An Interview with Danielle Erika Hill Conference Director – The 2017 Asian Humanism Conference

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So we’ve been talking off-tape a little bit about demographics and the situation in the Philippines, and political and religious issues. But first, I want to take a step back and ask, “Do you have a background in humanism or non-belief? How did you have this as an awakening for you as the right philosophical and ethical worldview for you?”

Danielle Erika Hill: My entire family is Catholic. But it’s not the whole fire and brimstone Catholicism.

SJ: [Laughing].

DH: Really, it is more along the Protestant work ethic.I grew up with my extended family. My aunt — who I was closest to — was a chemist. In that household, there was this idea that God created everything, but science helps us understand what He created. So for me, faith and science were never at odds with each other. It also helped that I had a mom who told me, “Everything in Genesis, take it metaphorically.”

SJ: [Laughing].

DH: “The people who wrote that, whether they wrote it. They didn’t have the scientific tools that we have now.” So I always looked at The Bible as an [Laughing] anthropological work…

SJ: [Laughing].

DH: …that showed people’s worldviews from far off. And philosophically, they may have had good points, but don’t believe in the historicity of all of the things there because a lot of them didn’t know what they were talking about.

SJ: In America, there was a biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, who came up with the idea of the “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” The “Magisteria” are science and religion. Of course, they are non-overlapping. They do not mix. They deal with different domains of discourse…

DH: Yea.

SJ: …in terms of how one approaches the world. So from your family background, with the family member with scientific training in chemistry, studying the natural world, and the highly liberalised form of Catholicism with Genesis taken as metaphorical, I am taking that as indicative of a healthier approach to upbringing or raising a child in a religious household.

DH: Yea definitely, but the thing is I was one of the lucky ones, because this is not how a lot of children were raised. A lot of people took Genesis literally — down to the whole ‘people are made of dirt’ thing. I spent 10 years in Catholic school. We were taught this as a theory of creation. I was in 6th grade at that time, and I just shot my teacher down when she did that. I had a lot of arguments with the nuns when I was in high school. Fun times! [Laughing]

SJ: What were some positive moments of religious upbringing for you? What were some moments of camaraderie, where you found fellow non-believers — a community of friends?

DH: Well, okay, what pops out is this retreat we had back in 2nd year — I should probably give a little background on the Filipino educational system. Right about now, it is K-12. But when I was back in school, there was only 10 years of education. Like 6 years of elementary school, 4 years of high school, and off to college you go. When I say sophomore high school, that’s probably like middle school to you guys.

So that retreat we had in sophomore year. I was talking to this person, this brother. And I was telling him that a lot of people find God in the church, find the presence of God in the church, and looking at the cross and all of those icons. But me, I find God, the presence of God. I was still believing back then. I find the presence of God in nature, in trees. This is where I feel church is. This is where I can commune with God.

He’s like, “That’s understandable. The Buddhists feel that way too. Sometimes, that’s true.” There are Liberal religious people who take something from the Buddhists and put it into their worldview. In that same retreat, I was able to reflect on the fact that a lot of people worship a concept of God, but in different ways. So I thought maybe it’s not — or we’re not — worshipping different sorts of gods. Maybe all of these religions are just us are looking for the same thing, but just in different ways. I had that notion back in high school. That was pretty weird to my more Catholic colleagues back then because to them, “They are worshipping the wrong God.” Especially for those raised in the really conservative families — the whole tolerance thing is a scale.

It also helps that when I was in 3rd year, our religion teacher taught philosophy because a lot of the saints in Roman Catholicism, they were philosophers — St. Augustine and stuff. I don’t think we were taught dogma much. I remember being taught philosophy, good management, good conduct, and Christian living. There was a little dogma in the religion class, but it was more how you should conduct yourself in the world as a good Catholic. Our school had this emphasis on human beings as the stewards of Creation.

