Interview with Carlos Celdran – Filipino Artist and Political Activist

by | July 14, 2019

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Carlos Celdran is a Visual Artist, Performance Artist, Writer, and Activist from Manila, Philippines, and, at present, a political exile from the Duterte Regime.

Here we talk about his life, work, and views.

Scott Jacobsen: When you were growing up, what was the perspective of a secular worldview? What was the surrounding religious culture? How is it different from now?

Carlos P. Celdran: I had no idea of a secular worldview. I grew up upper-middle class in the Philippines in a family that was Roman Catholic. However, I would not say that we were devout. My parents believed in Roman Catholicism, but my grandfather was your typical cafeteria Roman Catholic. He was in charge of bringing us to church. He had a peculiar belief that if you go to mass after the sermon, then it classifies as a “full” mass. So, when I was growing up, he would take us to a coffee shop to eat chicken sandwiches throughout most of the mass and enter the church, and only go after the sermon. So until I was around 12-years-old, I thought that Catholic masses were about twenty minutes long. 

Catholicism is everywhere. It surrounds you. The phrase “God bless you” is emblazoned on the walls of schools and buildings. There are crucifixes in government offices and other supposedly secular places. Roman Catholicism is literally part of the Philippine identity and landscape. 

However, if we are talking about the problems of Roman Catholicism, I can personally remember the guilt. The guilt over masturbation, over sex, over questioning scriptures, over disobeying parents and all that. It makes you feel terrible, but I never saw the wholesale damage that it did on a social level. Until, I became a tour guide and saw it through the poverty on Manila’s streets. 

Because I grew up upper-middle class, I understand that there are two types of Roman Catholicism in the Philippines. The Roman Catholicism of the upper class, which holds power, and the Roman Catholicism of the masses, which feels the brunt of that power. The poor are the ones that hold Roman Catholicism as a saviour for their condition. So, the masses are more prone to the damage given by religion. The upper classes can always find a way. They can just donate to the church or confess. 

Jacobsen: If someone speaks out, in a secular way, or in a critical thinking way, or they are openly secular, what are the impacts on the social life? What are the impacts on family life? 

Celdran: Believe it or not, somewhere inside the Philippine heart is something secular. We aren’t extremist and that comes from somewhere. But more than subscribing to an organised religion, the real danger is the Filipino penchant for fanaticism – and fanaticism for many things. The need for a supreme leader, an unquestionable religion, or even the devotion of a movie star. It is a country with no in-betweens. It is so extreme. 

Jacobsen: What about professionally? If someone were to state that they have written for secular publications, or be a member of HAPI, and so on, would this impact them?

Celdran: It would be fine. HAPI is fine. No one’s going to bomb a HAPI meeting nor a Filipino Freethinkers meeting any time soon. As a matter of fact, Atheist and Humanist principles are rather inaccessible to the average Filipino. It is such a complex issue that it is hard to explain to the greater majority. 

Perhaps, Filipinos aren’t brave enough to be humanist as well. In the mind of a Filipino, if a plane is crashing, what would a humanist do? The greater majority would rather pray the Hail Mary while a plane is crashing than invoke the power of science or simply be resigned to death.  

Historically, the social structures that most Filipinos know are Roman Catholic social structures. That is the only thing they perceive as solid and consistent. We never had an established king. We never had a truly stable government nor a president that was infallible. So, for centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has controlled the mental, political, and social structures and provided this “infallibility.”  It simply is all they know. 

Jacobsen: What is the main stamp on this, on the psyche of the country?

Celdran: The result is that Filipinos end up looking for gods, not leaders. Even the way Filipinos voted for Duterte follows this, we are not looking for self-actualization and control over our destiny. That takes too much effort and is too risky. We follow a saviour mentality established long ago by Roman Catholicism and religion. Most Filipinos are not capable yet of becoming humanists because they never experienced the benefits of science and modern economics. What has science done for the average poor Filipino? Filipinos will wilfully believe that the world is flat if it promises them a way to get out of their present condition. 

Jacobsen: What is the level of poverty there?

