"The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination." - Don Williams, Jr. (American Novelist and Poet, b.1968) .
"Let your mind start a journey thru a strange new world. Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before. Let your soul take you where you long to be...Close your eyes let your spirit start to soar, and you'll live as you've never lived before."
- Erich Fromm quotes (German born American social Philosopher and Psychoanalyst, 1900-1980)
What do you think will be the life of a non believer in a world where almost 99% of the population believes in a supernatural Big Daddy in the sky? It's not easy.
My story begins like any typical Filipino story. I was born and raised in a Roman Catholic family that took religion for granted. It's a typical scenario for most Filipino families. Going to church seems to be just a weekend obligation, a Sunday ritual. Roman Catholicism seems to be taken for granted. If you will look at a typical Sunday here in the Philippines, many people attend church service to pray. Well, not all Filipinos really take a damn about church doctrines and dogmas, but going to church is a tradition and Filipinos are known to be very religious.
The Religious Filipino
Before the Spanish conquerors discovered the Philippine Islands in 1521, the Filipinos are already superstitious in nature. We already have the anito, likha and tao-tao before Catholic Spain introduced their graven images of Saints and Virgin. My ancestors were worshipping Bathala, Punhuldayan and Mele before Jehovah and Jesus. The heavens and the Earth are filled with laman-lupa, enkanto and diwata before angels and demons took over. I sometimes think that religion was a reason why the white men have easily conquered the natives, besides Lapu-lapu of course.
When the Spaniards conquered the Philippines it was with the sword and the cross. Together with the sovereign crown of the Spanish king, they also brought to the Filipinos the Roman Catholic faith. They eradicated the olden gods and goddesses of my ancestors and replaced it with their objects of veneration. The natives could not care less and embraced this new found faith. Soon friars are constructing large churches made from timbers and lime stones with the help of the natives. Lands were confiscated by the conquering Spaniards and gave them to the church. The friars and missionaries only use the promise of eternal rewards in heaven and the horrors of fiery hell to keep the natives at bay and it worked! Sometimes revolts due to religious reasons erupted. Examples are the revolt led by Tamblot in Bohol in 1621 and by Bangkaw of Limasawa in 1622. There were also revolts that attempted to restore pre-Spanish religion. A good example was the establishment of the religious brotherhood Cofradia de San Jose in Tayabas. This was led by Apolinario dela Cruz (AKA Hermano Pule) which started in 1832 and ended in 1871 when the last leader Januario Labios was captured. The longest revolt was that of 1744 led by Francisco Dagohoy and lasted eighty-five years. The reason for this revolt was when a Jesuit priest refused Dagohoy's brother to have a Christian burial.
The Filipinos embraced Christianity except in the Mindanao region in which Islam is the predominant belief. It is in the late 1890's that an event took place involving religion that shakes Philippine history. In those times many Filipinos were already exposed on foreign ideas and philosophies from Europe. Noted at that time were the execution of GOMBURZA and Dr. Jose Rizal.
So after 400 years of Spanish rule, Roman Catholicism was firmly established, then the Americans came along. When the Americans came in the Philippines, most Filipinos believed that the Americans brought democracy to the nation through mass education, because at the time of the Spanish occupation, only the privilege few can have a good education. Included in the package was the proliferation of Protestant doctrines. Most of the teachers who went to the Philippines were Protestants, many were even Protestant ministers. So Filipinos were introduced to the Baptist, the Episcopalians and other new Christian sects.
The American rule lasted from 1898 until 1946 but it left an impact on Philippine religion. One of its blows was the end of the monopoly of the Roman Catholic in the Philippines. With the introduction of different Protestant sects there is now a freedom choosing other Christian denominations and Filipinos took this opportunity. Others even founded Christian churches of their own. Examples of Christian churches founded by Filipinos are the Iglesia Filipina Independiente of Isabelo delos Rayes and Pascual Poblete and the Iglesia Ni Cristo (Church of Christ) that was founded by Felix Manalo in 1914. Another legacy the American introduced was the concept of the separation of church and state, a concept which was unknown at the time of the Spanish occupation in the Philippines.
Today the Philippines boast to be "the largest Christian Nation in Asia," thanks for 400 years of Spanish convent and 50 years of Hollywood. More than 86 percentage of the population is Roman Catholic, 6 percent belongs to various nationalized Christian cults, and another 2 percent belongs to well over 100 Protestant denominations. Still, traditional animism still creeps in with Philippine Christianity.
