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What was the first religion in the Philippines?

The Philippines is a diverse country with a rich religious history. Today, the predominant religion is Roman Catholicism, but before Spanish colonization in the 16th century the religious beliefs and practices of Filipinos were very different. In this article, we will explore the earliest religious traditions and beliefs in the Philippines before the introduction of foreign religions.

Indigenous Philippine Religious Beliefs and Practices

The earliest inhabitants of the Philippines were animists who worshipped nature spirits and venerated their ancestors. They believed that gods and spirits inhabited natural phenomena like mountains, trees, and animals. Ritual offerings and sacrifices were made to appease these deities.

Some key aspects of indigenous Filipino animism and folk beliefs include:

  • Bathala – The supreme deity who lived in the sky.
  • Anitism – Worship of ancestral spirits, nature deities, and folk heroes.
  • Diwata – Nature spirits associated with forests, seas, mountains, rivers etc.
  • Babaylan – Female shamans who acted as spiritual leaders and healers.
  • Panyam – Various taboos and superstitions.
  • Polytheism – Worship of multiple gods/spirits.

The early Filipinos believed that all things had a soul and spiritual essence. Important rituals were conducted during sowing, harvest, birth, marriage, hunting, illness, and death. Offerings were made to appease spirits and seek protection from negative events.

Major gods and goddesses:

Some of the major deities worshipped were:

  • Tidā – The supreme god of the ancient Visayan people. Also known as Kālangitan.
  • Laon – God of the sea, healing, and harvest. Worshipped in pre-colonial Bicol society.
  • Mālang – Patron god of Bicol warriors and healers.
  • Lakapati – Major fertility deity across many Philippine peoples. Also known as Ikapati, Lakambini, and Dian Masalanta.
  • Mapulon – A legendary giant, hero, and demigod in Tagalog folklore.
  • Tāgālang – The Kapampangan sun god who was also a great warrior.

The early Filipinos made various offerings to these deities like fruits, flowers, rice wine, animals, and even human sacrifices on rare occasions. Government and society were heavily influenced by spiritual leaders like babaylan who served as intermediaries between humans and the spirit world.

Arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism

The next major religious influence arrived with the coming of traders and settlers from Hindu and Buddhist societies in South and Southeast Asia between 200 BCE to 900 CE. Ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism started disseminating through the Philippines during this period. Some important impacts were:

  • Introduction of Hindu/Buddhist concepts like reincarnation, karma, nirvana, yoga, meditation etc.
  • Influence on literature, language, arts, architecture and social structures.
  • Emergence and worship of more abstract universal gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
  • Building of temples (like the Angono Petroglyphs) for deities.
  • Reinforcement of the caste system in royalty-centered settlements.

However, Hinduism and Buddhism did not override the established indigenous customs. Filipinos syncretized foreign beliefs with existing animist and folk traditions. The same nature spirits were incorporated into the Hindu-Buddhist pantheon of gods.

Major contributions:

Some enduring contributions of these religions were:

  • Spiritual concepts that shaped folk literature like the Hinilawod epic.
  • Deities like Sarimanok that became cultural symbols.
  • Scriptures like the Laguna Copperplate Inscription with Hindu-Malay influence.
  • Arts and crafts like pottery, metallurgy, beadwork etc. with Indian designs.
  • Architecture of the Igorots inspired by Indian techniques.

Despite these marks, Hinduism and Buddhism remained mostly confined to ruling elites rather than taking root widely among commoners across the archipelago.

Arrival and Spread of Islam

The next major religious influence came with the arrival of Islam which started gaining foothold in the Philippines from the 14th century onwards through increased trade and contacts with Islamic sultanates in Brunei and Malaysia.

Some key aspects related to the spread of Islam:

  • Islamization was pioneered by Arab trader Sharif Al-Hashim who arrived in Sulu and married a local princess in 1380 CE.
  • The Moslem Kingdom of Sulu emerged as the first organized Islamic entity.
  • Other Sultanates like Maguindanao absorbed Islamic customs and belief systems.
  • Mosques and madrasas started being built in parts of Mindanao and Sulu.
  • Gradual conversions occurred among ruling classes, traders and communities engaged in commerce with Islamic traders.

As with earlier religions, syncretism occurred with Islam blending with local customs. For example, the Supreme God of Sulu came to be identified as Allah, while traditional practices like ancestor worship co-existed with Islamic rituals.

Major impacts of Islam:

Some major impacts of the advent of Islam were:

  • Transformation of cosmology and social structures in Islamized areas.
  • Changes in political leadership and legal systems based on Islamic principles.
  • Quranic-inspired literature, arts, architecture e.g. the torogan.
  • Emergence of an Islamic religious sector alongside the earlier folk healers and mediums.
  • Creation of Islamic learning centers teaching Quranic studies, Islamic law etc.

By the 15th century, Islam had established a clear presence in the Philippines even as indigenous, Hindu and Buddhist beliefs continued in much of the archipelago.

Arrival and Spread of Christianity

The most sweeping religious transformation came with the arrival of the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century who rapidly introduced and propounded Christianity all over the islands.

Major phases of Christianization:

The major phases of the spread of Christianity were:

  • 1521 – Ferdinand Magellan arrives and plants first cross marking arrival of Christianity.
  • 1565 – Miguel Lopez de Legaspi colonizes Philippines and institutes process of Christianization.
  • 1596 – First Bishopric established at Manila.
  • 1600s – Mass baptisms administered; process of Hispanization of islands begins.
  • 1863 – Dominican and Franciscan friars take over administration of parishes across Philippines.
  • 1896 – At end of Spanish rule, vast majority of Filipinos are baptized Catholics.

Within just a few decades, the Spanish succeeded in making the Philippines overwhelmingly Catholic unlike Islam which remained restricted to parts of Mindanao and Sulu.

Methods of spreading Christianity:

The systematic methods used by Spain were:

  • Building churches in every town and community.
  • Establishing schools and universities to teach Catholicism.
  • Using Spanish clergy to conduct mass conversions.
  • Syncretizing Catholic saints with local deities for familiarity.
  • Declaring Christianity the sole approved religion.
  • Suppressing indigenous religions like ban on animist rituals.

Within a short period, indigenous deities were replaced by Christian saints and Virgins, while native babaylan and shamans were eliminated and replaced by priests.

Extent of Christianization:

The extent of Christianization by the 19th century was very wide:

Year % Catholics
1521 0%
1565 5%
1570 20%
1580 30%
1590 40%
1600 50%
1650 60%
1700 70%
1800 90%
1850 95%

This shows the rapid pace of Catholicization in just 300 years. By 1896 when the Spanish colonial era ended, the Philippines was almost entirely a Catholic country.


In summary, indigenous animism and folk beliefs were the first pre-colonial religions among ancient Filipinos starting from around 200 BCE. Elements of Hinduism and Buddhism came through trade contacts from 200 BCE to 900 CE followed by the arrival of Islam from the 14th century onwards. However, the most extensive and systematic religious transformation occurred from 1565 onwards with the Spanish instilling Catholicism all over the islands down to the village level. Within 300 years, Philippines transformed from a tribal animist society into an overwhelmingly Catholic country owing to the intense hispanization process. The impact was so deep that Catholicism remains the religion of over 80% of Filipinos today.