Celdran: 60% or more. It’s ridiculous. It is just ridiculous. There’s no middle class. It seems the middle class has gone abroad. Because Philippines is a globalized country where English is our national language, it is easy for the Filipino to get out of the Philippines. So, if there is the Filipino that has felt the positive effects of a proper economy, the effects of proper education, and even proper diet; that person now has the capacity to migrate and sing on the West End, work as a nurse in the US, or become a maid in Dubai. They literally can leave.  So, what you have left in the Philippines, the elites and the all-believing toiling masses. 

JacobsenHow is this ‘strongman’ reflected in other countries? What is the common theme that we are seeing rise around the world? 

Celdran: In the Philippines, I’ve noticed this desire for a “father figure.” It seems Filipinos are always looking for a master to provide for them. We are not entrepreneurial nor proactive. Filipinos believe that hopefully someday – through luck or fate – they could win the lottery, or maybe that they’ll have a leader who could provide them all with an Xbox, a college education, or a karaoke machine in every house. They do not know that the actual development of a society takes work, and more importantly it takes thought. Thinking is tiring in the Philippines. 

Jacobsen: What are some of the prevailing superstitions?

Celdran: There are pervading traditions based on superstitions, which are based on Catholicism and some that pre-date it. Some are rather macabre. Some believe that lashing your back and hammering nails to your hands on Good Friday will provide redemption. Some are all out damaging on a social level – like the ban on divorce being enshrined in the CONSTITUTION. So, there are definite effects that religion imposes upon society.

So, it’s a really schizo country where there are great scientists, lawyers, journalists, and academics, but share the land with those who believe that monsters fly around town looking for foetuses to eat.

Apparently, there were two lost kingdoms in this world: Atlantis and Lemuria. Atlantis was a kingdom where everyone was an intellectual. Supposedly, the Philippines was the opposite of that. It was Lemuria, a place where the people where everyone was overly spiritual and where everyone depended upon a higher force. You can see this dependence on higher powers until today. One can call it fanaticism and superstition or one can call it devotion and “faith”.

Jacobsen: Who are some famous freethinkers there? 

Celdran: The group Filipino Freethinkers first comes to mind rather than a particular individual. The problem is that humanism or freethinking is difficult to explain to the average Filipino so the movement really needs more promotion and publicity. There’s the economic differences as well as language differences that make humanist education out of reach for most of the country.

Jacobsen: What about writers and organizations?

Celdran: Aside from HAPI, Filipino Freethinkers, and Philippine Abortion Coalition, there are not many organizations I know that openly support humanism.

Jacobsen: What had been important activities of theirs, in terms of political and social activities, movement in other words?

Celdran: The demographic is young and upwardly mobile, mostly, so they are savvy in social media. They also have lots of meet-ups and are creative in expressing representation like showing up in costumes for gay pride or a protest rally for free speech. They also are active in pushing for abortion rights online with great memes and posts. Podcasts are also a part of their agenda but it’s mostly in English. I would say that humanism has not reached the masses yet because of this. Humanist philosophies are mostly within the realm of the Filipino upper classes. The people who can afford things, who can afford to think. When you’re poor, you do not have time to think, but you do have time to believe. 

Jacobsen: What about the levels of malnutrition, so, in other words, the kids who may have the ability to think well, but do not have the nutrition to think properly? 

Celdran: The Philippines has been notoriously undernourished for generations. My father is a paediatrician. Malnutrition was a problem already back in the 1960s he said. Back then, he actually started a feeding program in Manila’s depressed areas where set meals (full meals) would be provided for a particular child. He would monitor the child’s physical and mental development. This project failed. Why? The mother would bring the set meals home for the child. Instead of giving it directly, she would divide it among everybody else in the family and household. So, the child ended up not having the proper amount of nutrition. Overpopulation and Malthusian theory were already at play back then. Yes, we can make a connection between cerebral development and malnutrition; and it’s resulting belief in gods and all that I guess. 

Jacobsen: What is status of women there?

Celdran: They are empowered, yet subtly and systematically oppressed.

Jacobsen: How so?

Celdran:  Filipinas are capable of becoming the president and holding positions of power in career and politics. There’s no glass ceiling in the corporate nor political realm. But since they are denied divorce, abortion nor proper reproductive health programs, they get all the frills of feminism on the surface, but, in reality, have no control over their body nor their heart.

Jacobsen: How does this play in the internal dynamics of a marriage?

