Parang gusto ko sumali sa Iglesia ni Cristo,” I said to a chat group last year, expressing a joking interest in joining because I thought the unification of their people was admirable, to say the least. At that time, Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) was celebrating its 100th anniversary, and an estimated two million members had flocked to a church-owned complex in Bulacan to partake in the festivities.
“Bawal uminom sa Iglesia, FYI,” responded my friend Pao bluntly, who was trying to point out that our lifestyle of habitual partying wouldn’t make the cut. “Bawal nagsh-shorts dun,” chimed in another friend Emma. “Bawal din ang gambling,” added Pao with finality. “We may not go to casinos, but we gamble with our feelings,” he joked.
When thousands of INC members converged on EDSA last weekend, the solidarity was apparent; but the reasoning for what brought them all together in first place seemed confusing, especially when TV reporters asked the protesters themselves what they were protesting for. “For the separation of church and state,” they would say. But when probed further regarding the issue, one responded, “We will protest until our church leaders tell us to (stop).” Religious devotion is a fascinating thing. I grew up in an all-girls’ Catholic school all my life. I learned how to say my Hail Marys before I learned how to read, and it became easier for me to do the sign of the cross than it was to show gratitude to a classmate. We prayed before and after every class, and I memorized prayers in three languages, too — English, Tagalog and Spanish. I was an altar girl in high school (though in hindsight, maybe I just liked the attention). And when I finally graduated, I went to a non-secular college. On the first day of my sociology class, my professor had asked me what religion I observed, and when I told him I was a Catholic, he asked me, “Why?”
The question, though fundamental, had never occurred to me before. “Why are you a Catholic?” he asked, and I didn’t have an answer. For me, it was just something I was born with, I thought — sort of like being female. You just grow up not questioning it (unless it felt wrong), and now he was asking me why.
I’ve always had tussles with authority. Because my school was a Catholic school, I was never allowed to ask questions about the rules; I was just obliged to follow them. But I grew up and out of that institution, which meant going through a process of discovering and becoming a person of my own. Finally I was allowed to find my own voice and my own truths, and to struggle to live up to these instead. Sometimes, even today, my personal truths don’t align with those that were imposed upon me at birth. For example, I learned that not everything is black and white, right and wrong, moral and immoral. I learned that the world is filled with gray areas that require a complex type of understanding. For me, getting out of the Catholic institution was crucial so I could come to terms with who I really am, and to find out what my faith really means to me. Just because you exceedingly impress your religious teachers, or are active in various religious organizations (which was how it was for me), all of that means nothing when you cannot even answer the question, “Why are you doing it?” (And at 21, “Because my parents told me so” isn’t valid anymore.)
My best friend Denise, who I grew up with since grade school, is an agnostic atheist today. She says it’s just something she decided after extensive reading and learning. For her, it just makes the most logical sense that there exists no higher being; while another close friend of mine, Jean, who also grew up Catholic, has found a deeper religious calling with her Christian church group in Singapore, where she was re-baptized on the beaches of Sentosa.
I am not a religious person. I go to Mass every Sunday with the family out of love for my parents, because I respect their faithful conviction. I respect the devotion of my mom who goes to church every day, or my dad who sits down every night at his study table to close his eyes and pray. Sometimes, we will not get along, because while their beliefs are deeply rooted to their church, I read Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Twitter every Sunday night and find my connection may be more attuned to that of the universe. (Neil is an astrophysicist. Google him.) Call it what you may — a prophecy, your fate, a calling, a choice — but only you can decide where to place your faith. And only a faith that is decided on with sincerity is one that is worth fighting for. For me, maybe the only thing more disheartening than a religious extremist is one who follows blindly.