I Spoke to an Atheist and a Devout Catholic About Religion. Here’s What Happened
Should you or should you not subscribe to a religion?
The annual Traslación of the Black Nazarene happened a couple of weeks ago and once again I was transfixed at my TV screen. Every year it’s the same thing—millions of devotees brave the mass of warm bodies and risk being crushed to death all for a chance to touch or get near the image of Christ as it makes its way around the streets of Manila.
Every year I wonder about the level of intense devotion one has for a Higher Being enough for him or her to cast aside notions of personal well-being or safety. Do people who actually get near enough actually receive blessings? Are evils exorcised? Are their prayers answered?
All these thoughts run through my head even as I try to grapple with my own ideas of what faith and religion mean to me. You see, I was raised Catholic, which, in a country that is at least 80 percent Catholic, really isn’t special. But, as with many people my age, I consider myself non-practicing. Which basically means that I can’t remember the last time I received Holy Communion, confessed my sins to a priest or even went to church, even though I still identify as Catholic.
I suspect I’m not the only one who is like this.
“It’s not just you!” my friend Monique tells me when I message her about my theory that more and more people are identifying not just as non-practicing Catholic but atheists and agnostics.
“My favorite example is when I was still in (my old company), and then humirit si (former officemate) Gio ng “The Lord be with you and also with you!”
“And I said, ‘Gio, ano ka ba, it’s And with your Spirit na.’
“And everyone looked at me like, ‘What?! What are you talking about?’
“Apparently everyone in our row (during that time) didn’t go to Church.
“I was a bit surprised! Growing up, it seems that everyone is Catholic, especially since I went to Catholic schools, but you’re right, in the past decade, a lot of people have started to question the religious system.”
If we go by the belief that a vast majority of Pinoys still identify as Catholic, then Monique’s point of view is more the norm than the exception. On the other hand, I spoke with another friend who considers himself an atheist and he’s convinced religion is not only pointless but dangerous.
“I think people have different levels of tolerance towards uncertainty,” he says. “And for some people, the existential crisis of not knowing the future, the desire for an afterlife—and going back, the evolutionary imperative for religion when times were rough in the dawn of mankind—probably had some effect in making people more likely to believe.
“It served a purpose back in the days where we didn’t know better,” he adds. “But now, it’s largely unnecessary and does more harm than good.”
I’ve witnessed Ben post thoughts like these on his blog and social media for years, and the fact that he can do so freely is refreshing to me. Chalk it up to attending a Catholic high school and having the tenets of this religion drilled into my subconscious for years by religious parents.
But Ben says he never had any sort of “awakening” precisely because he never started with Catholicism as a belief in the first place.
“I was brought up Catholic but it never had an imprint on me,” he says. “I grew up with a strong bias towards science and wanting to explain natural phenomenon through the most logical means possible. I was a voracious reader who approached the world as a mysterious place that needed to be studied.
“And religion for the most part is a lazy, dishonest and deceptive lens to see the world through. So I never questioned it in the sense that it was never a default belief in my case. That would be like me questioning a geocentric model of the universe.”
Conversely, Monique’s position as a devout Catholic was something she inherited from her parents.
“Yes, they brought us up as Catholics,” she says. “We went to Sunday Mass regularly, we prayed as a family and I guess we would refer to some of the values that we had to things in Catholicism, like being kind to others as Jesus would.
“My parents are very faithful and of course they wanted to share their faith with us as well.”
I asked Monique why she thinks there are more people who grew up Catholic but are beginning to question these beliefs today.
“I kind of understand where they’re coming from. For one thing, most of them feel that they don’t understand or don’t connect with some of the traditions or beliefs that the Catholic Church supports.
“Some people feel that they had this ‘religion’ imposed on them by their parents or their society and the tenets automatically restrict a lot of the choices that they would or could have had. And to them, they don’t understand why they have to keep to these choices or they don’t understand the logic on some of the beliefs.
“More importantly, a lot of them cannot connect with or see the point of many traditions. They don’t see how it adds to their faith.”
“Sunday mass, for example. Parang for them, I have to sit there for an hour, go through a routine, listen to a boring priest (and BOYYYY, there are a LOT of boring priests), and for what? Kaya ko naman basahin yung Bible if I wanted that.”
The idea that people are blinded by their faith and are therefore unable to see the truth about religion has frustrated Ben for years.
“When I was younger I felt a strong urge to verbalize this,” he says. “I worked with various secular organizations to try to combat the strong influence of the church in this country in their bid to employ draconian and regressive policies. But nowadays, I feel less invested in having atheism as a locus of my identity.”
“Anyone who has a sophisticated, cosmological view of the universe can surely see how ALL of the gods described in any major religion fails in comparison to the vast wonders of the cosmos.”
But ask her about the logic of religion and Monique has a fairly smart and succinct reply.
“But faith isn’t logical, though, is it?
“It seems ridiculous!” she adds “Even in little things, like going to mass or going to confession. I think I try to take them both into stride. I think they can live side by side. She mentions the ending of the Dan Brown book Angels and Demons before quickly adding, “JOKE!”
“Logic and science will ALWAYS be important, it’s what we use to progress as a species,” she says. “But—again, I’m sorry if it sounds really baduy—love and faith can make our lives meaningful. It can drive us to become better. That hope and faith that there is something beyond our lives that can be lived and died for. It makes us aspire for something greater than progress here on earth.”
Finally, Ben couldn’t help but comment on the existing situation here in the Philippines—with a leader who clearly has issues with the Church.
“This is actually quite an interesting time for Filipinos’ relationship with religion,” he says. “While the President is a maniacal, genocidal demagogue, his willingness to challenge the church and not toe the clergy’s positions on key issues is refreshing. So in a way, there is this weird dance that people are doing nowadays.
“And just to be clear, secularism isn’t quite the goal. It is citizen empowerment + secularism. China and North Korea aren’t the most awesome models either.”
For her part, Monique says she remains steadfast in her faith and does not see herself switching to another religion or, worse, abandoning it altogether.
“I believe that my own understand of faith gives me my own perspective on how to be a good human being and I hope it helps me help the world a better place,” she says.
“Your faith makes you hope in something greater than what you can fathom and understand here on earth (and even here in the Philippines).”
The debate about religion has been going on for as long as religion has existed and it’s one we can’t hope to answer in a simple online article. But having meaningful discussions with two friends with diametrically opposing views and taking snippets from both has made me realize that religion itself isn’t the issue. It’s how we live our lives as meaningfully and as honorably as we can, in pursuit of something greater than ourselves.
In short, it isn’t about whether you subscribe to a religion or not. It’s about expanding your mind and understanding that there are people who believe in miracles happening if you get to touch an image of Christ just as there are people who believe that these miracle-chasers are misinformed at best and delusional at worst.
And hey, there’s room enough on this earth for everybody.
Words Matt Leopoldo
Art Alexandra Lara