Daniel Franklin Pilario – « Faith and Religion in Globalized Megacities »

Daniel Franklin Pilario

« Faith and Religion in Globalized Megacities. A View from Manila »

Have the gods left the city? Or have they come back with a vengeance? Where can we find them now? Popular imagination has ambivalent notions of the divine presence in urban and cosmopolitan contexts. On the one hand, we have metaphorical “sin cities” deserving of God’s wrath and punishment. On the other hand, all religions vigorously flourished in the world’s main cities. Where shall we locate religion in our present globalized cities? Does it serve the well-being of peoples it was meant to?  I intend to answer these questions from the perspective of Manila, one of the world’s megacities. This reflection is divided into three parts: the discourse of religion in modernity; contours of the faith life among grassroots communities in the city; the assessment of institutional Church as public religion. 

1. The Adventures of Religion in the City

Secularization theory has a view of religion that fades at the onset of modern rationality. As modernity advances, it argues, religion retreats from the social milieu. In the words of C. Wright Mills, religion will “disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realms.”[1] The modern “iron cage of reason” is supposed to drive away the religious relegating it to one sphere of life – the private – rather than as one all-pervading narrative. Max Weber calls the “disenchantment of the world” parallel to contemporary sociologists like Peter Berger’s withdrawal of the “sacred canopy” where “all of social life receives ultimate meaning binding on everybody.”[2] Thus, the local and the rural overflow with religion while the cosmopolitan and the urban are bereft of it. Though Berger recants this secularist tune at a later time,[3] its remnants still persist in the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) or “believing but not belonging” discourses in contemporary sociological analyses.[4] What disappears is public religion, but not private spirituality. People still believe but do not want to belong to traditional institutions. 

The secularist narrative of religion can be read hand in hand with its evolutionary cousins.[5] Robert Bellah’s Religion and Human Evolution[6] theorizes that religions evolve from the tribal, to the archaic and to the axial ages; from ritual to mythical to theoretical. The evolutionary logic is not a new narrative: Karl Jaspers already periodized history into four stages, e.g., Promethean, ancient, axial and modern histories; while August Comte divided sociology into three progressive states, i.e., theological, metaphysical and scientific. This is the point I want to establish: If we push the evolutionary logic to its limits, religions will soon disappear, or hide in some private realms of social consciousness as it is supplanted by the scientific technological paradigm in the present cosmopolitan and global city. 

But there is another competing narrative worth recounting. Religions and cities in fact have never been strangers to one another. Religions created cities around them; and urban locations become a fertile network for the flourishing of religious beliefs. In the first millennium BCE, for instance, Buddhist and Jain monasteries started in the outskirts of cities like Taxila or Varanasi in India; and as the temples became popular, great cities thrived around them. In other instances, urban mobility takes over older religious sites and transform them into cities like Delhi, which was once the location of ancient Sufi shrines, or Punjab, which was built over a famous center of Sikh religion.[7] The first cities that emerged in Mesopotamia around 3200 BCE were also organized around temples. Religion provided cohesion and control among the population, thus, explaining the intricate relationship between the notion of ‘god’ and ‘king’ in the city as the center of power.[8] Though the Christian movement started in small villages around Palestine, its spread was facilitated by the system of urban centers across the Roman Empire – Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Alexandria, Ephesus, Damascus, Edessa, Carthage and others. The historian Rodney Stark writes: “Of the twenty-two largest cities in the empire, four probably still lacked a Christian church by the year 200.”[9] The intersection of cultures in these cities made possible the spread of Christianity to the urban areas of China or India in the first millennium of the Christian era. In short, the city and cosmopolitan urban centers are not inimical to religions as the secularization theories want us to believe. Religion has thrived on these centers’ landscapes, transforming them according to its worldview, while at the same time being transformed by their divergent practices of politics and commerce.

