In a culture dominated by religiosity, overt superstition, and fake news, it takes a truly ballsy person to fight against the noise. While pushing for secularism is by no means a competition, Marissa Torres Langseth, HAPI Founder and Chairperson Emeritus, was the first to openly advocate for a more secular Philippines in the public stage.
As Langseth officially retires, her legacy lies in the ongoing operations of the Humanist Alliance Philippines, International (HAPI), her publication of the From Superstition to Reason series of books and her autobiography No Outside Intelligence, and all the doors she has kicked down for the advancement of atheism, secular humanism, and freethinking in the Philippines.
But more importantly (she tells me), she retires knowing that HAPI is in the hands of its most efficient and upstanding batch of officers so far. “Networking with the right loyal volunteers,” Langseth puts it, “[is what] makes a society super successful.”
While Langseth has fully dedicated the last decade to her secular activism, for most of her life she was busy sustaining a highly successful career as an Adult Nurse Practitioner.
The road to that job title was arguably just as difficult as establishing a foothold for secularism in the Philippines. Young Marissa Torres came from a poor Tagalog-Ilocano family in Nueva Ecija but took up her formal education in Cebu. As a naturally curious and witty girl, she experienced a lot of friction with her strict Catholic upbringing (“My mother used to kick me awake [for Church] every Sunday!”), but those brains would also consistently place her in the academic honor rolls. Eventually, she would graduate Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of San Carlos.
Wits, of course, aren’t enough to get you ahead in this world, which is why she also made sure to hustle hard.
By the time Langseth moved to the United States with a working visa as a Registered Nurse in 1990, her work ethic embodied a tough working class Pinay: juggling 2-3 jobs, working 16 hours a day, at times 7 days a week.
Her dedication was rewarded when the hospital where she worked at offered to pay for her graduate studies. Looking back, Langseth calls that moment a “golden opportunity”.
She took up her Masters in Adult Health Nursing from Lehman College in New York City (where she wrote a thesis on domestic violence) and graduated with a GPA 4.0 at the nearby College of Mount Saint Vincent for a Post-Master’s Certificate for Adult Nurse Practitioner (ANP) with prescriptive privileges and a Board Certification.
As an ANP, Langseth enjoyed an unprecedented level of autonomy in her work life on top of a very lucrative salary; not bad for a little Catholic-raised girl from Cebu!
“Working as an ANP gave me a lot of self-confidence, sometimes arrogance,” she shares. “Because not every RN can become a Nurse Practitioner. You have to have the time, money, and brains to do it.” She admits that she was fortunate in this regard, as her father-in-law paid for her Post-Master’s Certificate training, so Langseth never had to deal with debt.
And yes, you read “father-in-law” right. In between all of that hectic academic and professional schedule, Langseth managed to find love in her partner of 24 years, Jerry.
Finding Her Secular Voice
Towards the end of her medical career (she retired in 2015), Langseth came out as an atheist and was met with hostility from many of her peers, some of whom outright “unfriended” her.
“It was no big deal for me,” Langseth assures, “[though] it caused a rift between my husband and I. But we love each other, so we are still together.”
Emboldened and inspired by atheist voices like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Langseth kicked her secular activism into high gear during this time. Her desire to thrust secularism into the Philippine consciousness led her to birth the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society (PATAS) in 2011, which was the first of its kind in the country’s history.
As the first attempt at giving atheist and agnostic Filipinos a legitimate voice and visibility, PATAS was an early hit. A year after its launch it made history by holding PATAS Con, the very first atheist convention in Southeast Asia, in Bayview, Manila. It also spawned an outspoken online community.
Unfortunately, PATAS’ first era under Langseth’s leadership ended prematurely, and on bad terms.
“PATAS was my first attempt to ‘herd cats’,” she says, “but it failed, due to the Pinoy mentality of self-entitlement and lack of loyalty to the mission.” She is referring to the time several members took advantage of her and publicly slandered her, which devastated her emotionally. “But nonetheless, the past created history. I put PATAS on the map of atheism.”
The organisation still operates today, but under different management.
O, HAPI day
Her turbulent run with PATAS put off Langseth from her activism for a short while, but not permanently. Returning with a new zest in 2013, she recalibrated the focus of her advocacy towards secular humanism and created the Humanist Alliance Philippines, International.
Humanism, as Langseth herself puts it, is the best gift of atheism. If atheism is defined as the rejection of or simply a lack of belief in a deity, humanism is what fills that hole with purpose. It’s a philosophy that beautifully fell in line with her new organisation.
Launched in Christmas Day of 2013, HAPI united many Pinoy secular humanists for the first time (and in some cases, even created new ones!). It was the first SEC-registered, secular humanist organisation in the Philippines and Langseth was dead-set on giving it international recognition, securing affiliations with Humanists International, Humanist Global Charity (formerly the Brighter Brains Institute), and the Foundation Beyond Belief.
Through social media, HAPI built a tight-knit community that engaged in thoughtful discussions about non-belief in the Philippines and initiated programs that sought to make a difference in the country. Many humanists who believed in Langseth’s vision would become leaders in their own right, taking up the mantle of Lead Convenor for various HAPI Chapters throughout the Philippines as the organisation’s scope and membership grew.
