A beating and a reflection

I meant to start with a series of posts talking about deconversion and atheism in general, then I thought I’d progress to problems of theology and philosophical arguments.

But things happen quickly in the real world, and it’s best to react to events while the news is still fresh.

Something happened quite recently that really struck a chord with me: a few days ago, a young Indonesian civil servant, Alexander Aan, was attacked by an angry mob on his way to work. His crime? He admitted he was an atheist on Facebook.

He will probably lose his job. And since he has not accepted one of Indonesia’s six officially-recognized religions, he has been arrested for blasphemy.

Why does this resonate with me? Because I am a civil servant, just like him. I work for the Philippine government. My job isn’t glamorous; the pay isn’t anything to write home about. But I believe in the importance of my work. And I know that my country really needs all the help it can get.

Yet I cannot come out as a non-believer in my place of work. Many of my superiors are religiously conservative. And in my line of work, it’s best not to rock the boat unless it’s absolutely warranted. This is the exact reason why I have to blog anonymously.

The Philippine Constitution declares that “the separation of Church and State shall be inviolable“. But in truth, this is not so. At my job, everyone has to stand and listen as an ecumenical prayer is recited every Monday morning. We have individual prayer rooms for Muslims and Christians. Several offices have religious icons  in their guest waiting areas. Catholic masses are frequently held on government office premises. Everyone assumes that you’re either a Christian or a Muslim. If not, then you keep it to yourself. In some way, I guess it’s a bit like being gay — except that gays are completely accepted where I work.

So to hear that a young man much like myself, in a country much like my own, could be beaten up simply for expressing his non-belief … well, it’s depressing and infuriating at the same time.

Now, I do not wish to give the impression that atheists in my country are beaten up in the streets. Unlike in Indonesia, non-belief is not illegal in the Philippines. But my country is the third-largest Roman Catholic country in the world, only after Brazil and Mexico. And it has an intensely religious culture and people.

Roman Catholicism casts a long shadow in Philippine public life. Politicians often create and interpret laws favoring religious promotion or protection. The Catholic Church is extremely powerful here — the bishops have a major say in issues of education, law, and (of course) people’s sexuality and private lives. The vast social problems here are often created or worsened by religion and its proponents.

Religion is granted immense privilege in my country. And that is what I’ve promised myself I will fight against. I’m not alone: several Filipino atheist groups and individuals have emerged in recent years and have begun to make themselves heard. The voice may be small, but it is steadily getting louder.

In the meantime, Alex Aan is still in prison and facing five years behind bars for blasphemy. Support for him has started to grow, but it is still in uncertain whether this will be enough to sway Indonesia’s government. I only hope that decency and reason will prevail over intolerance.


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