In Conversation with Rupert Aparri— Member, Humanist Alliance International Philippines
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family background in religion? What are your own story and educational background? How did you find humanism and HAPI?
Rupert Aparri: Like most Filipinos, I was raised in a Catholic home. While the male members of the family weren’t religious, the females were (and still are) devout. My mother is 70 years old. When she went to a small town in Georgia, USA, right smack in the midst of the evangelical US South, the first question she asked was: “Is there a Catholic Church here?” My grandmas and grandaunts and great grandma all lived to be nonagenarians so just imagine being with these tough religious women who practically IMPOSED their beliefs on us, grandchildren. No, not in a violently threatening way, but through something more fearsome — the threat of eternal damnation. I recall my grandma (father’s side) and her sister together with my grandfather praying the rosary every night. And when they could no longer go to church because of old age, they’d wait for the priest to come on Sundays so they could receive communion. That’s how “Catolico Cerrado” they were.
However, while my paternal grandma was religious, she was, in fact, a liberal. In 1935, she got pregnant out of wedlock. That must have been quite a scandal in those times. Interestingly, she studied under the American Thomasites. They were intrepid volunteer teachers from the US who taught Filipinos in a non-religious set-up. It must be noted that under Spain, the friars had control in educating the masses, so we can suppose that they prioritized religious brainwashing to perpetuate the subjugation of the people.
My father, a lawyer-accountant wasn’t religious. He seldom went to church, and when he did, it was observably just by force of tradition, not because he was afraid to go to hell. He was, after all, a man of integrity whose reputation was absolutely beyond reproach and from his example I learned that one can be “good without God.” My siblings and I were sent to a Catholic school administered by Chinese priests forced to escape China during the Cultural Revolution. So aside from superb math and Chinese language lessons, I also grew up learning Catechism. I attended religion subjects which, in retrospect, were a waste of time. In college, I went to the University of the Philippines (UP), a secular public school established by the Americans in 1908 when they were still our colonial masters. Our public school system is among the best and lasting legacies of the United States, by the way but I digress.
UP taught me secularism. Prayers and going to Mass were no longer compulsory.
Ideas could be freely exchanged, and because I entered college right after the Marcos dictatorship was toppled, we breathed in the air of freedom with gusto — enthusiastically challenging conventions to which we were otherwise accustomed. My humanism germinated in UP but my absolute disavowal of the god-idea came in phases, culminating one day, ironically, when I attended a Catholic Life in the Spirit Seminar shortly after I got married.
By then I was already a doubter. So when I confessed to a priest by lamenting “Father, I have doubts about the Sacrament of Penance, and if it is a sin to doubt, forgive me.” The priest’s reply: “I’m not going to give you absolution.” And right there, it struck me. I really couldn’t force myself to believe in the bullshit anymore. I honestly don’t recall how I “found” humanism. I was barely even aware of the term until I became FB friends with Ms. Marissa Langseth. She referred me to a FB Group and we’d occasionally chat. I think this was after she read my FB Note on atheism. Or perhaps somebody referred me to her. One time I got into a weeklong online argument with an Evangelical friend on the existence of God. Of course, debating with believers is like banging your head against the wall, but I had lots of time and ammunition, so to speak. I had facts. My friend had verses of the bible. No match.
As a humanist, I haven’t been able actively engage in HAPI events because of my restrictive work schedule. But I’m happy to say that I’m raising my children to be good not because they are scared of an imaginary being or the promise of eternal reward, but rather because this simply is the right thing to do. My wife respects my views although she’s still keen on Pascal’s Wager.
Jacobsen: How does the world see the Philippines from the outside under Duterte? How are humanists generally treated in the Philippines? How do Filipinos, in general, view humanists and the humanist community?
Aparri: Duterte is, to put it lightly, a controversial figure in Philippine politics. By appearances he is uncouth, disrespectful of women, scoffs at human rights, considers mainstream media as adversaries, and has cursed the Pope, Obama, and officials of the EU and the UN. Also, he probably isn’t aware of this, but he is a cringe-inducing racist. (He referred to Obama as “ang itim itim” — very black, and dark skin is derided in the Philippines, a country where skin-whitening soap and lotion sell like hotcakes.) Kinda reminds us of someone else, huh? Anyhow, Duterte doesn’t have a nuclear arsenal so we’re fortunate. Duterte is an admitted murderer though and has even bragged on national TV about killing people. Yet he still has a very favorable approval rating among Filipinos!
