Joseph Cole read Politics and Religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and did postgraduate management studies at the London School of Economics. Now based in Manila, he spent a year volunteering in microfinance in the Philippines. This article was published in the Business world on September 22, 2008, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

Religion has always fascinated me. I grew up in a small town with lots of old churches, old priests, and to a certain extent old people (who tend to be religious). I thought I came from a fairly religious place…and then I came to the Philippines and I realized I was completely wrong.

People sometimes forget that there is more than one religion and no one knows for certain which one is right. If you disagree with the latter statement then you cannot be faithful to your own religion (if you have one); nothing is certain about god(s) so you’ve got to have faith. Religion is a profession of faith, not fact; it is effectively a hope. I hope that X will happen to me when I pass away, assuming I have been doing Y in accordance with the teachings of X.  If it was fact then you wouldn’t have to believe in it the same way you don’t believe in a table; it’s just there. (Or is it? Let’s not get metaphysical.) This is why religious people are “people of faith.”

There is a problem with the Philippines being a Catholic country: it isn’t. There are lots of thriving religious minorities here. In religious usage of a political term, the Philippines suffers from the tyranny of the majority – a dangerous thing, especially if you are a religious minority.

Maintaining this prejudice of religion in public life undoubtedly has a negative economic impact not least because government policy often seems based on this faith alone. Take the lack of family planning, which leads to overpopulation, over-subscription (of services), un- and under-employment, cheap labor, etc. Simple birth control measures would lower population and create employment; if parents were allowed to bring up just three children, or even two, they would have substantially more free time to spend inventing, buying, and due to the lower population, working.

The priests who perform at these public events should really know better and realize the impact of their actions (I’m fairly sure it’s actually against Church dogma) as they are giving god’s blessing by appearing, which is a little like divine right. Divine right caused major conflict in medieval Europe and may still in places like Iran; it has never ended peacefully.

A politician can be religious, but politics should not be. The Philippines, like the USA’s, constitution (the UK does not have a written constitution – we have lots of lawyers instead) separates Church and State. “Section 6. The separation of Church and State shall be inviolable.” So, does the forbearance of religion at public events make a crime as it breaks the constitution? And, here we see that discrimination again. Church has Christian, specifically Catholic, connotations. Muslims pray at Mosques, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus at Temples. I’m not sure where animists pray, maybe in similar places to pagans, so fields and wooded areas possibly shrubberies. Dogs don’t need to be religious because all dogs go to heaven, and though I’m not a cat person I accept that they will go there too. So a better statement may be ‘the separation of religions and State shall be inviolable. Though we have nothing per se against religion, it’s just we’d like everyone to be equal and religion is a bit of a touchy subject so lets just leave it alone but feel free to be religious when you are not in public.’

Religion is a fundamental inescapable aspect of life for many people and associating Roman Catholicism with the institutions and people of state, indeed as the very essence of being Filipino, it seems to give the impression that non-Catholics have nothing in common with the state, its institutions, and presumably the nation (a sort of religious adaptation of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities). In which case, wouldn’t you want your own state where you can have your own politicians and pray to your own god?

The Philippines has a large Muslim separatist movement, and a long running Communist rebellion. Why would politicians wish to alienate these people further? Though Marx wasn’t anti-religious per se (he was a anti-Semitic Jew though) he simply saw it as a symptom of a corrupted economy, arguing that it is used by the oppressor bourgeois to validate extreme wealth imbalance whereas the religious poor would say Luke 18:25, Qur’an 2:276 or ‘El Shaddai’. Wait – Corruption. Poverty. Inequality. Prosperity gospels…that sounds just like…everywhere except the likes of Sweden, Norway and Finland , sadly.

While I do not for one instant believe that the use of Roman Catholic priests at state events is a deliberate act of discrimination, it does discriminate and it is a deliberate act (they are arranged after all). If religion is deemed to be necessarily integral to the functioning of Filipino life (see Max Weber for why this may not be a good idea) then it must be democratic; if a priest is to give a blessing then so should representatives from all other faiths. See Luke 23:34. Or Qu’ran 7.55.

Equality is equally as important as religion; but religion is not equal in the Philippines (nor is anything else the cynic might say). There is very little difference between having overtly Roman Catholic politics and only say allowing men of a certain age, income, and political inclination to vote; it is alienation, oppression and it is ultimately incredibly costly to the countries growth. Division has major economic complications It’s better to multiply; see the parable of the Talents.

Equal rights go so much further than politics; it is about freedom and representation and still more. Think that Jesus was/is the ‘Prince of Peace’ and that Islam is literally the religion of peace (Islam is derived from Salam, as in ‘Al-Salamu Alaikum’/Peace be on you).

Next time a priest blesses a ceremony, especially a political or state event, we should think about the politics behind the religion (and the religion behind the politics) and the connotations it has for those who are not of the same faith, particularly if there is no representation from another religion. Compare it to the political equivalent of no votes for women. What would you think then and do about that, and what would be the economic cost of such a policy to the nation?  What is the economic cost of massive overpopulation? The answer is blowing in the wind. Along with the incense.