Celdran: It is not possible to get divorce. We are the last country in the world where divorce is illegal. To counter this, some people create interesting situations where they are single and have other partners, but yet stay married legally. But for most, they are trapped within the marriage, which could be a nightmare – especially for the wife. An annulment is possible, but at a high cost of money and with a lot of effort. Only the wealthy can really afford to get “divorced”.

Jacobsen: Outside of the heterosexual community, what about the LGBTI+ community?

Celdran: Once again, like with women, we are seeing representation, but without the rights. There is representation on TV, media, corporate life, and even within the family. For example, a trans daughter that now works in Japan as a dancer is readily acceptable to a Filipino family if they are the breadwinner or a trans candidate can win a seat in congress. But since there’s no law passed yet for equal marriage, equal rights, and protection against violence. They get frills on the surface,, but are still endangered in reality.

Jacobsen: Who do you think speaks articulately to the concerns of the secular, in the Philippines?

Celdran: HAPI, Filipino Freethinkers, or the Philippine Abortion Coalition are perhaps the only leading lights, but sadly they are still among the elites. I do not think there’s a MAJOR celebrity out there, nor a government agency, who would openly support it.

Jacobsen: Is there almost a sense of people who do not believe spirits are in the trees, or God is watching over them, do not exist?

Celdran: It is difficult for many to be truly secular in a place as exotic as the Philippines. It seems like a nation where logic has never taken root. Its history is so insane, so surreal. It practically writes itself. So sometimes, one does need a little bit of a “mystical” handle so that things can make “sense”. Sometimes, Filipinos need a placebo to mitigate the nightmare. 

Truth to be told, I myself believe in “dwende” or mystical dwarves [Laughing]. When I lose my keys, I, sometimes, think that one of these “elves” has stolen it. I believe in many things that are considered, probably, a no-no in Humanism. I loosely believe – or dabble – in horoscope, in ghosts, the tarot. I even go to the black Nazarene in Quiapo on a yearly pilgrimage. I do this however, as a personal thing, like a yoga practice, And I’ll never impose my practice upon anyone else.

Jacobsen: What were you formally charged with?

Celdran: I was charged with the crime of “Offending Religious Feelings” – Article 166, of the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines – and found guilty. However, there is nothing in the Penal Code, that specifies any particular religion. This creates a very vague situation and is a slippery slope. It is now possible to offend ANY religion and anywhere. If you believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and someone offends you at the local Spaghetti House, they can file a case against you because that is the home of their beliefs. It’s crazy.

Jacobsen: When was this law last ratified?

Celdran: In the 1970s, I am not sure which date. It was revised under Ferdinand Marcos, but it was revised as a method of protecting minority religions.  Unfortunately, they did not specify which minority religions they wanted to protect. So, the majority religion – Catholicism – was able to use it to their advantage. 

Actually, it was not the Roman Catholic Church that filed those charges against me. It was a fanatic lawyer named Atty. Ronaldo Reyes. But his name never gets any mention in any of the articles, people and the press directly blame the church itself, which is strange.

Jacobsen: What are the consequences in personal and professional life, and emotional life?

Celdran: My current condition of being in self-imposed exile in Spain was the result of a series of unfortunate events resulting from my “Damaso” protest action in the Manila Cathedral. Ironically, it wasn’t in protest of government policies. I did the act actually in favour of policies pushed by the former administration. 

Back then, former President Noy Aquino pushed for the passage of a bill in congress called “The Reproductive Health Bill”. This bill aimed to provide birth control consumables (condoms and pills) and teach sex education in public schools. It was a G-Rated Reproductive Health Bill, no abortion anywhere in there. 

This performative protest used two elements: the image of our National Hero hero Jose Rizal (my costume) and the name of a character in his novel, an abusive priest named “Damaso” (the placard).

And luckily, this combination of image and word mobilized the RH movement on a social media level. It created a rallying call. The image Jose Rizal’s costume with a sign calling all the bishops of the Philippines Damasos, became the “face” of the RH Bill movement. It was all that was needed to tell 90 million Filipinos that we need separation of church and state. That we need proper reproductive health programs. 

It covered the issues of human rights, the issues of women’s rights, the issues of birth control, economics, and population management in one picture. I did not need to write a manifesto nor translate my views into multiple Filipino dialects. This performative art image pushed the RH Bill to its final conclusion as a law.

