I guess I must declare from the outset of this post that I am an atheist. Of course this doesn’t mean anything for anyone else – in fact I think religion is a great thing if it works for a person, it just doesn’t for me, thanks to my ruthlessly logical and scientific mind. Being able to find solace, or courage, or meaning in religion is wonderful, and I have seen that it can do amazing things for people. My problem therefore is not so much with spirituality, but with organised religion. I encountered a lot of both in the Philippines, some of which made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and some of which I didn’t mind at all. It is a very Catholic country (something that is a relic of Spanish colonialism, with which I have a whole other set of issues entirely), which is sometimes overt, for instance in the case of the insular Iglesia ni Christo churches, but often it is not. Nevertheless, I was not bothered by the presence of religion in most places I went.
During my stay, we spent some time with a priest, Father Paul, who is amazing, and deservedly well respected in Payatas for the incredible things he has done. Because Filipinos are so religious, he has been able to achieve some very positive things because he is a priest, and people are generally more receptive to what he has to say, which at times can be fairly radical. In such an environment, an enlightened and respected individual like him can make a far greater difference than anyone else, particularly western ‘experts’ or researchers who haven’t got a clue what’s going on (myself included). However, because priests have so much authority, it matters what they have to say, and who they are – everyone has a worldview, and everyone has an agenda. My concern is more that the church impedes development in the Philippines, while those doing truly good work are in the minority.
At the moment, there is a bill going through Parliament called the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill. As could probably be predicted it refers to universal access to information about things like abortion, family planning and contraception. As could also be predicted, the Catholic Church is vehemently against it, and implementation of the law has been delayed as a result of opposition. On the side of one church we saw a sign that proclaimed the government should be opposing the RH bill because it would a) create terrorism, b) (I paraphrase) turn children into sexualised monsters and c) create poverty. The ridiculousness of this sign is most scary because people are taken in by it. In what world does being able to choose whether or not to have a child create more poverty? Surely, it does the exact opposite. The imposition of the Church’s fearful remonstrations and opinions is what I find disgusting – taking away from people who often lack access to basic sex education the right to think for themselves and take control of their own bodies, families and lives.
Of course, I found the expectation to sing hymns and say grace a strain too, but those are the kinds of things I can deal with out of respect for the people I am with. Besides, I find the expectation to sing karaoke a strain too, even at the best of times (i.e. two bottles of Red Horse down). It is only when I see the flagrant abuse and institutionalised, systemic undermining of progress by the Catholic church that I have a problem with it. It is under these circumstances that one can really see where Marx was coming from when he spoke about religion being the “opiate of the masses”. The Catholic Church is bad enough, but the cultish Iglesia ni Christo is far worse. The stories I heard about the links to big money and organised crime are enough to turn your stomach, even before you consider the positions it takes and the way it tries to place its ministers into promising government positions.
My experience with the particular Filipino brand of religion was thus pretty mixed. On the one hand it felt incredibly overbearing, and a hindrance on the personal development of people, and on the development of the nation as whole. Meanwhile, on the other, I felt that on an individual level it gave people hope and purpose – which can’t be derided. I feel that the problem is when religion is used imperialistically, much as it is elsewhere in the developing world. Spirituality supersedes borders, whereas organised religion is often needlessly used to realise ulterior ambitions – and therein lies the problem.
After my month doing research (and having fun) in the Philippines, I thought it was only fitting to write down some of my experiences. Mostly I have put things into sections, but some of it is a splurge. Here’s the first instalment (more when I have time to type):
I went to the Philippines primarily to do research for my final year of university. Admittedly it was also a very good excuse for a wicked holiday, but as I got funding for it, it was decidedly more research-orientated. I spent a solid 2 weeks meeting shiny bureaucrats and engineers and took wind measurements twice every day, all for jokes, obviously. I was well angry because I dragged a HUGE water flow meter all the way from Norwich (on my bike) to London, to the Philippines, and then got it to the river, where it was way too dangerous to use because it was rainy season. I couldn’t have been more miffed, honestly, but I can’t say I didn’t expect it. In all, my research went swimmingly – mostly because I had a lot of help in the way of things like Tagalog translation, introductions, moral support, and anemometer readings – thanks Josh. Going in person to meet all of the people that mattered is obviously the way to get things done – as I suspected. Well, it shows you mean business, and sadly in the developing world a well-dressed white girl with a mean look on her face can go a longer way than nameless emails can.
If there’s one thing the Philippines does well, it’s bureaucracy; as I found out to my detriment. I got more annoyed than I probably should have done by the amount of red tape surrounding everything, which would be enough to hang an elephant with room to spare. I should have known from the outset when my emails to various government bureaucrats got repeatedly bounced between different offices in a bizarre kind of secretarial ping-pong match. Some Department of Energy officials have something nuts like seven secretaries – that’s the assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the assistant to the PA of the secretary to the officer in charge of their specific section, and there are a helluva lot of those… Well, it’s one way of filling an office I guess. To visit the DOE, I had attempted to get in contact for weeks, but to no avail. The department seems to have enveloped itself in an impenetrable thicket of red tape to ensnare all but the most well connected or determined. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I was the former – it took a phone call from a rich Christian bigwig in the PNA who I happened to encounter through Josh’s connections with the charity to a school friend of his to get me a meeting. I was expecting a five-minute splurge, so it seemed odd after all that to see how eager and willing to help these guys were. The man I intended to meet seized a passing colleague, who had more answers than I had questions – he was still going long after my list had been exhausted. They then proceeded to take us on a tour of the whole renewables department, introducing me to (and I don’t mean this lightly) literally everyone he knew in each office. He picked up his friend from a basement office and the two of them – both funny little old men – gibbered away unintelligibly in English (not either of their first language), holding hands and taking us to every office to meet various workers. We only didn’t meet Big Boss Mario, who curtly replied to my emails by palming me off to his underlings, because “he doesn’t have the time for the likes of us”. Josh and I exchanged incredulous looks and suppressed the giggles rising in our throats while we were paraded around through the shiny hallways, cramped offices, and cafeteria.