The Atlantic

The New Atheists of the Philippines

Their style is less Richard Dawkins, more Christian missionary.
Source: Jay Directo / AFP / Getty

Among filthy puddles of rainwater in a slum in Alabang, a district just south of the Philippines’ capital city of Manila, a young woman named Jahziel Tayco Ferrer was teaching a science lesson. A group of children sat around her on a cracked basketball court, taking shelter from the fierce midday sun in a gazebo that had been erected as a makeshift classroom. Their lesson that day was about the water cycle—an appropriate subject, I thought, given how many of the slum’s narrow alleyways were still partly flooded from the previous night’s rains.

Educational aid projects like this one are common enough in the Philippines, where more than 26 million people live in poverty. They are, more often than not, run by Christian groups. Ferrer is a rare exception: She’s an atheist.

As one of two women running a community project to provide the children of Alabang with education and food, Ferrer wants to help the local youth—but she also has her own agenda. She’s a volunteer for Humanist Alliance Philippines, International (HAPI), one of three secular organizations trying to gain a foothold in Filipino society. Their weekend “schools” and food programs are part of a concerted effort by atheists to promote secular, humanist values in a society dominated by religion.

“I got this idea from the Baptist Church,” Ferrer told me, with a smile suggesting she appreciated the irony of borrowing from the missionary playbook. “They’re helping the community and, while helping, they’re also spreading the gospel. So as humanists, if they can do it, why can’t we?”

The Philippines has a population of 98 million and is one of the most deeply religious countries in the world. More than 80 percent of Filipinos self-identify as Catholic, with

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