Marissa Torres Langseth is the Founder and Chairwoman Emeritus of HAPI – Humanist Alliance Philippines, International.
Here we talk about HAPI, secular women, and more.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What triggered the original formation of PATAS and then HAPI?
Marissa Torres Langseth: I do not need fame nor fortune. I created PATAS and HAPI with the Philippines in my mind. But I had bittersweet memories with PATAS and HAPI, the societies I founded with my own money, blood, and sweat.
Let me start with PATAS, I coined that word which means equality in Tagalog in 2011, but the video of Bill Gates giving away a computer for every child in the Amazon, was the first trigger. I wish to give out a computer every year which I started in 2011, in the name of atheism. I thought it was and still is a lovely way to share my abundance.
Then again, I realized that people in the Philippines, notably my family always go to church to ask for help instead of working, and I wonder, maybe I can do something better in that scenario.
I thought they relied heavily on a god to help them, instead of helping themselves. Growing up poor, I have experienced how it was to be awakened and kicked early morning to go to church on occasions, especially, Sunday mass and “simbang gabi” for Christmas. I saw the “waste of time” in those instances, even worse, I saw how the priests tried to abuse women, including myself.
With PATAS’ creation, I thought we can improve the livelihood and welfare of Filipinos, via education about “believing in oneself, rather than believing in a deity.” My journey in PATAS was not a bed of roses. When I started my activism, I was tormented online by unknown people calling me devil, whore, bride of Satan, and bimbo. These Filipinos believe that atheists are killers, prostitutes, and people of loose morals. There are even Facebook pages made just to bash me online.
However, just like in any fledgling organization, there were power struggles, and arrogance amongst officers and members. “Herding cats is a daunting task,” I said that in 2011 when I founded PATAS. There were a lot of infighting and issues amongst atheists. It was an organization, full of petty quarrels, jealousy and envy amongst these new atheists. I had heartaches and headaches galore at that time.
True enough, I experienced being disrespected, being mocked and jeered, and even disregarded as the founder, despite me bringing most of the funds to keep our society afloat. I even paid for most of the expenses in the very first South East Asian convention held in Manila in 2012. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was when they removed me from the main PATAS group that I initiated way back 2010.
That was in November of 2013. It was the lowest moment in my life, I even contemplated suicide. My husband saved me. He said it was just a waste of my money and time “making a difference in the Phils” and that I am already a US citizen. These PATAS officers are ingrates and disrespectful despite what I have done for them.
My anger and passion kept me awake most nights, until I thought of a better avenue and strategy to make more impact and share my happiness. So HAPI was born, with a little help from outsourcing. HAPI was not without issues either, we also had peaks and valleys, scamming and dishonesty by those who looked at me like a gold mine, until after Sept 30, 2017, most issues were ironed out and I would say, I can travel the world, without fear of my society being stolen. At least 3 people tried to highjack HAPI, but the good always wins. The working class of HAPI won, so, here I am, still alive and kicking, never to let it go, because I learned my lessons well.
Jacobsen: What were the main difficulties in a heavily Roman Catholic Christian country in the foundation of a freethought movement? Were these exacerbated or not as a woman in the Philippines?
Langseth: The Phils is a heavily indoctrinated Christian nation, about 80-95% remain religious, being RCC at more than 86%, patriarchal in nature, so women leaders are not only bullied, but they are mocked as “not equal to a man’s strength.” Misogyny is still evident and prevalent in the Philippines, especially, with President Duterte at the helm. He even publicly laughs at rapes, and is very condescending to women at large.
Frankly, it was like a suicide for me, making non religious movements like PATAS and HAPI. I was tormented online. I made enemies in both camps. The atheists were sometimes worse than the theists. I stayed calm at first, and finally I fired back. I challenged them to see me when I went home in 2017. I even hired 2 bodyguards because I also had some legitimate threats. Of course, no one came to refute their accusations against me. I wonder why? Maybe because I am a woman and misogyny is still common in the Phils and with patriarchal orientation, these men thought that I cannot do anything, but “clean butts in the USA.” (Yes, most of them thought that I am a nursing assistant in the USA, with due respect to the nursing assistants.)
