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Interview with O’Neal de los Trinos — Member, Humanist Alliance Philippines International

2022-12-16

Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/08/27

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was family background in religion? What are your own story and educational background? How did you find humanism and HAPI?

O’Neal de los Trinos: I lived my youth steeped in two religious traditions: Roman Catholicism and Calvinist Protestantism. I was raised Catholic, became a Protestant in high school, and reverted to Catholicism in college (before becoming an atheist thereafter).

On my mother’s side, life and family centered on the Roman Catholic Faith and its traditions: everyone in my extended family went to Sunday Mass together, and almost all adult members prayed the Rosary together once a week, as time permitted. All major religious festivities and activities were faithfully observed, with high regard accorded to introducing children to established Catholic practices and keeping alive enthusiasm for the Faith among adults.

On my father’s side, Protestantism is the foundation upon which the religious life of the family is grounded. Though my paternal relatives are strict Methodists until now, my uncle’s denomination — the Presbyterian Church — had a deeper impact on my religious formation as a teenager. In fact, I converted to Presbyterianism, given I initially found Calvinism, as expressed in the Presbyterian Faith, more coherent than Catholicism. At my young age, I was already more partial to logical coherence than any other consideration, a factor that later led to my reversion to Catholicism and eventual “deconversion” to atheism.

I went to a Protestant “Bible School” for one year after high school. It was an experience I always pleasantly look back to. In college, I majored in the Humanities (with specialization in the Humanities) at the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P). I opened my mind to different, opposing paradigms by which to view or interpret reality. I was naturally susceptible to religious skepticism. Suddenly, Thomas Aquinas no longer proved to be the exclusive authority on any issue relating to the big questions of life: appeal to an unmoved Mover no longer seemed inevitable when we ask about the origin of the universe. Descartes’ epistemic doubt overturned experiential knowledge as the unarguable beginning point in natural theology, or in any discourse, for that matter. Kant’s localization of “causes” in the human psyche undermined the causal transcendence of God. Accordingly, Hegel’s elevation of the conscious mind as the ultimate arbiter of knowledge, and even “being” itself, compelled me to abandon divine revelation as the basis of pursuing absolute truth. Though Hegel’s archaic model is admittedly flawed, at least, his general vision of an all-encompassing, comprehensive logical system by which to understand and discover knowledge proved to be the way I was most comfortable of pursuing. At first, I applied much effort in intellectually justifying my Catholic religion philosophically; after college, I realized it was a futile exercise. A self-consistent worldview founded upon reason and evidence required some honesty that eventually drove me to atheism. Since the center of my evolving worldview was the human mind, it was natural for me to make its good the ultimate good. Its perfection the ultimate goal of life. Hereafter, I embraced humanism as the closest label behind which I could anchor my ideas and beliefs.

As for HAPI, its lovely founder, Mrs. Marissa Langseth graciously introduced me to it via Facebook. My recollection is poor, but I believe my first encounter with her was through a different atheist group, PATAS, sometime in 2012. There was a heavy atmosphere of negativity among them. Eventually, Mrs. Langseth founded HAPI. It had a clearer, more elevated vision, i.e., to help build the human community and raise the dignity of its marginalized constituents. Of course, I still have misgivings about its overall agenda, in view of the very visible participation of the LGBTQ lobby; however, all things being equal, HAPI is the best among humanist groups in the country — it welcomes everyone, both theistic and otherwise, insofar as the person believes in the power and primacy of humanity.

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?

Trinos: Strictly speaking, I cannot speak on behalf of outsiders with regard to their impression of the country under Duterte, but I have gathered enough feedback online and in international television news to give you a glimpse into this shared perception.

The Philippines is generally perceived to be a state overran by anti-drug vigilante death squads operating at the behest of a belligerent semi-dictator whose loose, vulgar mouth makes President Trump seem like a Victorian gentleman taking his afternoon tea. Both liberals and establishment conservatives the world over detest the alleged excesses of our president. Whether this portrayal is accurate is not part of the question.

How are humanists viewed and treated in the Philippines? Generally, the terms “humanism” and “humanists” do not register in the popular collective psyche. Of course, I am referring to regular Filipinos — the type you see executing the latest dance craze as they see it on television, or strolling aimlessly around the mall to beat the tropical heat. Even the ones who occasionally wax eloquent with armchair speculation about the latest political issues prevalent in the country.

Encounter with the concept of “humanism” is limited to studies of Western history in high school or college, if there were any at all. Regrettably, just like any piece of knowledge that does not readily contribute to a high-income career, it is forgotten. In my country, knowledge is mostly not an end in itself; it is merely a tool for future wealth. Any other avenue that leads to wealth is equally meritorious; the quicker, the better. For this reason, television gameshows and pyramiding business schemes are extremely patronized throughout the archipelago. Frankly, most Filipinos have very little familiarity with the technical term, “humanism”. Humanists are all around, but hardly any ordinary person would be able to consciously distinguish humanists, as conventionally defined, from just about any religious person who likewise devotes his time to caring for humanity and pursuing knowledge that precludes appeal to theistic assumptions.

Nevertheless, there is one group for whom the term “humanism” enjoys currency: Evangelical born-againers. “Humanism” has had its reputation soiled in Evangelical circles where the term is associated with a disordered worship of the human potential in contrast to humble faith that puts God at the center. “Humanism” is occasionally mentioned in Evangelical pulpits as a trend indicative of a prideful rebellion against God. Since the Evangelical faith is growing in popularity, especially in urban localities, I can only expect resistance to the acceptance of humanists among the general public, in the event the term enters popular culture.