This is what created my career. Unfortunately, though, I used that extraneous fame and mileage earned from the Damaso act to campaign for a former candidate for the Philippine elections in 2016, who was running against Duterte. Frankly, this campaign drove me nuts and squandered the mileage I earned. I had a Britney Spears-level meltdown on Twitter – basically telling everybody, “Fuck you! Why are you all crazy and voting for this madman?”

So by the time elections hit and Duterte was at his peak, I had become the most hated person on social media by openly campaigning against him. And in a way, I do admit I was unhinged. I seriously couldn’t believe these same Filipinos who chose to defy the Catholic Church and push for reproductive rights would backslide and vote for fascism and choose killer for a president.

Fast forward to 2018. After five years of my court case languishing in the Supreme Court, the Damaso case comes back to life. In August of 2018, I received a letter from the Supreme Court upholding my sentence. Naturally, I filed an appeal.  That appeal was rejected about a month later. This is quick for the Philippine Justice System, lightning speed practically. 

After one more appeal, the courts finally sent me their reply on Christmas day in a very alarming way. In the Philippines, after being notified by courts, you only have one week or so to file an appeal. Everybody knows that in the Philippines, nobody worked between Christmas Day and January 1. That letter was sent over this break. Luckily, before vacation ended, my lawyer passed by his office, found the letter and called me, “I found a letter, we have seven hours to file an appeal.”

I freaked out. I left for Hong Kong on the next flight and stayed there for a few days to see if they were able to file an appeal in time. Because if they did not, I would retroactively lose. That is when I realized that the Supreme Court was knocking on my door. Do I want to fight it? Do I want to risk going to jail under THIS particular political climate? Do I want to risk my jail term being extended from 1 year, and 1 month, and 11 days in jail to 2 years to 3 years, to 4 years?

Who knows what’s going to happen to a critic of the president in jail these days? I believe that I am in exile because of political persecution as much as religious persecution.

Jacobsen: How do you define ‘fanaticism’ within a Filipino and a Filipina context?

Celdran: It is blind faith. Whether it be for a president or for a religion, that belief of power being beyond “us” is all-pervasive.

Considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food, shelter, social acceptance, then, finally, self-actualization, we’ve perverted the pursuit. We think we are democratic; even though, we aren’t anywhere near the social development required for using it properly. 

Jacobsen: What does this do to the psyche of the public? The psyche in terms of the blind faith of not questioning parental authority, governmental authority, even in spite of vile acts done against his own citizenry.

Celdran: Parental authority is in our national oath. 

To believe in the power, and the state, and to follow parents, it is called Panatang Makabayan, the oath to the nation. You’ll see in there [Laughing] to believe in the school, the church, the state, and my parents.

Jacobsen: What do you think would extricate this mindset, this blind faith and fanatical mindset?

Celdran: Proper economic development.

However, that is going to be hard in our democracy, though. Because in a state where they can barely even know where the next meal is coming from, it is hard to convince the majority to believe in the long game.

Especially in the day of social media where our attention span has been sliced down to size, how do we fit all the teachings of Keynes, Heidegger, Neitzche and so on, into a twee? How the hell does one teach self-actualization and liberalism on Facebook?

I am not saying that Humanism is elitist. However, I said it. 

In the Philippine context, I say this with all the love in the world, because I am one of them. I have the hardest time trying to get these thoughts to the greater majority.

Jacobsen: How long will development take if there was a further strong move towards the development, towards economic development? 

Celdran: We are trying strongman move once again. Because the Philippines looks around itself. Many of our neighbours have gone up, from third world to first world without the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. China, Indonesia, Singapore, they all achieved economic success without the frivolities of popular mandate, freedom of speech, and human rights. So, the Philippines, believes, if we just compromise things like these, maybe, we can become Singapore or China. Because, frankly, what has democracy, self-actualization, and humanism done for the majority anyhow? This echoes from the upper classes all the way down but the upper classes are better in forming tweets. 

Jacobsen: What’s the next step for you? How do you stay safe?

Celdran: I am not going to lie. It’s all about self-care for now. [Laughing] I have no grand plans in the store anymore, nor do I want any. I am almost 50 man. I did my best for the Philippines. I’m ready to fade out.

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

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:

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.

Image Credit: Carlos Celdran.

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