Religious Ideas of Dr. Jose Rizal

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Dr. Jose P. Rizal (June 19, 1861 – December 30, 1896) was executed by the Spanish colonial authorities for having rebelled and incited rebellion against the Church and against Spain. He was charged of “sedition,” and “insurrection” against the “mother country.” The evidence brought against him would not have stood in contemporary courts of law.What the authorities classified as rebellious activities were mainly writings critical of the regime, membership in “subversive” organizations like Masonic lodges, and forming an association of citizens desirous of seeking social and political reforms, La Liga Filipina.

Never mind if La Liga Filipina sought to obtain citizenship rights similar to those enjoyed by Spaniards in Spain.

For having repeatedly questioned the authority of the Church and the temerity to organize citizens outside Church control, Rizal was charged with “separatism,” committing a terrible heresy, the greatest crime in colonial Philippines. The authorities prodded by the friar orders meted out the death sentence. At that time, the Church conceived of itself as the sole representative of Divine Order on earth.

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The friar orders believed that they were the guardians of public order and morals and the source of all knowledge. They claimed that unlike the civilian government who was indecisive, remote and weak, they were the only effective instruments that kept the people of the Philippine archipelago devoted Catholics and therefore loyal and obedient subjects of the colonial government. By equating the Church and the friar orders with Spanish civil authority, any criticism, any attempt to disparage the friars was ipso facto insurrection.

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Today in 2011, narration of these events deserve repetition for up till the late 1930’s, in 1950’s and to the 1970’s during the height of the Cold War accusations in the same vein were marshaled against the native folk religious associations (colorums),6 against the labor, peasants movements and their sympathizers among the intelligentsia.

Dr. Rizal did not write an entire treatise on religion. Neither did he write exclusively on religion. Rizal was no theologian. His thoughts on religion are articulated alongside his ideas about what is a just and humane social order for our country and the rest of the world. His religious ideas were formulated as the result of his experiences, his education and vast readings, and as a consequence of his attempts to wrestle with the social, political and economic problems of his times. In this sense his religious perspective is humanistic and existential. He was not concerned with the subtle points of scholastic theological debate.

Religion to Rizal is intimately connected with daily life, in the way our institutions work, and the unfolding of historical processes. Above all as he matured, religion to him should serve to inspire humans to strive for self-improvement, for a peaceful and tranquil life on this earth and not on the next. He had no quarrel with Christianity per se, or with the clergy. He opposed the Church and the friar orders for obstructing all peaceful means to uplift the Filipino people from servitude, from denying their God-given rights of freedom to think, analyze and uproot the sources of ignorance and injustice.

His religious ideas are be drawn from his two novels, the Noli me Tangere and El Filibustrismo. He expounded them in his numerous articles published in La Solidaridad, his essays, letters to his family, colleagues, friends, and his exchange of letters with Ferdinand Blumentritt, and with his former Jesuit mentor, Fr. Pablo Pastells. The latter using the pseudonym Manuel Garcia Barzanallana wrote extensive polemics regarding Rizal’s so-called retraction and justified the hero’s execution as the means for him to repent his “sins of arrogance” and thereby allowed him to attain “eternal salvation.”

Like Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Graciano Lopez Jaena, and his other colleagues in the Propaganda movement who studied and worked in Europe and Spain, Rizal imbibed the ideas and sentiments of the European Enlightenment and witnessed the revolutionary changes that were transforming the entire social and political structures in Spain and Europe. As a medical student at the University of Madrid and in Heidelberg, Germany, his wide-ranging studies in ethnography, anthropology, linguistics and history, Rizal absorbed the methods of scientific inquiry, experimentation, objective valuation of facts and information, and reliance on human reasoning rather than authority be it the Church or the state. Of special significance were his contacts with the thinkers and leaders of the progressive and libertarian movements in Spain and with other scholars, scientists and philosophers in Europe.