If these examples are too ancient and archaic, thus, could have been already superseded by modern technological developments, some contemporary locations may help clarify. Robert Orsi’s collection of essays on New York and other US cities tells us that the urban landscape does not only provide a backdrop – now more cosmopolitan and postmodern – of the religions therein. It also shapes these religions and their practices.[10] The study on Haitian Vodou tells of dislocation of the immigrants from Haiti, but also of the discovery of new sacred spaces in the bustling alleys of New York. The same observation is made of the Cuban Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami or a Hindu temple in Washington, DC. I may add – from personal experience working among Filipinos in these places – the Santacruzan in Manhattan or Simbang Gabi in all main Catholic churches in any US City. Religions have not retreated to some private realm. These celebrations are publicly held for all to see and participate in. Santacruzan reenacts the religious-cultural ritual-turned-beauty pageant in Philippine towns and villages commemorating the finding of the holy cross by Helena of Constantinople. Along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, a Reyna Elena clad in medieval gown and her small boy, Constantine, lead a procession of her royal court composed of other lower ‘queens’, ‘princesses’ and their escorts under arches adorned with flowers. Simbang Gabi is a series of dawn Masses nine days before Christmas. In cities outside the Philippines these Masses are attended not only by Filipinos, but also their friends from their host countries.  As is usually the case at home, ritual food is served in parish halls after such Masses, to the delight of the non-Filipino guests. Participating in any of these celebrations shows the sacralization of the city as it encounters these religions and the urbanization of these otherwise traditional religious practices as it navigates the plural cityscapes.  

Some thinkers declare this contemporary revival of religions as the “resurgence of religion” in the city, the “re-enchantment of the world”. “God is back”,[11] some writers proclaim. Did God leave in the first place? This assertion still harks back to the secularization theories which sidelined the God-discourse at the coming of modernity and returned in its wake in postmodern times. This might be true of the European experience,but such a model does not hold water for the rest of world. The sociologist José Casanova rightly observes that “as the rest of the world modernizes, people are not becoming more secular like us, but are becoming more religious – or, actually, they are becoming simultaneously both more secular and more religious, which of course only confuses our binary categories. But once it becomes obvious that the secularization of Europe is, comparatively speaking, rather exceptional, the old theory that explained Europe’s secularity in terms of its modernity is no longer plausible.”[12]

The European experience only appears to be a local and singular phenomenon, thus, not universal. Western secularization theories, in fact, continuously fail to explain Asian, African, Pacific or Latin American worlds which endlessly burst with multi-religious fervor and practices regardless of their location in the so-called Western categories of pre-modern, modern and post-modern phases. In these non-Western contexts, immersed as they are in pluralist and multi-religious universes, what the West calls a “resurgence” or “revival” of spirituality and religions in postmodernity is, in fact, the usual state of affairs. There is nothing new to this phenomenon. It has always been this way ever since.

I would like to apply the above theoretical considerations on religion and modernity unto a specific context – Manila – considered to be one of the world’s megacities. With a relatively small land area, it is densely occupied by 13 million people (out of 100 million-plus all over the country). While daytime and night time populations vary, it is estimated that 42,857 people live in every one square kilometer (or 111,002 per square mile) making it the world’s most densely populated city.[13] With this huge mass of people vying for limited opportunities, one can easily guess the consequent social, economic and cultural issues, e.g., homelessness, traffic problems, garbage management, unemployment, hunger and disease, poor social services, etc. While sleek shopping centers and exclusive “gated communities” of the elite and upper middle classes paint a picture of a bustling megacity, more than 500,000 households are informal settlers (derogatively called “squatters”). According to the latest statistics, Manila has around 93-95% percent Christian population, mostly Roman Catholic. The rest (5-7%) are Muslims, Buddhists and other faiths. Let me forward two observations on the practice of the Christian religion on the ground on two levels – among the grassroots and on the level of the institutional church. 

2. Faith Life among the Grassroots 

Among the grassroots communities in the megacity, the practice of religion is often the only psychological resource for one’s survival. Far from their traditional family networks in the provinces, they cling to religious practices learned from early childhood. Popular religiosity abounds in the megacities not only among Roman Catholics, but also among evangelical and charismatic churches. I surmise it is the same with Islam and other faiths practiced among the grassroots. The phenomenon of local and “practical Islam” is a negotiation between the long-held fundamental tenets of the vast Islamic world and their adaptation to their local contexts, especially those farthest from Islamic centers of learning.[14] With so many believers and only a few imams, pastors or priests, people on the ground are left to their own creativity in the practice of their religion in order to cope with everyday urban struggles. 

