I had a nightmare earlier. I had a nightmare, and I woke up praying to the lord for strength. How odd, that for a person who professes no affiliation to a religion, I find myself coming back to the same rituals and the same prayers when I am reduced to my lowest. It must be the same for you, random Philippine atheist reader, or not relatable at all for you, random Christian devout.
We all come back to what we are taught. In the case of common decency and manners, this is definitely a good thing. The same with knowing how to swim, or bike or cook. We don’t forget skills that we’ve learned. Not so good for religion and life choices, though. In fact it’s positively harmful.
There is nothing inherently wrong or harmful about believing in a god or believing in some sort of cosmic order. There’s a necessity and reassurance that comes with that kind of belief. I accept how reaffirming being in a like-minded community would be, and how helpful an organization as a support system is. There’s the certainty of knowing you have a family greater than your own. But it is in organized religion –which is socially and legally institutionalized, such as in the Catholic Church— as it exists today that I find many problematic things not “cancelled out” by the benefits they bring. The harms of organized religion are (more than) three-fold, and they are systematic, subtle and ingrained in society.
First, organized religion has historically been and continues to be a cause of dissent and segregation. There is always some discrimination against minorities because of religion. As my friend once said, in news articles there is never just a “man kills wife” or ever a “Christian man kills wife”. It is always “Muslim man kills wife” if it applies; the association with crime is always made. This sense of alienation persists beyond the bloody history. Even between Christian denominations there is still discrimination and insecurities, with Catholics, in particular, being more dominating and superior to other sects. This is noticeable in the Philippines, where issues advocated or denounced by the Catholic Church are always at the forefront of debate, and minority rights and good publicity for other sects are less highlighted. These kinds of discrimination even lend itself to violence, where crusades and attacks have been historically made in the name of religious defense, or in political stances in conjunction with religious goals. While intellectually people know that others should not be discriminated on the basis of religion, it is hard to shake off years of learning about differences and distinctions saying: We are different. We are better.
The idea here is that there is persistently no effort to create a unifying identity that transcends religion in the Philippine context. Obviously, the value of nationalism and a nationalistic identity is another debate, but the point stands that we remain divided and we remain, essentially, in fear of the unknown. All I knew of Muslims was that they had the Quran and their stricter disciplines, that they were definitely more conservative and in some ways more liberal, and that, in a haze of confused explanations, they are involved in the struggle in the south.
In fact, I’ve been so entrenched in this Christian versus Muslim dichotomy that it never really fully registered that there are, in fact, other religions in the Philippines. In high school I always only think or mention in passing other Asian religions (which must exist, as there are many Chinese and other eastern races settled here). I knew it intellectually, but it took a Histo 2 fieldtrip –a reason why I am writing right now, even– to witness actual Filipinos practicing outside the conventional religions.
Second, there are practices within religion that are inherently harmful, which the state, by being outside religion, cannot entirely protect its citizens from. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not allow blood transfusions due to a passage prohibiting the ingestion of blood. In recent years the institution has educated its members on alternatives to blood transfusion, but the fact remains that in cases of emergency, death is the better option to normal surgery. The non-transfusion option, bloodless surgery, is offered in very select hospitals; in the Philippines there are perhaps only four that offer that kind of surgery (needs citation). To me it is acceptable if the religious person opting for bloodless surgery is already an adult, but a child whose parents choose for them is another matter entirely. In the messy world we live in, where so many violations and controversies are buried and untouched, it would be so easy to choose for children, and even for families. I remember a Failon Ngayon expose where a cult was thriving in a quiet suburb. The parents and their families were eager to subscribe. Both they and their children found themselves in a cult masquerading as a religious sect, falling prey to sexual and physical torture in an isolated world. In the name of god. In the name of a tyrannical leader –which, come to think of it, is another harm to organized religion.
It is so easy to push political agenda with the power of a church. There is no need for explanation, no matter how inhumane or how unfeasible a proposal is. Some countries, especially in Africa, South/West Asia and South America, still permit child marriage under doctrine or tradition.
There are many other limiting practices, but the third reason is the one I find to be most harmful: there is no choice in religion. It is inherent in these socio-religious institutions that children are raised in the religion of their parents. It does not consider the fact that religion is a fundamental aspect of a person, and therefore something that must be an informed choice. Personally, I can no longer choose my religion with a clear state of mind. My entire psyche has already been weaved through with Catholicism.
The previous two reasons are made more tangible because a malleable child is reared up in the belief that their religion is superior, and therefore in the belief she as a child is also superior to children of other sects. Or if not superior, then simply intrinsically different as God’s “chosen ones”. Most religions this millennium profess acceptance of and love for members of other religions. But how evident is that, exactly? While it exists for those who do not care about religion and for those who are more learned of current events, the stigma carried by those who are “other” exist as they have in the past centuries.
