Godlessness: False or real threat

07 Apr 2019 / 19:15 H.

A RIPPLE effect of the Christchurch mosque killings is that some followers of religion seem to think that the biggest threat to peace comes from the godless and faithless such as Brenton Tarrant.

In fact, the opposite may be the case as reports have revealed that Brenton, the suspected mass murderer in acting out his white nationalist supremacist ideology had travelled to the Balkans and studied battles between Christians and the Ottoman empire. It is likely that religious hatred played a major role in his decision to engage in the killing spree.

At the same time, some analyses of Brenton Tarrant, even though his trial is yet to be held, depict him as a psychotic killer who is missing that spiritual element or part of human beings regarded as an essential component of their lives by those who embrace religion in one form or another.

One account describes him as a man with no soul or a dead soul, which is also often a description or characterisation of atheists and agnostics.

Secularphobia: Growing or waning

Why are atheists and agnostics depicted in such poor light despite evidence that they have had no or little role in the internecine religious wars that have plagued human society since time immemorial?

Do godless groups deserve the condemnation and hate heaped on them?

Until recently, the few studies that have been carried out indicate that the phenomenon of secularphobia or the irrational fear or hatred of non-religious people has been fairly widespread among ordinary people. For example, Penny Edgell of the University of Minnesota in 2006, found that atheists came in last place when Americans were asked to rank members of certain racial, ethnic, or religious groups as potential spouses for their children.

Later, a Gallup poll from 2012 found that 43% of Americans said that they would not vote for an atheist for president, putting atheists in the last/worst place, behind Muslims (40%), homosexuals (30%), Mormons (18%), Latinos (7%), Jews (6%), Catholics (5%), women (5%) and African-Americans (4%).

More recent studies, however, indicate a growing trend of atheism as non-religious individuals now are emerging from the closet of stigma and fear to assert the right to non-belief or disbelief in God and religion.

In the United States where the Pew Research Center has grouped “atheists”, “agnostics” and the “religiously unaffiliated” into one category, the “non-believers” are said to be the fastest growing “religious” demographic. In a recent article, University of Kentucky psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal found that 26% of Americans may be atheists in 2017.

The situation in Malaysia with regard to atheism and agnosticism is shrouded in official mystery since we do not have a definitive set of statistical data on the religious beliefs and affiliation of Malaysians.

So is atheism and agnosticism on the decline or is it the fastest growing religious demographic?

The closest we have to a reliable breakdown of the country’s population by religious belief is somewhat dated. According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census, 61.3% of the population practise Islam; 19.8% Buddhism; 9.2% Christianity; 6.3% Hinduism; and 1.3% traditional Chinese religions.

From the official statistics, it appears that the official major religious groupings add up to 97.9% of the country’s 30 million population today, leaving a tiny minority of 2.1% or about 600,000 Malaysians belonging to the category of non-believers in God or those adhering to non-religious systems of belief.

Is this very small number according to the official count reliable? Or are there more atheists or agnostic Malaysians who, for various reasons, as has happened in other countries, have been missed out in the national profiling?

Before we can answer this question, it is important to note that religions and beliefs are difficult to survey. They involve subject matters that are highly personal. Hence, the outcomes may be influenced by the way questions are worded, the methodology used or by other factors.

Among the possible reasons why the small official number is an underestimate is that the Rukun Negara has the principle, “Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan” or “Belief in God” as the foremost tenet to guide and unite Malaysians.

This may have resulted in our census authorities being biased towards identifying their Malaysian respondents as believing in God. Or perhaps the respondents may have taken the line of least resistance and concurred that they belong to some faith group for fear of official disapproval.

Besides state-sanctioned efforts to minimise the number of atheists and agnostics, the most important reason why the number of atheists in Malaysia appears to be small is because of discrimination and disapproval by our governing authorities. There is presently no official secular organisation in the country and little likelihood that such an organisation will be allowed.

However, the apparently small number of atheists and non-believers in Malaysia clearly is running against the worldwide trend of growing agnosticism and atheism.

According to the 2014 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, a majority of the population in nine European countries surveyed, as well as in Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia, Argentina and Chile, did not think that a belief in God was a necessary part of being moral. This figure was as high as 85% in France and 80% in Spain. The young and the university-educated were found to be more likely to hold this view in many countries.

State-led hate against atheists

Amid the global decline in religious belief, some governments have been stepping up efforts to portray atheists and secularists as a danger to society and even as terrorists.

A recent study by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a UN-accredited NGO that promotes the welfare and growth of humanist, atheist, rationalist, free thought and similar groups around the world has pointed to “hate campaigns” against those who renounce the dominant or state religion in Muslim nations.

The latest IHEU’s annual survey on discrimination and persecution against non-religious people noted that “the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers” as set out in UN treaties and that 13 Muslim states had made apostasy or blasphemy against religion a capital offence.

Back here in Malaysia, the report noted that former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had branded humanism, secularism and liberalism as “deviant” and a “threat to Islam and the state”.

There is little doubt that the former prime minister’s unprecedented attack against atheists and freethinkers has been responsible for the IHEU charge that Malaysia, together with Saudi Arabia and Iraq, are “the worst places (in the world) to be an atheist”.

Lim Teck Ghee’s “Another Take” is aimed at demystifying status quo orthodoxy. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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