A different rule for inter-religious engagement

Kelvin Teo

Interfaith dialogues can be a tricky business

Interfaith dialogues can be a tricky business

Having spent most of my formative years in a missionary school, a lot of us who do not happen to subscribe to the faith preached have inevitably developed some sort of immunity to criticisms of other faiths. We had to develop such an immunity having been exposed to such criticisms more often than not. At least, the impression was that slagging of other religions was common place that it was taken as a given, and replied with a mere shrug of the shoulder.

Adherents of one religion slamming another is by no means a new thing. They can occur in different settings – from informal conversations to group-based interactions comprising members belonging to a congregation or/and religious organisation, and finally, during the conduct of the religious session during a congregational setting.

The pertinent question is whether there is a need for intervention by our authorities in the event when adherents of one religion start slamming another religion? The arguments against the need of intervention is contingent on the intellectual maturity of the population to interpret religious messages of such nature. Earlier on this year, Rony Tan, the senior pastor of Lighthouse Evangelism made what was perceived to be disparaging remarks of Buddhism and Taoism that were gross misrepresentations of both faiths. Viewed from another perspective, Tan was no different from a salesman. What he said was no different from the typical salesman who slams products by other companies in a desire to gain headway within the “religious believers” market.

The fact is if the public possesses the intellectual maturity to evaluate remarks by religious figures, it will not be difficult to understand this simple fact – if one wants to hear objective messages about a particular religion, one is better off consulting senior practitioners of that particular religion on the nature of its practice, or academics who have researched in that area for some time if an academic opinion is desired. It wouldn’t be a good idea to lend credibility to what the preacher of a different religion has to say about the religion in question especially when the latter has the interest to promote his beliefs at the rival religion’s expense; it is the same as when we do research on a whole range of products, if we are interested in one product and wish to know more, we should consult users of the product for their experiences or the company that manufactures it and not the rival companies that produce similar products with the goal of out-competing others in mind. An intellectually mature public would dismiss Rony Tan’s ramblings about Buddhism and Taoism without a glance; the logic is simple, if one wants to hear from a credible representative of Buddhism, one would go to more credible sources and avoid a preacher whose interest is to promote his belief at the expense of Buddhism.

Hence, is there any reason that justifies our authorities’ decision to intervene in cases when a practitioner of one religion slams another? The official reason for such interventions is the preservation of our social fabric, to prevent religious disharmony. Anecdotal evidences seems to suggest there is some form of disharmony, albeit at the familial level. I used to hang out at a library of a religious organisation looking for suitable references which I needed to research on in a course related to that particular religion. I was at the library several times until the head librarian became aware of my existence, and we launched into a deep conversation during one such encounter. The librarian was relating to me how devotees of that organisation, specifically those in the 40 years and above age bracket encountered problems within the family when their kids converted to another religion. The feedback from the devotees was that the kids adopted a hostile attitude towards the parent’s religion by either making disparaging remarks or more seriously, attempting to destroy religious paraphernalia owned by the parent or both.

Anecdotally, such cases apparently do not bode well in the name of inter-religious harmony or is it so? Was it just isolated cases of a few “bad apples” or is there really a social issue? The question can only be answered through a sociological study. One such study was carried out by Yolanda Chin and Norman Vasu and published in 2007 by the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. The study involved a survey of 1,824 Singaporeans nationwide. In the survey, respondents were asked about their willingness to interact with members of identified racial and religious groups. The findings of the study was encouraging – inter-racial and inter-religious ties were consistently sturdy in the public sphere. Within the social, economic, political and security domains where interdependence is key, race and religion did not play a part in the decisions Singaporeans made. The study yielded a more than 90% probability that racial and religious differences had no impact on Singaporeans’ choice of who their next-door neighbour, colleague, Member of Parliament or policeman they turn for help should be. With regards to specific religious groups, it was interesting to note that Buddhists/Taoists and Freethinkers appeared to be the best received religious groups. In terms of receptiveness towards others of a different religious background, the Hindus were in general considered the most receptive.

Adherents of one religion have slammed other religions, and such have been going on for a long time, and one will not be surprised if such is still happening now. Despite the concerns on the impacts of such indiscretions on our social fabric, it appears that inter-religious ties as elucidated by the RSIS study still remained strong, which is an encouraging sign.

It is interesting to ask why would preachers and practitioners slam other religions? Some may do it for altruistic reasons, sincerely believing that they have discovered a way to overcome the frailities of human existence or managed to discover an indescribable bliss that they have never experienced before, so much so that they see themselves as harbinger of the good news. To them, what they believe in is the truth, and what they subscribe to is the only solution. Other beliefs fall short by their standards, that together with their desperation to show others the way, made them zealous to the extent of slamming other religions.

There is another obvious, albeit cynical reason why preachers and practitioners are so keen to win new believers from the market, especially those from mega-religious organisations. New believers are potential monetary contributors to the organisation; such organisations have huge running costs from their day to day activities, including the conducting of religious services which may require locations, e.g. big convention centres, with a huge capacity that obviously do not come cheap. Such a commercial perspective is natural, just as we cast a cynical eye on mega-corporations and believe their raison d’etre is profit-making. The more the believers the merrier, and what better way is there other than to slam your rivals and promote your solution?

It was interesting to note the Internal Security Department’s (ISD) intervention in the wake of Rony Tan’s slamming of Buddhism and Taoism. What this intervention meant was that all the way, the action of slamming other religions is considered as testing the out-of-bounds boundaries, until the intervention confirmed that the action is indeed out of bounds. Its implications are that religious organisations have to abide by a different rule when it comes to inter-religious engagement, even if they are in their own backyard. It seems religious organisations are required to steer clear of slamming other religions during sermons or religious services, especially where there is a wide audience and any perceived potential negative impact of the said remarks could be greater.

If the red tape is on slamming of other religions during conducting of sermons or religious services, can the same tape be applied to smaller scale informal group gatherings, otherwise known as cell group meetings? No doubt, any negative impact is smaller as compared with a larger congregation but there is no direct answer to this question. However, the risk of getting caught is greater in this current age of social media. It maybe that an unhappy member of the audience could have clandestinely recorded the proceedings and then upload to a social media site like YOUtube.

Inter-religious slamming has been occurring long before the Rony Tan saga until ISD’s intervention in that latter’s case, which confirmed that such an action especially during the circumstances of a religious service or sermon with a large audience is considered a red tape. This meant a different rule for inter-religious engagement, which calls for a more diplomatic approach by religious organisations. However, that being said, athough such slamming have taken place for a long time, inter-religious ties among Singaporeans still remained strong. The motivations behind the strong inter-religious ties remained unknown, which the authors of the RSIS study attributed to the limitations of the survey, which could not shed light in this area.

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