What is worse is that these children are raised in the socio-legal beliefs attached to their religion, which is also troublesome, since the stances of some religions on several issues are equally limiting in terms of civil rights. Women’s and LGBTQ+ rights development is severely hampered because at the very onset children are taught that LGBTQ+ are abnormal in the eyes of religion and that women are, as Genesis suggests, inferior to men. Children assimilate such cultural norms and the practice of following faster than they master how to read.
An instance in our field trip which incensed me took place in the Blue Mosque, a center of Islamic religion found in Taguig. Please do not read this paragraph if you are easily offended: I have always wondered what sort of justification the Islamic community would produce for treating women as they do, for asking them to wear veils and to cover their bodies, for not allowing them to move independently or to even drive for centuries. I wondered what it was that justified rape and the essential buying of brides –which relates to Osama (2003), a film we watched for Philo 1, that rationalized one-sided polygamy. The imam said, and I quote:
“you are considered a temptation, but… we put you on a pedestal, we respect you.. iniingatan ang babae [women are taken care of/ valued]”.
Let me rant and dissect this statement for awhile. The imam demonstrated how, in the prayer form of muslims, women bending forwards would in essence cause men to go gaga over their physical bodies. This is why they are always sequestered in the back. But on the same hand they are respected and revered, put into a pedestal. How droll, honestly, that they are kept from expression because of their own protection. They don’t want men to look at these women, which is why they are covered and conserved. One, this is blaming the victim and condoning this attitude without correcting the idea. Women are people, not objects, and they shouldn’t be limited because of the supposed inability of men to concentrate on prayer –which also insults and debases men, come to think of it, but they perhaps don’t think that way. Two, an argument could be made for the way women are still treated as property in modern day society. I suppose now is a good time as any to search on progress on that front. There must be, in the same way Christian women are vying for priesthood. Three, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the practice per se. I do think there’s something problematic in the reasoning, however, and until such time it’s explained to me, I will stand by this rant. Because what makes it more problematic is that, again, this kind of teaching will be carried and expressed for the rest of a person’s life, no matter the amount of counter-education or self-discovery involved.
For the rest of their life, devout religious would follow the political stance of their religion without choosing to follow that stance, as evident in Philippine elections. Banners saying “Team Patay” and “Team Buhay” come to mind; various churches use considerable power to influence the outcome of the elections to a mass of followers, and sometimes even (financially) support “brother/sister” candidates. I’ve made a 2k (unpublished) rant and fact sheet on the fashion by which the RH law is being handled. Personally it’s very vexing, as people have taken to rallying outside the Supreme Court, where we pass by to go to school. This continuous debate is taxing because it shows how once again there is the mentality that ‘we alone are right, and our rights alone are considered’. It’s as if this whole country is made up of religious. It’s as if there’s no separation of state and religion.
Parents choosing religion for their child isn’t like choosing education or schools; religion is the opposite of education. There is no religion that says ‘question your beliefs’ or ‘doubt your sources’ or ‘look at your options’. Organized religion asks for exclusivity, for loyalty, for blind faith. That earlier child wouldn’t even think of looking at other religions because it is inconceivable, or when she does, it will be too late for her, and her interest will then only be academic. It would be easy to counter this by pointing out the any number of people who grew up to be atheists, agnostics, or converts. But these people are exceptional; perhaps they experienced life-changing trauma, or were not heavily catechized in the first place. In the context of the Philippines, where there is shame when you don’t pray, punishment when you misbehave and judgement if you profess to be irreligious –no matter how you truly act–, being anything other than socially acceptable is almost unthinkable. Curiosity about other options are fleeting and repressed, and education at best is academically extensive; it is infinitely easier to be catechized. Children are deprived of the opportunity to be their own people in such a fundamental way. Even now, when I don’t subscribe to the catholic God, I still pray in catholic prayers ingrained in me for sixteen years. I can’t help it.
The idea is this: (1) Children should be taught that we are all the same, regardless of religion, sex, gender, financial status or other quality, (2) People should be free to make their own choices about life, with the inclusion of religion and the removal of prejudice-based legal limitations, and (3) As the state is unable to influence religion, so should religion be unable to influence the state. >> Organized religion as it exists in the Philippines largely does not facilitate and largely hampers all of these goals.
Have you thought of why you follow your religion? If your answer isn’t “because my parents taught me so”, then good for you. You probably lost your way at some point and came out of the mess stronger than before. But for those of you who answered otherwise, think again.
*THBT faith with doubt brings more harm than good is another catalyst for this essay.
**I realized that I never did tackle the idea of declining genuine faith, and the fact that the current organization of religion in the Philippines needs some restructuring and realigning to make it happen again.
***Here looking for discourse, not a fight.