Among HAPI’s myriad philanthropic efforts was HAPI Homes, which provided new, disaster-resilient houses for needy families in the Philippines.
In addition, the organisation helped the youth through programs like HAPI Kids Nutrition Campaign (NutriCamp), a feeding program for impoverished kids in Metro Manila; HAPI-SHADE (Secular Humanist Advocacy Development Education), which aimed to educate children through a secular lens via a variety of learning sessions; the ARK (Acts of Random Kindness) Project, a gift-giving initiative for young kids in Bacolod City; and the Aeta Reading Room, a literacy thrust for the Aeta community in Mt. Haduan, Tarlac.
HAPI’s FSL (Filipino Sign Language) classes also empowered communication with deaf/mute Filipinos, showing that Persons with Disabilities can be just as expressive as us.
As a supporter of environmental rights, HAPI also started programs like HAPI-Green Movement in order to help with coastal clean-ups in Metro Manila; and HAPI Trees, to enliven the country with more greenery.
Eventually, the success of the organisation would lead to the birth of sub-groups like HAPI Youth, HAPI Juniors and HAPI Lgbtq+. Its Youmanist Project, viewable on YouTube and Facebook, shines a spotlight on everyday Filipino humanists via vlogs and stories. From Superstition to Reason, Vols. 1 & 2, its first official books, forever etched the journeys of many Filipino humanists in print.
In 2017, the Foundation Beyond Belief recognised HAPI’s efforts by gracing the organisation with its top award, “Humanism at Work”. That same year, HAPI proudly hosted the Asian Humanist Conference in Manila.
With HAPI, Langseth aimed to show the Philippines that you don’t need God’s backing to do good work, and she knocked that ball out of the park.
There’s always a catch
Langseth learned a lot from her mistakes leading PATAS, and the productivity of HAPI proves it. That said, the first HAPI Leadership Council was not immune to internal conflict.
“The initial leaders [left] much to be desired,” Langseth frankly states. “So I was always guiding them, but [t]hey just cannot get it. A few of them scammed me again and again.”
The disputes between Langseth and the initial Leadership Council would come to a head in September 2017, when all the council members resigned en masse. Again, Langseth doesn’t mince her words. “It was the best natural selection that happened to HAPI,” she says of the exodus. “The ‘thorns’ left on their own accord. It was a golden opportunity to invite more mature, more loyal HAPI volunteers.”
In the years since, those volunteers would step up to the leadership plate and help successfully expand HAPI’s reach, influence and international reputation, all while staying grounded on the organisation’s desire to promote logic, science, and love for humanity.
Langseth attained a new level of influence (and notoriety) when she began her secular advocacy. As an Adult Nurse Practitioner, she was already outspoken about many causes in the medical world, and has the controversial blog to prove it (narsdoktorsausa.org).
But it was as a public activist for atheism, secular humanism, and freethinking that she was able to kickstart a whole movement in the Philippines.
In a country where most people are too afraid to discuss the hypocrisies of religion (much less speak out about it), Langseth uses her voice loudly and fearlessly. She has made plenty of enemies by doing so, but honestly, what are death threats to a woman who’d die for the cause?
In service of her mission, she openly shared her life learnings in the books Godless Grace: How Nonbelievers Make the World Safer by Linda Ford Blakie and David Orenstein (a personal friend of hers in NYC) and Personal Paths to Humanism by Bob Bhaerman and Fred Edwords, of the American Humanist Association.
The Fil-Am, a magazine published in the States, has featured her twice, both times tackling the topic of her atheism (practically a taboo subject among its older, overseas Pinoy demographic).
“Lending my voice was a shock to those Pinoys,” Langseth says. “[I was] a new face to stir the Fil-Am platform.”
Langseth personally chronicled her life story and experiences in her autobiography, No Outside Intelligence, as well as other people’s paths to unbelief in both volumes of From Superstition to Reason.
“A life story that will inspire others to do good needs to be documented in history,” she says of their publication. “[Those books] cemented my life story and others’ too.”
She considers their release to be the pinnacle achievement of her life.
In Blissful Retirement
Langseth, at 61, formally retired from her activism last February.
HAPI’s torch of success will pass to the man she considers to be its most dedicated, outstanding volunteer since 2017, Edwin “Dwengster” Bulaclac, Jr., HAPI Chief Financial Officer and brand specialist, who will head the Philippine team going forward.
His “indefatigable” dedication to HAPI, Langseth says, will be recognised in April during the “Meet and Greet with the HAPI Founder” at the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore.
Even as Langseth lets go of the torch, however, don’t expect her to just sit on the sidelines from here on.
At the moment, she’s enjoying life, taking a trip around the world with her husband Jerry… but her endpoint will still take her back to humanism. In August, she will personally represent HAPI at the 2020 World Humanist Congress in Miami, Florida. It is the biggest event for secular humanists everywhere.
“[I’m] retired but not dead yet!” she quips. “So I will go to the WHC to see all of them.”
There was never a shortage of barbs, witty remarks, and pearls of wisdom from Langseth during her active career; that won’t change during her retirement. Fact is, you just can’t put a good Cebuana down.