So how is he regarded internationally? I’ll say it’s a mixed reception. Democratic, progressive nations regard him with disdain. Consider the G20 meetings, for example. Traditionally, the Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is invited to the G20 meetings, which was hosted by Germany in 2017. The Philippines was ASEAN Chair in the same year but Duterte was not invited. He and his government has been criticized by the EU, Australia, the UN, and even the US under Obama. But Duterte just retorted to such criticisms with profanities. He has been very friendly with China and Russia though. Ohhh, those parallels again.
As for the Filipino people and the Philippines, I can only offer snippets of impressions about us by foreign friends, now that Duterte is in power. I work in the field of international relations so I’ve had the fortune of visiting 17 countries in the past 3 years. Also, I have been hosting foreign exchange students and INGO volunteers since 2009. Aside from travelling in Europe, Asia, and the US, I have brought the world to my home. Germans, Swiss, Ecuadoran, Spanish, Turkish, Japanese, French, Belgian, Norwegian, and a Dutch have stayed with us as family members. No American because the US deemed our place “unsafe.” Right now, there’s an Italian boy with us.
Anyway, their impression of the Philippines naturally changed when they started living among the Filipino people. So once a foreigner actually experiences being among us, Duterte becomes an insignificant blur. Internationally, we’re probably known as seafarers (more than 50%of the world’s seamen are Filipinos); nurses (40 thousand in UK and Ireland, hundreds of thousands in the US) so we’re actually in the healing business; Filipinos are literally everywhere. In the US, Fil-Ams are the 2nd highest earning minority (after Indians) and among the best educated. We do have our sad stories as a poor nation (shithole?) but we are among the happiest and most resilient people on earth. We should be, otherwise we won’t endure living in a country located in the ring of fire, typhoon belt, earthquake zone, and tsunami prone area.
We’re also very welcoming. During the Holocaust, we were the only country that readily accepted Jews who were escaping from the Nazis. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, we also welcomed the so-called White Russians. The Vietnamese boat-people also made our shores their home before they eventually proceeded to their final destinations. That’s how we are as a people, and I think it’s in our cultural DNA to be so accepting. There are also pejorative references about us. Like we’re regarded as “Oreos” — brown outside, white inside; a nation of domestics and caregivers, etc. Such impressions have stuck, no matter how unfair and we’ve learned to regard them nonchalantly or better still, dismiss them with humor.
Humanism has been a steadily growing movement in the Philippines. But compared to the religious, we are still vastly outnumbered. So humanists — and again the term and idea haven’t caught on yet among the majority of the people — have not yet reached a critical mass where they can disrupt commonly held beliefs and values. in other words, because we aren’t a “threat” at present, nobody really takes much notice of us. So HAPI members can go to communities and do philanthropic deeds and they will be welcome. But there are also levels of tolerance for humanism. You shouldn’t venture into Muslim areas if you’re an identified humanist. You’ll most probably be killed there. Yes, the degree of evil among modern day religions vary, with Islam sadly being the most toxic and violent now.
Jacobsen: How can the non-religious overcome religious privilege, e.g., building a coalition and a solidarity movement? What are the areas of religious privilege within the Philippines?
Aparri: Like the United States, we have a non-establishment clause in our Constitution. But this hasn’t really been observed. Cases in point: We have an Office of Muslim Affairs. This has been one of my pet peeves but I can only whine because I don’t want to get bombed! Shariah and Islamic lessons are being taught using public school facilities. Professors lead prayers before starting their lessons in public universities. Government resources are being used during Catholic Church events. There are churches, temples, and mosques built through public funds inside our military camps! Religious idols are displayed in government buildings. In my wife’s workplace, a Philippine government bank, Catholic masses are held within office premises every first Friday of the month! I could go on and on about religious privilege. We still have a lot of evolving to undergo in terms of being an actual secular democracy.