Among them was the Austrian Ferdinand Blumentritt who was one of the first European specialists on the Philippines. He also read a great deal of radical theological writings such as those by Felicite R. de Lamennais (17882-1854) who advocated that Christianity must serve the poor and disadvantaged in this earth and fight injustice including that perpetuated by the Church. Men like Miguel Morayta Sagrario, Rafael Labra, Manuel Luis Zorilla, Francisco Pi y Margall (1824-1901) President of the First Republic of 1873, who struggled to transform Spain’s antiquated feudal system and the moribund clergy were close friends of Rizal. Pi y Magall tried to stop Rizal’s execution but the ultra conservative Spanish forces bent on keeping the colony prevailed.7 Rizal also avidly studied the wrings of French philosophers like Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire, novelist Victor Hugo and British and other European progressives.8

Was Rizal a heretic? Did he commit apostasy as claimed by his murderers? Was he a traitor to Spain? Rizal did not denounce Catholic Christianity per se but its moribund institutions and the corruption and abuses of its representatives in the country. He remained a Catholic until his death. 9 He did not oppose religion but the perversions, abuses and hypocrisy of the representatives of the Church and the colonial government, which he portrayed vividly in his two novels. He intended not to destroy the Church but make its practices more consistent with the fundamental tenets of Christianity.

Similarly, before 1888 he did not espouse complete separation from Spain. He wanted affiliation with the progressive side of Spain that stood for equality, justice and brotherhood of all men. Compared to the anti-clerical Spaniards, who assaulted friars, seized their properties, expelled them, torched churches and convents, Rizal’s attack on the Church by comparison was infinitely milder. 10 What made the friars hysterical with vindictive anger was that Rizal, a Catholic espoused Christianity but rejected the Church dogma about the divinity of Christ, his resurrection, and salvation through faith. Moreover, Rizal defied Church authoritarian methods that stifled freedom to think and express grievances. He wrote vehemently against corruption and abuses of the clergy that were widely disseminated in Spain and in the Philippines.

His Christianity did not rely on the intercession of friar orders, nor their institutions and organizations. Neither did he follow mandatory performance of religious rituals, sacraments and ceremonies. He said, “God does not require candles, He has more candles than the light of the sun.” Instead, Christians should spend their time in the cultivation of reason and virtue. He taught that true Christians are those who practice love and charity among all humans. He believed that humans are essentially moral, and that all human beings possess the God-given capacity to think and reason for one’s self. Ability to reason gives man the free will that makes him responsible for his decisions and actions. From this assumption follows that all human beings regardless of race, social status and sex are equal.

He emphasized this view in his letters to the women of Malolos and to his Bulacan compatriots. In his letter to his mother on Christmas, 1886 Rizal explained that Christ was the first to proclaim the equality of all men. He admired the early Christians who although poor and persecuted were steadfast in their faith. They remained faithful to the original teachings of Christ. “The poor gave Christianity its power because it was their friend, their religion. The rich did not accept it until much later. They mastered it, making it their instrument to subjugate the people.” And as his criticism of the state of the Church in the Philippines and Europe, he asked -: “Why then is Christianity no longer the religion of the poor, of the unfortunate? Has it placed itself on the side of those who rule and dominate?”

Rizal agreed with Pi y Margall in condemning Spanish use of Christianity in the conquest of the Americas. Rizal argued that the conquest of the Philippines was waged in the name of Christianizing the “pagan Indios.” Thus, Christianity became the legitimizing philosophy of imperialism, not the liberating religion of Christ. Sensitive to the developments in neighboring Asian countries, Rizal in his article published in La Solidaridad, wrote how Ternate was conquered in 1601 by Spanish soldiers “enslaving and killing the native people while singing Salve Regina. He asked, “ Is this the way to make Filipinos love this God, making them slaves and toys they should be, while their hearts and conscience cry out in protest?”

In dealing with the conditions of early Christians and of the changes in Christian beliefs and practices, Rizal said that Christianity was part of history. Its institutions and people’s conceptions of God also change and develop as history evolves. In fact he reversed the usual adage that “Man is made in the image of God;” to “Man creates God according to man’s image.” Every country develops its own image and concept of God in accordance with its culture and historical circumstances. God’s intervention in social life is manifested in the collective decisions and actions of humans. To the extent that humans apply their God-given reason for moral and ethical ends, exercise their free will for the social good; there is where God is found. In this sense, Rizal believes that God is a God of history.

However, God to Rizal does not appear like a shower of manna or a thunderbolt not even as a venerable –looking judge to reward or punish good and bad deeds. As a scientist, and a keen observer of nature and social processes God to Rizal is not manifested in a single person or in a single revelation as narrated in the Bible, but revealed in the vastness and wonders of nature. This position made Rizal close to denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, the central doctrine of Christianity. Rizal maintained that there is no direct divine intervention in history except through human will, the sincere exercise of reason and conscience, these three concepts run like a continuous thread in his writings. In much the same way he rejected divine right of kings, divine succession of the apostles through the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the infallibility of the Pope and that of the Papal representatives in the Philippines.

