“A growing number of people here who do not believe in a God have banded together, determined to be unapologetic about being non-religious” (I’ve No God – And Am Proud Of It, Miss Yen Feng).
As an atheist – and with the statistical increase in the number of Singaporeans with no religion – I am heartened by the steady growth of the Humanist Society, as well as the diverse and positive community of religious non-believers in Singapore. The news report, “I’ve No God – And Am Proud Of It” (July 23, 2011), constructively raises the profile of the young ad-hoc society, and helps individuals rationalise their beliefs, faiths (or lack thereof) in the immediate future. However, for secular humanism to take root there needs to be heightened number of quality, rational dialogues or debates in the public realm on religion and secularism, the active rejection of baseless, counterproductive “hateism”, and the proliferation of religion-based discussions in education institutions.
The closeted nature of the status quo for atheism and agnosticism can have significant ramifications: first, children grow up thinking that unquestioned subscription to their parents’ religion is a necessity; second, Singaporeans struggling with their religious convictions fear labels of “outcast” and emotional reprisals from their loved ones. This sense of helplessness is exacerbated by a lack of productive public discourse revolving around the theme of humanism, and how this life philosophy can be equally fulfilling. Through respective seminars and sharing sessions, intellectual exchanges on religion and secularism would spontaneously take place, and this wealth of information would empower participating Singaporeans to read and comprehend assertions confidently.
Nevertheless, the organisers of these programmes and activities should be cognisant of the delicate balance of religions in Singapore; therefore, it is encouraging to note that Mr. Paul Tobin has reflected that his group of humanists “[has] no single fixed opinion of religious people”. In many American and European cities, “hateism” – or fundamentalist atheism – has manifested; with leading religious critics such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins consistently arguing against religious tolerance, and working towards the eradication of religions in all forms. Unfortunately, these extreme views have the destructive potential to polarise groups, especially when there is negligible interactions between the humanists and religious believers. In Singapore, the organisation of inter-faith dialogues can bridge disconnects between religions and humanism, and correspondingly heighten levels of understanding and proper social comprehension.
The aforementioned initiatives will function best in an academic context; naturally, having religion-based discussions in education institutions – institutes of higher learning and tertiary schools – would be great starting points. With educators and lecturers functioning as impartial facilitators, and perhaps religious representatives as guests-of-honour, the academic space will give students the space and flexibility to articulate their views, and simultaneously clarify misconceptions previously held.
If a balance can be harmoniously struck, the expression of religion would no longer be conveniently labelled as taboo; and valuable religious expression can ferment.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.