On June 22, The Straits Times published an important article by Mathew Mathews and Melvin Tay entitled, ‘Fading Faith? Fathoming the future of Singapore’s religious landscape.’ In this article, the authors provide an analysis of religious trends in our nation-state based on the recently released Census of Population 2020.
This article covers a range of issues and comments on trends observed in the changing religious sentiments of Singaporeans in general and also trajectories in specific religious traditions. What I wish to highlight in this brief article are the authors’ analyses and remarks that have direct or indirect bearing on Christianity and the churches in Singapore.
The Census of Population 2020 shows that the number of residents in Singapore who claim to have no religious affiliations have increased compared to 2010. ‘Overall’, write the authors, ‘one fifth of Singapore residents now profess to have no religion, up from 17 per cent in 2010.’ The authors go on to add this important point: ‘While a 3 percentage point increase may seem trivial, it reflects a slow, though sustained drift away from organised religion.’
Overall, the churches here have hitherto done relatively well, even though the pace of growth has noticeably slowed down. The authors report that ‘From 2010 to 2020, the proportions of Christians in Singapore grew slightly from 18 to 19 per cent, though this pace has slowed from previous decades.’
Although the number of Christians in Singapore remains stable, the church cannot afford to be complacent. It must be more deliberate in addressing the cultural forces at work that shape contemporary society and capture the imagination of young people.
In what follows, I would like to highlight some of the issues raised by the ST article that I think pastors, educators and leaders should be concerned about and must give more attention to. In particular, I would like to discuss three concerns that this article has directly or indirectly flagged.
SPIRITUALITY WITHOUT RELIGION
The first issue has to do with the delinking of spirituality from organised religion, a trend that is well documented in the West. The ST article points out that ‘declarations of null religious affiliations do not necessarily reflect a repudiation of the spiritual.’
The authors report that ‘46 per cent of the respondents who professed to have no religion still believed in the notion or some form of God.’ They add that ‘38 per cent of this group also indicated that they believed in life after death, and the existence of heaven and hell.’
The trends that we are beginning to see in Singapore have been endemic in the West for several decades.
In December 2019, ABC News reported that millennials in the US are leaving organised religion by the droves and that they have no intention of returning. The report cited a study by the Pew Research Centre, which fund that four in ten millennials (those between the ages of 23 and 28) claim that they have no religious affiliation.
Similar to the religiously unaffiliated in Singapore, these Americans who have distanced themselves from organised religion maintain that they continue to believe in God. Many of them also say that they believe in pursuing the spiritual life and practice some sort of spirituality.
There are many reasons why young people in the West have shunned organised religion. Some of them are disappointed with the way in which religious institutions have responded to social justice issues such as inequality, while others disagree with their church’s stance on the LGBT issue.
I suspect that some Christians in Singapore may be disenchanted with the church for similar reasons. Whether their views on these matters are justified or not, these grievances cannot be ignored, but must be addressed with seriousness and sensitivity.
The rejection of organised religion has resulted in privatised spiritualities.
Studies in the West have also shown that many who cut ties with organised religions like Christianity have explored other forms of spirituality, especially those that are not anchored in dogmatic beliefs. Some have experimented with different New Age practices, while others have appropriated the practices of other religions such as Buddhist meditation (without embracing Buddhism or Buddhist teachings).
A significant number of people have also ventured beyond the boundaries of traditional religions and dabbled with witchcraft and the occult. For example, an article published in The Atlantic in 2018 reports that young black women in Baltimore are leaving Christianity and embracing African witchcraft in digital covens.
These are worrying trends which pastors and leaders must take seriously. But every Christian should be concerned about these developments, not just the leaders of the church. Here Christian parents and mentors can play a significant role in guiding young people who may find these trends attractive.
But these developments should also prompt theologians and pastors to re-examine their theology, especially ecclesiology. There is a sense in which evangelical Christians are more susceptible to the lure of a religionless spirituality because of evangelicalism’s emphasis on the believer’s personal relationship with God.
Please don’t get me wrong. The believer’s personal relationship with God through faith in Christ is indeed important. But what is often neglected is the emphasis that our relationship with God is nurtured in the context of the Body of Christ, the Church, and by its central activity, corporate worship. Our relationship with God is shaped by participation in ecclesial practices such as the liturgy and the Eucharist, which John Wesley and others have aptly described as the means of grace.
Perhaps more emphasis should be made in our churches on the importance of ecclesial and liturgical spirituality. Like Wesley, we must stress that the religion of the heart must be nourished by participation in the liturgical life of the community, and not only by private acts of devotion and piety.
An issue which is not mentioned in the ST article but which is pertinent to our discussion is the digitalisation of religion. The coronavirus pandemic has forced churches to explore creative ways of using digital media to conduct Sunday worship services, Holy Communion, prayer meetings, etc.
While the digitalisation of the Church’s ministry has benefited many, especially in the wake of Covid restrictions, it has also exacerbated the drift away from organised religion. Christians can now visit myriad websites of churches of every hue and shade to attend online Sunday services, listen to sermons and take advantage of a variety of online resources they offer.
In June last year, a group of international scholars conducted a study involving more than twenty-five countries in five continents on how churches have used digital media during the pandemic. This study was also conducted in Singapore through the National Council of Churches. Interestingly, 48 per cent of the pastors here who participated in the study said that they would continue to offer online worship services post-Covid, while only 8.3 per cent indicated that they would stop such services once on-site services are allowed to resume.
There are a number of issues surrounding the digital church that pastors and leaders must be aware of.