He counseled the youth of Malolos not to follow blindly whatever the friars said but to understand their own experiences, and sieve them through their own reason and conscience. Friars he said “are also humans made of flesh and bones and posses the same frailties like us.” Rizal endeavored to counteract the indoctrination propagated by the friars that molded people into submissive, obedient, humble and mindless flock of sheep prone to passivity. Indoctrinated only to believe the friars, they are credulous of “miraculous” events and superstitions for they have lost self-confidence and ability to question, reason and take responsible actions. This was an abomination to Rizal for Christianity was supposed to elevate the human spirit, and endow it with the spark of intelligence and energy so that they strive for the same dignity as other human beings in the world.

The inspiration to raise the human spirit is Jesus Christ. Christ. To Rizal, Jesus Christ was both divine and human stressing the more human aspects of Jesus Christ. It is Christ’s humanity that makes him more accessible to the common tao and serves as the exemplary hero. 12 Rizal scorned adoration of the idols of Christ and the saints. He believed that time and energy spent in prolonged prayers, novenas, processions, veladas and other elaborate rituals ought to be used for more productive economic and social activities. 13 Instead, he said that the best way to express one’s devotion was to emulate Christ through good deeds. Do good towards your fellow men is central core of Rizal’s understanding of the Christian ethos. In his hymn to labor “Man’s Road to Progress and Perfection” he advocated the improvement of the poor and giving labor a fair share of the profits of production.

He wanted to change the attitudes, habits and beliefs of his countrymen and women who tended to believe and rely on magic and the supernatural. Rizal narrated in his two novels the proclivity of the people to believe in and rely on magic, anting-anting, agimat, scapulars, rosaries, ghosts, and the like rather than their own native capabilities, in honest persistent labor. In the Noli, Elias spoke these scathing words against superstitious practices:

“Do you call these external practices faith? Or that business in cords and scapulars, religion? Or the stories of miracles and other fairy tales that we hear everyday, truth? Is this the law of Jesus Christ? A God did not have Himself be crucified for this, nor we assume the obligation of eternal gratitude. Superstition existed long before this; all that was needed was to perfect it and to raise the price of the merchandise.”

He showed that there is no causal relationship between the state of our morality or piety on one hand and natural disasters and misfortunes on the other. Natural calamities like typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and epidemics are unavoidable – they are beyond human control. On the other hand, humans must take responsibility for social aberrations, cruelties, abuses and injustice. They are the consequences of human lassitude, indifference, arrogance, greed and error. Since God endowed humans with reason and dignity, hence, to fight for one’s honor, for one’s rights and freedom is tantamount to religious devotion. “There are no tyrants where there are no slaves.” Following his reasoning, to rebel against tyranny, oppression and injustice is a Christian duty. It is a duty that one must pursue even at the cost of one’s life.

While he exhorted people to strive and use their native reason as the best means to reach God, he did not ridicule nor condemn church going and all religious rituals and liturgies. Rizal appreciated sincere acts of piety and devotion having observed these practices in his mother and sisters. While studying in Spain and even during his exile in Dapitan, Rizal attended mass and celebrated Christian holidays. What he criticized was sanctimonious performance of novenas, processions and ceremonials that distract and waylay people from deeper understanding of God and in examining the meaning of human existence.

During his time, the prevailing frailocracy prohibited all civic associations and organizations except those related to the Church and those initiated and supervised by the friars. So stifling was the social climate that civic associations and other similar activities were forced underground. Even the association of Masons whose membership was mainly professionals and intellectuals were denounced and charged as subversives by the Church. Some of the best and finest Filipino citizens and leaders were Masons; among them were Emilio Aguinaldo, Apolinario Mabini, and Rizal himself. Manuel Garcia-Barzanallana, nom de plume of Fr. Jose Pastells vehemently opposed and denounced the Masons since their ideology of equality and freedom of all persons irrespective of race, religion and social status and political activities challenged absolute authority of the Church.

What made the religious orders in the Philippines harbor intense fear and hatred of such moderate organizations like the Masons and La Liga Filipina? Violent political upheavals in Europe and Spain provoked their paranoia. The friar orders having been expelled from Spain found refuge in the Philippines, the colonial outpost, where they thought, they would escape the political and religious upheavals in Spain. Bent on holding on to their properties and privileges that they could no longer maintain in their homeland, Friar orders became overly suspicious, defensive and paranoid. They persecuted Masons and all those they suspected as their enemies that only exacerbated opposition of their victims.

