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Are We Losing Faith? An Invitation to the Sociology of Religion in the Philippines

Philippine Social Science Council Social Science Information

Religion in the Philippines, many people say, is in trouble these days. Although the Philippines is still palpably religious on various fronts, it is not uncommon to hear of some people’s lamentations that young people, for example, are not attending church anymore (Cornelio, 2013). Or that people who profess to be religious do not really understand what they believe in at all. Still, others think that religion has become instrumentalist, with God becoming important only in times of need.  In other words, many people question if in fact Filipinos are losing their faith.

In academic circles, some observers have begun pointing to recent trends indicating the possible decline of religiosity. The Social Weather Stations has documented a declining trend in church attendance among Filipino adults from 66% in 1991 to 43% in 2013 (Mangahas, 2011). Among Catholics, the decline is arguably more drastic from 64% in 1991 to 37% in 2013 (Cornelio, 2013).

The discursive recurrence of religious decline is also manifest among commentators and religious individuals. The sociologist Randolf David (2013) notes that although personal faith will not necessarily disappear, “the place of religion in the scheme of society will become sharply defined and limited” as societies modernize. For the Jesuit Joel Tabora (2013), precipitating the fallout among Catholics is their “exasperation” with “the holier-than-thou discourse, the theological bullying, [and] the magisterial declarations” which surfaced as the then Reproductive Health Bill was still being deliberated.  His pastoral experience seeing the desire of many Catholics to leave the Church has led him to believe that it is in trouble.

Rethinking religiosity

In spite of these compelling observations, we still think that the view that religion is in trouble in the Philippines needs to be problematized.  For example, the issue has to do more with institutional Catholicism than with the overall state of religious life in the Philippines. David (2013) notes that the greatest challenge to the dominance of the Catholic Church in the Philippines is the missionizing zeal of Evangelical churches. Marty Macasaet (2009), the president of Don Bosco Technical College, observes that many Catholic youth are drawn to the communal and highly experiential modes of spirituality available in other Christian churches. But because the population is predominantly Catholic, any decline in institutional Catholic religiosity may be misconstrued as decline in religiosity itself. For instance, Eladio Dioko’s (2009) question on whether Filipinos are losing their religion is based on his observations that church attendance has dwindled.

To us, the decline of sacramental religiosity— whether for the Catholic Church or the population at large— is an inadequate indicator of the state of religion in the Philippines today.  There are other indicators, such as personal belief in God, in which Filipinos rate very highly. On various indicators of private belief in God, the Philippines trumps many other countries: 91.9% of Filipinos believe in a personal God, 93.5% profess always having believed in God, and 83.6% say that “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it” (Smith, 2012, p. 7). This is corroborated by documented transformations of popular religious practices, which now includes considerable attention to individual needs and aspirations of devotees (Sapitula 2013).

We also note the emergence of religious innovations or movements that reinvigorate religious life not just in Catholicism but also other traditions (Cornelio, 2008). Charismatic renewal movements in the Catholic and Evangelical churches have become noteworthy as religious spaces for finding personal meaning, with consequences on behavioral discipline and upward mobility (Aguilar Jr., 2006; Miller & Yamamori, 2007; Wiegele, 2005). Pentecostal and Evangelical megachurches, many of which emerged in the 1980s, are also increasingly influential in the Philippines because of their spectacular worship services, public engagement, and an increasingly visible role in politics (Bautista, 2011; Lim, 2009).

Finally, we suggest that religious organizations have begun showcasing their success no longer simply in terms of their number of conversions. In Philippine Catholicism this is apparent with the increasing attention paid to shrines, which have now become spaces for transmitting translocal and mediated forms of devotional piety (Sapitula 2014). Also, constructions of religious sites with grand global appeal such as Iglesia ni Cristo’s Philippine Arena in Bulacan, the El Shaddai’s International House of Prayer in Parañaque City, and Apollo Quiboloy’s Tamayong Prayer Mountain in Davao City demonstrate acts of religious worlding that recast the Philippines as a center in the advancement of global South Christianity (Cornelio, 2014).

New questions

These instances suggest that there are other indicators demonstrating vibrant religiosity in the midst of seemingly declining church attendance. These forms and manifestations in themselves invite many of us to pursue the sociology of religion, through which we can interrogate the different facts of religious belief and practice in our contemporary life.

We agree that it can be difficult to map out the diversity of religious expressions in the Philippines today. Such task is a methodological challenge especially if one would proceed beyond quantitative indicators. We are also aware that defining religiosity in terms of belief, as is implicit to the statistics just cited, assumes that religions are necessarily theological or coherent sets of ideas (Asad, 1993).

It is then pertinent to take a look at everyday expressions of religion in which doctrinal coherence may not be as important as their subjective and practical explanations (McGuire, 2008; Orsi, 1997). Some questions we have in mind are as follows: Given the statistics above, what does belief in God mean to Filipinos at this time? In view of statistical decline in religious attendance, does such belief translate to other concrete religious expressions? What forms of religious expressions are these? With the religious innovations taking shape in Philippine society, we believe these questions contribute toward the advancement of the sociology of religion, which we believe is an increasingly pressing, timely, and relevant undertaking.

