by Sherwin Dane Haro
San Jose, Antique, Philippines
January 16, 2021
As far as character arcs go, “varsity chess player” to “mixed martial artist” to “seminarian” to “pastor” to “HAPI Executive Director” might be as wild as it gets, and yet that’s exactly the route that the man on today’s Spotlight, Alvin John “AJ” Ballares, took on his journey out of fierce religiosity and into secular humanism.
I interviewed Ballares, who currently serves as the HAPI Liaison Officer, online from his temporary workspace in Malaysia. As I probed him about all of these milestones throughout his life, he didn’t seem to get how unique his life’s trajectory has been, which at first I found funny but ultimately, fitting — this is a man who only looks forward, never back. What stuck out for me the most, though, was Ballares’ dedication to skeptical thinking, and how it ultimately helped him overcome his desire to cling to religion.
Ballares grew up in a very strict religious household where, as he put it, stringent rules and the threat of hell were constantly imposed upon him by his Baptist parents. From the time he was a boy, Ballares was neither allowed to watch TV or listen to non-Christian songs. But the young AJ had a rebellious streak (for that matter, the adult one still does!) and by the time he was 14, had already left their house to live by himself in their other house next door.
This innate curiosity would lead him to question his Baptist faith as well… or more specifically, whether or not it was the “superior” Christian denomination. “I [turned into] some kind of a Bible scholar at the time,” Ballares shared. “I dedicated much of my time reading sacred texts, canons, laws, synods. […] I even studied ancient Greek (Koine) just to have a better understanding of Paul’s Epistles, which were originally written in Greek.”
(If you think that’s slightly geeky, he’d probably agree with you — around this time, he was a full-time varsity chess player. But get this — he was only in there because his parents opposed his interest in boxing. “They wanted me to shift gears [into something more] cerebral, so they made me pursue chess instead.” Later in adulthood, he would plant fists in people’s faces anyway, competing as a professional muay thai fighter and mixed martial artist.)
After voraciously devouring various commentaries from renowned theologians like John Calvin and R.C. Sproul, Ballares judged the Protestant Reformed Churches to be the “apex” Christian denomination, and thusly converted to it.
And yet even back then, it was a flimsy conclusion for him. “At sixteen, I had doubts about my beliefs already,” Ballares said. “I started questioning the Bible and grappled with issues on theodicy on my own, like ‘How can God remain holy despite the presence of evil’?”
Soon after that, Ballares’ parents’ patience with his brattiness ran out and sent him to a seminary in an attempt to “reform” him. “We were not allowed to go out; no cellphones, no television, [and you] can’t say bad things about our headmaster, et cetera,” he recounts. “Our day would usually start early [at] dawn for our morning prayer, devotion, and Bible reading time, [which] prepared us for a long day of studying the Bible.”
When I asked the modern-day AJ — who is now a proud atheist and secular humanist on top of being probably the chillest Kuya figure you could know — if it makes him angry to look back on that time, his answer surprised me. “Honestly, I was not angry. Not even confused,” he said. “I’m this guy who’s always sure of what to think. I’m that assertive.”
“But,” he clarified, “that was just my initial reaction when I first realized that I’m becoming less of a Christian and more of an atheist.” He confides that he mostly felt betrayed by the circumstances of his upbringing that he had no control over, directly echoing the experiences of many atheists and secular humanists. “The optimist in me always tries to look at it as a stepping stone. I struggled my way out of that mess; here I am, and I can only look back and laugh.”
Losing His Religion
A few years after his stint at the seminary, Ballares was a pastor with serious doubts about his own faith gnawing at him inside. As it happens, it would be a freethinking group on Facebook that would push him over the edge. For a little while, the “feisty theist” (his words!) aggressively defended his faith against the myriad humanists, atheists, and deists that frequented the group. “Their discussions involved those questions I have been asking since I was sixteen,” Ballares said. “They hurled questions after questions that got me overwhelmed.” In a single moment of revelation, his opponents started making sense.
Around that time, “Pastor Ballares” also attempted an experiment to check whether his church members remembered his sermons or not. For several months, Ballares used the exact same preaching outline in every sermon to see if any of the members would notice him recycling it; as it turned out, none of them did. “I would get the same praise and adulation from them — ‘Thank you, Pastor, I was really blessed with your message!’”