Hundreds of Filipinos were killed, tortured, banished and hounded for the mere suspicion that they belonged to this fraternity of Masons or possession of “heretical and subversive” materials. Rizal was attracted to Masonry precisely because the organization accepted all persons of good will and character as members. Masonry propagated equality of all humans around the world; they stood for individual liberties, the pursuit of justice, and combat tyranny. The practices of Masonry were more democratic which was the opposite of the organization of friar orders that were closed to most Filipinos who were called disparagingly as “Indios”. Friar orders were strictly hierarchical, and served mainly the interests of their organization

Regardless of Rizal’s scathing criticism of the Church, Rizal was profoundly spiritual. Much as he gave the greatest importance to human capacity to reason, to human capacity for self- improvement, he believed in God. He expounded his belief in God in his letters to Fr. Pablo Pastells, the head of the Society of Jesus the one who sent him to his death in order that he may “find salvation.” During the period of exile in Dapitan, and up to the last hours before Rizal’s execution, Fr. Pastells strove to bring him back to the Catholic fold by sending religious books and Rizal’s former teacher Fr. Sanchez to counsel him.

Fr. Pastells was adamant in his stand that only the Catholic faith was the true religion and that all others were erroneous. He attacked the Rationalists, Deists, Socialists, and Communists as evil teachings. He further argued that Spain was the rightful country where true Christianity reigned and its best defender stating in effect that the best form of government was a theocracy based on Catholicism. He insisted that true faith rested on total submission to the mystery and supernatural revelation in Jesus Christ as propounded by the Church fathers who inherited divine authority from Jesus Christ, that was passed on to St. Peter and then to the Papacy.

On the other hand, Rizal was open-minded and sincerely wanted to be instructed on the intricacies of Catholic faith. He read the books by defenders of the Catholic faith diligently and expressed his admiration of some of the books. However Fr. Pastells could not match. Rizal’s logical reasoning, his earnest search for empirical and historical evidence needed to validate religious doctrines. His arguments in defense of the primary importance of human reason in analyzing religious teachings showed his consistency and intellectual integrity. Father Pastells did not think that evidence was necessary. Instead he appealed to the mystery, the supernatural and transcendental. He argued that the ultimate purpose of human reason was to have faith. Moreover, he added that the Catholic Church alone possessed the capacity and authority to judge what was immutable Truth.

He went to the extent that he would use preventive and even repressive measures to ensure the perpetuation of this Catholic doctrine. Clearly Fr. Pastells and Rizal could not have any common grounds for mutual understanding since they argued from two diametrically opposed epistemology. Father Pastells’ framework was based on religious supernatural knowledge that was immutable and divinely ordained and interpreted exclusively by the religious hierarchy. Rizal thought that all knowledge including that of God was accessible to human reason and understanding and thereby varied according to each individual’s personal capabilities, time and place. In other words, man creates God according to his own “image” or to his own understanding.

In the exchange of letters Rizal replied to the charge by Fr, Pastells that in relying only in one’s reason, he forgot God and committed the sin of arrogance and self-pride; that his concern was limited merely to the mundane. Rizal the poet replied eloquently and with more humility than what Fr. Pastells credited him for.

“How cannot I not believe in God? To do so would be to deny my own existence.”
“I believe firmly in the existence of God the Creator… I firmly believe in His wisdom, His infinite power (my idea of the infinite is so limited), His goodness manifested in the marvelous creation of the universe; in the order that reigns in His creation; His magnificence that overwhelms my understanding; His greatness that enlightens and nourishes all. His wisdom is so great that it humiliates human reason and makes me dizzy with vertigo for my own reasoning is imperfect and confused. Many times my reasoning leads me to raise my eyes to Him. I believe Him to be in the immense system of planets, in all the aggregation of nebulae, that bewilders and stretches my imagination beyond my comprehension that I am filled with dread, awe and bewilderment and leaves me dumb with wonder.”

Fr. Pastell charged Rizal that by asserting reliance on human reason he misunderstood the true nature of faith and thus ignored divine mystery that was inseparable to faith.

“”Faith cannot be called the result of a reasoning process; it is a supernatural gift from God our Lord, inasmuch as it is the beginning and source of justification, it cannot be equated by our natural powers without the necessary assistance of divine grace. Faith is a voluntary act of homage by which men freely submit his reason to the authority of the revealing God.” (April 28, 1893)

To this accusation of self-pride, his lack of understanding of the mystery of faith as a divine grace, Rizal countered perhaps with more prescience than his former mentor:

“”Foolish is the epithet that you apply to the pride of the rationalists. If I may be permitted to ask, if I am still far from being one of them who is more proud – the man who is satisfied with following his own reason without imposing his views on others, or the man who tries to impose on others not what his reason dictates, but what appears to him to be the truth? What is rational has never seemed foolish to me, and pride has always shown its head in the attitude of superiority.”

