cross.jpg It was a warm evening in the great metropolis, Manila. Pia Delgado took off her jacket and tossed it together with her leather briefcase onto the front seat of her car, and then drove out of the car park onto the main road.

She slowed to a stop at a red light on Ayala Avenue and came upon a common sight. Descending on the cars that had come to a standstill were young children begging for coins. One of the boys going from car to car caught her eye. He had light brown hair and unusually fair skin. She shook her head wearily and inferred that his mother probably had no profession to resort to other than the oldest one in the world. The woman’s life was complicated enough by her poverty, but with this country being unrealistically devout, the Government and the Church make no effort to prevent her problems from multiplying.

As Pia sat in the comfort of her car, she wondered what it would take to make this country the progressive nation it should be, so that its citizens would enjoy a better quality of life. A multitude of social, political and economic changes have to be considered. She likened the august undertaking to a spider spinning its web, a tedious work but a pursuit that was essential to survival.

Pia recalled a discussion one afternoon after class when she and her friends met together at Delaney Hall, the building adjacent to the Catholic Church at the University of the Philippines. Father Umali welcomed students who used the Hall as a place to congregate on campus. He would sometimes drop by and join them in their talks. Those who knew the priest well called him Derps, a play on the word ‘Padre’.

Raoul and Eric were there. Marites also came that afternoon. Pia wondered how Marites could be so devout. She was studying to become a lawyer, a logical and analytical profession; but she went to mass everyday, she prayed the rosary with a group of elderly women on Sunday afternoons, she went to confession every week and she knew all the Catholic holidays and observed them all. Pia often wondered what a future lawmaker would need to confess; her life appeared faultless. But religion to many, Pia thought as she sat in her car, is a matter of piety, and a majority of the pious are ignorant of its philosophy.

“Derps, what purpose is there in reciting prayers by rote?” Marites asked Father Umali, who came and sat with them around a table in the spacious lobby of Delaney Hall.

“Well, Marites, rote prayers are the foundation for how to pray to God,” Father Umali had replied.

“But can’t you use your own words?” Raoul asked. “I think rote praying serves to engrave religious dogmas in your mind. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth… And when we are not reciting prayers, we are asking for something. Please let me pass the exams, please let me win the jackpot in the lottery, please protect me at the wheel… But really, all one has to do is to study hard, buy all the lottery tickets, and drive carefully. It’s rather like a hungry cat asking for it to rain mice.”

“The course of our lives is decided by God, and if you ask for Divine Intervention, then you shall receive it. But He can do with you according to His Will.”

Eric sat up with a start, showing disagreement in his countenance with what Father Umali just said. “Derps,” he said, “that kind of thinking is very destructive. That makes people believe that they have no responsibility for their own lives because a god predetermines their fate. That makes us believe that prayer solves problems. So here we are taking a leisurely stroll through life because for centuries you have induced us to believe that Someone up there is looking after us. That attitude restricts initiative. You have taught the people to know no defence but Christian resignation. It’s up to God, you say. The fact of the matter is, how your life turns out to be is up to you.”

Pia watched the cars pass on the perpendicular road, as she waited for the light to turn green. A policeman on a wooden platform in the middle of the intersection whistled now and then, as he directed the traffic to move along.

“There is something about religion,” Eric had said quietly, “that draws the weary, the desperate, the lonely, the lost, the troubled and the dying. What everyone is really searching for is an inner peace. But if one should choose religion to be their sanctuary of inner peace, at least be rational about it.”

“I think,” Raoul concluded, “that in mankind’s search for the meaning of life, a better afterlife becomes a goal. Be good now, so you will go to heaven. Be ascetic, so you won’t be reborn as a cockroach…”

The traffic light had turned green, but the policeman standing on the raised wooden platform continued to motion the cars on the perpendicular road to move along. Some impatient drivers tooted their horns.

“But so many people believe in the existence of a God, so it must be true,” Marites had sighed.

Eric clucked his tongue. “Marites, you should know that that is an erroneous argument. It is a mistake to think that something must be true because so many people believe it to be true. In the time before Magellan, it was believed that the world was flat, and that one fell off the rim on the horizon. They made drawing in their books of a square earth and considered it fact. The majority is not always right.”

Eric then turned to Father Umali to address him. “Religious beliefs evolved when Man started to question the mysteries of life–a time when Science was in its rudimentary stage of development, a time when the Church used Fear as a powerful tool to dominate the ignorant.

“Terrifying visual symbols, themes in drawing and paintings, were used to instil fear. The images of Purgatory and Hell are still with us today. And what is Hell? It is an imaginary netherworld used by the Church to frighten the people into obeying you.

“Then in order for the people to remain attached to the Church, you invented a region of temporary suffering called Purgatory. Pray unceasingly so that you won’t roam in total darkness in Purgatory. The Church uses the threat of endless torment to control people. The images of these horrifying places terrorise the young catechist whose mind is moulded at an early age to believe your teachings blindly. So salvation from a mythical territory of fire and man-eating ogres depends on piety. The power of the Church is derived from terrorising the people.

“Science has answered many of life’s mysteries. Now that we know better, why do you still cling to the primitive doctrines of religion? It is unfortunate that religion is regarded by many to hold exclusive definition of a people’s ethics. But being Christian does not define you to be morally upright.”

Raoul directed his gaze to this symbol of the Church, speaking to him as its representative. “You must keep yourselves,” he said, “in your magnificent edifices and not meddle in State affairs. Do not interfere when the Government tries to control the escalating population by more practical means. Keep your religious fervour and your dogmas confined within the walls of your House.

“Overpopulation is the largest single impediment to improving our quality of life. We have one of the fastest population growth rates in the world. It is unchecked because you make sure that it remains unchecked. The destructive magnitude of overpopulation on our economy is horrendous. We cannot match work opportunities to population growth, causing severe socio-economic inequalities.

“Overpopulation also strains our educational institutions. Our working force is composed of half-baked graduates, churned out by factory-processing schools that lack quality controls because they are unable to cope with large classroom attendance. Neither are there quality checks among our teachers. Burdened by the cost of education, many teachers are below standard because the government cannot find nor recruit better-qualified people who will accept the low salaries. What a wretched situation when it is the solemn responsibility of our educators to forge this nation’s leaders of tomorrow.”

Someone tapping on her car window brought Pia out of her reverie. Will giving the boy some coins solve his state of insufficient resources? The Storybook tells a magical tale of five loaves of bread and two fishes. Can wealth be multiplied by dividing it? Can a few coins help to teach him about working for a living? Is it ethical to receive something you did not earn through labour?

Pia rolled her window down and said, “Find something to do! Shine shoes! Clear someone’s garden! Wash windows! Anything! Work! Be an industrious boy and not an idle one! ”

Taking some coins from her car ashtray, she put them in his waiting palm. “Thank you,” he said, and he hurried to the side, away from harm’s way as the cars started to move on.

Change will take a while, Pia thought. But the time to change was yesterday.