The first is that digital religion could very easily jeopardise Christian orthodoxy. The internet offers countless sites from which information about every aspect of Christianity can be obtained. However, not all of these sites fall within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy and much discernment is often needed when using these online resources.
Secondly, digital religion has also made the question of religious or theological authority quite problematic. As Heidi Campbell and Steve Garner has observed,
‘new media culture authority may be constituted primarily on the basis of reputation systems (e.g., number of likes on Facebook, followers on Twitter, link rankings on blogs). It is the breath of social network online that elevates one’s voice and position online.’
Thus, a Christian who finds a popular speaker on the internet appealing may well regard what this individual teaches as authoritative, even though his doctrines may be antithetical to those of that Christian’s own church or denomination.
Thirdly, the proliferation of online services could encourage religious consumerism that would in the long-run erode commitment to the local church in subtle but significant ways. Why be committed to a local church when one can attend the Sunday services of any church across the globe? Why stay put in one community when one can hop from one online community to another with impunity? This may gradually make membership in a local church unimportant, if not superfluous.
And finally, the internet can encourage a kind of DIY religion where an individual cherry-picks different teachings and practices from a variety of sources and blend them together into a religious cocktail that suits his taste. The resulting concoction may bear little or no resemblance to orthodox Christianity.
These dangers lie in wait in the digital world, and pastors and leaders must find a way of creating awareness among members of their congregation.
GOD OF THE GAPS
Another important issue that the ST article highlights is how the emphasis on the so-called Stem disciplines in our education system has impacted religion. ‘[T]he sustained emphases on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) disciplines in Singapore’s education system and economy,’ write the authors, ‘seem to have challenged the relevance of religion.’
The relationship between science and the Christian faith is an important but neglected topic in our churches. Christians are prone to read their Bibles devotionally, and reflection on how the truths found in Scriptures relate to cultural enterprises such as science and technology often lacks rigour and depth.
I suspect that many Christians understand the relationship between science and Christianity in the way in which the late Stephen Jay Gould has famously proposed in his book Rock of Ages. Gould maintains that the best way to conceive of this relationship is by regarding science and religion as two Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA).
This means that science and religion have their own particular concerns and approaches to reality. These concerns are so different that they do not overlap or interact with each other.
So science has its own domain, its own Magisterium, to use Gould’s terminology. Science has its own assumptions, epistemology, methodology, and it makes substantial proposals about the material world based on them. Christianity, on the other hand, has its own Magisterium, and offers its own account of reality which may differ significantly from that of science. Put differently, science and religion ask different questions, follow different paths of inquiry, and supply accounts of different aspects of reality.
According to this schema, science and religion represent two spheres of human knowledge that are equally valid, but they exist independently of each other. Because their assumptions, epistemologies and objects of inquiry are different, dialogue between them is simply not possible.
Christians who hold some such view of the relationship between science and religion would therefore conclude that the Christian faith has nothing to say about the scientific enterprise and its account of reality. Similarly, when scientific theories such as evolution challenge their understanding of the Bible, these Christians would think that no response is needed because science and religion do not overlap. Such a view is convenient but unhelpful because it will exclude Christians from public discourse and show the Christian faith to be irrelevant in current debates on science, medicine, technology, etc.
We also have writers such as Richard Dawkins, who have tried to resuscitate the warfare or conflict model of the relationship between science and religion. This model, which was first introduced in the nineteenth century but was quickly discredited, is once again capturing the imagination of the public, due to the phenomenal success of science and the scientism promoted by some scientists.
Space does not allow me to discuss Dawkins’ view in detail. But the idea that religion and science are not only incompatible but are in direct conflict has gained traction among some people. The trend is likely to persist.
In this warfare, there can be only one winner. Writers like Dawkins have argued that science will emerge as the victor and that it will expose religion to be nothing more than infantile and empty superstition.
But this conflict view, as scholars have repeatedly shown, is based on a caricature of the Christian faith, a naive view of science that refuses to acknowledge its limits (thanks to scientism), and a blinkered view of history which ignores the long and fruitful dialogue between science and Christianity.
Finally, I want to draw your attention to a particular observation made by the authors of the ST article. They said that there are many who still try to reconcile faith with science, adding that: ‘For this group, faith functions as a salient anchor in their lives when dealing with situations and experiences that science is not fully equipped to deal with.’
While it is heartening to know that some people are trying to reconcile their faith with science, the idea that faith is important only in those aspects of reality and human experience that science is hitherto unable to explain is indeed troubling. Yet, this is the way that some Christians look at the relationship between science and the Christian faith.
This approach — which invokes the idea of God as an explanatory strategy to deal with issues or questions that science has not yet resolved — is described by theologians and philosophers as the ‘God-of-the-gaps’ approach. God becomes important and indispensable only in those aspects of human experience that science is unable to fully or satisfactorily explain.
When a credible scientific explanation is offered for that slice of human experience, God is no longer needed there. He must find another gap in the scientific discourse to fill, albeit only temporarily and as an interim measure. But as the gaps narrow and as many are closed by science, the God-of-the-gap shrinks and will one day disappear altogether because he would have outlived his usefulness.
All these approaches and attitudes — Gould’s non-overlapping Magisteria, Dawkins’ conflict model of science and religion, and the God-of-the-gaps model — will cause many to question the relevance of the Christian faith in a world that is governed by the new high-priests, the scientists, who peddles a religion that exalts omni-competent science.
These are some of the many challenges that the Christian Church and its leaders have to face as they navigate ‘future shifts’, as the authors Mathews and Tay put it. They must be taken seriously. And the Church must have a strategy to pro-actively address them.
We live in a time where seismic changes in culture and society are taking place. There’s much that needs to be done. And there is simply no room for complacency.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.