A Brief History of Religion in the Philippines

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The Philippines and East Timor are the only predominantly Christian countries in Asia. According to the 2000 Census, the Filipino population of 81 million at the time was 80.9 percent Roman Catholic, 11.6 percent other Christian, 5 percent Muslim, and 2.5 percent other affiliation. In all, 92.5 percent of Filipinos are Christian. Filipinos were mostly animistic prior to the arrival of Christianity in the sixteenth century. Local religious practices, which varied from place to place, typically involved a variety of malevolent and benevolent environmental spirits, the veneration of spirits of departed ancestors, and worship of other gods and goddesses. Rites and offerings ensured good health, harvests, luck, and cosmological balance. Individuals with healing abilities, great warriors, and datu (village headmen) earned respect and wielded some authority.

Christianity first arrived via Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer sailing for Spain. He reached the island of Cebu in the central Philippines in 1521, laying the foundation for more than three and a half centuries of Spanish colonization. With the exception of certain mountainous areas, such as the Luzon highlands, and Muslim areas in the southern Philippines, the Spanish established political dominance throughout the archipelago and converted the majority of its people to Roman Catholicism.

But Filipinos have never been simply empty vessels for imported ideologies, religious or otherwise. Vicente Rafael (1998) describes the process of Tagalog2 conversion to Roman Catholicism under early Spanish rule as one of translation. That is, in the conversion process, Filipinos interpreted events and symbols through their own local categories, sometimes producing entirely unexpected and new meanings of Catholic rituals and colonial power relations. Pre-�colonial native notions of reciprocity and debt, for example, combined with Roman Catholicism to form uniquely Filipino concepts and practices within, and sometimes in opposition to, Catholicism and Spanish rule. Concepts such as utang na loob (debt of gratitude) and hiya (shame)—central to reciprocity and the formation of social relationships— colored Tagalogs’ relationships with the Christian God and Catholic religious authorities. According to Rafael, Tagalogs conceived of God as a benefactor to whom they were constantly in debt, a debt that could be repaid only at death. This perspective bound the Filipino in an obligatory relationship with God and the church.

Religion in the Philippines has always been part of the language through which power relationships and political and economic change have been understood, manipulated, and resisted. For example, Spanish colonialism and the penetration of foreign merchant capitalism in Negros, a Visayan island, was understood by Filipinos as a “clash of spirits” between competing cosmic forces—the foreign merchant capitalists on one side and the Spanish friars on the other (Aguilar 1998:26). Tagalog grassroots resistance movements utilized local interpretations of the passion story of Christ (pasyon) in their struggle against colonialism from 1840 to 1910. While Spanish clerics intended the pasyon to encourage acceptance of suffering and submission to Catholic doctrine and colonial power, Filipinos mobilized the story dramatically for revolution and confrontation.

In 1898, after Filipinos had waged a long fight for independence from Spanish rule, the United States intervened in the islands. Following the Spanish-�American War, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States. Filipino resistance continued during the American colonial period, which finally ended with Philippine independence in 1946. Under American rule, Protestant missionaries and teachers arrived and had relatively modest success in conversion compared to their Catholic predecessors. Their most significant impact was in the transmission of American values and institutions in Philippine society.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Philippine Catholic Church became increasingly involved in political activities in response to widespread abuses of power by the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, eventually expressing open opposition to the dictatorship. As an independent institution, the Church was one among many oppositional forces that led to the 1986 People Power Revolution, which ousted Marcos and restored a democratic form of government. In recent decades the Church has continued to be a moral and ethical voice in politics.

Today, the country remains overwhelmingly Catholic. However, since the 1970s, and especially since the 1980s, the growing popularity of Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, and charismatic Christianity (a Catholic version of Pentecostalism) has become a major current in the Philippine religious scene, reflecting worldwide trends, especially in the southern hemisphere. As Kessler and Ruland have noted, “While elsewhere in the world Protestant Pentecostals and Evangelicals are the main actors in religious revivals and Christian growth, in the Philippines, this phenomenon is dominated by Catholic Charismatic Renewal”. The El Shaddai group is the largest of the Catholic charismatic groups in the Philippines today.

 

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