We should take care of others and the environment because this was something given to us to take care of. I think that when I discovered humanism as a philosophy in university, it just fit in, just was a logical progression. I lost the God, but I did not lose the philosophy.

SJ: Do you find value in the philosophers such as Augustine, Aquinas, or Anselm, for instance?

DH: Not so much, I tend not to delve too much on philosophy. I understand, though, that they can be of help. I think, really, that if religion wants to be a healthy force, maybe philosophy should be taught rather than dogma because philosophy teaches you how to think, not just what. It is teaching you what these guys thought, and why, and the circumstances in which they thought rather than “this is what you should think because he said so”.

It at least gives you a pool of worldviews to choose from.

SJ: Do you notice that tendency in more orthodox — I’ll say — friends growing up, of fundamentalist upbringing — so Genesis is literal, back to that point — in the humanist community, in the atheist community, at all? And in what way, if so?

DH: Oh yea! What I am seeing, there is certainly an effect on the psyche. The more fundamentalist the environment you were raised in, the more militant of an atheist you turn out to be, probably because you are frustrated in what happened.

SJ: That’s a really good point. That’s a really good point.

DH: Because there’s that whole being angry…

SJ: [Laughing].

DH: …because they feel like they’ve been duped for so long, which is why we’ve got a couple of therapists on our team. Jinjin Heger, she’s going to be talking in the conference. So she volunteers to talk to people, give them therapy, because she knows these people are going through a tough time with the whole losing their religion thing. I have talked to people too. My best friend, when he lost his faith — there’s this sort of bitterness that remains. Among the more orthodox friends, what I am seeing is a lack of critical thinking. When you’re raised with information being force fed into you, and it is the authority, and this is the authority you should listen to, because they’re the boss, especially children here — and this is not religion, this is more on culture. With children, there’s still the tendency to think of them as things to be seen, not heard. Children should listen to adults. It is a hierarchy. There’s this whole military ‘obey before you complain’ thing. We’re the adults. You’re the kids. You follow us.

I think a lot of them took that into adulthood, even when they lose their faith. So you have to give them something else. Part of it is — and I think there’s a better word for it — re-education of the mentalities that you learned, so you can learn a new one to be a humanist or a non-believer properly.

Because otherwise, you’ll still be a stupid, but a Godless stupid.

SJ: [Laughing] I agree with you. Let’s talk about some of the stuff that we talked about off-tape.

DH: Okay.

SJ: We talked about demographics in the Philippines. I want to add one thing we didn’t talk about off-tape. But! In Saudi Arabia, there was about 5% of the population are non-believer, maybe even outright atheists, which has been listed recently as a terrorist offence or it is a terrorist act to be an atheist in Saudi Arabia, where maybe 13 other places it is the death penalty.

And we were talking. I asked if it .1% or 1% of the population that are non-believers. You said, ‘It is hard to say.’ Can you extrapolate further? Why is it ‘hard to say’?

DH: Okay, it is hard to say because there hasn’t been any in-depth study of the non-believing population. I think it is high time somebody did. There’s no official study that exists, that I know of. But what I can say is that there are a lot of people who are active in the secular community, and there are a lot of people who are actively saying they are not religious.

Others will say that they are non-religious, but spiritual. Many will be hesitant to call themselves atheists. Atheists get a bad rap over here. It is over 300 years of demonization thing coming from the Spanish.

SJ: Wow.

DH: But there has been a resurgence, especially among the more artsy communities. There’s been a resurgence of more Indigenous art. And a lot of the pre-Spanish mythologies are being re-told. I think that helps out a lot. I think of what happened to a lot of people in Europe. Most of the countries in Europe are secular already, even though they started out really religious. I have many foreign secular friends asking me, “Why hasn’t that happened in the Philippines yet?”

I said, “Maybe, it has to do with you having outgrown your gods. Our gods were taken away from us. We didn’t have the chance to outgrow them.”

SJ: Right.

DH: I think it’s Stockholm Syndrome.

SJ: [Laughing].