Some of them even made a lot of FB pages about me being a prostitute, photo shopping my face on top of scantily clad women, on bikinis, on top of donkeys, apes and monkeys and including Mao Tse Tung. I became so used to this kind of abuse online. I even said to them. “I will be more enthralled if you guys make a website about me.”
I got used to being bullied everyday, haters send me PM’s almost everyday… that, I missed them now. Funny, I had one stalker who donates just to get my attention. Few of my stalkers want my attention so bad, that they post my personal rant online.
Jacobsen: What do you see as overturned hardships for the secular in the Philippines as a result of the secular movement there?
Langseth: I can say that with the advent of social media and these two movements, I have seen a lot of new, younger nonreligious societies that sprouted online, some are becoming active offline already. I tried to reach out to them and send my congratulations, and without bragging, HAPI has become quite a model for them. (I was told.) Some even copied our activities, however, HAPI is the only society with REGULAR community outreach to far flung areas like Mt. Haduan in Central Luzon, Bicol, barangays in Bacolod and Iligan. We have prospered so much, that we have a volunteer with regular stipend, who moves about in and out of the islands to meet and greet them, to provide more credibility to HAPI. Many thanks to our regular monthly donors who helped materialize this endeavor.
Jacobsen: What are the more modern challenges for the next generations now, as, commonly, each generation comes with the accomplishments and failings of the prior generation and, thus, come with often novel problems – some unforeseen?
Langseth: It will take a generation for us to finally see the “effect of our advocacy” thereby, HAPI is banking on the young people. We do have a lot of youngsters, the youngest active member is 15, mostly in the bracket of 17-25 years old. We have HAPI kids in Manila with very, very young members and HAPI Juniors in Bacolod.
It is still a challenge for us to educate the young HAPI members, because some members come and go due to fear of being disowned by their families. I have seen some members who became theists again due to their parents’ threats and constant nagging. Some LGBT atheists are sent to a rehab program because the parents thought that atheism was the result of taking illegal drugs.
HAPI is a well diverse community with 40% male, 30% LGBT and 30% female. We try to be more inclusive, admitting religious humanists so they can be educated further, and see our “good without god” events. Some have become agnostic already. I am proud to say that we have educated and converted some of them. We even allow those who are “against our society”, so they can see what we do. We cannot preach to the choir all the time.
We have a lot of fresh ideas. We now have a humanist celebrant in HAPI to provide ceremonial services like weddings and funerals. Some people were against this idea as it has some religious connotation. But, we explained that most Filipinos’ psyche is in tuned with “believing in something,” and they should be handled with a velvet glove. More people will come when we employ our strategy of sharing happiness with honey.
With HAPI, we have eliminated the word “atheist” which is stigmatized in the Philippines. And we cannot use sarcasm and metaphors like Satan because most Filipinos take those words literally. With HAPI, we can be secular, religious or spiritual and we can always be ourselves as human beings with inborn human rights.
We still need a lot of work to do, especially, women and LGBTQ empowerment as well as pushing for more equality. The Philippines need to learn a lot from Scandinavia, but the culture of slave mentality and Stockholm syndrome need to be eradicated, so they can have self confidence and better self-esteem, therefore, we include this information in educating the young.
With HAPI in the forefront in the Philippine secularism, we can attract even those theists who bash us when we were still PATAS. Being a humanist has opened the hearts of those theists who once called us demons and devils in disguise. Humanism is such a positive word that those who left HAPI are trying to get in serendipitously.
I can say that being in HAPI made my life more colorful and less boring. If I want to get aggravated that day, I go to FB, although, I do not get as much bashing from theists anymore. The irony is that, those atheists who backstabbed me in PATAS and HAPI are the ones spewing hatred towards HAPI and badmouthing me whenever they can. But mind you, some are coming back to HAPI. We must be doing something great!
Maybe I can do more had my husband supported me from the get go.
But, we just want to have a HAPI ending.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Marissa.
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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.
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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.
Image Credit: Marissa Torres Langseth.