Interview with Red Dela Dingco Tani – Founder and President, Filipino Freethinkers

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Red Dela Dingco Tani is the Founder and President of the Filipino Freethinkers. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did early life impact views on religion?

Red Dela Dingco Tani: I was quite religious when I was young. I prayed regularly, attended mass, did the sacraments, etc. But I did question the bad parts of religion, too. The thing is, authority figures — parents and teachers — would tell you to answer that doubt with more faith. That it was up to you — your moral obligation — to fix the problems you had with religion. To make the questions go away. Back then you didn’t have the internet. No access to alternative beliefs from elsewhere, to news about the bad things the Catholic Church was doing around the world, and more crucially, no access to nonbelievers. I never met an atheist growing up. Even in college the most I heard of were legends about philosophy professors making students want to become atheists and commit suicide. Humanism was even a more alien idea. Secularism and freedom of religion were stuff only activists would appreciate (I had a very low opinion of activists back then.) So as far as early life goes, it never really became too hard to make me cling to religion or leave it out of a disappointed faith (Many think hardships is the main reason people become atheists). Early life just never gave me options. Religion was the default. The choice was whether to be a good believer (and squash the doubts) or a bad believer (and keep doubting, hard questions and all).

Jacobsen: What were some intriguing, in hindsight or in the moment, experiences in early life around religion and interpersonal experience?

Tani: I became a member of Youth for Christ in college. There was an initiation ceremony for new members which involved some very weird stuff. The facilitators of that initiation retreat actually believed that demons were specially interested in disrupting the affair. This made them do all sorts of things. They cast spells to protect the venue from evil spirits, to prevent them from entering our bodies, and so on. At one point they taught us about magical powers the Holy Spirit could give you, such as speaking in tongues, a power the head facilitator enthusiastically demonstrated. But none of it was real. I’m certain of it now, but even back then, when I was more inclined to believe, there was really nothing there. These were just some young adults trying to get younger adults to believe magical stuff they took on faith from older (but not necessarily wiser) adults. 

Jacobsen: Were there any pivotal people in this development towards a secular outlook?

Tani: In my case, it was mostly a solo journey of reading and reflection. But one pivotal person is Dan Barker. I’ve written about that story here:  https://ffrf.org/about/getting-acquainted/item/13729-red-tani-freethinking-filipino .

Jacobsen: In examination of the reasons for a secular worldview, what ones made more sense than traditional answers, relative to the Philippines, socially and philosophically? What about scientifically?

In my case, it came down to what reflected reality more closely. What was more right and less wrong. At first, when I was still letting go of religion, I went through the now popular “spiritual but not religious” phase. I was truly in to New Age. There were sophisticated outlooks that, although secular, weren’t scientific. And it led me to believe all sorts of nonsense. Eventually (or inevitably) I realized that although the beliefs that resulted were kinder than the traditional religious counterparts, they were ultimately not true. I cared about believing true things. What could be tested and disproved, improved and shared freely with others. New Age stuff tends to be good and useful to the extent that you’re already privileged. Ultimately, I settled on naturalism, requiring proportionate evidence to the things that I believed. I don’t think there’s anything particularly Filipino about my journey. But on hindsight, there are contexts where I wouldn’t have had to make it (secular countries) and contexts where make it would be very hard, if not impossible (theocratic ones). I guess you could say that in terms of having to have a journey from faith to faithlessness, the Philippines is in the Goldilocks zone.

Jacobsen: Who have been integral members of Filipino/Filipino community devoted to the increased secularism and critical thinking, and human rights awareness, advancement of the young?

Tani: There are too many individuals and groups (for this space) who have done good work for secular ideals, both online and offline. But right now, HAPI and PATAS are the two groups I’m aware of (other than Filipino Freethinker).

Jacobsen: As the President and Founder of Filipino Freethinkers, what tasks and responsibilities come with the position?

Tani: As a volunteer organization, we share most tasks and responsibilities, and I’m thankful to all the volunteers who have come and gone throughout the years. Most of the hard organizational work is done by my wife, Kristine Chan, who you recently interviewed ( https://www.canadianatheist.com/2019/05/chan-jacobsen/). My main responsibility is leading discussions on the overall goals and style of our approach, and making executive decisions (that we mostly reach through consensus building with the core team). I serve as our spokesperson and representative at most events. I also host the meetups and the podcast (http://facebook.com/freethinkers/videos).

Jacobsen: What have been important developments in the history of Filipino Freethinkers?

Tani: When we started in February 2009, we thought we’d simply be an online and offline discussion group for freethinkers. Only a month after, we added advocacy and activism to our goals, particularly on issues that have to do with reason, science, and secularism. At the time, the reproductive health (RH) bill was the issue that embodied these values (or the lack thereof) so we decided to take it on. Our work on the RH issue allowed us to have a louder voice in both mainstream and new media, bringing the secular perspective to an issue previously dominated by religious ones (conservative or progressive, but ultimately religious). It allowed us to talk about atheism, too. I was interviewed in several TV shows about my nonbelief, most prominently for The Bottomline with Boy Abunda. We also won several awards for our advocacy work, most notably the most prestigious prize at the first Globe Telecoms Tatt Awards for social media and the Rappler Rexona Digital Trailblazer Award. 

The publicity helped our advocacy for other issues: feminism and gender equality, freedom of speech and digital rights, critical thinking and skepticism, religious freedom and secularism, and so on.

Jacobsen: What other organizations contribute in a positive and different way to Filipino/Filipina secular and human rights concerns and community building?

Tani: I’ve already mentioned HAPI and PATAS above, and again, this space is too limited to list down secularism-focused organizations, let alone pro-human rights and community building-focused ones.

Jacobsen: Who are lesser known and important pioneers in Asian secularism and freethought? Why them? What were their developments?

Tani: As I’ve said above, each country has many such individuals and organizations. I plan to highlight some of them in the upcoming Hello Humanists! video series we’re doing in collaboration with Humanists International.

Jacobsen: What are the important human rights issues in the Philippines now?

Tani: On top of the continuous oppression of the poor and marginalized sectors, there is the violent campaign purportedly against drugs, which has made the oppression even worse. Climate justice is another, as the Philippines is one place that will disproportionately bear the brunt of global warming (an impact that will be most felt, unfortunately, by the already oppressed sectors).

Jacobsen: Any recommendations for authors or speakers?

Tani: Too many to mention.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Tani: In these seemingly hopeless times, let’s do our best to help each other out.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Red.  

Tani: You’re welcome, and thanks, too, Scott!

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash

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