Philippine Dept. of Education acknowledges separation of Church and State to theists’ dismay

In recent news, the Department of Education removed the words “God-loving” from their Vision Statement, thanks to the efforts and representation made by a secularist free-thought organization, the Filipino Freethinkers.

And as was expected, some religious groups immediately rang the alarm bells, viewing this simple acknowledgement of other peoples’ freedom of thought and belief as an assault on what they consider to be the Philippines’ core values (read: their OWN theistic beliefs).

The Christian Convergence for Good Governance put out their opinion on the issue:

In a department order (No. 36) issued last September 4, 2013, the DepEd released its new statement that reads as follows: “We dream of Filipinos who passionately love their country and whose values and competencies enable them to realize their full potential and contribute meaningfully to building the nation.” In comparison, the old vision statement more directly reflects the intrinsic faith majority of Filipinos have for the Divine (emphasis mine). It reads as “By 2030, DepEd is globally recognized for good governance and for developing functionally-literate and God-loving Filipinos.”

Incidentally, the change was made in the midst of a request from a group of atheists in the Philippines called as the “Filipino Freethinkers.” In an open letter dated February 5 of last year, the group denounced the mentions of “God-loving” in DepEd’s Vision statement and “Maka-Diyos” as one of the department’s Core Values. Seeing it as a violation of the “principle of secularism” and of the “separation of church and state” enshrined in the Phil. Constitution, the open letter demanded that DepEd removed the said references to God or replace it with secular counterparts. DepEd promptly responded in Twitter, a social networking site, that review is on its way and a new vision statement shall be released soon.

The atheist group is also actively demanding the removal of similar religious references in government offices and properties. A case, for example is the mention of God in the P100 peso bill “Pinagpala ang bayan na ang Diyos ay Panginoon” and in the P500 peso bill “faith in our people and faith in God.”

The said department order is set to stir controversy as it is a stark departure from the government’s long practice of respect for the religious sensibility of the Filipino people. The Preamble of the Constitution of the Philippines itself does not reflect secularism as held by the atheist group and on the contrary boldly implored “the aid of the Almighty God.”

In principle, the law of the land ought to reflect the shared aspirations and values of its people. In a country with a population of 80% Christians and 5% Muslims, in which both faith traditions expressing strong belief in God and the need for godly values, the recent move of the DedEd appears to run contrary to religious nature and culture of Filipinos. The implications of the department order would be felt by the future generation -students DedEd is tasked to serve.

Dennis Sy, the pastor of Victory Christian Fellowship Greenhills and author of the blog “Act Like A Man,” posted his own take on the DepEd’s decision:

This is a case of being pressured to have an institution change its VISION and VALUES to accommodate a group and in the process neglecting the prevailing values of society. If a group decides that they don’t want God, that is their problem and not the problem of our constitution. Because if we keep on changing who we are and what we value to accommodate a group – then when will this end?

If a group of  people would make a case that their belief must be put there because it is discriminatory – will we change our constitution for that. If a group of animal lovers would make a case- will the vision and constitution change? I hope you get what I am saying.

In short, a group of people doesn’t want God, and I am not against them not wanting God that is their right as a Filipino, but for them to pressure us to change who we are (according to the  1987 preamble of the constitution) – that is being intolerant and discriminatory. So what I’m saying is I don’t have a problem that they have a problem with the God that I worship – the problem is if they want to dictate and change the government and the words in our constitution. […]

As a Christian nation, we have to start shouting what we stand for and not let a few change the  agreed upon constitution and values of our nation.

In his own comments section, Mr. Sy’s arguments are picked apart by participants, prompting him to try to wriggle out of his original position by saying that his true complaint was about DepEd’s lack of “due process,” while continuing to insist that the Constitution affirms all Filipinos’ belief in God.

Now, Mr. Sy seems to be a well-educated man, as a product of one of the most expensive private schools in the Philippines. On top of this, he has even written two books that have landed on the Amazon Kindle bestseller list, and is presumably enjoying success as the head of a young, thriving, and wealthy religious community in Greenhills.

And yet, despite all this, neither his wealth nor his educational attainment seem to have provided Mr. Sy with any appreciation for the pluralistic values on which the country’s democracy is founded. Nor do they account for his ignorance of the relevant portion of the Philippine Bill of Rights on the non-establishment of religion:

Article III, Section 5 of the Bill of Rights: “No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.”

Or perhaps it’s not ignorance. Judging by Mr. Sy’s reaction in his own comments section, the more plausible (and scarier) explanation is that he simply doesn’t even want to understand what true respect for minorities’ rights entails. The exact same conclusion can be drawn about the Christian Convergence for Good Governance, in their stated preference for the older DepEd vision statement that “reflects the intrinsic faith majority (sic) of Filipinos have for the Divine”.

