JUNE 18 — It was impossible not to be enthralled by the San Agustin Church in the middle of the walled city of Intramuros in Manila.
As soon as you enter, your eyes are immediately drawn to the arching ceiling, and as your sight adjusts you realise that the “carvings” are actually trompe l’oeil — a 2D painting that gives an optical illusion to seem 3D.
On the Sunday I visited, it was roughly 15 minutes before the next Sunday Mass, so I was lucky to have some time to admire the Baroque architecture of the church that was built by the colonial Spaniards in the late 16th century.
When the clock struck 10, tourists were diverted to the adjacent museum. Worshippers took their seats, most were not even in their “Sunday best.”
It was a similar scene in the Manila basilica located just half a kilometre away, still in Intramuros. Although the attitude was slightly more laissez faire here.
Tourists lingered at the sides as the mass concludes, some even joined the line to receive blessings from the priest.
But rather than the sombre grandeur of the San Agustin Church, the basilica was decorated by statues and colourful stained glass windows. It was slightly ethereal inside.
If anything, it is undeniable religious buildings tend to inspire awe and wonder, no matter what you believe in, or don’t.
The splendour of the two churches can be compared to Fort Santiago at the northern tip of the Intramuros.
Similarly built at the end of the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors, the citadel along Pasig River serves as the centre of defence for the walled city.
Together, Intramuros became the nexus from which the Spanish consolidated their grip over the region for the next 300 years or so.
But walking around the fort gives you a feeling that it was rather small for an occupying force. It feels even a bit smaller than say, our A Famosa fort built by the Portuguese in Malacca. Although most of the latter, built in the earlier 16th century, did not really survive the ravages of time and war.
I was in Manila for the annual Asian Humanism Conference last weekend, and the answer for that conundrum was offered by one of the speakers there, historian Prof Xiao Chua of the De la Salle University, Manila.
According to Chua, the dominance of the Spaniards of the Filipinos was not achieved just by guns, but rather by gospel. Which would explain the centralised position of churches in Intramuros. Life back then, he said, revolved around the Church.
This historical context gave me a new insight into the struggle of secularists and humanists in the Philippines, whom an article by journalist Michael French in The Atlantic in March this year described as “less Richard Dawkins, more Christian missionary”, in reference to the caustic New Atheist.
For them, their colonisers were not only Spanish, but they were also Christians. The fact that over 90 per cent of the population is now Christian — most of them Catholics — was a mark of the colonisers’ success. To fight against organised religion is to fight against post-colonialism.
On paper, the Philippines is a secular country with clear separation of Church and State marked in the Constitution. The reality, as always, is very much different.
The Catholic Church has been vocal about the Reproductive Health Bill which guarantees universal access to birth control, sexual education, and maternal care. It was stalled for over a decade due to the Church’s opposition and was finally passed in 2012, but continued to face judicial reviews afterwards.
Abortion, divorce and same-sex marriage are still illegal due to the Church’s opposition.
But dismantling churches without providing an alternative may be counter-productive. Even non-believers need psychological and emotional support, especially when they leave an organised religion.
While the penalty is not as severe as mandated death by a mob, ex-Christians there would still get ostracised, or disavowed.
In the conference, a question was asked about how those who feel like they are different from society can mentally cope with the alienation, especially for those who have no Supreme Being to turn to. “You need friends,” said a psychologist who was one of the speakers.
There are three prominent groups for non-believers in the country: the Philippine Atheists and Agnostics Society (PATAS), Filipino Freethinkers, and the Humanist Alliance Philippines, International (HAPI). Together, they have evolved over the last eight years to offer non-believers a place in society so they would not feel alone.
The groups also organise charity events for the less fortunate all across the country. Several of their chapters hold arts and music events. They also plant thousands of trees each year.
All in all, not that much different from the Church itself. And maybe that is the point.
It still fascinates me that the so-called national hero of the Phillipines was Jose Rizal, who was not a warrior or even a politician — but a polymath and ophthalmologist who was famous for his novels, although he is no less a freedom fighter. This was perhaps a stark contrast with other nations in the region.
If opposing organised religion is opposing post-colonialism, then how do you do that in countries where the dominant organised religion is part of the liberators against the Western colonialists? Obviously it is a different story.
But there are similar themes. And it calls for a community that offers a safe space, and a chance to do good for goodness’ sake. A tripod made of advocacy, fraternity and charity could be a starting point for such an activism.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.