For making the study of comparative religion compulsory in schools

I’m referring mostly to the line of articles and letters in the local press such as this one (Youth in Singapore shunning religion) and this one (Leave religious studies out of secular schools). There seems to be a certain anxiety about the ‘moral fibre of Singapore’ in these uncertain times, and the finger is being pointed in all sorts of directions, including the erosion of religious conviction and the rise of alternative lifestyles. In thinking about these issues, I’ve tried to crystallise my thoughts into three main questions:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. Why should we care?
  3. What do we need?

I believe that a more critical and formal look at how we’ve come to be the way we are and why we think and feel the way we do, will help Singaporeans analyse our behaviour and our customs in a manner that will let them improve, and more importantly, make them want to improve. And I think that comparative religion provides an excellent look at the first principles that go into behaviour and belief — areas that are very much neglected by our otherwise excellent education system.

To clarify: the study of comparative religion, as I understand it, is not the persuasive promulgation of the values of any particular religion, or set of religions. It is the study of the way in which religion influences behaviour. I believe it should be taught because it holds a mirror up to students and to society, and invites them to consider why they do what they do and why they think what they think.

Contrary to the argument that comparative religion might promulgate ‘good values’ (Religious studies can help foster good values), I think the study of comparative religion might actually foster constructive iconoclasm. Instead of promoting a set of values that a particular person or group might regard as ‘good’, it equips students with the ability and tools to ask if the values foisted on them really are good. And to argue against them if they aren’t. Which is what Singapore really needs more of, as opposed to more blind compliance.

1. What’s the problem?

Singapore’s a bit of an odd place, really. Although we tend not to think of the moral landscape of Singapore as a particularly happening place, it’s actually the front lines of a clash of ideologies that’s centuries old. We were ruled by Hindus, we paid tribute to the Chinese (with their syncretic mishmash of Legalist philosophy, various Eastern religions), and our last king converted to Islam. We were occupied by the British during their heyday, and they imported their Victorian, Indian-Raj-era laws and moral standards which, in many ways, still form the background of our values system. We were occupied by the Japanese, and while we didn’t imbibe much of their philosophy or culture of that time, the Occupation certainly did infect us with a self-interested, pragmatic survivalist mentality that seemed to dominate the thought of our early leaders and many of our current governors.

Those last two things (a kind of idealised neo-Victorian conservatism, and ruthless utilitarianism) are of particular note. They not only affect the way we think of social policy (monogamous heteronormativity being enforced; bootstrappism and self-sufficiency being extolled as virtues) but also how we legislate and do business. For example, it’s been observed that Singaporean customer service is awful. CNN, for example, characterised the customer service industry and its workers here as having no initiative, no product knowledge, and being lazy. This can be explained by looking at how certain values affect our behaviour: the virtue of self-sufficiency, a very English kind of class-consciousness, and perhaps a certain hangover that prescribes against appearing subservient, all affect the morale and motivation of service workers. Why should I tell you about this product — you’re perfectly capable of looking it up yourself. I’m already poorly-paid and lowly-ranked — what’s my motivation in doing a bad job well? We confuse courtesy with subservience, and the gold standard of politeness in Singapore is often a sullen silence that offers no insult but also invites no warmth.

And most of all, we respond to correction with hostility. Why should I change? Singapore is secular: doesn’t that mean my beliefs and attitude are above question, as long as I do my mechanical professional duty?

No.

2. Why should we care?

The majority of Singaporeans are religious (about 80% identify themselves as an adherent of a religion). It’s not really important for the purposes of my little writeup what particular faith they identify with or the extent to which they do so: what’s important is that they choose, when asked, to identify as being religious, and thus “being seen as religious” is clearly a component of their self-image. Obviously, a detached bystander might look at their behaviour and go think, “This person isn’t religious at all”, in no small part due to some self-identifying religious people being frothing-at-the-mouth whackjobs who practice what they preach only selectively if at all.

We should care about what and how Singaporeans think about religion because it’s a very powerful force. Someone who identifies as religious will react in a certain way if his self-image is threatened. He may not be motivated to be charitable, but he might very well react violently if told, “If you don’t hate gays you’re not a good Christian/Muslim/whatever”, or “this new law threatens your ability to identify yourself as you wish”. The uncritical layman is quite vulnerable to ‘no true Scotsman’ logic.

And this isn’t idle speculation. Even as local NGOs have gained support and become more vocal, the local religious community has responded by becoming more active and prominent. Local pastors have taken potshots not only at alternative beliefs (Wear White Campaign) but also at other religions (Lighthouse Evangelism) and even feminism (the AWARE attempted takeover fiasco). Let’s leave aside for now the distressing observation that conservative Evangelical Christians frequently seem to be involved, and that this particular group seems to be one of the fastest-growing religions in a gradually-secularising society. Religious leaders in Singapore command huge followings, great influence, and also obscene wealth. It would be naïve to suggest that religion is a private thing into which society and the average Singaporean should not inquire — religion in Singapore is clearly far from private, in the sense of not interfering with the public sphere.

It’s merely poorly-understood.

3. What do we need?

Obviously I’m in favour of increasing religious literacy and implementing compulsory comparative religion studies. But that’s just a means to an end, really.

We should be critical of religions and religious leaders — especially our own. Perhaps not fully sceptical, but certainly critical. Why is this important?

I’m a Catholic. My religious leaders wield two kinds of authority: the divinely-conferred, internally-coherent authority of the Church, and the moral authority that they exert via their own personal charisma. As a good Catholic who participates in full communion with the Church, I’m obliged to be alive to the interaction of reason, my conscience, the scriptural tradition, and the direction of the Church authorities. I can’t do that without some level of critical analysis. After all, consistency isn’t one of the great virtues of any particular faith, and resolving inconsistencies requires a lively mind. Obedience to God and obedience to Man, are, obviously very different things.

I’d like to believe that everyone who self-identifies as religious faces the same struggle and would resort to the same process. We’re all told things that are difficult to swallow, to accept, to believe. Switching off our brains and listening to the loudest and most strident voice leads to unjust and potentially profane outcomes — we have leaders who tell us to be sexually pure but who violate the youth, who tell us that charity is a virtue and yet who grow fat and grotesquely wealthy by exploiting the gullibility of others, who tell us that divine law promotes order and justice and yet who go out of their way to sow discord and conflict. Navigating this maze, with its multitude of appeals not only to conscience and reason but also to emotion, to self-interest, to prejudice and the worst parts of our human nature, requires not only critical acuity, but also courage.

And that’s what comparative religion, taught right, should help equip students with. Sure, there are other ways of doing it, but the popular perception of critical thinking as a matter of ‘skill’ and not ‘knowledge’ (a particularly uncritical and unenlightened dichotomy. Thanks, MOE) is a false one. Yes, everyone with a critical inclination can gnash their teeth at anything they don’t like, but for arguments to bite deep and take hold, we need eyes to see too, and that comes from awareness and from understanding. Aggressive iconoclasm without knowledge and understanding is wanton destruction, of the sort that ISIS is perpetuating against the cultural history of the lands it occupies.

So if we want our kids to be able to deal with religion well, not only as religious adherents or as atheists or agnostics in their own right, but also as doctors, lawyers, policy-makers, service-providers, businessmen and so on, they need to know something about what people believe in, and why they do so, and what it makes them do and want. And that requires teaching, requires patience.

And courage. Some hearts will quail at the thought of introducing young minds to anythig to do with religion, simply because of how taboo and scary religion is to many people in Singapore. Disregard them.

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