atheists don’t believe there is anything to be redeemed. I like it because it invites us to action. And in a world of differences where we may never completely see eye-to-eye, it is probably the only thing we can share. It is one of the few things that is inarguably real — how we treat one another and go about our lives. It is also the only accurate way to evaluate a person. Any belief-derived opinion is just as good as any other belief-derived opinion. I think asking ourselves what is actually tangible and what is actually being enacted in space and time makes it a lot easier to agree and get along. To the faithful, it is probably even the fulfillment of the goodness and standard of living that their religions ought to inspire in them.
As far as this atheist is concerned, Pope Francis is welcome. Not just because I see him as benign compared to Church representatives that have come before him, but because I think he has much to impart to his followers, and maybe even to those who watch him from the sidelines. Now if only I could speed up the process.
On account of this article, I was invited to guest on The Bottomline, an ABS-CBN talk show hosted by the Philippines’ King of Talk, Boy Abunda. I participated in a roundtable discussion about the Papal visit to our country last January 24, 2015. Other guests included Ambassador Marciano Paynor Jr., broadcast journalist, Jing Castaneda, and Fr. Francis Lucas, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines – Episcopal Commission on Social Communications and Mass Media.
View the episode teaser below: