February 2018 Feature
Concern over a Resurgent Religiosity
Every now and then, we hear persons expressing concern about the rising religiosity in Singapore and throughout the world. These commentators warn us that such a trend presents a significant threat to the peace, harmony and well-being of our society. They long for a strengthening of the secular ethos, which ensures that religious considerations remain effectively excluded from the public square.
This prevalent concern was expressed in a short letter entitled “Challenges in tackling exclusivism and rising religiosity” which appeared in the Straits Times Forum page on 24 Jan 2017. The author, Mr S. Ratnakumar, offered his view that “cultivating national identity, pride and loyalty will remain a challenge if the rising trend of religiosity is not reversed”. For Mr Ratnakumar (and others who share his opinion), we are currently engaged in a zero-sum game: If our devotion to our religious convictions is not watered down, our commitment to the well-being of our nation would be severely compromised.
First Response: Trend is Unlikely to be Reversed
We can make two responses to this position. The first is to say that the hope for the “rising trend of religiosity” to be “reversed” and for the secular ethos to be correspondingly strengthened is a rather forlorn one, given our current climate.
Secularism has its roots in the Western Enlightenment and the age of modernity, which the Enlightenment has spawned. It is based on the philosophical notion that reason is the final arbiter of what is true and good. A government operating according to the dictates of reason and guided by scientific findings (whether discovered through the hard sciences or social sciences) has therefore the right to determine the policies and rules of the nation.
Religions, on the other hand, are viewed by modernity as being involved not with matters of objective reason, but subjective beliefs and opinions. It follows that religions should have no influence over public matters. At best, they should be consigned to the private sphere of an individual’s system of belief.
It is, by now, trite to say that the age of modernity has, in many parts of the world, given way to the postmodern. To many, postmodernity has successfully exposed the myth of the neutrality and objectivity of our appeal to reason. It has shown that the way we reason and interpret our experiences is significantly influenced by our particular cultural presuppositions. It has demonstrated that the boundaries between an “objective” fact established by reason and a “subjective” opinion or belief are not as clear-cut as we previously supposed.
With this dethroning of reason as the final arbiter of truth and morality, the foundations of secularism have been severely undermined. Those who appeal to reason as the basis for their fitness to rule will increasingly face the question, “Whose system of rationality are you relying on?”
This rebellion against the “reason” of the privileged class is exemplified in a comment made by former British minister Michael Gove, a key supporter of the Brexit movement. He was once asked whether there was even one reputable economist who supported the idea of Britain leaving the EU. His reply captured well the mood of the majority, “People in this country have had enough of experts.”
This weakening of secularism has been accompanied, in many places, by a rising religiosity—one which is increasingly dismissive of the boundaries placed upon religion by the age of modernity. This trend is likely to continue, given the continual dispelling of the mystical aura surrounding the “meta-narrative” of secularism, leading to the rise of other ways of conceiving our world and ordering our lives.
Second Response: A Resurgent Religiosity which Secures Public Well-Being
What should our response be to the trend outlined above? Some will, no doubt, fall into despair and see a future in which our societies and nations inevitably fragment and descend into conflict.
There is, however, some cause for optimism. A resurgent religiosity represents not only a problem, but also an opportunity. Religious beliefs and values can contribute to the public well-being and strengthening of our national cohesion.
The major world religions are not monolithic systems. They have complex bodies of teaching, some of which pull in one direction, and others in another. Inevitably, there will be teachings about the need to exclude or even mistreat those on the outside. But if a religion is truly universal in scope, there will also be imperatives for its members to live in harmony with all human beings, and to respect and bless them, regardless of whether they are followers of that religion or not.
In fact, if one does a “postmodern” digging into the genealogy of the cherished values of secularism (e.g. freedom, justice, equality), we find that they arise out of religious roots. While outwardly rebelling against many aspects of their Christian heritage, the thought leaders of the Enlightenment were also (consciously or otherwise) drawing upon that heritage to advocate what should be true and right.
Religion, therefore, can be a potent force to promote justice and equality for all, as well as freedom and tolerance. The key lies in how the followers of the various religions make sense of the complexity of their faiths and the tensions contained within, in order to determine what truly is at the heart of their belief.
So, while every religion has its extremists who see their faith as mandating them to wreck death and destruction on outsiders, it also has adherents who seek to conceptualise their faith in a way which requires them to respect the rights of others to follow their own paths and to ensure that their interests and well-being are fully protected.
This second group is not made up of the religious “liberals” of a bygone age, who freely jettison key aspects of their belief in order to force their faith to fit into the procrustean bed of modernity. Rather, they are religiously conservative people, who find imperatives and resources within their faith traditions to work for the common good in their religiously diverse societies.
Their efforts represent our hope for the future. They deserve all the support and encouragement we can give them, as they struggle with the extremists in their party for the right to determine what their faith is about.
With the waning influence of secularism, we will probably have to learn to rely less on its norms to promote peace and the common good. The major world religions will have to do more to fill this gap, by providing the motivation, based on their particular teachings, for their followers to be loyal citizens of their countries and contributing members of their societies.
Will the resurgent religiosity of our time turn out to be a problem or opportunity? We pray with all our hearts that it will be a powerful impetus for peace, harmony and the well-being of all in our postmodern age.
Dr Leow Theng Huat teaches theology and Church history at Trinity Theological College. He is a local preacher in the Methodist Church in Singapore, and a member of Wesley Methodist Church.