Let me focus on Catholic practices at the grassroots since this is the only location I am most familiar with, but is also the religion of the majority in Manila. How do we explain the practice of popular religiosity among the people?[15]Different interpretations from Asian thinkers are used to explain this phenomenon. Let me mention three readings.[16]Jaime Bulatao’s “split-level Christianity”[17]  argues that Filipinos have been Christianized but not evangelized, thus, explains the persistence of their pre-Christian animistic beliefs and other discordant moral attitudes in their Christian life. This co-existence of dual moral standards but also dual religiosities (e.g., beliefs in spirits, the need to appease the gods through offerings, etc.) signals “split-level consciousness” that needs to be overcome if we want authentic evangelization. This same narrative has been adopted by the Catholic hierarchy. Though it also fosters popular religious practices within its controlled universe, supervised as it is by doctrinal guardians, it also holds that these practices need to be purified, corrected or directed towards proper liturgical norms in order to avoid superstition and syncretistic mixtures with local cultures not compatible with Christianity. Such a view is founded on the belief that a “pure” religion or a monolithic worldview exists. It assumes that if a person accepts one worldview, he or she will totally abandon the other. One who does not do so is not integrated and complete. With psychological categories applied into the theological field, Christians are seen as schizophrenic, socially displaying their bipolar tendencies.

The second optic used to interpret the same phenomenon is the notion of “hyphenated Christianity” advanced by Peter Phan, a US-based Vietnamese theologian.[18] Reacting to the first lens, Phan argues that religions in Asia are not monolithic nor should aim to be one; it is open to double belonging. One can be a Christian and Asian at the same time without granting primacy to any pole of the binary. According to Phan, there are three phases in the encounter between Christianity and Asian cultures: first is the colonial imposition of Western Christianity (primacy of Christianity); second is syncretistic projects of Matteo Ricci and Robert de Nobili (primacy of Asian cultures); and lastly, through the influence of Vatican II, is Asian-Christian “hyphenated” existence where both Asia-ness and Christian-ness cross-fertilize each other. Against Bulatao’s lens, this mixture of religious beliefs and sensibilities should not be seen as a malady that needs to be healed through catechesis but a natural dynamics of all cultural encounters. 

The third interpretative lens critiques the second. Albert Bagus Laksana,[19] an Indonesian philosopher, thinks that the concept of double belonging is too “conscious” a project of Church leaders, say, from the directives of Vatican II, as Phan wanted to envision it. Actual religious-cultural encounters on the ground do not have this programmatic exchanges. They just happen because everyday life makes it happen and, in the process, they mutually borrow from each other. Laksana thinks that Asians live complex religious identities toward some type of hybrid Christianity. Complex religious identities come in many forms: multi-religious shared pilgrimage sites; prayer services from different religious traditions; statues of saints or Buddha co-existing side by side on family altars; offering of food on tombs of ancestors on All Souls’ Day, etc. Believers do not have qualms of conscience in moving from one religious tradition to the other or of belonging to all of them altogether. Purists, mostly coming from the hierarchical leaders of different religions, condemn this as syncretism or superstition, but it is all that ordinary people have. 

This is also how any cultural interaction happens as I have also argued elsewhere.[20]  Be it in cultural customs, theologies or religious practice, it is the grassroots communities – not the cultural virtuosos or religious luminaries – who decide which elements of their everyday religious-cultural encounters shall be assimilated or modified, adopted or subverted, consented to or resisted. Be it in urban or rural contexts – religions thrive, mix, accommodate or modify themselves in the context of everyday lives of peoples. The more encounters, the more fusion, thus, the richer the religious practices become. The city and cosmopolitan centers because of its location vigorously allow for this multifaceted fusion making religions more open to the experiences of the other. 

We are back to our original question: Has religion evacuated from the modern city as the secularization theories predicted? No. On the contrary, because of its location, religions are made possible to co-exist and flourish, not because the gods have come back with a vengeance after being eclipsed by Enlightenment, but because it has always been this way ever since. 