As far as my experience in the country can tell, Liberal arts students are the ones who are most equipped with a functional, appreciable grasp of “humanism” and what it entails. They know it when they see a genuine “humanist”. Among the relative few who associate with humanists and know what humanism truly is, there is admiration, to a generous degree.

The humanist community in the Philippines is at its nascent stage of growth. It is only becoming well aware of its need to make its identity established and its presence felt through charitable activities geared towards community development and education. Social media exposure also helps advance its online visibility in the wider world, in hopes that such will eventually make certain the positive acceptance of humanism and humanists in the public arena.

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?

Trinos: The pervading cultural infrastructure in place do not allow for conditions that are conducive to the introduction of coalitions and movements that are straightforwardly “non-religious” or, as I interpret the use of the term in the question, “atheistic”. Whereas “humanism” has very limited foothold in the public consciousness, “atheism” is decidedly a divisive concept that connotes loose morality and even the wholesale abandonment of an ethical conscience. Atheists are people even serial killers and prostitutes in my country deride. Atheists are the untouchables. Declaring one’s atheism presents a definitive guarantee that one’s courtship or job application will not end in success.

I see no conceivable opportunity, at present, by which to promote a “non-religious” (atheistic) agenda to counteract the force of religious privilege. Atheists who are humanists must content themselves with promoting independent initiatives that primarily focus on community building, charity, education, and health that may be indirectly oriented towards a secular agenda but in no way threaten the status quo or the power of the Church. This is what HAPI is doing. Despite the fact millennial youth are more receptive and open to challenges against established religion and are even critical of some church leaders, they do not see a group directly promoting the denial of God at the expense of faith as a constructive force that deserves a permanent voice in public life.

In any case, with regard to the last part of this question, areas of religious privilege are public policies and legislation that favor the majority religion (declaration of holidays, limitations on family planning, and traffic rerouting schemes to accommodate religious festivities), bloc voting (some sects, at least) on the national and local level, and tax exemptions for religious institutions.

Jacobsen: When in the Philippines, and looking at the political situation, how does religion influence politics?

Trinos: Bloc voting is the most potent and direct means in the context of political appointment and implementation of public policy.

While the Catholic Church is, to a significant degree, not involved in this regard, another sect is: The Iglesia Ni Cristo. This is an indigenous church that wields political power of a scale that disproportionately exceeds its members’ representation in the general population. Politicians, both Catholic and Protestant, openly court the leader of this religion during the election season. This is a very dangerous phenomenon that most people take lightly. In this liberal democratic country, the Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC) is, for good or ill, labeled as a “king-maker”. Not even the president is principled enough to untangle its grip on power.

As things stand, in a democratic setting, a person’s vote equals power. Therefore, more than mere endorsement, instructing members of a religion to cast their vote for a candidate endows the religious leader with political leverage by which to arrange deals and agreements. Once the anointed candidates win, they will not abandon their benefactor. Debt of gratitude is deeply ingrained in our culture. This religion, in the process, is assured of undue privileges and benefits that non-partisan churches or interest groups do not enjoy.

On the whole, politicians see association with Roman Catholicism and other mainstream Christian denominations as a practical route to maintaining a likable public image. Support of religious institutions is an investment with desirable returns in one’s political career. Openly invoking God is a staple in congressional debates on legislations to be enacted. It is neither controversial nor shocking to see a senator or congressman quoting Scriptures to highlight his position. Separation of church and state is only embraced in legal theory; in practice, it is anything but.

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?

Trinos: Why is religion such a large influence in my country? Family. My country is blessed to have a family-centered social culture. It is not uncommon to see married children still living with their parents. Parents, regardless of social class or education, see raising their children strictly in the faith as their indispensable vocation and responsibility. Freedom of religion seems to apply only when a person already has a job and is no longer too dependent on his parents for his financial needs. This socio-religious culture is further solidified by the tendency of Filipinos to remain in their “safe zone” or in areas where they are most comfortable or familiar with. We are inherently not risk-takers or adventurers. Our curiosity geared towards the unknown is limited to just foreign food, more or less. Thus, Catholics remain Catholic, for the simple fact they were born in that religion.

The combination of this family culture and the general tendency to stay within the confines of what one is accustomed to strengthens the hold of religion in the mind. Once multiplied a million times over in many individuals, the result is a reliably irresistible force.

As for the prejudice, I have addressed that point in a previous question.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?

Trinos: While I support the humanist movement, of which I am a part, I feel a segment of this movement embraces radical feminism that promotes the pro-choice agenda in the name of “female empowerment”. I am convinced this is anti-humanism.

As a humanist, I believe every human being has a right to life, regardless of gender, race, and — yes — age (or phase in human life). I believe the unborn, in virtue of their human dignity, qualify as persons, and, therefore, have as much right to life as any human person living in the outside world. To deprive the unborn of this right to life amounts to the denial of their personhood, which forms the basis of that right in the first place. No human is a non-person; every human is a person. Indeed, the being produced at conception is a human through and through.

This right to life is not predicated upon properties that are characteristic of — but not necessarily essential to — human nature in some of its phases. Consciousness, sensation of pain, and physical autonomy are not determinants that indicate whether a subject is entitled to the right to life, the absence of which do not make a person less deserving of the right thereof.

As a humanist, I believe all human life must be equally protected in all of its stages. It is my hope that the humanist movement will come through as a unified force, someday, for the preservation of the human race and the creation of a living atmosphere that optimizes individual freedom within its moral limits.

License

In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at www.in-sightpublishing.com.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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