DH: back to demographics, there are a number of people. But I can’t say how much. HAPI has 18 chapters, I think. Most of those are in the Philippines. So you’ve got people really openly secular. But the thing is, I can’t say that everybody who works in the secular sphere is an atheist because what we in HAPI have is a big tent policy. We accept all faiths. Our humanism is like, “As long as you would put humans over dogma any times those clash, you’re considered a humanist.”

Yea, so, we’ve got some people who still believe in a God, or in a Creator. We don’t really talk about that subject much anymore in the HAPI forums because, to us, it is not important. It is not important what you believe. It is important what you do. If your belief in a higher power is helping you become a better person, if it helps you become a better human being, then go, no problem!

Our tiff is with the people who use their faith to hurt other people. That’s what we’re against.

SJ: I like to think of it as big humanism and small humanism.

DH: Yea, yea. I’ve heard in Europe that a lot of the secular communities, a lot of the humanist communities, are having trouble reconciling the two. I think we in Asia have done an okay job of it.

SJ: What do you think is the backdrop that provides that better ease into harmony with different and more flexible humanist values rather than a more restricted form?

DH: Well, I’m not sure. I’m thinking culture. I suppose because Eastern and Western cultures and values are very different. Here, people are more tolerant and more open of each other because it is in-built. You do your thing. We’ll do our thing. What the Muslims would say is, “You have your religion. We have our religion.” That’s why in Manila you see one of the biggest mosques in the Philippines right, like, a block away from one of the biggest churches in the Philippines.

So it’s pretty open. The fact that Muslims and Christians can live together and not hate on each other. That’s a big thing. It goes a long way with the whole tolerance thing. I suppose it also has something to do with the fact that everyone in Asia knows there are a lot of religions in Asia. It’s like, “Okay, cool bro!” That’s why what I said earlier happens. Having a different religion is cool, but having no religion is like-[Gasping]!

SJ: Emoji-worthy. Last question, you are the main organizer for an upcoming conference — I may be misremembering this part, which is for the Asian Working Group of IHEYO.

DH: Yes.

SJ: Oh thank God [Laughing]! Okay, so who are some highlights? What is the theme? Why organize it?

DH: [Laughing] Okay, so The 2017 Asian Humanism Conference happens every year. It is the biggest event of IHEYO Asia. Last year, it was in Taiwan. The year before that it was in Singapore.The year before that it was in Nepal. The year before that, it was in the Philippines again, but it another part, in the South. This year, it is going to be in Manila.

And we’ve got a lot of speakers right now, and a lot of people from HAPI, because it coincides with an event HAPI was already planning for, like a homecoming thing. So we’ve got people working with us who are flying all across the globe. I think it is going to be a big thing right now. I am really excited for it. The theme is “Game Changers.” I crafted it out of the notion that these are the people who are changing the world a little bit at a time with their work.

We’ve got David G. McAfee, who is a really influential Facebook celebrity in the atheist community. Lots of atheist writings under his name. We’ve got David Orenstein, chairman of the American Humanist Association and its representative in the UN. We’ve got a lot more people coming. Humanists from different parts of Asia, who we want to tell us how it works over there and the challenges that they face.

We want to bring people together and to see the different ways humanism is done there and how we can help each other out. I want this to be a networking thing, and maybe the guys over in one country want to do projects with guys from this other country. I think connection is now more than ever important because humanists are spread all over the globe. And there are so few of us compared to the rest that it is good to be able to stick together and build up a community, and that’s going to help us be a little more — how do I say it? — prominent, I guess.

Instead of being fringe groups, instead of being seen as the Other, we can pass into the mainstream. The important thing is that people should know that we exist, especially in countries that don’t think we do. In the Philippines, free speech is very highly valued. So I think this is the perfect platform for it. Did that make sense?

SJ: Yes, it did. Thank you for your time, Danielle.

DH: [Laughing] Okay. Thanks Scott.

*Views expressed are not necessarily those on IHEYO.*

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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