3. The Institutional Church and Public Religion 

The second observation is the theological gap between the institutional Church the proverbial “person on the pew”. The Catholic Church in the Philippines and elsewhere pursues a robust theological agenda as can be found in its documents and pronouncements. There are designated church structures and functionaries – bishops, priests, religious and lay leaders – to implement its programs patterned as it is from Vatican directives and local authorities. On the surface, people mimic the gestures in all sincerity. But on the ground, they appropriate the doctrines as their own contexts allow. Actually, the old Latin dictum operates here: “Quidquid recipitur secundum modum recipientis recipitur” (Whatever is received, is received according to the capacity of the receiver). When asked to account for their religious affiliation, people never deny their institutional belonging. Though some may change denominational allegiances at one time  or another, they still remain in the institutional fold especially during the crucial stages of their lives, e.g., baptism, marriage, death, and their attendant rites and rituals. 

Despite its problems, the institutional Church in Manila still serves as the main institutional resource for survival. With the government system not delivering on its social and economic services, the Church comes in as an alternative source – sometimes literally – for people’s concrete needs such as housing, poverty alleviation, drainage, youth programs, women protection and empowerment, refuge from political harassment, etc. That is why savings mobilization of the Grameen banking type, Basic Ecclesial Communities, religious congregations that take care of vulnerable population (PWDs, abused women, homeless persons, malnourished children, etc.) abound, providing an alternative resource to a dysfunctional government that cannot cope with the demands of its population. 

Ministering to a community that lives around a garbage dump for two decades now, I have been often asked by visitors from abroad: “What does the government do about it?” The answer is “nothing”. More recently, in the context of a violent populist government, some sectors of the Church have become the only institutional protection of families whose fathers and sons have been killed by President Duterte’s “war on drugs”. The families and communities they have left behind have nowhere to go – the police, supposed to protect the citizens, are killing them with impunity; the courts are being filled with pro- administration justices; the legislature as well dances to the president;s tune. The Church institution alone provides an alternative haven for security, protection and survival.

Beyond internal relations, the institutional Church has to negotiate with its external “others”. The sociologist Jose Casanova has ably examined the phenomenon of public religion: “Religion in the 1980s ‘went public’ in a dual sense. It entered the ‘public sphere’ and gained, thereby, ‘publicity’. Various ‘publics’ – the mass media, social scientists, professional politicians, and the ‘public at large’ – suddenly began to pay attention to religion. The unexpected public interest derived from the fact that religion, leaving its assigned place in the private sphere, had thrust itself into the public arena of moral and political contestation.”[21] Reacting to the privatization of religion by secularization theories, Casanova thinks that religions have been de-privatized and has to account itself to its ‘public’, to the issues that society sees as important. 

One question: how does the institutional Catholic Church in the Philippines position itself vis-à-vis democratic and development issues? The reactions we observe are far from monolithic. The positions we present here come from what one author calls the “religious elite” related to its institutional structures.[22] The first response is defensive reaction. Some democratic and social development agenda like the changing views on gender, abortion, divorce, women empowerment or LGBT issues are most likely to be met with fierce conservative reactions by the institutional church. For instance, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) is quite advanced on justice issues against government corruption, but not on family and life issues. Some Church religious leaders are even willing to collaborate with corrupt politicians who uphold the Catholic agenda on family planning and contraception. The second reaction is democratic preservation. There is a significant portion of the religious elite that engages politics not in pursuance of issues through party affiliation, but in the preservation of democratic processes like elections. Proclaiming to be neutral, these religious leaders lead their parishioners to be election watchdogs as they try to be inclusive in order not to polarize relationships with the majority of their constituents who find themselves on the opposite side of the political issues. The third response is comprehensive mobilization. These sectors of the religious elite pursue clear democratic and development agenda in terms of  issues like human rights to housing, comprehensive family planning to gender equality, etc. This makes possible long-term alliances with secular actors, but also the possibility of being censured by the conservative religious hierarchy. 