New findings

In the face of new questions that merit our attention, we are happy to note scholarly endeavors that push the frontiers of current scholarship by engaging in new trajectories of inquiry. In our own work we have placed premium on concrete expressions of religiosity: there is a perceivable “turn to everyday authenticity” that prioritizes the ways by which believers make sense of faith and action in everyday life (Cornelio 2014). This is quite apparent in modern popular religion, wherein devotees engage their individual biographies and aspirations for “mabuting buhay” (the good life) in the context of deeply-felt translocal transitions (Sapitula 2013, 2014). Aristotle Dy, a contributor in the special issue, invites us to rethink identities and practices in the light of Buddhist-Christian syncretism in Filipino Chinese religiosity [Dy, 2014]. Informed by ethnographic evidence, he highlights devotees’ inclusive mindset that does not perceive contradictions among their plural religious engagements.

In like manner, Filmore Calibo and Enrique Oracion, contributing a piece on Catholic priestly formation, calls for a nuanced treatment of “secular reasons” as important markers of a grounded praxis of seminary formation [Calibo & Oracion, 2014].  Their contribution sidesteps an oppositional view of secular and religious aspirations in favor of a holistic accounting of a young man’s “calling” as a priest. The subtext of their argument is that is high time for us to treat our priests and pastors as members of our communities and thus subjected to the same material and social conditions that we all face.

An innovative approach is also perceivable in the area of religion and politics: in the Philippine context this proves to be especially relevant in light of the Catholic Church’s visibility in public life and policy formation. Fr. Jose Mario Francisco, a Jesuit theologian and contributor in this year’s special issue on Catholicism of the Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints (PSHEV), reflects on the motif of the “Catholic nation” that undergirds the defense of the Catholic Church’s privileged position in public life. In PSR’s special issue, we refer to Eleanor Dionisio’s article [Dionisio, 2014] on the perceived existence of the “Catholic vote” during the 2013 elections. In contrast to the perceived uncompromising stance of the Catholic Church on political matters, she documents actually-existing plurality of conflating and competing discourses within Philippine Catholicism. This demonstrates the internal complexity of contemporary Catholicism in the country and the need to account for the many ways by which Catholics participate in pressing political issues.

A refreshing perspective is also offered by José Edgardo Gomez and Marie Stephanie Gilles [Gomez & Gilles, 2014], who were able to craft a workable modus vivendi between sociology, on one hand, and urban planning and architecture, on the other hand. Bringing their expertise on the planning and use of space, they provide a conceptual map of religious structures in selected sites in Metro Manila. One can be amazed at how diverse Metro Manila has become, as the neighborhoods and skylines boast of an interesting mix of churches, mosques, temples and other emerging forms of religious spaces. Their article further demonstrate how religious structures are enmeshed into cultural and political realities of urban life, which in turn condition they ways by which people make sense of their transcendent experiences. As editors of the special issue on religion, we are thrilled by the interest shown by sociologists and other social scientists to the need for more intriguing questions and more nuanced trajectories of inquiry. We expect this interest to stay with us in the coming years, as more scholars will embark on serious attempts to map out the complexities of religious belonging and disaffiliation in our time. This also resonates with the opportunities afforded by the newly-implemented K-12 basic education in the domain of religious and cultural literacy, where our students break free from monocultural modes of learning and encounter the exigencies of diversity and pluralism in its many forms.

Dr. Jayeel Serrano Cornelio is the new director of the Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University. Dr. Manuel Victor J. Sapitula is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. Both served as editors of the Philippine Sociological Review’s (PSR) Special Issue on the Sociology of Religion [published this year. This piece is an adaptation of the editors’ introduction for the special issue.


Aguilar  Jr., F. V. (2006). Experiencing Transcendence: Filipino Conversion Narratives and the Localization of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity. Philippine Studies 54(4):585-627.

Asad, T. (1993). Genealogies of religion: discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bautista, E. (2011). Mega-churches and senior pastors in the Philippines.  Retrieved from

Calibo, F.D. and E.G. Oracion. (2014). The secular reasons for entering the diocesan priestly formation of young Filipinos. Philippine sociological review 62 (Special Issue on the Sociology of Religion): 65-84. Link:

Cornelio, J. S. (2008). Institutional religion and modernity-in-transition: Christianity’s innovations in the Philippines and Latin America. Philippine studies 56(3), 345-358.

Cornelio, J.S. (2014). Popular religion and the turn to everyday authenticity: reflections on the contemporary study of Philippine Catholicism. Philippine studies: historical and ethnograpgic viewpoints 62(3-4). September-December: 471-500.