“Think of how many times you have to reheat your leftover spaghetti after the New Year’s Eve celebration,” Ballares recounted with visible frustration. “I just can’t wrap my head around [my own] broken-record homiletics yet these people I was delivering the message to were so gung-ho. That turned me off big time.”
“I [could] not carry on getting paid to spew out meaningless words to people like theatrics. I cannot stomach the idea of leading on people to something I didn’t believe in,” Ballares said. With finality, the pastor hung up his robes not long after that.
HAPIness… is a cold glass of beer
Soon, an acquaintance of the newly-faithless Ballares would direct his attention to another freethinking group on Facebook called HAPI. After joining, Ballares found what everyone else in there has: a community of good-natured secular humanists. “It did not disappoint,” he says of that moment. “As a newbie to atheism, to have a sense of community [was] just so reassuring.” Having so recently let go of Christianity, Ballares needed to escape the inevitable feeling of loneliness that comes from such a massive decision, and HAPI filled that hole for him perfectly. HAPI promised him a welcoming community of ethical non-believers, and it stayed true to that promise ever since.
Active as he was, Ballares soon signed on as the HAPI Bacolod Lead Convener and quickly developed a reputation for his chapter. “We were once dubbed the most hyperactive chapter of HAPI, [which] was a darn accurate description,” he boasted.
Together with two other friends (they jokingly called themselves the “unholy Trinity”) the Bacoleño Ballares would regularly plan events at one of the city’s most popular drinking spots. He reminisced on some of HAPI Bacolod’s most memorable activities, such as hosting HAPI’s 2017 General Assembly, joining the Negros Pride Parade, Cebu LGBT event, and their chapter’s annual condom distribution in front of San Sebastian Cathedral during Valentine’s Day. “We did that for 5 uninterrupted years!” he said. “We also hogtied Luigi and placed a sign [saying] ‘December 10 is World Human Rights Day’ to provide people a visual representation of how it is when your human rights is suppressed.”
Ballares shies away from saying he implements events “singlehandedly” in HAPI Bacolod. “It has always been a matter of ‘us’ and ‘our’ [for us],” he put it. Rather fittingly, he describes his chapter as “a unit of willing volunteers trying to create a positive impact”.
A beating activist heart
At this point, Ballares has been in the activist game for a solid six years and counting. When I asked what inspires him to keep going, he dropped this nugget: “I imagine a pluralistic society thriving in harmony,” he said, directly referencing think the John Lennon song. “I have that ideal society in my mind. There’s just no better way translating it into reality than getting your hands dirty through activism.”
As for the qualities that define him as an activist, he considers his being “extremely unconventional, freedom loving, and imaginative” to be key traits. His gift to connect with people and ability to see their positive side and their potential has also helped take him far. “I’m this kind of person who attracts curious characters,” he mused. “I am someone who will sit down and talk with the people who are on the fringes of society, those who are considered to be unpopular. I don’t want people to be left behind.”
He does all of this, he says, with an “astonishing lack of prejudice”, which in turn inspires the people around him. Since being an activist means being able to inspire others, this has become something of a life stance for the Bacoleño.
Ballares served as HAPI Executive Director from September 2017 to New Year’s Day of 2020. His leadership came at a very turbulent period in HAPI history, one where the “old guard” controversially had to give way to fresh blood. “I did step up to give HAPI another fire-start,” Ballares said.
Of all the programs he implemented throughout his tenure (he shifted to liaison work for HAPI after stepping down), including HAPI’s collaboration with Rekindle, the annual Acts of Random Kindness (ARK) Project, it’s quite telling that the hardest thing he says he’s had to get through was dealing with “toxic” people. “Some people made my age an issue; they said I was too young to lead,” Ballares recalled. “They also thought that I could easily be swayed. Those have been the main issues my detractors accuse me of, but joke’s on them! I endured over two years as HAPI’s Executive Director.” He refrained from giving away anything juicier.
All things considered, Ballares doesn’t see himself stopping with activism anytime soon. More than anything else, he wants to see HAPI and other forward-thinking communities in the Philippines soar. “I hope to still take part in improving our community. I aspire to see more people upholding the equal enjoyment of human rights, our basic human-ness.”
As for those haters who might have doubted he’d make it this far, the former chess player-martial artist-pastor has a few choice words: “AJ is still here. I’m never gone. I will still roll up my sleeves with HAPI.”
…And knock you out, maybe not with his fists, but certainly with that gleaming intellect.