Can Poverty Make One Religious and Prayerful?

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Introduction

In one of my research studies on the religiosity of the victims of Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) in the Philippines, one of the strongest typhoons to hit the country, two Filipino mothers who were urban poor and who survived from the disaster, narrated to me vividly on how God saved her and her family from rising flood of the dangerous typhoon.

The first informant was Aling Sonia, 28 years old, a mother of six also claimed that God saved them physically from harm:

I said in my prayer at that time when the floor water was rising: My God, spare me from danger because my children are still very young. I am also pregnant and am about to give birth. Please save us from danger. Come what may, if we are left without belonging as long as we are all saved. And my prayer was answered. We were rescued/brought to a higher place and were brought to the evacuation center of Barangay San Isidro before we were given a house unit in the relocation.”

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The second one was Aling Anita, 45 years old, an ambulant vendor with 6 children, for instance, claimed that God personally saved her children from the typhoon by performing a miracle. She believed that God sent her friend to save her children from the flood:

“The rain was so heavy on that morning. I peddled breakfast from house-to-house every morning. While walking, somebody told me that the flood was already very high in our place. The makeshift houses there were already washed away. I hurriedly went home but was stranded because of the high flood on the roads. I was very worried but I kept on praying fervently that God would save my 6 little kids. At that very moment God heard my prayer. Somebody told me that a friend of mine who resided far from our place saved my children. I later learned that my friend remembered that I was vending every morning and that no one might save my children. So she went to my house even if it is far. Her arrival was on time. She was able to bring all my children to higher ground before our house was swept away by rampaging water. I was really thankful to our Lord God for saving my family from Typhoon Ondoy.”

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A key question in sociology of religion is: Why do people become religious?

Deprivation Theory and Religiosity

One theory that aims to answer the question on why people become religious is the deprivation theory. This theory maintains that “religious commitment is the result of compensation that religion provides in situations where individuals meet obstacles in life in search for alternative goals” (Furset & Repstad, 2006, p.111). According to this theory, grievances in life, such as poverty, lack of safety or imminent danger in disaster situations, difficult personal problems, and other forms of deprivations in life, can make people religious and prayerful to God.

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There are different types of deprivation theories in sociology. But the economic deprivation theory, in particular, explains that poverty can make people religious. The more people experience financial hardships, extreme poverty, or material deprivation in life, the more they become religious.

There is always the issue whether one must glorify poverty or condemn it in relation to one’s religiosity. There seems to be a popular perception that to be poor rather than rich is desirable in the eyes of God.

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Is it really true that material poverty is blessed by God?

Poverty in Spirit

The Bible and the church teachings do not actually condemn rich people for having more wealth. What is condemned is inordinate attachment to wealth or greediness. One can become wealthy and still detached from material things and generous to other people. Some disciples of Christ, such as Joseph of Arimathea, are rich people, but they are not greedy and use their wealth to oppress others.

If one examines the Bible, the poor of Yahweh or anawim do not necessarily refer to materially-deprived people. The primary trait of being a “poor of God” is being attached to God and detached from wealth, i.e., wealth is not seen as the ultimate end of life but only a means to achieve one’s salvation. The Calvinist protestants, for example, believe that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, being materially rich is a sure sign that one is blessed by God and predestined to be with Him in heaven.

Poverty and Religiosity

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There is a scarce sociological research that relate poverty with religiosity. But there seems to be a weak correlation between the two. Material poverty makes people busy with their jobs and livelihood in order to survive or sustain one’s family. Thus, it takes away from people some precious time and space to reflect, pray, or attend religious activities. It makes them preoccupied with subsistence that would make their mental states indisposed to prayer and meditation.

Busy people do not have the luxury of reflecting over their life and spiritual beliefs. If we just observe the life and routine of many urban poor in the informal sector, we can conclude that poverty does not make people disposed to religiosity, particularly to public religiosity, i.e., attending public rituals such the Mass and sacraments for Catholics, joining religious organizations, and attending communal activities of the parish church.

Private Religiosity of the Poor

Despite poverty, many poor people still manage to nurture their private religiosity or personal beliefs in God and private devotions. Many urban poor women are privately religious. This is shown in my study with Typhoon Ketsana victims and with my interviews with my key informants who were urban poor women in a relocation area.  Many, for example, believe that God saved them from the flood and typhoon, although all of them rarely attended the Holy Mass.

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The popular Black Nazarene devotion in Quiapo, Philippines, for instance, illustrates how poor people can still enhance their private devotions in spite of their difficult and hectic daily schedule for subsistence.

Praise God that you read this post. Feel free to comment and share it to others. Thanks and God bless!

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Reference

Furseth, I. & Repstad, P. (2006). An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion:  Classical and Contemporary Perspectives. England: Ashgate.