Far from the retreat of the divine in globalized megacities, religions in their private and public forms are quite palpable in all nooks and corners of the urban centers. Most often it is a mixture of formal liturgical ritual and popular piety, of Catholic doctrine and pre-animistic practices, the use of amulets or music of New Age inspiration and Marian hymns or scapulars, which many ordinary people practice in the most spontaneous manner without being perturbed by some guilt of harboring unorthodox belief or syncretic accommodation. Religion in the megacities thrives because it serves as resource for people’s everyday survival. The institutional religion, for its part, shows more ambivalence in its position vis-à-vis people’s religious practices and other social forces. On the one hand, the Church institution can curtail people’s expression of faith by enthroning some practices and denigrating others. On the other hand, it can also provide an alternative haven to the cruel and oppressive political and economic system that dominates the lives of the poor. On the one hand, some sectors of the institution impose a defensive agenda against the global democratic and development forces; on the other hand, other sectors continually dialogue with these new tasks and challenges. The act of living the faith – practiced reflexively in our times – is still considered a source of wellbeing (or what Christians call “salvation”) within the complex problems and opportunities of the megacities.


[1] C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), 33. 

[2] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967), 134. 

[3] Peter Berger, The Rumor of Angels (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Books. 1969).

[4] Cf. Robert Fuller, Spiritual but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing Without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

[5]Cf. Daniel Franklin Pilario, “Is Asia a Post-religional Society? The Post-religional Paradigm and its Others,” Horizonte 13, No. 37 (2015): 279-318.

[6] Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[7] Mary Hancock and Smirit Srivinas, “Spaces of Modernity: Religion and the Urban in Asia and Africa,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32.2 (2008): 617-630. 

[8] Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[9] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 10. 

[10] Robert Orsi, ed., Gods in the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999). 

[11] John Mickelthwait and Arian Wooldridge, God is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World (London: Penguin, 2010); Titus Hjelm, Is God Back? Reconsidering the New Visibility of Religion (London: Bloombury, 2015).  

[12] Jose Casanova, “Exploring the Postsecular: Three Meanings of the ‘Secular’ and their Possible Transcendence,” in Habermas and Religion, ed. Craig Calhon (London: Polity Press, 2013), 45.

[13] “Manila Population 2018,” in http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/manila-population/ (accessed Nov. 06, 2018).

[14] Roy Ellen Ellen, “Social theory, Ethnography and the Understanding of Practical Islam in South-East Asia,” Islam in South-East Asia, ed. M.B. Hooker (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1983), 51-91. 

[15] For other studies, see Jayeel Cornelio, Being Catholic in Contemporary Philippines: Young Catholics Interpreting Religion (London: Routledge, 2016); Manuel Sapitula, “Marian Piety and Modernity: Perpetual Help Devotion as Popular Religion in the Philippines,” Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 62, No. 3-4 (2014): 399-424.

[16] Cf. Daniel Franklin Pilario, “Catholics,” in The Edinburgh Companions to Global Christianity, Vol. 4: East and Southeast Asia, ed. Kenneth Ross (London: Oxford University Press, [forthcoming]).

[17] Jaime Bulatao, Split-Level Christianity (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University, 1966). 

[18] Peter Phan, Christianity with an Asian Face (Marynoll, NY: Orbis, 2003).

[19] Albertus Bagus Laksana, “Multiple Religious Belonging or Complex Identity? An Asian Way of Being Religious,” The Oxford Handbook of Asian Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 493-599.

[20] Daniel Franklin Pilario, “The Craft of Contextual Theologies,” Hapag: An Interdisciplinary Theological Journal 1, no. 1 (2004): 5-39.

[21] Jose Casanova, Public Religion in the Modern World (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994), 3. 

[22] Here we follow the data and categories of David Buckley, “Catholicism’s Democratic Dilemma: Varieties of Public Religion in the Philippines,” Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints 62, No. 3-4 (2014): 313-339. 


Daniel Franklin Pilario is professor at the St. Vincent School of Theology, Adamson University, Quezon City, Philippines. He is the author of Back to the Rough Grounds of Praxis: Exploring Theological Method with Pierre Bourdieu (Leuven, 2005). As member of the Congregation of the Mission, he ministers in a garbage dump parish in Manila. 

Address: St. Vincent School of Theology221 Tandang Sora Avenue, P.O. Box 11791151 Quezon City, Philippines .