Singapore: Yuchuan teenager ticks the “Buddhist” box in formal forms, but does not practice Buddhism.
The 18-year-old, who did not want to share her full name, said describing herself as a Buddhist was a “habit” she had since her childhood days.
“I’m supposed to be Buddhist,” she said, “but I’m more inclined towards (being) a free thinker.” “My parents practice (Buddhism), so when they practice it, I just follow it.”
Her views mirror those of a number of young people CNA spoke to, including some of their Christian or Muslim families. A number of them said that religion was not a big part of their lives, although they participate in religious rituals with their parents.
Read: 20% of Singaporeans have no religion, which is an increase from the last census
The Singapore 2020 census showed that 20 per cent of the Singapore population had no religious affiliation in 2020.
They are now the second largest group after Buddhists, who make up about a third of the population (31.1 percent). It includes the third largest group of Christians (18.9 per cent).
Just over 15 percent said they were Muslims, 8.8 percent said they were Taoists and 5 percent said they were Hindu.
The census, which included Singapore residents aged 15 or older, also found that young people were more likely to have no religious affiliation.
In 2020, 24.3 percent of those aged 15-24 reported having no religion, which was up from 15.2 percent for residents aged 55 and over. From 2010 to 2020, the proportion of the population without religion increased in all age groups.
Dr Matthew Matthews, Principal Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), said the growing number of people without religion is an “expected trajectory”.
This trend, he said, has been seen in many societies where there is “a shift away from organized religion as people become more entrenched in a secular world”.
“People rely less on religion to provide an explanation for many things that happen in life but instead look to science,” Dr. Matthews said.
“Religion as an institution no longer plays a major role in one’s life and therefore fewer people will pass on the faith to their children.”
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He added that there are certainly those who are officially associated with a religion, but do not practice it.
“But often they may have some nominal acceptance of some of the fundamental beliefs or practices of the religion,” he said.
“Even if they don’t adhere to many of these, they will probably be open at some point in their lives to explore their faith further or may find relief in some rituals of the religion.”
The increasing number of people without religion is not a new trend. The share of these people—whether they are atheists, agnostics, or freethinkers—has been increasing since the 1980s, when it was 13.1 percent.
In 2010, with the percentage of freethinkers reaching 17 percent, the Humane Society (Singapore) was formed to provide support to people without religion.
The group has approximately 100 to 120 paid members and a growing social network with nearly 6,500 followers on Facebook.
In an interview with Zoom on June 22, community members told CNA how they began questioning some of the central beliefs of the religions they were brought up in, eventually turning to humanism.
“I sometimes find that morality of the first order may not be right after all, and sometimes you have to think for yourself, what is moral and immoral? That was my step away from religion,” said Mr. Paul Tobin, 56, founding president of the association.
“Labels like atheist and atheist tell you what you’re not… while a humanist tells you, in my opinion, what else is—you see that we as human beings add value to our lives, and we give meaning to our lives.”
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The association performs some of the functions traditionally performed by organized religion – providing a community for its members, organizing charitable activities and organizing events such as weddings and births.
Vice President, Tan Ding Jie, noted that Singapore remains a largely religious society – 80 percent of the population officially belongs to a religion.
He has noted that an increasing number of religious individuals have developed a “good understanding of humanism and atheism”, and the community has been invited to interfaith dialogues in recent years.
“We have developed deep friendships and no longer see each other as religious or non-religious, but our fellow Singaporeans in pursuit of mutual understanding and self-improvement,” said Mr. Tan.
Young people participate in Taoist festivals: Union
The head of the Taoist Federation of Singapore, Mr. Tan Thiam Lai, told CNA that the number of young people taking part in major Taoist festivals and celebrations is still very high.
Many take part in the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, where processions are held to celebrate the occasion. He said that the young men take the task of carrying the chicks in processions.
He added that the federation was established in 1990 to stop the trend of declining numbers of Taoists and the aging of the Taoist society.
The proportion of Taoism among Singapore residents rose from 30 per cent in 1980 to 22.4 per cent in 1990. There was a significant decline to 8.5 per cent in 2000, and rose slightly to 10.9 per cent in 2010, before declining to 8.8 percent in the 2020 edition.
“So we were already aware of this at the time. In fact, through the efforts of the Confederation in the last 30 years, the decline has slowed compared to the sharp decline of the 1980s and 1990s.
“We have worked hard to attract young people. We created a youth group and brought together a group of young people who are passionate and able to spread Taoist culture. We are also experimenting with new ways to spread the faith.”
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The Federation is on Facebook and has created a website where talks on Taoism, cultural seminars and live performances are broadcast.
“There may be fewer devotees going to temples now due to the safe management measures of COVID-19,” said Mr Tan.
He said the younger generation may not have altars in their homes but they will go to temples on the 1st and 15th of the lunar month and other special occasions.
With more and more people saying they have no religion, Dr. Matthews hypothesizes that, in the near future, the religious landscape could be marked by differences between this group and those who adhere to their beliefs.
“These identities can sometimes be at odds with each other and can lead to further conflict because both groups may perceive the presence or absence of a religion as an important sign of their identity,” he said.
“Those who do not have a religion may feel that the religious are plotting to impose their beliefs and traditions on them while the religious may realize that the non-religious are working to reduce their religious goals.
“And with better education on both sides of the religious spectrum, you can expect that they feel more confident in their beliefs and you may find it easier to put forward their arguments.”