I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Lindsay Eagar.
Emily T. is a sometime writer, now deeply entrenched in the bastard child of outsourcing and the ‘sharing economy,’ based in Manila. She went to church a few weeks ago for a funeral service.
Hi, Emily! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself before we get started?
I grew up Catholic in the Philippines. Loved reading the Bible (mostly for the Old Testament stories though. My favorite book was probably Tobias, but I couldn’t tell you why) and I really wanted to be an altar girl until I got in trouble and my mom told me I couldn’t do it anymore, which made me very sad because I so badly wanted to be the one ringing the bell for church services. I was all in on Catholicism, really throwing myself into rituals like First Communion, confirmation, confessions.
Then after the fifth grade I moved from my Filipino Catholic school to an international (mostly American) Episcopalian school and my world CHANGED. Priests who get married? No first communion? Chapel EVERY week? My tiny sixth-grade mind was blown. My new school also had a more inclusive religious studies curriculum so I learned more about other religions in general, too.
The chaplain would give me books about religion and philosophy to read, in the 10th grade, I think. It was also around that time when I swung towards a Dawkins-type of militant atheism, when I decided I was smarter than everyone else for not believing in God. It was pretty sudden! I stopped going to church, I even got in a fight with my mom about it, but eventually my family stopped insisting I accompany them. I would pick fights with my Theory of Knowledge teacher, who was a young earth creationist (and was more evangelical than our actual chaplain, who was a chill, smart guy who would listen to me yell about religion but would always encourage me to think more critically instead of just railing against it). I would frequent atheist Internet forums — internet forums! — and make comments and feel smug. I was kind of the worst, back then.
But when I went to college in the US, I didn’t think so much about religion because I had new concerns like ‘why is Ohio so fucking cold’ and ‘how can I make money off this Classics degree’.
I’ve since mellowed and am no longer a militant atheist. I still haven’t been to church, though. Not even when it’s Christmas! And I feel like a jerk for not going with my family to Christmas church services, but something inside me just hates the idea of going to church when I could be doing literally anything else.
Deep inside, though, I’m probably still an Anglo-Catholic in some ways. I went to a few Baptist services in the US (because I would stay with people who went to church over holidays and such) and their buddy-buddy relationship with God bothers me so much — my God is a cold and distant God, not one who personally talks to me about mundane things like ‘Hey God, should I help my neighbor move today?’ or whatever. And people who talk about a close personal relationship with God make me want to roll my eyes.
High church rituals still give me a measure of comfort, even though the last time I went to church was in 2007 when I was in Liverpool and just had to attend a service in their cool cathedral. (I’m basically a church tourist at this point.) And I developed my early interest in church matters, but this time from a historical standpoint — I blame Classics.
Having moved back to the Philippines, I now have even more thoughts about religion and how we as a nation have appropriated Catholicism, but maybe I should stop here.
I’d love to know what being an atheist means to you now. What aspects of atheism bring you joy and delight? What have you constructed for yourself that’s meaningful?
Being an atheist to me almost doesn’t mean anything, if that makes sense? Even after all my previous run-ins with religion, I feel like atheism is the default now, and I’m still always surprised when people I meet who seem chill suddenly whip out the religion. Assuming everyone else is atheist too makes no sense when I live in a super Catholic country, too, so I don’t know why I think that. Classic narcissist thinking everyone is like me, I guess!
The thing that always brings me joy and delight about atheism is absolutely the fact that I can do whatever the hell I want with my Sundays. Other than that, though, I don’t see it as something to delight in — it just is.
As to what I’ve constructed for myself that’s meaningful, I’m not sure! I feel like the burden on atheism is like, now that there’s no religion in your life, what gives you meaning? Which I always thought was unfair.
But does it need meaning? Isn’t it enough that you’re alive and doing things? I’ve kind of cobbled together things that make life meaningful, like having people to love and doing things that deeply interest me (and help other people out incidentally). I suppose I subconsciously modelled it after Frankl’s pursuit of meaning, minus the suffering part. So I guess there’s some meaning right there. But now the challenge is finding things that deeply interest me, because I get bored really easily.
