Disclaimer: This post is based completely on my personal experience with Filipino Roman Catholicism. Individual belief is just that: up to the individual, and I do not claim to have any authority of judgment over what you believe in.
My earliest memory of questioning God was at around 5-years-old, when my grandma told me to behave because Papa Jesus was always watching. I took this as a threat and was thenceforth terrified of the Jesuses that seemed to multiply in our house. An emaciated Jesus weeping as he bore his cross, a calm Jesus standing before a golden halo with his hands stretched out in a welcoming embrace, and the Santo Niño, the baby Jesus. At every corner he was watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake. And why was he always blonde and blue-eyed?
I remember waking up in a cold sweat one night, dreaming that the Santo Niño had come to life and was walking towards me, saying “I’m always watching” as it bore its teeth and reached its claws toward me, ready to punish me for my sins. When I told my grandma about this she was livid, telling me that I was watching too many movies and that I could never think about Jesus in such a way, that it was a sin in itself to be scared of Jesus and what he would do about my sins. I don’t doubt that I probably had watched Child’s Play one too many times, but I wondered at that moment what I was doing to deserve this close surveillance. Why was Jesus always watching me? Didn’t he have more important things to do?
I grew up going to church every Sunday at 7 pm, and even some Wednesdays and Fridays. I took evening classes where we read the Bible and colored in pictures of the benevolent Jesus, often sitting on a rock in the middle of a pastoral scene, with children and sheep surrounding him. My mom, dad, and three older brothers sang in the church choir with my uncles and aunts. They still sing, every Sunday at 7 pm. When she was alive and able to, my grandma sat in the front pews and prayed diligently. Besides church, we prayed the Rosary at home, gathering together in the living room-turned-altar with dozens of statues of saints. My grandma would sit on the couch and have her eyes closed for most of the prayer. Her Hail Mary’s were always calm but firm, and sometimes she would rock back and forth to the syllables of prayer. I remember wanting so bad to feel what she felt, a presence of grace and knowing and assurance of what she was doing and who she was.
My grandma died in 2008 when I was in 7th grade. For a year after her death, we gathered and prayed the Rosary and a litany, imploring Jesus and all the saints in Heaven to welcome her into the radiant gates. Selfishly, I also prayed because I wanted to reach the state of grace my grandma seemed to be in when she prayed, moving back and forth as she communicated with God and Mary. And it always seemed like they communicated back to her. For me, it felt like I was whispering into a void. I mimicked my grandma’s Hail Mary’s and sounded out every syllable, every consonant, as if to push my voice further into the void in search of something there. And with every conclusion of our nightly rosary, I was left feeling empty, nothing coming back to communicate with me. I was terrified of this void and the unknown because it meant that all of my prayers, all of my tears and wishes were going into empty space. What was there, if not God?
I prayed harder than I ever had before, because the silence on the other side was terrifying. Why weren’t the Heavenly Hosts responding? My one-sided prayer made me feel so alone and scared, and it was at this point in my life where I truly began to feel what this emptiness meant. I was terrified that I was questioning God’s existence, because surely this meant I was going to Hell.
This was also the same time that Proposition 8 had passed in California, overturning the right of same-sex couples to marry. My church, the people whom I loved so dearly and who I knew loved me back, talked about the institution of marriage and how it was the Catholic’s duty to protect it from abomination. As someone who was coming to terms with her bisexuality, I wondered what that meant about me as a member of the Church. Was I still welcome? Or only the acceptable part of me? People of the Church assured that their position against same-sex marriage meant nothing about the individuals, that they still welcomed queer people. But it just didn’t make sense to me how you could claim to welcome and accept someone while denying and dismissing their love. I know now that not all Catholics shared this belief, but it was the authoritative teachings against LGBTQ people that began to affirm my suspicion that I didn’t quite belong.
Growing up, my family and the church were woven together. We were well known in the congregation as a strong family of faith. I didn’t want my lack of belief to smudge that reputation, so I’ve kept it hidden. I went to church with my family every Sunday up until the year I moved out. Even up until now, I’ve either avoided the subject of religion altogether or simply nodded my head and lied about it. Yes, I was going to church. Yes, I took communion. Yes, yes, yes.
But now as I’m getting older and coming to my own in this world, I have to question if what I’m doing is right. I’ve been lying to my family because I don’t want to cause them distress over my faith and humanity. With faith such an important aspect of being Filipino and being part of my family, will my personal beliefs become a barrier between me and my loved ones? I chose to keep up the image of a somewhat decent Catholic, because I believed it was a part of my duty as a Filipino daughter. I wanted to avoid the conflict that would come with being atheist, but in doing so I’ve created my own problems because I feel like I have to constantly edit and hide myself to appease my family.
One of the things I was most worried about when I started questioning my religion was the idea of good versus bad. Whenever I misbehaved or did something out of selfishness, my grandma would tell me, “Don’t do that or Papa Jesus will be mad at you.” So for the first years of my life, my compass of morality was based on what I thought Jesus would approve of or what was taught in the Bible. You know the basics, love thy neighbor, obey thy mother and father, don’t covet thy neighbor’s wife or donkey…
But I realized growing up that the things that I can do things that are “good” or “righteous” simply because they are good and righteous, not because it says so in the Bible. What is the Bible, anyway? It’s a compilation of stories and teachings written by ordinary people, which was then picked over and edited by men of authority, men who were building communities and empires and needed literature that justified and supported their cause. Who knows what else was written in the name of Christianity and left out because it didn’t serve that editor’s needs? But why does that have to stop us from being good people? It’s an evolutionary trait to want your species to survive and reproduce, so can’t being kind to others also be an inherent function of being a social animal?
And as for that void that I found when I was 12, it’s still there. The universe is constantly expanding, which means the void is just growing bigger and I’m getting smaller in comparison. The empty space between infinity and me is infinity itself, a vast space of unknowns and emptiness. Of course, I’m still terrified of the unknown, but I’m also comforted by it.
I don’t believe that I’ll meet my deceased loved ones in an afterlife, and while this makes me extremely sad because I miss them, it also helps me cherish the moments that I did have with them. When my grandpa died last year, I was heartbroken at the thought of never seeing him again. I even prayed to the universe and whatever is out there to make sure that it knew I loved my grandpa. But in doing so, I realized the only entities to which my love mattered was my grandpa and myself. I realized how lucky I was to have shared this time with my grandpa, in the infinite vastness of time and space I had the chance of knowing such an amazing person. That inspired me to rethink my current relationships with other people, and how the universe has miraculously chanced the intersection of the strings of our lifetimes. Not believing in the afterlife as rekindled my belief in this life, and loving as hard as I can while I still have the people I love and who love me.
This is a long, convoluted whatever it is, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to say for more than 10 years. I don’t believe in God or Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I have no beliefs. I believe in being kind and fair for the sake of being kind and fair. I believe that we are here for a transient amount of time and that we can never be sure of what will come afterward. Our lives are minuscule and insignificant in the face of such a vast, infinite universe, but that just means we have to squeeze all the love and happiness and fullness we can out of the short time we have with one another. For me, that’s enough.
One thought on “On Atheism as a Filipino-American”
Thanks for posting this. I’m in a somewhat similar situation, although I’m old enough to be a lola, and I’m a Filipinx secular buddhist. Good luck; you’re on the right track!