Avoiding vengeance: Why teaching religion is the wrong thing to do

“Not if but when” says the poster. Indeed, an attack of some sort will happen in Singapore. But let’s not be ahistorical about it. Throughout history, highly aggrieved individuals have lashed out at society or authority with violence. Sometimes they act as loners, other times as part of an organised network. We’ve had bombs going off in Singapore within living memory — for example on 10 March 1965 at MacDonald House in which three persons died. We’ve had the Sepoy mutiny in 1915 in which over 100 people lost their lives, including 56 mutineers. 

Mutineers being executed by firing squad, 1915. Who are the real terrorists here?

Our history is also replete with incidents in which groups attack each other, arguably out of heightened group identification and knee-jerk loyalties. As I say this, the race riots of the 1950s and 1960s and perhaps the Little India riot in 2013 may come to mind. But the worst riot we have seen was between between Hokkiens and Teochews, unimaginable though it may be today. Over ten days in 1854, about 500 persons were brutally killed. (That’s a huge number when seen in the light of the total population at the time. The closest census, in 1871, recorded a population of just 97,111.)

There is no reason to think that inter-group street violence or targetted attacks will not happen again.

In today’s climate, our vigilance is directed at the threat from those professing loyalty to Daesh, Jemaah Islamiyah, or similar networks. Because these networks use Islam for rationalisation, our anxieties have acquired a religious dimension. We generally recognise that whilst an attack cannot be totally prevented, how calmly or vengefully we respond to an incident is very much within our control. That response need not be physical. More likely it will take the form of heightened suspicion and discrimination against persons classed together with the initial perpetrators.

Social vaccination

A Clara Chua had a letter in the Straits Times Forum advocating inter-religious appreciation as a form of prevention.

Straits Times Forum, 5 October 2017

Re-introduce religious studies in school

With daily reports of violence linked to religion and the need for Singaporeans to stay united, perhaps it may be a good idea to re-introduce religious studies in the secondary school curriculum as a weekly non-examinable session.

However, instead of having students attend classes based on their religion – as was the case when I was in secondary school – perhaps the Education Ministry can devise a method that will allow all students to have an appreciation of the main religions practised in Singapore.

This will help in giving all Singaporeans an opportunity to appreciate and understand the practice and goodness of religions other than their own.

I am sure this will go a long way in complimenting the religious harmony endeavour in our multiracial country.

Clara Chua Sieo Peng (Ms)

The letter is well-intentioned, but misses the mark. Worse, it cements a certain way of thinking that is not really helpful. Also, to uncritically assume “goodness” of religions is just so much hooey.

No homogeneity, no objectively ‘correct’ interpretation

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, religion is whatever is in the mind of each and every believer. Whilst there may be majority consensus among those who subscribe to the same label (“Protestant Christianity”, “Sunni Islam”, “Theravada Buddhism”) as to what that label should represent, we should not mistake majority consensus for objective property. The “Islam” in one outlying believer’s mind is no more or less “true” than the “Islam” in another believer’s mind, no matter how aligned the latter’s views are to many of his co-believers in contrast to the former’s. Anyone who insists that his idea of “Islam” is “correct” is merely asserting a right to determine truth. Nobody has such a right.

There is no one Islam. Or Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism. There are as many as there are those who take on the label of adherent.

To argue as Clara Chua did that we should school our children in the “practice and goodness” of the common religions in Singapore is to assume that it is possible to identify objectively a set of practices and beliefs that is immutably, and correctly, of that religion. To speak of “goodness” is to immediately skew the analysis in one (politically permissible) direction.

This seems misdirected. Worse, her proposal will have two serious, if unintended, consequences:

  • It will skew young minds towards the idea that populations are made up of religious blocs (that are largely internally homogenous), when in fact such a notion is false — identity is far more layered and complex — and useless in understanding actual human behaviour;
  • It will drag the State into defining what any “religion” is (for how else to draw up a curriculum?), which is exactly what a secular state should not do.

A key feature of many religions is this: an assertion that it [insert name of religion] alone is the unchallengeable truth. Again and again, we blind ourselves to all the supporting features that surround and defend this very fragile (because it is so unprovable) tenet: a demand for exclusive identity; sometimes a quest for power, beginning with control over its adherents, often leading on to social and political power;  anxiety about contamination — both physical and mental; and sotto voce denigration of other religious beliefs.

You cannot understand religion and its practices without keeping in mind this key feature mentioned above and its defences. Yet it’s hard to imagine how one can incorporate these unflattering points into the curriculum that Clara Chua expects without problematising her essential purpose: the “goodness of religions”.

Taoist funeral

In any case, when an attack happens, the attacker may have his interpretation of his religion that is outside the mainstream. He will have sympathisers whose beliefs are similarly off-mainstream. If we teach our children that mainstream equates with “correct”, not only is  such a notion factually false, such an approach actually shackles our ability to understand what thoughts and calculations motivated the attacker and his sympathisers. Instead of being better equipped, we are at a loss. The attacker may be dead or arrested, but still there will remain sympathisers. And everything we (stupidly) say in the aftermath (e.g. “that bunch is un-Islamic”) may alienate the sympathisers further.

Moreover, research has shown that attackers are not so much motivated by religion as that they adopt a religion for justification. Almost always, they are socially alienated persons who are seeking a sort of self-affirmation through violent spectacle. They need a narrative, and religions generally provide the richest narratives for demeaning, dehumanising and exterminating outgroups.

A critical, social science approach

In summary, vaccination is not effective if we merely educate children on the doctrinal content of religions, as Clara Chua has suggested. This is because we will end up having to select certain interpretations of certain doctrinal themes. In doing so, we are likely to valorise the mainstream or politically-approved interpretation, neglecting or dismissing the interpretations that motivate (or at least that enable) attackers and their sympathisers. We thus reinforce their alienation.

It is better to adopt a critical, social science approach. Teach it as a study of social behaviour, belief creation, thought conformity, alienation and marginalisation. By doing so, we teach at the same time, self-awareness. Why do we instinctively identify with certain groups? Why do we ourselves believe what we want to believe? Why do we need the self-affirmation from denegrating other groups? How much of a leap is it from saying that non-believers are less worthy to killing them?

If, in the aftermath of an attack, we wish not to see packs of wolves prowling the streets or social media hunting for prey, then teaching critical, skeptical enquiry about religion and promoting self-awareness — in other words, the humanist angle — is the way to go.

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