A DELIGHTFUL “Gong Xi Gong Xi Ni” (Chinese New Year melody) played on sitar by a 10-piece ensemble of the Swara Community Arts Centre, and a thrilling lion dance performance by an all-Malay troupe at SK Jerong in Terengganu exemplify our character as a nation of diverse mix able to blend well. Malaysia is like a “yee sang” dish that mixes vegetables, fruits, and salmon in one high toss.
Ponggal was another occasion to express our diverse inclusiveness, with Malaysians of non-Tamil descent trying their hand at preparing an outdoor fire and stirring the rice. Soon, our calendar pages will flip to Ramadan – as much a season for non-Muslims as well as Muslims to observe tighter dietary control through a sufficient period of fasting every 24-hour cycle.
But during these past 30 days, there were also voices of concern that lanterns and sweet rice might have some religious significance unacceptable to many. One school removed lanterns and another school forbade the arrival of clay pots. Before we get into another spat further down the year, let’s do a refresher on the basics of culture and religion.
Human society made the transition from a non-civilised hunting and foraging existence to a civilised farming and factory lifestyle through a blend of culture and religion. From mere hundreds of tribal folks, societies expanded to comprise thousands living in cities and farms connected to cities. Thus began civilisation.
This spectacular transformation into mass society was enabled by a gene for mass cooperation lodged in the brains of all humans. Culture and religion trigger neuron switches to activate this gene for cooperative behaviour. What is the difference between culture and religion?
Culture is a down-to-earth pattern of socially standardised behaviour with many occasions for ceremony. If the occasion has an earthly theme, such as to mark the beginning of spring (Lunar New Year) or the harvesting of crops (Ponggal or Gawai), it is a cultural festival. Never mind if prayers are recited at these grand occasions; any occasion is a time for prayer.
Religion is a look-to-heaven set of codified beliefs and ritual practices that does a bigger job than the culture from which it usually arises. While a culture is capable of unifying super tribes of several thousand members, it takes religion to unify hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
To handle a riot you only need the police; to handle a rebellion you need the army. Historically, the army grew out of the police force. Historically, religion grew out of culture. To sustain a civilisation, religion is vital. Chinese civilisation isn’t just culture: it is also Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism in a triadic set.
Every religion plays a unifying and peacebuilding role within its own civilisational boundaries. Unfortunately, Malaysians get tangled up in a soccer mindset. All religions, in their minds, are rival teams competing to be the sole winner and the match is fought over beliefs. Is my belief more correct than your belief? It’s the wrong question. As long as your religion has fostered the growth of civilisation and the inculcation of high moral values in its adherents, its beliefs are correct for that civilisation whether Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Confucian.
The right question to ask is whether a traditional belief has outlived its usefulness and has degenerated into a moral danger. A relevant example is the marriage of underaged girls. In early civilisational times, religions permitted girls as young as 11 to marry. That’s because in those early times, most people died before reaching age 40. Now most people will live to 80 and shouldn’t marry before 20.
It is equally important to ask whether your religious belief generates conflict with another community. It is wrong to evaluate religions as if you are comparing bids in a tender process. Nor is religion to be treated like a single source appointment of a scripture and saviour to liberate humanity. This is a outdated 3G way of thinking which permits very low interfaith connectivity. It is not even 4G, let alone 5G.
Learn religion and spirituality from wise minds that operate in 5G mode, not from preachers whose minds are set in 3G.
The writer champions interfaith harmony. Comments: email@example.com