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Religion in the Philippines

Religion plays a vital role in the lives of many Filipinos.

Table of contents
1 Animism
2 Buddhism
3 Christianity
4 Islam


Animism, for lack of better terminology, is the indigenous spiritual tradition practised by pre-colonial Filipinos. It is a set of belief and cultural mores anchored in the idea that the world is inhabited by spirits and supernatural beings, both good and bad, and that respect be accorded to them through ritual. Some worship specific deities. Variations of animistic practices occur in different ethnic groups.Magic, chants and prayers are often key features. Its practitioners were highly respected (and some feared) in the community, as they were healers, midwives, shamans, witches and warlocks, priestesses, tribal historians and wizened elders that provided the spiritual and traditional life of the community.

In general, the spiritual and economic leadership in many pre-colonial Filipino ethnic groups was provided by women, as oppose to the political and military leadership accorded to men. Spanish occupiers during the 16th century arrived in the Philippines noting about warrior priestesses leading tribal spiritual affairs. Many were condemned as pagan heretics. These matriarchal tendencies run deep in Filipino society and can be seen in the strong leadership roles modern Filipino women are assuming in business, politics, academia, the arts and in religious institutions.

Folk religion remains a deep source of comfort, belief and cultural pride among many Filipinos. Nominally animists constitute about one percent of the population. But animism's influence pervade daily life and practice of the colonial religions that took root in the Philippines. Elements of folk belief melded with Christian and Islamic practices to give a unique perspective on these religions.


Buddhism in the Philippines gained foothold with the rise of the Buddhist Srivijaya empire in Malaysia in the 7th century and lasted until their decline in the 13th century. Centered in Palembang, Sumatra, active trading by Chinese and Indian merchants with native tribes brought Buddhist knowledge and iconography to the country. Archeaological finds in the Philippines unearthed priceless Buddhist statues and other artifacts dating to this era. Linguistic influence also left its indelible mark, with Buddhist concepts such as dukkha (suffering) and bodhi (knowledge) entering everyday speech.

The Buddhist community in the Philippines today makes up about two percent of the population. All the major schools are represented, but they are predominantly of the Mahayana sect, as it is practised mainly by the Chinese and Filipino-Chinese community, and by Vietnamese refugees that settled in the country. Buddhism, however, is growing in other sectors, with the arrival of other schools from Japan (see Nichiren), Thailand and Sri Lanka (see Theravada) and Tibet (see Vajrayana).


Christianity arrived in the Philippines with the landing of Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. In the late 16th century, soldiers and missionaries firmly planted the seeds of conversion when they officially claimed the archipelago for Spain and named it after their king. Colonial occupation of the country for four centuries by Catholic Spain and Protestant America made the Philippines the only predominantly Christian nation in Asia, with approximately 90% of the population professing the Christian faith.

Roman Catholicism

Missionaries from different orders, primarily Augustinian, Dominican and Jesuits, fanned out across the islands during the Spanish conquest of the Philippines.

Catholicism in the Philippines is unique for the syncretic blend of Christian and indigenous elements to the religion (sometimes referred to as Folk Christianity). There is also a deep Marian tradition in Filipino Catholicism, with the figure of the Virgin Mary often more central to and more venerated in the faith than Jesus, a possible expression of pre-colonial spirituality and culture, with women and mothers being important to tribal affairs.

Other Denominations

Protestantism arrived in the Philippines with the coming of the Americans at the turn of the 20th century. In 1898, Spain lost the Philippines to the United States. After a bitter fight for independence against its new occupiers, Filipinos surrendered and were again colonized. The arrival of Protestant missionaries soon followed.

(Note: Not all of the listed denominations above belong to the Protestant tradition. Some, like Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, are sometimes not considered Christian or belonging to the Christian mold due to vagaries in their belief systems. For all purposes, these are all Christian groups with considerable number of followers in the Philippines.)


Islam reached the Philippines in the 14th century with the arrival of merchants and missionaries from the Arabian peninsula and from India. Filipino Muslims make up about five percent of the population and are concentrated in the southern island of Mindanao. The Bangsamoro or Muslim Nation, a term used to define the disparate ethnic groups that profess Islam in the Philippines as their religion, have been fighting the most protracted war of independence in world history. These include the Tausugs and the Maranaos. The Islamic separatist movement in the Philippines had been and is being waged for almost five centuries -- against the Spanish, the Americans, the Japanese and the predominantly Christian Filipinos of today's independent republic. Filipino Muslims follow the Sunni tradition.