Cornelio, J. S. (2015). The governance of religions and urban aspirations in Metro Manila. In P. van der Veer (Ed.), Handbook of religion and the Asian city: Aspiration and urbanization in the twenty-first century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

David, R. (2013). Is the Catholic Church in crisis? Philippine Daily Inquirer, (April 13). Retrieved from Philippine Daily Inquirer website:

Dioko, E. (2009). Filipinos too are losing religion? The Philippine Star, (March 14). Retrieved from The Philippine Star website:

Dionisio, E.A. (2014). Catholic partisanship in the 2013 elections: ‘churchifying’ democracy or democratizing the Church? Philippine sociological review 62 (Special issue on the sociology of religion): 11-40. Link:

Dy, A.C. (2014). The Virgin Mary as Mazu or Guanyin: the syncretic nature of Chinese religion in the Philippines. Philippine sociological review 62 (Special issue on the sociology of religion): 41-64. Link:

Francisco, J.M.C. (2014).  People of God, people of the nation: official Catholic discourse on nation and nationalism. Philippine studies: historical and ethnograpgic viewpoints 62(3-4). September-December: 341-375.

Gomez, J.E.A. and S.N. Gilles. (2014).  Worship and urban structure in unconventional locations: the spatial features of religious group diversity in Metro Manila. Philippine sociological review 62 (Special issue on the sociology of religion): 85-113. Link:

Lim, D. (2009). Consolidating democracy: Filipino Evangelicals between People Power events, 1986-2001. In D. Lumsdaine (Ed.), Evangelical Christianity and democracy in Asia (pp. 235-284). Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Macasaet, M. (2009). The spiritual journey of young Filipinos. In G. Leung (Ed.), The Y factor: 2009 yearbook on the Filipino youth (pp. 10-15). Makati: Salesian Missions.

Mangahas, M. (2011, August 12). RH and freedom to choose, Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved from

McGuire, M. B. (2008). Lived religion: faith and practice in everyday life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miller, D. E., & Yamamori, T. (2007). Global Pentecostalism: The new face of Christian social engagement. Berkeley and London: University of California Press.

Orsi, R. (1997). Everyday miracles: the study of lived religion. In D. D. Hall (Ed.), Lived religion in America: toward a history of practice (pp. 3-21). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Sapitula, M.V.J. (2013). Ang pagiging deboto bilang pakikipagkapwa: isang panimulang pagsusuri sa mga liham pasasalamat sa mga deboto ng Ina ng Laging Saklolo sa Baclaran. Daluyan: journal ng wikang Filipino 19(2). Agosto: 111-132.

Sapitula, M.V.J. (2014). Marian piety and modernity: the Perpetual Help Devotion as popular religion in the Philippines. Philippine Studies: historical and ethnographic viewpoints 62(3-4). September-December: 399-424.

Smith, T. W. (2012). Belies about God across time and space. Retrieved from

Tabora, J. (2013). The Catholic Church: Between the sublime and the ridiculous. (February 07). Retrieved from

Wiegele, K. (2005). Investing in miracles: El Shaddai and the transformation of popular Catholicism in the Philippines. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Additional Resources

Articles from Philippine Sociological Review’s Special Issue on the Sociology of Religion:

Calibo, F.D. and E.G. Oracion. (2014). The secular reasons for entering the diocesan priestly formation of young Filipinos. Philippine sociological review 62 (Special Issue on the Sociology of Religion): 65-84.

Dionisio, E.A. (2014). Catholic partisanship in the 2013 elections: ‘churchifying’ democracy or democratizing the Church? Philippine sociological review 62 (Special issue on the sociology of religion): 11-40.

Dy, A.C. (2014). The Virgin Mary as Mazu or Guanyin: the syncretic nature of Chinese religion in the Philippines.Philippine sociological review 62 (Special issue on the sociology of religion): 41-64.

Gomez, J.E.A. and S.N. Gilles. (2014).  Worship and urban structure in unconventional locations: the spatial features of religious group diversity in Metro Manila. Philippine sociological review 62 (Special issue on the sociology of religion): 85-113.

Other Resources 

Banlaoi, R.C. (1998). Electoral reforms in the Philippines: Issues and challenges. Makati: Konrad Adenauer Foundation. 

Bauzon, K. E. (1991). Liberalism and the quest for Islamic identity in the Philippines. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press. 

Bautista, E. (2011). Mega-churches and senior pastors in the Philippines.  Retrieved from

Carlos, C.R. (1996). Elections in the Philippines: From pre-colonial period to the present. Makati: Konrad Adenauer Foundation. 

Carlos, C.R. (1997). Handbook of political parties and elections in the Philippines. Makati: Konrad Adenauer Foundation. 

Carroll, J.J. (2007). A balancing act: Social and Catholic perspectives on population and development. Quezon City: John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues. 

Cornelio, J.S. (2013). The privatization of the Catholic faith. Retrieved from

Cornelio, J.S. (2013). Think beyond the parish. Retrieved from

Cornelio, J.S. (2014). INC, Philippine Arena, and the religious worlding. Retrieved from

Danguilan, M.J. (1993). Making choices in good faith: A challenge to the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality and contraception. Quezon City: Women’s Health Philippines.

De la Costa, H. (1978). Church and state: The Philippine experience. Manila: Loyola Papers Book of Editors. 

Gort, J. (Ed.) (1989). Dialogue and syncretism: An interdisciplinary approach. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans.  Schumacher, J.N. (1981). Revolutionary clergy: The Filipino clergy and the Nationalist movement, 1850-1903. Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press. 

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