Religion and superstition are a part of daily Filipino life and it seems that it has embedded itself deep in the Filipino psyche. It is said that only here in the Philippines where you can find communist insurgents still praying to God. Feast commemorating different saints still riddled our calendar and as of today people still flock Quaipo Church in Manila every first week of January to join the parade of the Black Nazarene so they can wipe their handkerchief on the statue's black mahogany wood to bring them luck or cure them on their illness.
The majority of those who lived in the rural areas still prefer traditional medicine practitioners than going to the hospital to see a doctor. A disease like epilepsy is still regarded as demon possession. Even in Manila, albularyo and hilot still thrive. Mothers still bring their children to have them undergo "pagtatawas" to lessen the effect of "na-usog." Faith healers still perform their so-called psychic surgery and people still believe it. Every Good Friday many of these "espiritistas" make their annual trek to Mount Banahaw - consider being a holy mountain by most Filipino mystics to regenerate their powers and their "anting-anting" by the help of benevolent spirits that supposed to live in the mountains. Yet they still brag that the Philippines is the Largest Christian Nation in Asia. It seems the definition of Christianity in the Philippines is quite different to traditional Christianity.
A majority of Filipino youths is becomingly hooked over new and more active form of fundamentalist Christianity. Born-again Christianity was a rising phenomenon at the 1980's and today Christian Church, which concentrates on the expositional Bible interpretation is on a rise, challenging traditional Church ideas.
God and the Filipino
It is impossible to see a Filipino who will challenge the idea of the existence of God. Almost all Filipinos will never think for one small moment that God does not exist. Expect that in a nation that have been facing crisis after crisis.
God is supposed to be a provider of hope and any poverty stricken individual always looks for hope. You will notice on the so-called testimonies shared by born-again Christians, they always tell tales about bad life experiences before they found God. When I was still a member of a certain born-again group, I always listen to such testimonies and use them to convince new members. The thought of an invisible support seems to fancy the mind of a desperate person, together with joyful singing and dancing.
Another issue that attracts the average Filipino to God is the sense of purpose it creates to their mundane lives. I remember a certain foundation which I was employed. We always conduct a value-formation seminar for workers working on sugar fields in Negros Occidental. One module of this value formation is religion. The facilitator often writes on the blackboard the word "CHRISTIAN" and asked the group what the word means. Then she divides the word into two, CHRIST and IAN and tells the group that the word IAN means "I Am Nothing." So that means if you separate yourself to Christ your life become meaningless. Christian seminars consist of telling people that believers have this purpose in life. That’s why Rick Warren's book "The Purpose Driven Life" was a hit in Philippine book stores and many Christian churches began to conduct the 40-days seminar base of that book.
The average Filipino gives much weight on "utang na loob" (debt of gratitude). A person that does not look back on his debt of gratitude is considered shameless and ungrateful. An ungrateful person is sometimes considered not human at all. Filipino considered his life came from God. "Ang buhay mo ay hiram mo lang sa Diyos" (You just borrowed your life to God). Not acknowledging God's gift of life and His creation is considered an ungrateful act.
To a typical Filipino when a person is said to be "walang diyos" (without God) the first thing that comes to his mind is an immoral and a satanic person. It is no different from other Christian's idea today. Naturally, Filipino believes that morality came directly from God. They believe that all good law is just and all good and just acts came from God. Even the preamble in our Constitution has the word "God" in it. If you pass by the Supreme Court building on Taft Avenue in Manila, you will notice the statue of Moses holding the Ten Commandment tablets next to Lady Justice.
A nonbeliever is someone a Filipino should not trust. That's why nobody in his right mind will cry out that he/she's an atheist, especially if he/she has an investment or a reputation to protect. Let say you are a doctor and you do not believe that a god exists. You are being considered nuts if you tell that to your patients. I just like comparing this situation in a T.V. show I saw where a young doctor told her patient that she does not believe in a god. Well, not here in the Philippines, because if you tell your patients about your non-belief chances are you may lose your patients. Now what more if you are in the public office. No political candidate will say to the voting public that he does not believe in God. People will not vote you into office besides, most politicians here in the Philippines needs the church for votes.