As humanists, we can’t just barge into the religionists’ zone and tell them they’re wrong. That’s the first thing I learned during my arguments with religious friends and family members, including my own mom. Logic will not persuade godly people. They will just yell back and bombard you with more nonsense. When you argue with them and point out the falsities of their religious beliefs, they tend to be defensive because you’re attacking their core; their being. Therefore, since we are obviously more reasonable, it is up to us to adjust to their tantrums. There are religionists, however, whose spoiled brat antics involve murder and mayhem, and with THEM, we have to be less congenial.
In terms of solidarity and building coalitions, we should primarily focus on environmental protection, because climate change poses an existential threat to our people, whether religious or humanist. To answer the question on how we can overcome religious privilege: I say through patience and education. It’ll take years to undo what was imprinted for centuries.
Jacobsen: When in the Philippines, and looking at the political situation, how does religion influence politics?
Aparri: Religion influences Philippine politics in many forms, from the completely insidious to the relatively benign. For example, the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) led by a certain Eraño Manalo is often courted by politicians because the sect votes as a bloc as dictated by the leadership. At about 5 million members, they can make or break political careers. Allegedly, in exchange for votes, favors are given to the sect, like plum positions in government, particularly the law enforcement offices. There’s also a sect led by Apollo Quiboloy, who refers to himself as the APPOINTED SON OF GOD. He’s extremely wealthy, the money raised from tithes, but which he attributes to the blessings of his father, God. For a time, he was visibly too friendly with Duterte, even offering to lend his private plane and helicopter to the president.
A thinking individual would be frightened to see his president palling with The Appointed Son of God, but that’s where we are now. The Catholic Church, as one would expect still meddles in our political discourse, vehemently opposing a Divorce Law, and a Reproductive Health Law. The RC still insists that contraception is a sin and one who uses condoms goes to hell. We’re the only country aside from the Vatican where there is no divorce. In this instance, Duterte’s irreverence has been helpful. He has ignored the Church’s importunings and threats of fire and brimstone.
The most damning influence of religion on politics, in my opinion, is the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao. While the Christian sects only try to influence political outcomes by threats to the soul and moral suasion, the Muslims actually kill in the name of Allah. And the government acceded to their demands by giving them autonomy — the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Now they want more; their own state within a federal government. The Mindanao problem is complex, but suffice it to say that without the inherited hatreds passed on by religions, this would have been easier to address.
Jacobsen: Why is religion such a large influence on the country? What are some of the main prejudices that the irreligious experience in the Philippines?
Aparri: Spanish friars spread Catholicism in the islands for 4 centuries. They did this not just by friendly persuasion but also by threat of physical harm and death. Colonizers used religion as a means of social control. Such a method was extremely effective. Fear of torture and execution, coupled with the thought of wallowing in a lake of fire for eternity are quite persuasive. The influence of the church in the country is thus a vestige of our colonial past that is difficult to forget. This isn’t to say that we have to expunge ourselves of our history. As a Filipino, I am proud to be a child of the East and West, and under the present circumstances thankful that I was born Christian, rather than Wahhabist or Salafist. But we do have to be honest and accept that our religious heritage stemmed from unholy intentions of mostly wicked men.
Atheists, or apatheists, and now humanists are considered “sinners” in the Philippines. I have been accosted, ridiculed, even asked why I say Merry Christmas when I don’t believe in Jesus Christ. But these are just the ridiculous chidings of pesky friends. More troubling, for instance, is equating communism with unbelief because it gives misguided and ignorant religionists in government to persecute you. Also, woe unto you who claims unbelief and you’re branded a Satanist. You could get physically assaulted.
Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?
Aparri: For centuries, religion has been an anchor in the lives of people and communities. It is no wonder therefore that absent such anchor, people and communities would feel hopeless; bobbing up and down, to and fro in an ocean of problems and uncertainty. At least with the god-concept, there is this notion of security and stability. It is a challenge for us, humanists, to articulate to our fellowmen, that we have EACH OTHER, and this in fact is more reassuring than beseeching an invisible, non-existent entity.
Having said that, in places where I am a stranger, I find sanctuary in Catholic church services, just to be with something familiar. And this, I think is the last purpose of churches and their rituals and incantations — to provide a sense of familiarity and camaraderie. It is only after recognizing this that we can begin an honest and fruitful conversation with the believers.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rupert.