Bea during the PATAS convention

I know a mother who allowed her daughter—17 years and 11 months old —to attend a convention of atheists and agnostics, and even gladly funded her registration fee.

Earlier in the month, this mother brought the same young woman to a coffee-shop meeting of a group whose members call themselves “free thinkers,” trusting her to work her way into the crowd, develop her own contacts and ponder the issues being discussed.

While the mother, the teenager, and the teenager’s brothers and sister are all baptized Catholics, they do not hear mass every Sunday. Their household has no religious icons. They don’t gather around an altar to pray the rosary.

On the mother’s night table, however, is a prayer book given to her by a favorite uncle (who has since died) 20 years ago. This prayer book stands beside another book, The Daily Reflections of the Dalai Lama, and the Tao Te Ching given to her by one of her best friends.

Okay, I am talking about myself.

I have been mistaken for being an atheist/ agnostic—I am neither—just because I write about, and sometimes critically of, the Catholic hierarchy in the Philippines. I have also written about the plight of atheists in this country (the two-part Believing in non-belief in August 2011). Those I interviewed said they felt discriminated against among their family and colleagues and had difficulty coming out. They suspected there were more in the closet.

That article explores the theme of last Saturday’s convention of the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society: “Godless Philippines: Are you ready for this?”

At first blush, these words are scandalous. “Godless” is not a word we would normally describe our country in. It brings to mind somebody who fears nothing and hence does as he or she pleases. It is scandalous because the Philippines pride itself in being one of the most pious countries in the world.

So what kind of parent allows a girl to wander into this territory, when there could be a pack of wolves just ready to pounce on her impressionable mind?

I subscribe to enabling our young people to think for themselves. Let’s not tell them what to think. Let’s guide them how to. Freeing is so much different from abandoning. The latter would be putting them on the road to perdition because indeed, the world— and the World Wide Web—are dangerous places.

Liberating young minds is exposing them to other ways of thinking, living, feeling, ways that were not immediately accessible to us because of mere accident of birth. We grew up Catholic, sure, but that is just because we happened to be born in the Philippines that was colonized by Spain for centuries. Had we been born somewhere else in the world, we would have grown up embracing other faiths—and this would not necessarily make us better, or worse.

Parents however must still be there to answer questions or just toss off ideas to. The job is to walk these kids through the array of possibilities—career choices, relationship issues, faith commitments. With a few laughs along the way.

Of course there are pitfalls. Kids could easily identify themselves with groups that portray themselves as “rebels” against the established order. How cool is it to be a rebel, much more so an intellectual one? Young or old, we must know that established religion as well as any group may be weighed down by the vested interests, narcissism and hypocrisy of its leaders.

Religious affiliation works if it makes you more self-aware, more purposeful, more compassionate to and more accepting of others. Then again, if you can be all of these things without the baggage of religion, what is to stop you, as well?

I remember that on Holy Thursday, I went to church to utter a brief prayer. My daughter stared at me in apparent disbelief. Needless to say, I am not known for religious piety around the house. “Mom!You went to church?!?!”

I said: “”Honey, if you judge me because I choose to go to church, what makes you different from all the other people who judge you because you don’t?”

So when she returned from the convention on Saturday evening, I asked her what the takeaway was. She said: “So these people don’t believe in God, or doubt the existence of God. What is the big deal? They are not monsters or serial killers. Now all of us stop obsessing about labels and find something to do.”

Perhaps my daughter would realize that my gift of emancipation—lovingly given, cautiously delivered, and timed precisely for her entry into adulthood— is what is the big deal.

Then maybe she would stop outrageously hinting about how nice it would be to have an iPod Touch or a debut party.