Atheists deserve a place in interfaith dialogue

200 youths from different religious and grassroots organisations painted Colours Of Faith 2016, an acrylic art montage, to mark the World Religion Day on Jan 23, 2016.

In The Straits Times report, "Youth in Singapore Shunning Religion" dated March 21, 2016, it was reported that those who identified with "no religion" have increased from 17 per cent in 2010 to 18.5 per cent last year. Of this group, a large proportion are between 15 and 34 years old.

The report was published a few days after the inaugural dialogue between the religious and the atheists in Singapore, organised by the Humanist Society of Singapore and the Leftwrite Centre.

I was not at all surprised when I was told that this was the first "interfaith" dialogue between people with and without a religion. The sheer fact that we lack a proper term for such a dialogue - other than calling it an "interfaith" dialogue - proves this point.

I once had a very intelligent colleague who used to teach at the law school at my university. He happened to be an atheist, and a very religious one. We were rather good friends, until we began to talk about religion. This was around seven years ago, before I had joined any kind of interfaith activities and when I was still very much cocooned inside my evangelical Christian bubble.

He was fervent about his atheism, while I was very evangelistic about my faith. On my birthday in 2009, he gave me Sam Harris's seminal book The End of Faith. As a goodwill gesture, I gave him a book called The Case for God by Karen Armstrong.

Given our strongly-held beliefs, you can imagine how, or if, any further conversation between us was possible, especially when religion was raised.

Eventually, we stopped talking about religion, so that neither of our feelings would be hurt. Instead, we chose to tolerate each other's differences, while probably harbouring lingering thoughts about eventually converting each other.


However, tolerance should not be the end goal between those of different religions, or between those of faith and those who are atheists.

The bar for tolerance is very low: It stems from a fear of confronting difference, a fear of being hurt and a fear of opening up oneself to the possibility of shifting one's position.

Tolerance silences differences. Dialogue, on the other hand, is the only way for us to surface assumptions, and remove blind spots and prejudice. It allows us to bridge differences, so that we can reach mutual understanding, not just tolerance.

Dialogue is urgently needed in our present times of global terror, especially when violence is committed in the name of God. Hence, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has rightly argued that "the greatest single antidote to violence is conversation, speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others and, in that sharing of vulnerabilities, discovering a genesis of hope".


In fact, much of our outlook on religion, faith, morality and ethics is influenced by where we were born and raised, and where we learn about social norms and values. For example, a person who was born in communist China is more likely to be an atheist, compared to one who was born in the Christian belt of the United States, or in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Hence, for many people, their position as religious or non-religious is merely an accident of birth.

Similarly, the ways in which they make sense of the world depends very much on the hegemonic discourses they were subjected to.

It may be difficult, if not impossible, for someone who grew up in an atheist environment to understand what it means to submit oneself to an unseen God. Likewise, for those who grew up in a religious environment, it is challenging for them to eliminate God from their everyday discourses.


The gulf between atheism and religion is often widened by false dichotomies that each camp subscribes to. Simplistic dualism such as atheist versus religious, secular versus sacred, believers versus non-believers, saved versus unsaved, reason versus faith, continue to lure both religious and non-religious people into believing that either religions are the root of all evils or that all atheists are going to hell. They force us to accept that atheism and religion are logically incompatible, and the gulf between them is unbridgeable.

Such a position cannot be more misleading. Atheism is a continuum rather than an absolute position; so, too, is religion. There are atheists who adopt various religious or spiritual practices and there are religious people who, at various points in their journey, have lost faith and found it again, or decided to go on a different path altogether.

It is dangerous to generalise and assume stereotypical attributes of religion and atheism based on sensationalised characteristics. Nor can one assume that one knows everything about Christianity or atheism just because he has read Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven Life) or Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion).


To dialogue is to try to find a common ground and bridge the gulf between religion and atheism. It means for the religious to try to understand how an atheist cannot find it appealing to be able to depend on a metaphysical power greater than him or herself.

It also means for the atheist to try to understand how a rational being could totally surrender one's reason to trust in something invisible, unproven and possibly non-existent.

Both religious persons and atheists must not be compelled to trade their intellectual reasoning for faith, and vice versa. The challenge is to balance reason and faith, and to understand how people draw strength from either, or both, of them.

Author Brain McLaren wrote a fascinating book that discusses ways to negotiate the Christian identity in a multi-faith world. Its enthralling title is Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha, And Muhammad Cross The Road?

In a media interview, Mr McLaren was asked: "So, Brian, why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Muhammad cross the road?" He responded: "To get to the other." They did not cross the road to get each other, but to get to the other.

He further wrote: "When we cross the road to meet one another as friends, in some way, perhaps they do, too, through us. Perhaps their story is not yet over, but continues to unfold in us."

Perhaps it is time for the religious to extend the invitation to cross the road to atheists, so that they can also meet one another as friends. Interfaith dialogue has to go beyond faith to include atheists, who have long been excluded in such conversations.

It is only with such effort that we can together create a truly inclusive society where every voice is valued, regardless of faith, or lack thereof.

  • Chang-Yau Hoon is Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and Sing Lun Fellow at Singapore Management University.

This article was first published on April 3, 2016.
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