Rizal decided to end the exchange of letters with Fr. Pastells for the latter refused to concede even an iota to Rizal’s way of thinking, that the humane values of justice, equality, the search for truth based on God-given reason and conscience are fundamentally spiritual and are manifestations of the Divine. In his usual polite and conciliatory style, Rizal wrote.

“Your Reverence says that I ought to hope that God will restore the faith that I lack. Let us then hope that he will do so, for this matter seems to me to be beyond our natural capabilities. Msgr. Bougarrd no longer convinces me. I am no longer able to comprehend your arguments and appreciate their merits. And I would be doing wrong in the eye of society, if I were to continue robbing you of your time, which the many people who live under your direction need so much and can use to their great advantage. … let us leave to God the things that are God’s and to men the things that are men’s. As Your Reverence says the return to the faith is God’s work.

Rizal’s murderers succeeded only in eliminating him physically. They failed in killing his ideas and what he stood for - freedom of thought, expression, and assembly and of the press. Rizal taught us that we must fight for the dignity and equality of all human beings not on our knees but in the arena of life. That to him is the best expression of devotion to God. By his self -sacrifice, he demonstrated that uncompromising courage is the greater weapon in the face of overpowering tyranny. True, Rizal fought the Church institutions and its clergy. And yet it was Christian morality that formed the very heart of his social and political ideas for reforms and justice. Rizal did not weaken nor threaten Christianity in the Philippines. What he fought against was corruption, greed, superstition, ignorance and paranoia of the forces of counter-revolution.


What then is the relevance of the discussion of Rizal’s ideas on religion to the state of and direction of Philippine Studies? The study is also a way of re-assessing the historical framework of the way we study and approach our history. Christianization and Westernization tend to view historical developments from the vantage point of the Catholic religion, of Spain and their institutions. It looks at the Filipino people as passive wards of the energetic missionary and “civilizing” efforts of the colonizers. Rizal’s life and works showed that however much he imbibed Catholicism and Spanish culture, he retained a great deal of his native, indigenous culture and values – language, social norms and practices that he invoked and defended against Spanish prejudices. He and his colleagues from ilustrados who studied in Europe and his stay-at-home countrymen and women shared basic cultural values and attitudes that enabled them to resist the worst Western demands and exactions.

In the process, like Rizal, our predecessors formulated a unique resilient Filipino culture that eventually evolved into what is called “national Consciousness.” True, Rizal like his educated colleagues studied and learned from the European Enlightenment about the rights of man, about individual liberty, the use of reason and science. Still, the Filipino historian must not ignore the Filipino folk who toiled relentlessly to survive the oppressive colonial regime and re-formulated and accommodated to the onerous colonial rule. Rizal was not bound by the strict divisions in the field of knowledge.

He was less concerned with the formulation of the so-called “universal theories and methodologies” in the Humanities and Social Sciences since his goal was to seek evidence and the means of how humans can fight injustice, tyranny, oppression, and social iniquities. Most of all he wanted to elevate the Indio into a dignified, confident human being equipped with critical thinking and able to solve social ills. Therefore, Philippine Studies should be inter-disciplinal by tackling history, philology, geography, geology, biology, and other related disciplines all to serve as the means for self-understanding, formulation of Filipino identity and contribute to the formation of a sovereign, united and prosperous nation.

Another important ramification of this study is how Rizal viewed history. Contrary to the static, rigid, immutable Catholic position of Fr. Pastells, Rizal thought of history as a dynamic continuous process of change. Events, circumstances, people, their ideas and the environment are inter-connected and are in constant motion. The direction of change may not be always be in neat successive stages but its direction is towards more knowledge, the expansion of human consciousness and awareness, towards greater human aspirations for freedom and equality. Far from being a pessimist like Pr. Pastells who was fearful of losing Spanish power and prestige of the Church, Rizal was optimistic and looked courageously toward to a better world when the decaying, repressive structures of the old that was surely going to be dismantled to bring forth a better order.

Updated: Jul 06, 2022
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Religious Ideas of Dr. Jose Rizal. (2016, Apr 10). Retrieved from

Religious Ideas of Dr. Jose Rizal essay
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