Sunday, 10 August 2008

Changing Mindset On Religion

According to a write-up by New York Times, which was published by The Straits Times titled "Buddhism may be dying out in Japan" on 15 July, 2008; the Japanese have long taken an easy-going, buffet-like approach to religion, ringing out the old year at Buddhist temples and welcoming the new year, several hours later, at Shinto shrines.

Weddings hew to Shinto rituals or, just as easily, to Christian ones.

When it comes to funerals, though, the Japanese have traditionally been inflexibly Buddhist - so much so that Buddhism in Japan is often called "funeral Buddhism".

A reference to the religion's former near-monopoly on the elaborate and lucrative ceremonies surrounding deaths and memorial services. The religion appeared to cater more to the needs of the dead than to those of the living.

"That's the image of funeral Buddhism: that it doesn't meet people's spiritual needs," said Mr Ryoko Mori, the chief priest at the 700-year-old Zuikoji Temple in northern Japan. In Japan nowadays, very few Buddhist priests meet the people's spiritual needs.

While interest in Buddhism is declining in urban areas, the religion's rural strongholds are being depopulated, with older adherents dying and birth rates remaining low.

More significantly, Buddhism is losing its grip on the funeral industry, as more and more Japanese are turning to funeral homes or choosing not to hold funerals at all. In 2007, 28 per cent held funerals at home or in temples, and 61 per cent opted for funeral homes.

An increasing number of Japanese are deciding to have their loved ones cremated without any funeral at all, said anthropologist Noriyuki Ueda from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, an expert on Buddhism. "Because of that, Buddhist priests and temples will no longer be involved in funerals."

According to a write-up by Arti Mulchand of The Straits Times on 9 August 2008, Chinese religions in Singapore, specifically Taoism, have been trying to stem the conversion of their believers to Christianity.

Seven in 10 here considered themselves Taoist nearly 90 years ago, but recent census figures have charted their declining "share" - from 30 per cent of the population in 1980 to 22.4 per cent in 1990 and 8.5 per cent in 2000.

Christianity, on the other hand, has grown its flock to 14.6 per cent of the people here in 2000, up from just 5.2 per cent in the 1920s to 10.1 per cent in 1980 and 12.7 per cent in 1990.

With most of the other religions holding steady, this is where the migration seems to have been.

According to a ST survey, which polled 1,000 people aged above 15 and representative of the population, found that 20 per cent of adults here abandon the religion they were born into before age 30.

Back in 1990, these "switchers" made up only 11.5 per cent. The drift is leaving Taoism, for one, with relatively older followers. Six in 10 Taoists, for example, are above 40. One in four who grew up in Taoist homes says he has left the faith. Three-quarters of the transfers were made by those under 24, who said they felt "disconnected" to the religion or perceived a "lack of meaning' in following it.

When the issue of "deserters" from Taoism came to light in 1988, Taoist leaders went into a huddle, and from that came the Taoist Federation in 1990.

In contrast, Buddhism is holding strong. Over 80 per cent who were born Buddhist are staying Buddhist. And it was the fastest growing religion between 1990 and 2000, growing to 43 per cent of the population in that decade.

Buddhists are seeing a revival in their faith - a revival also being played out in South Korea, which is similarly mult-religious and Asian.

There, Buddhism is also mounting a fight for believers amid a dramatic surge in Christianity. Christians form close to 30 per cent of the population there, and Buddhists, 22.8 per cent.

In Singapore, where Christianity is not native, half the faithful are converts, that is not born into the religion. Christianity has grown here amid an evolving social context: The population has become more educated. English has also grown in use, and brought with it a Western world view and culture.

Language appears to be the biggest factor accounting for Christianity's expansion here, said Associate Professor Phyllis Chew, a linguist at the National Institute of Education.

National University of Singapore sociologist Alexius Pereira confirmed it. He added that over the last 40 years, Christianity has drawn the educated, English-speaking Chinese whose parents followed traditional religions.

The charismatic movement, with the attendant rise of the "mega-churches", those with members numbering in the tens of thousands, was a factor in the growth of Christianity.

Conversion to Islam does happen, most often because of mixed marriages, but conversion to Hinduism is "downright impossible", says the Hindu Endowments Board on its website.

It is a faith one is born into, though there are a minority who choose to take on and practise the tenets of Hinduism.

The ST survey found that Islam kept 99 per cent of its followers; among Hindus, just 7 per cent switched faiths.

The survey also found that three in 10 of the free-thinkers, those who see no need to answer to a higher power, used to have a childhood religion; but dropped it, mainly before age 24. The remaining seven have no plans to take on a religion.

"Four in five young people here believe in religion"
This report by Clarissa Oon of The Straits Times appeared on September 3, 2008; but I have decided to insert it here because it was based on a survey done in 2004 by sociolinguist, Dr Phyllis Chew.

Four in five young people believe in some sort of deity, according to the poll of more than 2,700 students by Dr Chew. Her study, believed to be the first of its kind here among youth aged 13 to 18, is published in a new book on religious diversity in Singapore by the Institute of Policy Studies and launched yesterday.

Most of the students - who come from a mix of neighbourhood and government-aided schools - belong to one of the three religions, ie Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.

However, when asked to write all they know of the nine main religions in the country, the students could only give mainly superficial comments.

Examples: "It is associated with monks" for Buddhism, "they go to church and sing hymns" for Christians and "cannot eat pork" for Muslims.

Students who gave specific details on their own faith could make only general remarks or had nothing to say about other religions, showing ignorance or disinterest in religions besides their own.

Dr Chew wrote that the religious views of the young matter because "their behaviour and beliefs affect the political, economic and social future of a nation".

On the whole, Singapore adolescents are remarkably tolerant, she added, even if they interpret "tolerance" as "not talking about religion" with their friends and hence avoiding possible conflicts.

The importance of adopting such an attitude was stressed by about three-quarters of those surveyed.

Just one in three polled considers himself or herself a Buddhist compared to 42.5 per cent in the 2000 census.

Correspondingly, Christians make up one in five of those surveyed, against 14.6 per cent in the census.

The proportion of Muslims, however, has stayed constant, registering 15 per cent in both the survey and the census.

While only a small minority (5.7 per cent) of students had switched to a different religion from their parents, most conversions were from Buddhism or Taoism to Christianity.

No comments: