I Am But A Small Voice


I received an email in response to my article last week and since the sender seems to have used a temporary, disposable email address, I would like to respond to it here. Here is the full text of the email, unedited except for one obvious spelling error:

Please respect the way other religion way of thinking. Most free thinker I know were atheist who do not believe in god. We don’t criticized your way of thinking so you have no business with us believers with God existent ok?

Bert Viray

Thank you for your email, Mr. Viray. While it is clear that both of us hold contrary opinions, I appreciate that you took the time to air your concerns, which I shall attempt to address now. While I do not expect you to agree, I hope you think about what I say as well as I’m taking time to think about what you say.

You claim I am attacking your religion, or your religious way of thinking. You also claim that religious people do not attack those who think differently (freethinkers or atheists), so I ought to “respect” your way of thinking and just keep quiet and probably stop writing my column.

On the first claim, yes I admit that I openly question the religious way of thinking. Specifically, I question any sort of thinking that is dogmatic, authoritarian and traditional. The church has a proven history of being wrong on many counts (The Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the Salem Witch Trials, numerous failed predictions of the second coming, failed faith healings resulting in death, etc.) so can you blame me for being critical of whatever claims it makes? Aside from historical events, I have personal experiences and insights which cause me to question what you call “God’s Word.”

Surely, there is nothing wrong with asking questions. I do not ask you share my doubts nor to agree with everything I say. I simply share ideas. I do not threaten you with hell. Take it or leave it.

On the second claim, I beg to disagree. Religious people do attack those who think differently. For one, you believe that we are going to hell. I don’t see how that cannot be construed as an attack. You are playing on people’s emotions of fear and guilt. You talk about people being sinners, possessing fallen natures and not being able to save themselves that they have to call on imaginary beings for imaginary assistance. I happen to think that inflicting those ideas on other people is a huge disservice to society.

Lastly, you want me to respect your way of thinking by being silent but respect does not mean silence. Respect does not mean subservience. Just because I respect you as a human being with the same rights, freedoms and responsibilities as me, does not mean that I have to agree with you all the time, and I hope you agree with me on this point.

Besides, if truth is really on your side, what are you afraid of? I am one columnist in a local paper. There are many other columnists out there both in the national and local papers, writing about God and injecting God in their pieces. Do you see me writing them and asking them to shut up and respect my unbelief? No, they have a right to say their piece, just as I have a right to say mine.

When you watch TV, listen to the radio, scan your friend’s facebook walls, or even just stand on the street, you will inevitably encounter some religious message. Even in public classrooms and public offices where secularism should be enforced, we still find tendrils of religion — a bible study here, a cell group there, opening prayers before meetings, and so on. I am not saying these are bad things. I am simply saying that religion (and specifically Christianity — in whatever form) is everywhere and it permeates our society and culture.

Look at the ratio of believers to unbelievers in our country (data from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_the_Philippines#Distribution):

Roman Catholic (80.9%)
Islam (5%)
other Christian (4.5%)
Evangelical (2.8%)
Iglesia ni Cristo (2.3%)
Aglipayan (2.0%)
Other (1.8%)
Unspecified (0.6%)
None (0.1%)

Believers (of any religion) comprise more than 99% of our population. People like me make up less than 1%. I am only a small voice going against the gigantic chorus of priests, pastors, missionaries, lay ministers, elders, bible study leaders, theologians and Sunday school teachers.

You have overwhelming numbers in your favor. You believe you have the truth and God on your side. So let me ask you again. Why do you want me to keep quiet? What are you so afraid of?

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is afraid of cockroaches. If you want to shorten your life, send me a cockroach. Send comments and questions to andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.


The God of Basketball and Earthquakes

Photo by Stuart Steeger
Photo by Stuart Steeger

A couple of headlines caught my eye as I was scanning the news page. One was about Danding Cojuangco’s statement saying, “God made it happen,” referring to De La Salle University’s recent victory in the UAAP championship. The other was about the death toll of the recent Visayas earthquake at 107, with close to 300 injured and missing (as of this writing).

Cojuangco’s statement appears quite ludicrous especially when juxtaposed with the tragedy of the earthquake — as if God were somehow sitting at courtside at the Mall of Asia Arena, enjoying the game, and with a wave of his hand, made the game-clinching shot of Almond Vosotros miraculously go in the basket. In the meantime, he was conspicuously absent for the patients trapped in the partially-collapsed Congressman Castillo Memorial Hospital in the Loon municipality. Nor was he in two stampedes that occurred in Toledo City and Pinamungajan Town which killed several people including a four-year old girl. He could not even prevent bridges and his own churches from collapsing.

But even without the earthquake, crediting God for the basketball win is a huge slap in the face for the players who endured endless hours of drills and practices to hone their skills. It is an insult to the coaching staff who spent countless hours planning, strategizing and playmaking. It even speaks against Cojuangco himself who financially and emotionally invested himself in the team by providing them with good lodging as well as dieticians, nutritionists and conditioning experts.

Even if God were actually in the arena, it would be the height of unsportsmanlike conduct for him to favor one team over the other and give it that miraculous edge– as both worked equally hard to win and deserved to fight it out in a fair match.

In this country, there is this obsession to credit God over every little good thing. A patient comes out of a successful surgery and people immediately thank God for “guiding the surgeon’s hand” — never mind that the surgeon had to spend sleepless nights in training and practice to acquire that laser-like precision. A man and a woman go on a romantic dinner and thank God for the sumptuous meal. Do they stop by the kitchen to thank the chef who prepared the meal, or the waiters for serving them, or the farmers for the raw products? Probably not.

I understand though why most people are quick to thank God, especially in public. When people heap praise on us, we deflect it towards God either because we do not want to seem too proud of ourselves, or because we want other people to think we are humble and pious. In other words, it is still a matter of pride and looking good. Now, this may not be true of everyone, but for most people, I would think so, even if we do not yet realize it ourselves because the practice has been so ingrained in our culture that we do it almost subconsciously.

My point here is not so much to remove God from the picture but to remind everyone that WE are very much in it. This is not so much a statement either for or against the existence of God but a statement for OUR existence. We matter. Whether or not God is there, we are responsible for our thoughts and actions, and these carry real rewards or consequences down the line and through the years.

Some politicians and unscrupulous businessmen chose to steal from our coffers, thus depriving our country of stronger and better infrastructure, sufficient emergency equipment, or better training and funding for rescue teams. We chose to ignore a warning as far back as 15 years ago in 1998 when Dean Jes Tirol of the University of Bohol Engineering Department delivered a paper in the Asia-Pacific Workshop in Taipei, Taiwan specifically citing the structural dangers of these ancient buildings found in 30 of 47 towns in the island province.

Just as I do not give credit to God for a basketball win, nor will I encourage people to blame him for the aftermath of a calamity. People should start recognizing that even if God were there watching us, he pretty much lets anything happen to us, regardless of what you pray or ask for. It has been that way for thousands of years, and will probably be that way for a long time still. If you choose not to believe anymore, fine. If you still choose to believe, then that belief must go deeper and more profound than the simplistic picture of a God who rewards good and punishes evil, who gives you happy meals and parking spaces while ignoring thousands dying each day of hunger, or disease, or rape, or murder.

In the midst of all these, recognize that there are always opportunists selling coincidences as miracles — like those touting the unblemished statues of the Virgin Mary amidst the church ruins as a “miracle.” Now some 600 devotees have gathered at this site, teary-eyed at this apparent “marvel.”

For me, the real miracle will occur when these devotees start asking themselves, “Why would God save these two statues and completely ignore the lives of the 107 who have already died and the many others who are still suffering?”

That is probably wishful thinking, and has as much a chance of happening as a half-court shot. But one can dream. Half-court shots DO happen, and people DO transition from superstition to reason.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao. Also appears in Filipino Freethinkers.

Andy Uyboco has never made a half-court shot. He is waiting for a miracle. Send comments and questions to andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

The Spiritual Freethinker

Photo by Okko Pyykkö
Photo by Okko Pyykkö

Some people would insist that the term “spiritual freethinker” is self-contradictory.

A freethinker, by definition, is a person who holds that one’s opinions “should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freethought)

A person who is “spiritual,” in its most literal sense, believes that there is a supernatural dimension to reality. Since the supernatural is difficult to observe, quantify and experiment on, the strict rationalist would say it is impossible for a freethinker to be spiritual.

There is, however, a different interpretation of the word “spiritual” that might make sense of this.

I once sat in meditation and since I had no formal training in meditation, religious or otherwise, I just closed my eyes and breathed deeply while trying to calm my thoughts. I was able to reach a point that could probably be described as spiritual (and I have not replicated it ever since). I can only use vague metaphors to describe the experience — I was empty of thought; I became oblivious to time, or the small aches and pains I often have when sitting cross-legged for an extended period; I felt deep joy and contentment; I felt bliss.

There are moments in my life when I have experienced something so wonderful and profound, and almost impossible to put in words. Sometimes, it happens at the end of a beautiful movie or an incredible book and I am just moved to tears. I see a photograph or piece of art and I can just gaze at it for a long time.

There is a danger in being rational, and that is to reduce everything to rationality. I am quite guilty of doing that on several occasions and I constantly have to remind myself that there is a knowing that transcends reason.

This is perhaps best illustrated by a story told by Tony de Mello (whom I wrote about last week):

The master said, “Those who speak do not know, and those who know do not speak.”

The disciples asked, “What does that mean?”

The master said, “How many of you know what a rose smells like?”

Everyone raised their hands.

The master said, “Now, put it into words.”

Everyone was silent, and understood.

It is in this unspeakable sense that I understand spirituality.

Alan Watts, best-selling author of The Way of Zen said that while we may study and understand the human mind and body scientifically, that better not be the way a man tries to understand or relate to his wife.

Of course, the purpose of this piece is not to put down one or the other, but to show that both are valid facets of our humanity, worthy to be nurtured and celebrated. We are, after all, not just talking heads, roaming bodies, strong wills or raging emotions. We are all of those combined and to try to take them apart would be like trying to appreciate a rainbow by taking apart its colors, or to marvel at a waterfall by storing the water in a bucket for future contemplation.

A spiritual freethinker, therefore, is a rational person, grounded in reality, yet still able to look at the stars in awe of their magnificence. Carl Sagan, author of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, perhaps said it best: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. Send comments, questions and tithes to andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Thank You, Tony de Mello

Anthony "Tony" de Mello
Anthony “Tony” de Mello

When I began exploring the boundaries of my Christian belief system, I discovered the writings of Anthony “Tony” de Mello. He was an Indian Jesuit priest who was also a well-known author and lecturer. Although he was a priest, his views on spirituality were so different and non-traditional that it prompted a committee headed by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI) to declare some of his writings as “incompatible with the Catholic Faith and can cause grave harm.”

Most of his books are simply a collection of short parables and stories (no more than a page or two per story) featuring “the Master” who Tony describes as being “not a single person. He is a Hindu guru, a Zen roshi, a Taoist sage, a Jewish rabbi, a Christian monk, a Sufi mystic. He is Lao Tzu and Socrates, Buddha and Jesus, Zarathusthra and Muhammad…You will probably find the Master’s language baffling, exasperating, even downright meaningless. This, alas, is not an easy book. It was written, not to instruct, but to Awaken.” (from Awakening: Conversations with the Masters).

He borrows from many traditions and incorporates them into his own style, which is non-invasive and non-threatening. He makes no attempt to persuade you to believe as he does but instead encourages you to develop your own conclusions and insights from the stories.

The very first story of another book, The Song of the Bird, illustrates this beautifully. A disciple asks the Master, “Why do you keep telling us stories but never reveal their meaning?” The Master replies, “How would you like it if I offered you some fruit but chewed it before giving it to you?”

I realized then that almost all the beliefs I had were built on someone else’s foundation — were  chewed by other people, then fed to me. If that sounds pretty gross to you, that’s because it is. I was disgusted by it and that prompted me to re-examine my beliefs, to discard them one by one and begin my own search.

But did I really need to discard those beliefs? Could I not have searched within that framework? Tony has another story for that featuring the Mullah Nasruddin. One night, a neighbor finds Nasruddin on the street, on his hands and knees.

“What are you doing there, Mullah?” asks the neighbor.

“I am searching for my key,” says Nasruddin.

The neighbor then drops to his hands and knees and helps in the search. After a few minutes of fruitless labor, the neighbor asks, “Are you sure this is where you lost it?”

“No, I lost it at home,” replies Nasruddin.

“What? Then why are you searching for it here?” asks the neighbor.

“Because it’s brighter here,” replies Nasruddin.

This is why I found it ridiculous to search for Truth in the comfort of my belief. However, as I’ve written elsewhere before, it was not an easy thing to let go. I was like the disciple in another story, who complained to the Master, who seemed hell-bent to destroy every statement of belief in God, “I’m left with nothing to hold on to!”

At which the Master replied, “That’s what the fledgling says when pushed out of its nest. Do you expect to fly when you are securely settled in the nest of your beliefs? That isn’t flying. That’s flapping your wings!”

Thank you, Tony, for teaching me to fly.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. If you gaze into the sky, you may perchance see him doing aerial summersaults. Email andy@freethinking.me for his flight schedule.


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