THAT seems unlikely, as Catholicism has brainwashed over 20 generations of Filipinos, as Christianity has Western civilization for about two centuries, and its hold on people’s superstitious minds will probably last for another millennium.
Still, President Duterte is not only the first Philippine President ever, but also the first national or even local political leader of note, to take on the Church, and to show his disdain for it. He minced no words last Tuesday: “You are in palaces while your faithful are in squatter areas and then you talk about sanctity? What is your moral ascendancy in the Philippines?” Religion? What is the meaning of it?”
Nobody but only the kind of person Duterte is could have spewed such vitriol on the Church: “Gago”, he described himself, using that term to mean an unorthodox person who does what he thinks is right and doesn’t care what others think about him.
With those kind of words, and his relentlessness—remember his cursing of the Pope for causing traffic in the election period? – in criticizing the Church, Duterte is at least lighting a candle in the vast dark landscape of Filipinos’ worldview, by which they would risk life and limb to touch a wooden statue so they’d get a boon from the Deity, such as visa to the US or a brand-new SUV.*
Duterte is certainly treading on very dangerous ground in challenging religion. Confronting one’s beliefs developed since childhood is not for the faint of heart, as this wakes one up to the realization of an uncaring cold, universe. What if one wakes up in the middle of the night, and realizes that this – this life – is it, and there’s no magical territory one migrates to after death?
Indeed, most Filipinos choose, whether they realize it or not, to have as their mindset throughout their lives what is called Pascal’s Wager (which that 17th century philosopher and mathematician formulated): “If you believe in God, and He exists, you will be rewarded in heaven. And if he doesn’t exist, you won’t know about it, so its best to believe in God.”
Still though, it is challenging to realize that we are probably among the first generations of humankind to have the intellectual tools, and the vast information accumulated by civilization for two thousand years, that could be employed to determine what are superstitious beliefs (made by pre-scientific peoples to make sense of the universe) and what are not, using logical, data-based processes we call the scientific method.
A crude example of course is that we are certain that the sun doesn’t really rise (much less is it the chariot driven everyday across the firmament by the Titan Helios of ancient Greek mythology) in the East and set in the West. Rather, it is the Earth which is revolving around a medium-sized star, one among gazillions in the universe. And this wasn’t proven by the eyewitness accounts of astronauts who orbited the earth in space vehicles just in the past several decades. Long before them, it was deduced by the 16th century mathematician and astronomer using methods that would be developed to an astounding level of sophistication which we call science.
It is the same method — in certain disciplines called anthropology, linguistics, and comparative religious studies — that was employed to examine, starting in the 19th century, what most humans on earth believed were divine revelations written by the Deity’s ghost-writers, that is, “Messengers”, i.e., the Jewish Torah, the New Testament, and the Quran.
However, ancient documents have been even unearthed in the 20th century that shed light on the very human origins of these books that have been considered Words of God, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls in the case of the Torah and the Christian New Testament, and a Syrian-Aramaic text of the Quran.
Scholarship on the man called Jesus Christ and on the origins of Christianity has exploded, starting in the 1980s, given impetus by the so-called Jesus Seminar, a group of about 150 critical international scholars and laymen founded in 1985 that examined the Bible using modern anthropological, sociological and linguistic methods. There is now a magazine and its Web version called Biblical Anthropology, that studies, using the scientific method, almost every facet of society in biblical times. (Example of findings there is that Nazareth didn’t exist when Jesus was born, as the Bible reports; there was no census called to require the Holy Couple to go to Bethlehem.)
The writings of these scholars have been such that the debate is no longer whether Jesus is the Son of God – as the Bible claims – but whether he existed, or was merely a fictional character as unreal (but as powerful in impact on a civilization) as mythical gods like Apollo, Osiris and Zarathustra.
A recent intriguing scholarly book (Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus by Joseph Atwill) even argues that the Jesus myth was invented by the Roman emperors Vespasian and his sons, especially Titus, to create a religion that would counter the passionate belief for a coming military-religious leader termed Messiah of the Jews, who gave the Romans so much trouble that they decided to burn to the ground Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 A.D.
On the other hand, a book by a scholar argues that Muhammed did not exist at all (Did Muhamed Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, by Robert Spencer), that it was an invention by the Arab military leaders to foster, as most religions have been, zeal in their conquests. How was it so easily invented? By hijacking the Syrian version of Christianity that was emerging in the 7th century, which explains why Islam officially believes in such biblical figures as Moses and Jesus. One interesting finding of one scholar on Islam is that the 72 virgins the Quran said jihadists would enjoy in Paradise was a mistranslation from the Syriac-Aramaic text. What the martyrs would enjoy would be raisins, then an expensive delicacy in the Arabian deserts that were out of reach for ordinary warriors.
One of the most uninformed, yet prevalent views is that Christianity can’t be wrong as it has survived for more than 2,000 years, despite its persecution.
This is so totally wrong. Christianity is one of the main religions of the world now, because it was the state religion of one of the biggest and most powerful civilizations the world has seen, Europe. It wasn’t a choice of the vast population of peasants whether to believe in Jesus or not; they had to, or else.
Similarly, Islam is one of the largest religions on earth, because it was the religion first of the Caliphates that emerged out of the Middle East to conquer vast swathes of the world, as far as India, and then of the Ottoman empire of the 13th century that even nearly overran Christian Europe.
That should explain why Mithra, Osiris and Zarathustra didn’t become the Deities of world religions because these didn’t become state religions of vast empires that neared the modern era.
If all Duterte does in his entire six years is to, through his tirades against the Church, make us think about these things, he will leave an important legacy to this nation of superstitious people.
(*”The first time I joined the Black Nazarene procession, I got my wish for a Tamaraw FX. This year I’m wishing for a Pajero,” a devotee said in an interview with an ABS-CBN reporter a few years back.)