Tag Archives: exclusivism

Resurgent Religiosity: a Problem or Opportunity?

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 is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.

One Vocabulary, Different Universes

November 2017 Feature

It is increasingly common to hear or read words such as “exclusivism”, “inclusivism”, and “pluralism” in public discourse whether it is used by academics, activists or politicians. It is assumed that everyone is on the same page; thus the terms are insufficiently, if not rarely defined. This is not helpful, and in fact problematic for Christians whose traditions and thinkers have been using such words, with well-defined understanding.

In his book Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, missiologist Timothy Tennent discusses the above terms, setting out the general Christian understanding of the words. Exclusivism is a position taken by conservative and evangelical Christians that stands on three non-negotiables: the absolute and unique authority of Jesus, His life, death and resurrection as the decisive hinge of history, and the necessity for repentance and faith in Jesus for salvation.

This position is represented by Henrik Kraemer (The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, 1938) and, more recently, Ronald Nash (Is Jesus the Only Savior? 1994), among many others. This is also the position that many Protestant churches in Singapore have taken.

Inclusivism, as a theological perspective, accepts the first two of the three non-negotiables of exclusivism, but not the third. This position has led to the idea of “anonymous Christians” (Karl Rahner), people who belong to other faiths but nevertheless experience salvation in Christ even though they may not know Christ or the Bible, or join the Christian faith.

Pluralism rejects all three non-negotiables of exclusivism. A well-known proponent of this view is John Hick (An Interpretation of Religion, 1989), who argues that all religions provide means of salvation and that Christianity is just one of many viable faiths, and not necessarily the most advanced of them.

It is in the light of this background that Christians have difficulties uncritically accepting public statements made by thought leaders in non-Christian, and especially secular, spaces. The politically correct way of thinking is that exclusivism is bad, inclusivism is good, and pluralism is what we should embrace for a peaceful and harmonious society.

But many questions have to be asked to seek clarifications and for all to try to be on the same page so that we can really engage in dialogue and arrive at mutual understanding. Take, for instance, the term “religious harmony”. I was once asked by a journalist what I thought about it, and I had to ask the journalist how she would define the term. She was at a loss.

I then explained that if “religious harmony” meant a harmony of religions, then I did not think the churches would be in favour of that. However, if the term meant harmonious relationships between people of different faiths seeking to live in peace and mutual understanding, then the churches support it because that is also what the Bible teaches.

There are two kinds of exclusivism; theological and social. This is where confusion and misunderstanding can arise. There is a tendency to confuse both aspects in one single idea, as if to say that those who stand for theological exclusivism (as per exclusivism as defined above) are also for social exclusivism. This cannot be further from the truth.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation; Protestant Christians commemorate the clear doctrinal exclusivity expressed in the Reformation mottoes: Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone. This is based on scriptural teachings on the uniqueness of Christ, His life, and the salvation found in Him alone (Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim 2:5; Rev 17:14).

But Scripture also teaches social inclusivity. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Mt 22:39; Lk 10:25-37). We are to live peaceably with all (Rom 12:18), and help and serve the poor and needy in society (Mt 25:35-36; Jam 1:27). Theological exclusivism does not mean social isolationism but stands together with social outreach and compassionate and missional involvement in society.

So, are Christians exclusivists or inclusivists? Such a question does not recognise the nuances of Christian thought and practice. In reality Christians are theologically exclusive and socially inclusive. To not recognise this is to collapse the ideas to suggest that social inclusivism is the same as theological inclusivism (as defined earlier), and that theological exclusivism is the same as social exclusivism. This will hinder any attempt at actual dialogue and understanding.

This also brings us to the question of whether our society is best defined as pluralistic, as some have argued. The problem is that pluralism, as many Christian thinkers in our midst understand it, is a philosophy. That we live in a diverse society is an observable fact, but to say that we are a pluralistic society is to impose a certain philosophy or underlying perspective.

One is a sociological observation, the other is a religious statement. There is a difference, as theologian Lesslie Newbigin has shown, between plurality and pluralism.

When people of different faiths (including secularists and those who do not profess any faith) engage in discussions, and there is social discourse, our different ideas about words, phrases and terms can become a hindrance to true communication and understanding if they are not sufficiently defined. We may not all agree on the definitions but we must at least understand and appreciate what is meant by words that may have different meanings for different people.

It is not like the language of mathematics, which in most cases transcends culture and society. Russian, Chinese, Italian and Indonesian mathematicians all understand one another when they discuss mathematics (not necessarily other things) because they use a well-defined mathematical vocabulary.

But in general social discourse, our lips may say the same words, but our minds may have different ideas. We may use the same vocabulary (in a superficially understood way), but we may be talking from different universes.

We may not agree on a single vocabulary accepted by all, but we must define and explain what we mean when we use certain words, to reduce misunderstanding and confusion and to promote real engagement.



Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.