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.

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Reference

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

 

 

The Religiosity of the Filipino Catholic Christians

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Photo: St. Joseph Cathedral, Butuan City, Philippines (courtesy of the author)

Surveys on Filipino religiosity by the Social Weather Station (SWS) had consistently revealed a more privatized faith for the Filipino Christians, i.e., a Christian faith focusing only on private spirituality and lacking in social involvement. The results revealed that most Filipinos consider themselves very religious, with very strong beliefs in the existence of God and higher level of participation in religious activities.

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In particular, the Filipino youth (within ages 15 and 30) regarded themselves as religious (extremely religious 9%, very religious 29% and somewhat religious 49% or a total of 89%) in a 1996 SWS survey commissioned for the Philippine Youth Commission. This high level of religiosity is not, however, accompanied by a strong social involvement, particularly in organizational involvement. Only 12 percent of the Filipino youth are involved in church and religious organizations as well as in sports and recreational organizations. With regard to participation in charitable institutions, only 3% of the youth are involved.

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Photo credit: author

In general, most religiosity surveys revealed that the Filipino faith, although high in religious belief, lacked public character. Most of the popular Filipino religious practices are more oriented towards the individual and/or small circle of friends and relatives and lacking in structural dimension demanded by the CST.

Penitence

Photo: Filipino Christians doing in penitence during Holy Week in the Philippines (Source: http://thepinoywarrior.com)

The Filipino religious practice of penitensya (penitence) during Lent, for instance, encourages a pietistic and individualist orientation of faith. Though hugely popular, the devotion remains an individualist effort to atone one’s individual sin and lacking in social dimension. The popular devotion to the Black Nazarene in Quiapo is also devoid of liberational dimension. Many devotees participated in the devotion as a form of personal and familial gratitude due to some material favors they received from the Black Nazarene.

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Photo: The procession of the Black Nazarene of Quiapo (Source: http://theologasia.com)

Fernando Zialcita, a Filipino anthropologist, confirmed this pattern in his earlier study of the black Nazarene devotion. His informants revealed that the motivation in joining the Black Nazarene devotion is more materialist in nature, deviating from the Church’s official spiritual on devotion.  Filipinos rate themselves very high in religiosity and religious beliefs but they did not seem to relate them to social issues and problems as indicated by religiosity surveys and popular devotions in the country like the Black Nazarene.

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Photo credit: author

This finding is consistent with the study done by Dr. Ricardo Abad (2005) on the social capital of Filipinos: Filipinos tend to be affiliated more with their own smaller circles of relatives and friends and less in organizations and associations in the Church or in civil society. The Filipino Christianity is generally a privatized or personal one.

Sto. Nino

Photo: Sinulog procession in honor of the Sto. Nino in Cebu City, Philippines (Source:http://catholicleader.com.au)

The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) says that most of the people’s faith today is centered on the practice of the rites of popular piety and not on community and of building up of the world into the image of the Kingdom (PCP #13), specifically on building up of a faith community and involvement in social issues (PCP II#17). For this reason PCP II recommended a rigorous catechism of the “unchurched” or “nominal” Catholics, that is, the vast majority of Catholics in the Philippines who greatly lack knowledge and formation in the Christian faith, particularly on the Church’s social doctrines. Thus, catechism and Christian formation of Filipino Catholics on the social doctrines of the Church are, therefore, urgently needed in order to develop their Christian social conscience and  spirituality of social transformation.

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One must remember that the Christian faith is neither all about social activism and pietism nor solely about saving the individual’s soul, but a fine blend of spiritual and social struggle for the total liberation of the individual and society from all forms of personal and social sins. The Second Vatican Council emphasized that the mission of the Church in the contemporary world is helping human being to discover God as the ultimate meaning of his/her existence (CSDC #576). The Church’s mission is the total salvation of the individual and society from spiritual and material slavery.

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Legal Pluralism, Corruption, and Red Tape as Obstacles to Philippine Disaster Response

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It has been observed that the dominant response and action on disaster management in Southeast Asia had been on post-disaster activities and particularly on emergency response” (Bildan 2003; Jegillos 2003). And of the ten countries in the world most imperiled by climate change (in terms of the number of people likely to be affected), four are in Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines (Elliot, 2012, p.40). The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone Southeast Asian countries. Around 70 percent of its disasters are due to hydro-meteorological phenomena such as typhoon and flooding.

Ondoy

Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) that hit the Philippines in 2009 revealed differential vulnerabilities of the population. The most vulnerable regions and communities in the country are those that are highly exposed to the changes expected in the climate and have limited adaptive capacity. The Philippines has limited economic resources, low levels of technology, poor information and skills, poor infrastructure, unstable or weak institutions, and inequitable empowerment and access to resources have little capacity to adapt and are highly vulnerable (IPCC, 2001) (Penalba, Elazegui, Pulhin & Cruz, 2012, p.310). Disaster victims in the Philippines are usually the urban poor who are totally dependent on social services. These people are usually less able to respond effectively to disasters (Cutter, Boruff, and Shirley 2003; Morrow 1999; See & Porio, 2015). Thus, the socially and economically marginalized are usually mostly ignored during disaster recovery (Morrow 1999; Tobin and Ollenberger 1993).

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Aside from being vulnerable to climate change and disasters, the Philippines is also known for legal pluralism and bureaucratic burdens in real estate business. Establishing a post-disaster housing and relocation for disaster victims such the flood victims of Typhoon Ketsana requires compliance with the multiple legal and bureaucratic requirements. The rigid regulatory requirements attending housing and land development contribute significantly to higher costs and increased inaccessibility of low-cost housing. Due to the different permits, clearances, licenses and procedures that must be obtained from various agencies other than that of housing, completion of these requirements often takes two-and-a-half to three years (Valte, 2002).

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Red tape and corruption often dominate the low-cost housing system that assists homeless disaster victims in the country. To circumvent the tedious process of securing permits and registrations, real estate developers and contractors often provide bribe money to some unscrupulous government bureaucrats to speed up real estate transactions. This “hidden cost” of corruption is ultimately passed on to end-users in the form of high-priced and/or sub-standard housing products” (Valte, 2002). To government-accredited contractors and developers, post-disaster housing, just like any other low-cost housing in the government, is a huge business enterprise. The extra costs they incurred in securing the necessary permits, licenses and other bureaucratic requirements due to corruption are passed on to the government financing institutions which are obliged under a joint venture agreement to purchase their housing units. Ultimately, the homeless typhoon victims who will eventually become recipients of the developer’s weak houses in government’s disaster-prone relocation sites.

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Finally, access to the poor disaster victims to housing projects usually requires political patronage or sponsorship of politicians. The rigid formal regulation that needs multiple requirements for housing applications implies more suffering for disaster victims. It requires sponsorship from politicians and government officials from different government agencies who can facilitate the approval of their housing applications. The informal regulation based on cultural norms further increases the difficulty of the poor disaster victims own houses in relocation areas. In this case, the popular informal normative systems–based on dominate Filipino values–known in the Philippine politics such as palakasan (patronage), utang-na-loob (debt-of-gratitude), pakikisama (camaraderie), and Padrino (sponsorship) systems dominate the normative system to overcome red tape and rigidity in housing regulation resulting in some forms of corruption. This dominance of informal norms can eventually lead to negative unintended effects which sideline the government’s rule-based PDR goals as articulated in the country’s primary disaster management legislation–the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction Management Act of 2010 (PDRRMA).

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