Faith and Spirituality

[OPINION] On Sinulog, Singkil, and religious insensitivity

Jayeel Cornelio

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[OPINION] On Sinulog, Singkil, and religious insensitivity

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'None of us would admit that we are intentionally insensitive. But that, I think, is where the problem may also lie.'

Great has been the harm done in the name of religion.

Religion of course has done much good. But we cannot deny that religion has brought much harm as well. We all have stories to tell.

And yet religious harm can be more forceful, if not equally so, if it comes in another form — whenever those who inflict it do not even realize what they’re doing.

For this we have many stories to tell as well.

Think, for example, of the evangelicals who distributed Bibles in Marawi in 2017. In their eyes, there was nothing wrong in inserting Bibles in their hygiene kits. As one of them reasoned out, they simply wanted to “help.” And yet the Maranao were offended.

Another example is from the recent Sinulog. Dancers from Cebu Technological University (CTU) performed the Singkil in honor of the Santo Niño. This was a big no-no for the Maranao, a Moro ethnologuistic group. Singkil is a traditional dance widely recognized to have originated among them. It was not meant to be a Christian performance.

No less than the Bangsamoro government decried the act as “grossly inappropriate and culturally insensitive.”

In social science research, religiously sensitive individuals are those who can acknowledge religious differences. They accept these differences and may even be willing to adapt and integrate.

By contrast, the religiously insensitive ones minimize these differences. Some of them reject it wholesale. Religious sensitivity (or otherwise) can thus be placed on a spectrum.

Not intentional?

I submit that in many cases religious insensitivity is not intentional. 

When Cebu Technological University (CTU) made a public apology over its controversial dance, it reiterated that offending the Muslim community was not its intention.

Indeed, none of us would admit that we are intentionally insensitive. But that, I think, is where the problem may also lie.

Many Filipinos do not have the ability to see beyond the religious rubrics of the majority.

This is to be expected. After all, much of Filipinoness is associated with many things Catholic — from the Christian names we carry to the town fiestas around the country.

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With this mindset, we assume that others would simply take it for granted too that ours is a thoroughly Catholic society, with all the norms and values that come with it. This leads some of us to conclude that the minority should know their place.

Consider opening prayers at public events. I know that ecumenical prayers are increasingly the practice now. And yet many government-sponsored activities still invoke only Catholic prayers, if not worship songs played from YouTube. 

Every time I catch these moments I look around if there are non-Catholics (or non-Christians for that matter) and wonder how they might feel as Filipino citizens in a supposedly secular event.

This is but one example of how we end up insensitive to other religious sensibilities in our own communities.

To be fair, some of us might consider these examples to be rather shallow to even be taken seriously. But from a sociological perspective, we’re only beginning to scratch the surface.

That many of us cannot appreciate realities — or what sociologists call lifeworlds — beyond our narrow religious rubrics is why our society remains unable to accept the valid concerns of the rest of us. Consider the place of the LGBTQ+ in our society. Consider too the necessity of divorce in violent households.

The resistance, as I have pointed out in my recent piece on divorce, derives largely from a narrow religious worldview.

Do no harm

Where then do we start?

It’s always wise to begin within our own spheres of influence.

Some ideas from Do No Harm (DNH) might be useful. DNH is a conflict sensitivity tool adopted by many development agencies around the world. I, for one, have been working with colleagues from World Vision Philippines and religious leaders in Mindanao.

Based on DNH, one of our tasks is to identify activities and behaviors that aggravate conflict and build on those that enhance relationships. In your own context, consider this task as a starting point. It will help you assess the potential impact of what you’re doing in your own spheres of influence. 

(A simple DNH conversation among its stakeholders would have avoided that insensitive Sinulog act.)

But we can also be more ambitious. Peace-building, for example, is an ongoing effort that involves a variety of actions including humanitarian work, interfaith dialogues, and conflict resolution. 

Those of us in schools, churches, and other faith-based communities have a big role to play in this regard. If we do peace-building right, we can help fellow Filipinos to recognize religious differences and the worldviews of people who belong to other convictions

I have to admit that it’s not easy though. Most of the time these spaces tend to frown upon dissent or differences.

The big lesson here is that religious insensitivity is consequential. Intentions (or the lack thereof) are not enough.

Robert Alonto, the head of the Bangsamoro Commission for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, has spoken for many in his community: “Unity and reconciliation cannot be achieved by cultural theft, misappropriation, or imposition but by acknowledging cultural diversity through mutual respect and tolerance.”

For this there are no shortcuts. As a sociologist and an educator, I long to see our society become more appreciative of what truly makes us beautiful: our diversity. –

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD (TOYM 2021) is Professor of Development Studies at the Ateneo de Manila University. A sociologist of religion, he will soon be Visiting Professor at the Center for Asian Democracy at the University of Louisville. Funded by the British Academy, he is currently working with colleagues from Sri Lanka, Burundi, and the Philippines on a project on faith and peace-building. Follow him on X @jayeel_cornelio.

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