There are times that issue about God and miracles were tackled and Filipinos just have not noticed it. Example was the movie Himala (Miracle) that was shown in the 70's during the Marshal Law years.
Taking the first steps.
I was a very pious Roman Catholic when I was still in grade school and I always receive ribbons and medals as recognition of being "best in religion." Thinking about those past years I wonder why I was best in religion, yet I do not have really studied the Bible and I do not even know what religion meant at that time. All I know is that I love God and I love Jesus Christ and if I sin and did not repent, I go to hell.
Every government-run elementary school in the Philippines has a religion class which is conducted by Roman Catholic lay persons. The lessons were not really what we may consider as a Bible study, but more of a simple introduction to Roman Catholic doctrines. What is amusing on those classes is that nobody really asked questions. Brother Danny was the name of my religion teacher and he always says things about the life of Jesus, that God loves you and that you have to pray every time you eat and before going to bed. He also tells us to recite and memorize the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, and the prayer before confession.
I was fascinated by God to the point that I became a sacristan. A sacristan is a person that assists the priest during the mass. I was proud to wear a white robe together with the priest. I feel like a holy man. In the church we have lectures on the duties of a sacristan and the tools of the trade. There are no lecture about God and the Bible. Of that time like any other kids, I don't really care much till one day while we are having a flag ceremony. One of my classmates handed to me a certain comics. The cover illustrates priests draw like some malevolent villains holding a cross. Intrigue by the cover I started to read the comic book. The comic book was published by a certain Chick Publication and the hero of the story was a certain man named Alberto who, according to the story was an ex-priest hunted by the Jesuits for exposing Roman Catholic errors.
WHAT!!!!! Roman Catholic errors? How can that be?
I never imagine that the church where I grew up with have errors. I started to ask questions and was shocked to find out that the Roman Catholic Church was not the only Church existing. It becomes more confusing. What do you expect on a 10 year old kid?
I then learned that there are different Christian churches in the Philippines. I still haven’t really got the idea that these churches are competing with each other for the title “Who is the real Christian Church?” Well, if they are Christians then they all believe in the same thing? I said to myself.
I then asked myself again, “If they believe in the same thing, then why will they accuse others of being the false one?”
I began to ask questions regarding the different Christian sect. If I the questions to a Catholic, they always responded to me that these other Christian sects are just giving the Catholics a bad reputation. It’s just like propaganda to discredit Roman Catholic doctrines. Those on the other camp are more brutal since they even say that the Roman Catholic Church is the “beast” from The Book of Revelations. Since I was very naïve on things written in the Bible, then the commentary was more of a curiosity and I began to listen to more on fundamentalist Christian’s comment on the Roman Catholic Church.
One thing I notice with the fundamentalist style is that people only listen to what they say. There is something hypnotic about how these evangelical preachers speak. It sounded something like a lullaby, which makes a listener’s mind sleeps and he starts to agree on everything the evangelist is saying without being a little skeptical about it. I have to admit, I was a victim. I began to agree that the Roman Catholic Church was the prophetic beast in the Bible, without consulting a Catholic priest’s explanation. By the time I reach high school, I left the Roman Catholic faith to join a born-again fellowship.
Militant Christianity According to fundamentalist “born-again” Christianity, believers are in constant war with this sinful world and that you must always wear the armor of God. If Roman Catholics are too passive now, here’s a church in the middle of the warfront and I am part of real Christian soldiers. Here the believers are being equipped with the words of God, unlike that of the Catholic Church. Well, that’s what I thought.
The pastors never waste time. Every fellowship, the pastor always starts by preaching what I thought was the word of God. Unlike the Roman Catholic mass in which the whole one hour is wasted with the traditional ceremony, here the fellowship lasted 2 hours and more. After the regular sing and dance portion, a one and a half hour Bible explanation follows. Another thing that attracted me on fundamentalist service, we have to bring our very own copy of the Bible. In the Roman Catholic mass, we just listen to the priest’s discourse, but here we can read the passage in our own Bible. So I thought to myself, if you have to bring a Bible in the service and the Bible is the word of God, truly this is true Christianity.
Unlike Roman Catholics, the born-again Christian service does not end in their Sunday worship. According to their belief, the church is not the structure but the body of believers, so on weekdays we have Bible classes on our brethren’s house. Here Christians continue to reflect on the words of God.
