Illustration by Gica Tam
Culture Spotlight

“But ma’am… you have to put a real religion”

A children's book author and atheist writes about growing up in the Philippines without being baptized—and how her daughter was recently called “a bad person” because she isn’t Catholic. But Tanya Guerrero has learned to pick her battles, and reflect on the more universal matters
Tanya Guerrero | Apr 15 2019

Huh? But what do you mean you weren’t baptized?

Frowns. Glazed eyes. Confusion stamped all over their faces.

As a Filipino without religion, and an atheist to boot, I’ve gotten this kind of reaction A LOT. I’ll be honest, when I was younger, it bothered me. I would get all squirmy the moment someone—usually an adult—would cast their fire-and-brimstone glare at me, and begin to question why I wasn’t baptized, why I didn’t go to church, why I didn’t believe in God. Stuff like that can be confusing, especially in those awkward adolescent years. My go-to reaction was to shrug it off and say my family wasn’t religious. What else could I say? It was, after all, the truth.

I was born in the 1970’s—the era of peace, love, flower power and disco. Despite living in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, my parents opted not to baptize my sister and me. It was rather unusual, but in the circles that my parents mingled with—mostly artist cliques—nobody really seemed to care.

Stories on faith and religion:

As a young child, church was nothing more to me than a beautiful, old building. I have memories of being a flower girl in several weddings and envisioning myself as a princess in a castle—part of some royal procession where the king and queen stood front and center. The images of Jesus Christ were just a blur in my naïve gaze.

Fast forward to my teenage years. I was fortunate to have had the privilege of attending an international school where religion wasn’t much of an issue. However, once in a while, I found myself in situations where I was confronted by my "lack-of-faith." There were the Saturday sleepovers with friends that resulted in me having to attend Sunday mass the next day with their families. Most of the time I ended up trying not to fidget in my seat or look too dazed in an effort to be respectful. Then there were the family reunions, weddings, funerals, and baptisms with relatives I hadn’t seen in ages. Occasionally, there would be some well-meaning tita or tito asking me, “Have you found God yet?” or “Maybe you should come to our bible study?” More shrugging and nervous smiling ensued.

“It’s not only my mission, but my job, to make sure children learn to embrace each other’s differences.”

On the bright side, all these thorny situations have made me extremely skilled at diplomacy—something that would come in handy as an adult, both in social and professional relationships. Especially as I navigated my college years in Boston, and afterwards, eleven years of living and working in New York City. All that time spent abroad taught me a lot about celebrating diversity, practicing tolerance. In a way, it gave me a renewed sense of self.

To me, there is nothing more empowering than making my own decisions without the influence of some higher power. My actions are mine alone; for better or worse, I have to live with their consequences. That is a freedom I’m grateful for. And despite having been born without religion, I’ve come to the conclusion that either way, I would have ended up making that choice for myself.

When I moved back to the Philippines in 2008, I was no longer that awkward teenager who shrugged and smiled nervously. I was an adult, steadfast in what I truly believed in. By then, the Philippines had somewhat changed. There were more people with liberal views, and a growing community of atheists and agnostics. I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one—no longer the pariah in a sea of believers.

However, there were, and still are day-to-day challenges such as filling up forms, (especially marriage and birth certificates), which require one’s religion to be filled in. I learned that leaving it blank wasn’t an option, and when I wrote in atheist, the frowns, glazed eyes and confused expressions were back. “But, ma’am… You have to put a real religion,” they said to me. When I explained I didn’t have one there would be sighs, whispers, supervisors consulted—nobody really knew how to react or what to do. So in the end, they had me change it to “Christian,” because apparently, nobody would officiate a marriage with an “Atheist” label.

I’ve since learned to pick my battles. Rather than be annoyed, I’ve chosen to take these challenges and use them as opportunities to engage, to teach, to perhaps open people’s eyes about diverse experiences. Being different isn’t bad—this concept is so elemental, yet time and time again, humans choose to fear, to discriminate against those who aren’t like them.

Imagine this, last year my daughter’s second grade classmate called her “A bad person” because she isn’t Catholic. Where in the world would an eight-year old get such an idea? From adults, of course. Thankfully, we have a wonderfully patient and level-headed teacher who pulled the child aside and calmly asked if they really thought my daughter was a bad person. After some thought, they said, “No, she’s a good person.

This, is exactly the kind of critical thinking we need to inspire in our youth.

As a children’s book author, it’s not only my mission, but my job, to make sure children learn to embrace each other’s differences. I want my daughter to grow up in a community where she feels safe, and where she’s given the opportunity to be proud of who she is, no matter what she believes in.

So this Holy Week, whether you believe in God or not, I think it’s crucial that we also take this time to reflect on some more universal themes—ones that can actually be used for the betterment of our society.

Let us respect and celebrate each other’s differences.

Let us practice more compassion, kindness and empathy.

Let us preserve the earth and the animals that live on it.

After all, shouldn’t we be working on restoring that faith in humanity that we’re always talking about?

To me, this, above all else is what really matters.