“Organized Atheism, Humanism, and Freethought in the Philippines: Social Practices, Lived Experiences, and Political Dimensions of Being Nonreligious in a Religious Nation” (Working Title)

Ph.D. Research Project: Alexander Blechschmidt, M.A.
Supervisors: Dr. Johannes Quack and Prof. Dr. Peter J. Bräunlein

A large quantity of anthropological studies on Southeast Asia has shown the enduring importance of religion(s) and religious practices in local people’s articulations and appropriations of “modernity”. This strong focus on “religion”, however, led to a scholarly ignorance of the various forms of “nonreligion” within this region, especially its institutionalized forms.

Whereas several countries in Southeast Asia have seen the recent evolvement and establishment of such organized nonreligiousness, the Philippines, besides East-Timor the only Christian dominated country in the region, are especially interesting in this regard. Four out of the 14 organizations, groups, and networks listed on – a website that exists since 2009 and describes itself as a “community of South-East Asian non-believers” – are located there. Although most of them seem to constrain their activities to the World Wide Web, there are two very active groups whose members work both “online” and “offline”: the Filipino Freethinkers (FF), founded in February 2009, and the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society (PATAS), founded in February 2011.

My research project will be based mainly on these two groups, which have several things in common, but still constitute different forms of contemporary nonreligion in the Philippines. PATAS explicitly sees itself as “a social organization that provides social action for the promotion of atheism and agnosticism in the country”. It does so by hosting conferences, conducting “coming-out” events, establishing international cooperation with like-minded groups, organizing regular meet-ups, and by engaging in community work in order to convince people that you can be “Good without God”. For the FF, in their own words “the largest and most active group of non-believers and progressive believers in the Philippines”, not the promotion of atheism is on their official agenda, but the spread of “freethought” as “a way of thinking unconstrained by dogma, authority, and tradition”.

That “atheism” for PATAS, and “freethinking” for the FF, respectively, is not only a kind of worldview but strongly tied to various forms of social activism, is expressed, for example, through their support of human rights, LGBT rights or the so-called Reproductive Health Bill (RH Bill). By focusing on such social and moral conflicts, where the complex dynamics of religion, politics, and modernity intersect locally and in concrete ways, the political dimension of being nonreligious in the Philippines becomes apparent.

By approaching particular forms of organized nonreligion in the Philippines like PATAS and the FF through multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork I aim to focus on their members’ social practices and lived experiences as nonbelievers and freethinkers in this strongly Christian dominated nation and thus offer an empirically grounded study of contemporary nonreligion in Southeast Asia. Combining such empirical research under a relational approach to nonreligion and nonreligious phenomena on the conceptual level as outlined by Quack (2013, 2014) with historical work on nonreligion in the Philippines in general will help to understand the particularities of such contemporary forms of nonreligion in the specific socio-cultural, historical, and political context of the Philippines and their relations to the locally constituted religious field. The resulting ethnographic analysis will thus contribute to the understanding of different forms of nonreligion in different socio-cultural circumstances under an inter- or transcultural comparative framework. It adds thereby not only in various ways to the emerging but still neglected field of “The Diversity of Nonreligion”, but will also shed new light on the dynamic ensemble of religion, politics and modernity in Southeast Asia by decentering the focus on religion.

Header Image: Manila, Philippines, April 2013 (Photo: Alexander Blechschmidt).