These are just sad examples of a much bigger problem that besets overwhelmingly-religious countries like the Philippines: these people, simply put, have almost never been exposed to people who disagree with them.

News flash for theists like Mr. Sy: Not everyone thinks like you.

Respect for a pluralistic society is enshrined in the Constitution. The Philippines has no official state religion. Therefore, no government agency has the mandate to proselytize on behalf of any faith (or non-faith). Hindi naman mahirap intindihin, eh.

Andy Uyboco, a member of the Filipino Freethinkers who writes a regular atheist column for the Sun Star, posted a concise rebuttal to Mr. Sy’s article.

According [to] Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J., one of the foremost authorities on our Constitution, the non-establishment clause prohibits both direct and indirect aid to religion if the support involves “preference of one religion over another or preference of religion over irreligion.” (from The 1987 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines: A Commentary by Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J. 2009 Edition, page 345.) […]

[W]hat you are proposing is simply a bully-mentality — that because there are more of you, then it is your whims and desires that should be followed. Let me ask you then, if 85%of the Filipinos would favor slavery, would you not speak out against it? Would you quietly sit in your little corner of the country and acquiesce to the desire of the majority?

Besides, your claim that a “minority” group has exerted this pressure is laughable. Who has more power to exert pressure — a minority group or a majority one? You are like a 200-pound bully complaining that a 90-pound weakling has pushed you into a corner.

It looks like the 90-pound weakling is punching well above his weight.

It is my hope that skirmishes like these in the culture war between secularists and religious conservatives will lead to something better for the country. The key lies in raising peoples’ awareness of pluralistic values, and showing them that non-believers do not just have the right to exist, but also the right to speak their minds and influence the public debate. Just like anyone else in a pluralistic society.

As long as secular humanists and like-minded people of faith keep pushing against the close-minded opposition, then the newer generations will see non-believers and believers alike for what they essentially are: fellow humans.

As it stands, though, I can probably guess the theists’ next strategy: playing the victim card.

(Next blog post: On the bigotry of Catholic dogma)

Still alive!

It’s been over two and a half years since my last blog post, and it’s time to bring this thing back to life!

 

Lots of things have happened in the interim, and I apologize for not updating this blog. Probably the biggest consideration that stopped me from posting was the fear that I would be merely regurgitating the same thoughts from other similar atheism blogs.

At that same time, however, in the last thirty-one months, I have never stopped keeping an eye out for events concerning religion and atheism around the world, and especially in the Philippines. So I’ve constantly been gathering new materials to write about, and taking copious notes about what to post next.

So what’s finally pushing me to bring this zombie blog back from the dead? Two things:

One: the unspoken rule that those in public service are forbidden from freely expressing their irreligiosity;

Two: good old SIWOTI, instigated by several acquaintances whom I thought should have known better.

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Sometimes, it’s the simple things in life that get you going.

 

 

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.

So much to say

What follows is a brief, incomplete list of various topics that I’ll be discussing on this blog, in no particular order:

  • Observations of a non-believer in a country of believers – implications for one’s social life and career; finding like-minded people; the low level of sophistication in the believer-skeptic debate; comparisons with more secular countries
  • Deconversion – my personal story; moving from belief to non-belief, and why it matters; the outsider test of faith
  • Common misconceptions about non-belief – “atheistic immorality” versus “theistic morality”; finding meaning in life without gods; atheism versus agnosticism
  • The poverty of sophisticated Christian theology – academic philosophers versus the believer in the pews; divine command theory; necessary suffering and the problem of evil; moral paralysis; the teleological argument for God; the ontological argument for God; why faith isn’t enough; problems and inadequacy of the resurrection story
  • Religious doctrine and its effects on society – the problems with applied Catholic dogma; the non-existent separation between Church and State in my country
  • What next after atheism? – moving on after non-belief; openness to evidence and what it would take to convince me otherwise; naturalism/materialism and its implications for free will and morality

My intent is to tackle these subjects as rationally as possible. I am aware that it is nearly impossible to be completely perfect in one’s analysis. But I hope that by laying out my thoughts for people to see and criticize, I can move from being “wrong” towards being “less wrong” (with apologies to Eliezer Yudkowsky).

Why I write

“I admit that reason is a small and feeble flame, a flickering torch by stumblers carried in the star-less night, — blown and flared by passion’s storm, — and yet, it is the only light. Extinguish that, and nought remains.”

Robert G. Ingersoll, from “A Reply To The Rev. Henry M. Field, D.D.”

This blog will detail the thoughts and experiences of an ordinary person from a developing country populated almost entirely by religious believers, as he does his best to live his life with as much intellectual honesty, rationality, and integrity as possible.