by Tan Tatt Si
Lately, the non-religious are in the news for all the wrong reasons : from Malaysia's minister denouncing atheists and wanting them tracked down; to Singapore's former top civil servant insinuating atheists to be the potential cause in Singapore's imminent demise; to Amos Yee's release from a Chicago immigration jail and vowing to ply his old tricks. I feel the non-religious community in Singapore is very much misunderstood by people with religion, and hence marginalised by the politics of majority.
Perhaps a walkthrough of the life of a non-religious person and his community, will begin to convince the rest to see us differently.
Born as the first Singaporean grandchild, a boy, of my Chinese family's first immigrant here, my life seemed privileged. While I had no say regarding my birth and unable to dictate my gender or birth order, I was at the head table of a paternalistic majority race with probably the majority religion in those days. Growing up was easy, after comparing my life with minorities years on.
Learning morality was a long and arduous road, of wondering why I had to treat others fairly, in a world where fair complexion is coveted why others of darker complexion and seemingly dubious religions deserved my respect, and why the world shouldn't only revolve around me. Grandpa's passing was a great devastation and awakening because his funeral was one that piqued my consciousness - versus grandpa having me cycle out to buy cigarettes and subsequently keeping the change, his funeral rituals were alien and impersonal. We never practiced religion in our everyday life, and it showed, and I felt it.
Inevitably, my younger siblings diluted the love that was exclusively mine; education taught me of everyone's inviolable rights; and, I realised humanity walked out of Africa, not China. Others begin to take centre stage when I stepped down from my illusion of being the centre of the universe. This was the same time a let down and a relief, and over the years, I was able to move from my staunch anti-abortion and homophobic stance, to one that returns the rights to the real parties involved.
Not having a religion, means not having any baggage, not without morality. We do not plunder, we do not have a quota of babies to kill, nor a number of virgins we need to sacrifice every month. In fact, we do things out of goodness, from out of our hearts, without duties required by and conditions set forth by religious creeds. We do good, despite not being forced to do it. Ethics, continue to change over time, and are very much pegged to the Golden and Silver rules. Many of the non-religious are guided by these, almost religiously.
Active atheists and humanists are critical thinkers, and some might at one time or another, have religion. We go beyond demystifying aspects of religion, and we dissect dogma in general. It is not uncommon to see us laying into religious stances as we lay into government policies, earning us the nicknames of “militant atheists” and the "liberal left", depending on whether we are perceived to be against religions or appearing to buck accepted social norms. Our critiques had the unintended consequence of pushing religions and politics closer, with MoRH Act enacted to limit much needed discourse, allowing the religious to voice disgust or feign being offended any time a conversation gets difficult.
We do not outsource our morality to religions, just as we feel people should not outsource thinking to only the government. There may come a point in our nation’s future, that the dynamics of policies being swayed by people mostly holding religious views, or worse - with only one religion’s view. Some religious organisations are ever more open about their intentions in guiding national policies, attacking the non-religious because we are immoral for lack of a god-belief system or absolutism, pitting us to defend attacks from across the full religious spectrum, while we always remind ourselves to temper our responses, since we have no deities to feel offended. It is tiring, and walking the secular way is no guarantee that those with religious DNAs won’t express their agenda when given a chance. Secularity must be run with diversity being the foundation, under an ‘a-religious’ framework.
No entity holds a monopoly on morality or right answers. The non-religious are certainly no pariahs of society, in fact we are followers of the scientific method, and task ourselves to be the conscience of humanity unencumbered by dogmatic, doctrinal constraints. From Animism to Shamanism, from Amun-Ra to Zeus, from Abrahamic to Zoroastrianism , we have skirted them while still managing to lead a fruitful life. We could have strayed, and wandered into what we feel are 'entrapments of religions'. We didn’t, not for long anyway. Some of us might have dabbled with religion in our past, but most of us live free from the day we were born, to the day we marry, to the day that we die, and we welcome those who relinquish religions to embrace rationality along our journey. We do not see this a de-conversion, but we adhere to our personal commandment of ‘saner heads shalt prevail’. Of this finite time we spend of the only life we each have, let not others rob us of that which we have no recourse. Our lives we live for ourselves and for others, and our deathbeds are for repose, not for others to bicker over funeral rites.
We use our senses, to enrich ourselves and empower those around us. We stress sensibility, so no one can run amok using baseless claims. And, borrowing the style from a writer ahead of her time : we are a truth, universally acknowledged, that free thinking people in possession of good wisdom, are in want of a simple thing called freedom from religion and dogma.
Mr Tan runs his own creative venture and is also the President of the Humanist Society (Singapore)