The word ‘passion’ has been thrown around so much that it’s lost meaning, but I’ve yet to find an activity or occupation that I can describe as a passion, so I suppose that’s what I’m searching for right now. My ‘finding meaning in life’ equivalent is essentially ‘finding something I actually want to do’ at this point. I’m not sure how much of that is due to atheism, though. I suspect that even if I’d stuck to religion I’d still have the same problem, except there’d be God on top of it.
I’d like to back up a little bit. Do you remember when you first encountered the idea of atheism? What did you think of it? When did you first start to think, “Oh, this might describe me”?
It’s funny, I don’t have clear memories of when I first thought about atheism, or saw it as a viable choice. I may have jokingly taken up atheism in the 7th grade to antagonize that teacher, but didn’t start thinking about it seriously until the 10th grade.
It coincided with the time that I was getting very bored with schoolwork, so the chaplain teaching me religious studies would give me extra stuff to read and talk to me about it. Also my grandma died around that time, the first serious family death I ever experienced, and I would get really annoyed anytime someone would mention ‘she’s in a better place now’ or any platitude referencing religion or heaven because what help was that? To add insult to injury the priest at her funeral service got her goddamn name wrong.
But it was probably all the internet forums emphasizing the whole ‘oh, we atheists think for ourselves and we’re not sheeple blah blah’ that really made me think ‘hey, that sounds like me! I want to be more like that!’, as a young person who thought she was smarter than everyone around her and also desperate to establish independence, and latching on to atheism as the best way to do that (god, I sound like a nightmare. Teens, am I right). In a country where religion is so ingrained into everything, saying you don’t have a religion is probably the most subversive you can get. My parents were not happy about it at first but eventually they made peace with it, to the point where my dad jokes that I don’t go to church because I’m afraid the holy water will burn me. At least I think it’s a joke.
The one crystal-clear memory I have, though, is having this thought: “Now that I’m atheist, am I still allowed to say ‘Oh my God’?”
I’d love to hear a little bit more about the comment you made earlier about ‘appropriating Catholicism.’ Can you tell me more about that?
I feel like I’m not all that qualified to talk about my country’s strange relationship with Catholicism because it’s going to sound like armchair anthropology, so I’m going to keep it general.
Basics: the Spanish invaded here in the 1600s and forced Catholicism on everyone. The Americans came along some 300 years later and some of them brought their own Jesus along. (My grasp on Philippine history may be sketchy. My American high school only made us take one semester of it. Typical colonial education.) Anyway we’re mostly (around 80%) Catholic.
Religion is everywhere, to the point where we don’t even pretend to separate church and state (see: divorce, contraception, etc. Recently the senate removed P1 billion from the department of health budget; that money was supposed to be for contraceptives.). In daily life, God is invoked in everything, even in company-wide memos (I may still be annoyed at this, years later). There are churches in malls — when I was younger, I remember some malls would even broadcast the 6 PM Angelus on the PA systems. They had, as the kids say, no chill.
There’s also that thing where people will say, with all seriousness, ‘I’m not Christian! I’m Catholic!’ because here ‘Christian’ means Protestant or any fringe movement, but never Catholic. I know there are those in other places who don’t think Catholics are Christians because of the Pope and Mary and I’m sure a whole bunch of other reasons, but I think here it’s more that Catholic is the default and Christians are the ones that have sort of strayed from the path, not the other way around. I remember in my old elementary school where we regarded the handful of non-Catholics in my 50-odd class as curiosities. ‘What is a Baptist???’
There’s also been a recent proliferation of locally founded megachurches that are super evangelical. Funnily enough, in my previous job where I was writing about personal finance, a lot of the personal finance experts I talked to all came from the same megachurch, all active in ministry AND telling people how to be financially literate. I’m not sure if there’s a connection to be made there. Maybe not taking a vow of poverty helps, though.
There are a few atheist groups here that call themselves names like “Filipino Freethinkers” and it puts me off.
Everything I have written as the point of view on a country of someone who is over-Americanized due to education and therefore has to work really hard not to sound like I’m being condescending to my own people. It’s not easy! But I guess the summary of everything I so far is: grew up in a country where religion is everywhere, bought into it a lot as a child, latched on to atheism in a big way to assert independence as a teen, mellowed out, but still finds it weird when people say Jesus is their best friend.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.