“Nones” in Inter-Faith Dialogue: The Case for Inclusion

Nov 01, 2016 at 10:18 am | Hits: 2390

By Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib

Singapore’s demography is changing. The number of residents professing to no religious affiliation has steadily risen to about 18.5% in 2015 according to the General Household Survey Report 2015. They form the third largest group behind Buddhism (43.2%) and Christianity (18.8%).

The trend of increasing “nones” – a category that includes atheists, agnostics, freethinkers or those who do not affiliate themselves to any organised religion – is part of a recent global trend. In 2014, 22.8% of Americans described themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular”– a rise from 16.1% in 2007. In North America alone, and in most of Europe, the “nones” are the second largest “religious category”, according to a National Geographic report in April 2016, and the highest number of atheists can be found in Asia — China (47%) and Japan (31%) —, according to a WIN-Gallup International survey done in 2012.

Several academics such as IPS’ Dr Mathew Mathews and Universiti Brunei Darussalam’s Dr Hoon Chang-Yau have recently argued for the inclusion of atheists, in particular, in inter-faith platforms In Singapore. Notably, the rise of the “nones” in public discourse can be seen from the start of this century. Several informal self-professed atheistic groups existed then, such as “Atheist Haven” (now renamed as “Singapore Atheists”) and “The Singapore Humanism Meet-Up”. In 2010, the Humanist Society (Singapore) became the first formalised group registered and gazetted by the government. Although not all members within this organisation are atheists, it often articulates a non-religious, secular or atheistic position on various issues.

More “nones” than before

What accounts for the rise of the “nones” in public sphere? There are at least three factors.

One, the expansion of the “common space” from the 1990s onward. The introduction of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (1990) was an important turning point in keeping over-zealous religious communities in check, especially on the issue of aggressive proselytisation that can potentially harm inter-religious relations. As a result, religious presence in public life retreated as the secular nature of the public sphere was expanded and constantly emphasised. Along with the opening up of markets to facilitate flow of capital into Singapore, the public sphere became increasingly variegated. This includes the emergence of new social movements, such as pro-LGBT rights and atheist communities within a democratising environment.

Two, the proliferation of communication technologies such as Internet-enabled mobile devices and the emergence of social media sites, such as blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. These allowed disparate groups to connect with like-minded individuals and vice-versa, hence, facilitating the process of community-formation that then enters the public sphere to assert their new-found social and political identities. As noted by sociologist Victoria Carty, “new media technologies allow users to become not merely receivers of the message but also the creators and distributors of messages.” Within this new context, atheist advocates are able to articulate and disseminate their views effectively, mobilise those who hold similar views and persuade others.

Three, the rise of the “New Atheism” movement globally. Undoubtedly, the writings of popular atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens allowed local atheists to find a new language to articulate their position on issues pertaining to religion. This may have coincided with the emergence of open tensions between advocates of LGBT rights and the religious conservatives since the “AWARE saga” in 2008. In my conversations with some members of the Humanist Society (Singapore), they noted the saga as the “awakening period” that called for their participation in public discourse in order to keep the public sphere “secular” and not dominated by religious opinions, particularly when these opinions were used as the basis for public policies that affect all members of society. An example often cited is the government’s refusal to decriminalise homosexuality by repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, on the basis of objection from the religious communities. The argument is this: why should atheists — who do not subscribe to a religious morality that prohibits homosexual acts — be subjected to Section 377A?

Another sentiment often raised is on the issue of “religious offence”. Religions in Singapore are privileged in the sense that they are accorded protection against “offence” through laws such as the Sedition Act (section 3.1.e), Penal Code (section 295) or the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. Some atheists are anxious if criticisms against religion can be subjected to the law, given the climate of “religious sensitivities”.

Correspondingly, atheists feel that the law is not equal in the sense that there is no similar protection against insults to deeply held atheistic beliefs or identity made by the religious. This has given rise to a common perception that the religious and the atheist positions are in direct contradiction, particularly on moral and public policy issues. In addition, stereotypical views may be perpetuated, such as “religious people are irrational” while “atheists are immoral”. The often anti-religion views of atheist writers such as Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens inform certain segments of atheists in Singapore, while the anti-atheistic views of conservative religious preachers and writers continue to feed upon the local imagination of what atheists are like.

Involving the “nones” in inter-faith dialogues

The above context, therefore, calls for a need to include the “nones” in inter-faith dialogue, through platforms such the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle (IRCC) and Onepeople.Sg, or initiatives by the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO) and the Harmony Centre. To date, there has probably been only one inter-faith initiative that has included the “nones” proactively — the Exploration-into-Faiths (EIF) programme under the Southeast Community Development Council. In March this year, Leftwrite Center and Humanist Society (Singapore) also organised what was possibly the first theist-atheist dialogue in recent times.

Including the “nones” can achieve two aims. First, their views on religion can inform and even enrich inter-religious dialogues by introducing some critical inquiry into religious ideas and articulations. Through dialogue, both sides can then develop greater nuance, broaden perspectives and deepen understanding on the religious phenomenon and the common human experience. The aim, however, is not to persuade one or the other to convert to a religion or to lose their faith in religion. Rather, it is to break down stereotypes, and empathise with the concerns of the other. More importantly, such engagements must involve grassroots groups and members of the public in a safe space. Only then can a common ground be forged to “agree to disagree” yet being respectful and treating the other equally and fairly as friends, neighbours, co-workers and fellow citizens.

Secondly, involving the “nones” in inter-faith dialogue is a way of staying true to how we organise ourselves as a plural society. Having an open society – an imperative for progress in our globalised world – means that social fragmentation is unavoidable. Yet, there is a need for some form of social contract that binds the people within a common polity. In governance, there has to be some degree of consensus through constant negotiation. One thing to be mindful of is that most conflict starts from a sense of exclusion where the interests of one group is not taken into account within the corridors of power. Hence, a diverse society that aspires for peace and harmony will need to be as inclusive as possible, particularly towards minority groups and those who do not command the same resources or power as the majority or the dominant. In this sense, the “nones” will need to feel that they are represented on the same platforms as others, for their concerns and views cannot be subsumed under categories such as socio-economic status (SES), household or employment type.

A case in point is with regards to social policies that intersect with moral or value positions. Often, the opinions of religious communities are sought via religious bodies deemed as representatives of a particular faith group. But the “nones” do have their views too and as state policies affect everyone, their views should count. Not doing so would unnecessarily alienate the “nones” and widen the gap between them and those who are religious. We should aim to meet in the middle instead of allowing communities to drift apart.


Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib is an interfaith activist and founding member of Leftwrite Center, a dialogue initiative for young professionals. This article is derived from his speech at the recent launch of Dr Paul Hedges’ book,
Toward Better Disagreement: Religion and Atheism in Dialogue, organised by Leftwrite Center and Humanist Society (Singapore).

Top photo from IStock.

Category: Society & Identity

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