There’s The Rub

Beliefs

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Not altogether surprisingly, the Philippines topped the world in faith. Fully 94 percent of us said we had always believed in God. We were followed by Chileans (88 percent) and Americans (81 percent).

Interestingly, I had read before this that though belief in God has not declined significantly in the United States, belief in organized religion had. There has been a fairly precipitous plunge, particularly among the youth, many of whom still believed informally in some kind of divinity but not in the God of Christianity, Islam or any of the major religions. But that’s another story.

At about the same time as the first survey, another survey came out, from CNNGo, a travel advisory website, which said Manila was the third worst city in the world for driving. That was quite apart from air pollution, garbage collection, flood control and the need for security that its residents had to endure daily. Strange, the CNNGo said, since in 2001 Manila borrowed $60 million from the World Bank for transit-related activities, specifically to promote non-motorized transport.

So what happened to the money? That brings us to another survey done by PERC in 2007, which rated the Philippines the most corrupt country in Asia. Indonesia and Thailand were a poor second (they were tied) to us. I don’t know how we’ve done since, or particularly since P-Noy took over. But pushing back corruption being a thing that happens slowly, and in countries like ours with a massive dose of it exceptionally so, we couldn’t have gotten over the hump in dramatic fashion in so soon a time.

We do know that last year, the CNBC listed the Philippines as one of the 10 “most difficult countries in the world to do business in.” We were the most difficult in Asia. “Foreign businesses are wary of the Philippines’ unstable legal system, violence, and bureaucracy,” CNBC said. It also noted however that P-Noy’s visits to the United States and China have sent the message “that things are changing in the country after two previous administrations were dogged by corruption allegations.”

Just as well, still another survey, Light of Peace, tagged Manila as the third most dangerous city in Asia, after Kabul and Baghdad. The fact that we are “just third” is not a comforting thought, given that the first two are war-torn. Manila, it said, “is notorious for street crimes. A large number of unlicensed firearms are possessed by the gangsters who are on a robbing spree almost every night. If you happen to visit Manila you must avoid slum areas and do not roam about in poorly lit areas of downtown. In most of the cases the police is also found to be an accomplice of the criminals so you may not get justice without bribing the officials.”

What are we to make of this? That religion and progress do not mix? That religion is, if not the opium of the masses, the folly of the people?

I remember again the foreigner who used to write letters to the editor regularly expressly arguing that religion, Catholicism in particular, was the bane of this country. He was all for family planning, finding the country’s rapid population growth alarming, a threat not just to the country but to the world, and saw the Catholic Church as the obstacle to it.

It’s a proposition Tony Meloto has been at pains to debunk, though he himself has wondered why the one country in Asia—and as it turns out now the world—that believes so doggedly in God should be dogged so god-awfully by poverty and benightedness. He refuses to accept it, arguing his case not by words but by deeds. Certainly, his argument has rung pretty loudly in the world: Only last month, Gawad Kalinga received an award from the Skoll Foundation, a group dedicated to advancing social entrepreneurship.

I myself suspect it has to do with the kind of religion we have. True enough, not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter heaven, particularly when they mean gambling lord, drug lord, and warlord. Less facetiously, what we have is a religion that encourages ritual, obligatory gestures, extrinsic displays of fervor. At the very least, it makes belief superficial. You hear Mass every Sunday, confess your sins regularly, and donate to the Church (lands are preferable), you’re free to screw others the rest of your life. At the very most, it makes belief self-centered or plain selfish. Who cares about everybody else so long as I can buy enough indulgences to save my soul?

We are probably also one of the 10 countries in the world that have the most laws. We have a law for just about everything, Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo having contributed an entire library to it. But we are also one of the most lawless countries in the world. For the same reason, law functions the same way. It is ritualistic, extrinsic, and in Miriam’s case, ballistic.

Neither religion nor law is internalized. We are deeply religious without being deeply spiritual. We are deeply pious without being deeply moral.

Someone told me not too long ago he had just backpacked in Vietnam, staying in cheap hostels, trekking in remote places, and taking a creaking bus all the way to Angkor Wat. I asked him if he felt afraid at any time about getting mugged or harmed in any way. He said no. I asked him if that was so because the country was well-patrolled, with the cops and soldiers doing their jobs well. He said no again. It was just that the people there were disciplined. The place had one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Though petty crime did take place sporadically, most people thought it was crazy. Crime didn’t pay, in more ways than Eliot Ness ever imagined.

That is internalizing things. That is doing something because it is the right thing to do. That is faith.

That is, well, believing in what we ourselves are pleased to call God.

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