Born-again Christians seem to be in perpetual conflict with this world. For them, arts, music, and the whole humanities are the work of the “Prince of this World” which is Satan, if those works were not being made to praise God and Jesus Christ. They put a stress to this, especially when the topics are people who have different opinions on their beliefs. For a typical pinoy Fundy, if you are not for Jesus Christ, then you’re of the devil, there are no grey areas.
I remember a conversation with a born-again Christian friend. We were talking about the works of Charles Schulz. He was praising Schulz for creating Peanuts as memorable characters. He also emphasized that the characters have simplified designs, yet they are as memorable as Batman and Superman. I told him that Schulz was a secular humanist. He suddenly became quiet. I asked him why. He told me, “Even if Schulz were famous, his characters will not save him from the fires of hell. I bet Schulz can’t ask Charlie Brown to save him from eternal damnation. Only Jesus can save you.”
One of the greatest enemies of Fundamentalist Christianity in the Philippines is science. For them, science is the devil’s work. I cannot really figure it out why, my favorite subject in school was science, yet my religion tells me that it’s the work of Satan. I soon found out that their antagonism to science was directly in the Theory of Evolution which they say denies the grand design of the Creator. For them, the theory of evolution is the epitome of what science believes and that science robs us of God.
It occurs to me that fundamentalist Christianity is being threatened by science, but can anything threaten the All-powerful, Uber-being that created everything?
A man named Carl Sagan.
I love watching science filler shows on TV when I was a kid. Back then there were science programs like “Living Tomorrow” and “Science, Technology, Medicine” that were used by TV stations to fill in empty blocs and I always watch those even re-runs. Well, those programs did not shake my faith since I don't really give much thinking about new technologies. Until one day when I was about to watch another re-runs of these programs, something new showed up. The TV show starts with a burst of galaxies. Naturally, Star Wars was shown in local movie houses so I was thinking that this is another of those sci-fi TV programs after Star Wars. Instead, what I saw was this man talking about science without too many scientific jargons like the kind of teacher I always wanted.
Cosmos was a very different science program I saw on Philippine, TV and was very inspiring. One factor was Dr. Carl Sagan. Here’s a science program in which Dr. Sagan has explained things in a layman’s tongue. Each episode is a new horizon, very deep yet easy to grasp. It has stirred my sleeping mind. In fact, it was so mind-stirring that I recorder each episode on tape with my cassette recorder (there were no VHS, VCD or DVD on that time) and listen to the program every night before going to bed. I was mesmerized by the visual presentation of the program and I learned from it some things I never really understood before, things like light speed, the classification of stars, the life of stars, the vast distance between galaxies, DNA and the human brain, and the Library of Alexandria. I was inspired by Kepler’s life and was terrified of what the Christians did to Hypatia. I began asking why? I remember my science class where I could ask the teacher “why”. I was giving too much time with Bible class that I forget to ask questions. The question “why” never entered my mind every Bible school. Suddenly, there are many “why” entering my brain.
I always remember my Bible class in the born-again Christian fellowship which I attend. The lessons were composed of 12 Sunday classes and on the 1st Sunday of the class, the instructor always begins the lesson with a warning. He reminds the class of the curse of hell to the nonbelievers and the skeptic. Surely that will discourage rational inquiry. All we have to do is to listen to what the instructor was saying. NO QUESTIONS ASKED!
My brain will erupt if I am not going to ask questions, so I asked anyway.
“Sir, if God is all-powerful and He love us then why didn’t He get rid of evil?” I asked the instructor.
“Because God gave us freewill, you see, we are not robots.” The instructor answered back.
“But it is possible to have freewill without evil? God also have free will, Right?”
“Well..” said the instructor, “God is testing is”?
“Testing us? But I thought He’s omniscient?”
“You will never know God’s way. No human can ever explain the ways of God.”
The instructor began to give us a lesson about God’s love and His divine plans when I interrupted him with another question.
“You’re teaching us about God’s plan for us right?”
“Yes.”, answered the instructor.
“That doesn’t make any sense. You said earlier that no man can explain what’s on God’s mind and now you are talking about His plan? You’re still human, aren’t you?” I asked him back.
The instructor was silent for a while then snapped back telling me that the devil is putting those questions on my mind. He began to warn other students not to emulate me on what I’m doing.
I was marked as a “Back Slider”.
It was my 4th Sunday with the class.
The next Sunday, I didn’t attend Bible class.