Richard Dedekind: A deeply religious yet secular person

By Wang Haina

I am a chemistry major at the National University of Singapore but in my free time, I indulge in my love for German culture and mathematics. In the process, I had the privilege to read the works of German mathematician Richard Dedekind, whom I regard as my hero, and appreciate the little wonders that he left behind.

A brilliant German mathematician from the 19th century, Dedekind made important contributions to abstract algebra. He was far ahead of his time and his theories are still influencing our computing methodologies today. Although Richard Dedekind was a giant in the world of mathematics, it was the littlest things he did that impressed me the most.

For example, I had read Dedekind’s now-famous Section 66 of Was sind und was sollen die Zahlen, where he half-jokingly claimed that “my world of thoughts is infinite” (which I feel is simply a way of saying “you can regard the existence of an infinite set as an axiom”)

He also wrote a letter to his sister Julie that says: “A rainy day = a gray day = a nice day” Well, a rainy day allows him to stay in his room reading math books, a prospect that was definitely great for him!

On another occasion, he wrote to the editors of a calendar book which wrongly stated that he had died on some day in 1899: “The date may be right; the year is certainly wrong.”

Considering these, please forgive me for finding Dedekind cute sometimes!

Dedekind’s care for the tiniest details went beyond maths and can be seen even in matters of religion and secularism.

Dedekind himself was a devoted Lutheran. On his grave lies the inscription “2 Timothy 4. 7-8”, a biblical verse.

I recently stumbled upon a little discovery regarding his correspondence with Mrs. Elise Riemann, carried out in order to compose a biography of her husband, German mathematician Bernhard Riemann (i.e. Bernhard Riemanns Lebenslauf).

This little finding will probably give you an idea of how considerate Dedekind was:

Although most of the biography was written by Dedekind, the last paragraphs were borrowed from Elise Riemann’s letter. (Apparently, Elise approved such copying!!) Therefore, it is meaningful to compare what Elise wrote with what appears in the final published biography. I will just put the original German text here, but the important parts will be explained later.

Elise Riemann:

Rs Ende war ein sehr sanftes, ich möchte sagen ein Heimgehen ohne Kampf und Todesschauer, es schien mir als ob er mit Interesse dem Scheiden der Seele vom Körper folge, ich mußte ihm Brod u. Wein reichen, er trug mir Grüße auf an die Lieben daheim, sagte mir küsse unser Kind, ich betete das Vater Unser mit ihm, er konnte nicht mehr sprechen, bei den Worten, Vergieb uns unsere Schuld richtete er gläubig das Auge nach Oben, ich fühlte seine Hand kälter werden in der meinen, noch einige Athemzüge, und er war aufgegangen in Gott, wo er schauen wird was hier seinem Forschen versagt war.

In the published biography:

Sein Ende war ein sehr sanftes, ohne Kampf und Todesschauer; es schien, als ob er mit Interesse dem Scheiden der Seele vom Körper folgte; seine Gattin musste ihm Brod und Wein reichen, er trug ihr Grüsse an die Leben daheim auf und sagte ihr: küsse unser Kind. Sie betete das Vater Unser mit ihm, er konnte nicht mehr sprechen; bei den Worten “Vergieb uns unsere Schuld” richtete er gläubig das Auge nach oben; sie fühlte seine Hand in der ihrigen kälter werden, und nach einigen Athemzügen hatte sein reines, edles Herz zu schlagen aufgehört.

There was this significant change to Elise Riemann’s account made by Dedekind.

The Christian expressions for passing away “Heimgehen” (going home) and “aufgegangen in Gott” (going up in God) were removed, and changed to neutral expressions like “sein reines, edles Herz hatte zu schlagen aufgehört” (his pure, noble heart stopped to beat), which are unrelated to religion.

Dedekind, despite being a deeply religious person, cared about readers who had other faiths than Christianity. He made these changes so that Riemann’s biography can appeal equally to people with all beliefs.

I have to say that I was greatly surprised, and even touched when I discovered these little modifications. After all, even today, we still hear US presidents proclaiming “God bless the United States of America!” regularly even though there are many atheists in America.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, as Dirichlet, Dedekind’s colleague and close friend, was reported to be non-religious.

I believe I don’t need to emphasize how precious such active thoughts of secularism and religious harmony were in the 1870s Germany, especially from a person who was deeply religious himself.

Dedekind’s open-mindedness and considerations for all readers are qualities I really like about him.

Haina is a fourth-year student at the National University of Singapore and a member of Singapore’s Humanist community. An earlier version of this article was first published on the NUS website on May 2017.

SG Narratives: Latiff and Hakeem

SG Narratives held a conversation between Latiff and Hakeem, a Muslim and ex-Muslim respectively. You can watch the conversation in the video above. Both Latiff and Hakeem talked about the definition of God and describing the Islamic faith to someone who has never heard of Islam. Hakeem also asked Latiff what scared him most about being a Muslim.

This video is interesting because it is a rare moment in Singapore where an ex-Muslim has spoken about leaving Islam openly in front of a camera. Although discussing ex-Muslims is a sensitive topic in Singapore, ex-Muslims are part of parcel of Singapore society and it is a discussion that must be had, sooner or later. Four minutes into the video, Latiff asked Hakeem to describe the moment he knew he could no longer remain a Muslim. Latiff also asked Hakeem about the biggest misconception that people have about being an ex-Muslim.

On the first question, Hakeem said he reached a stage in his life where he wanted to know who he was serving and worshipping. He wanted to know whether the belief system he was in was the right one. As Islam claimed to be the ultimate truth, Hakeem felt it should be able to withstand “ultimate scrutiny”. Hakeem began a long process of questioning and eventually, he couldn’t reconcile what he knew about matters pertaining to the nature of God as proclaimed or asserted by the Quran, and by all Abrahamic religions as well.

With regards to the biggest misconceptions that people have about ex-Muslims, Hakeem said many believe that ex-Muslims were “never Muslims to begin with” and they had left the wrong religion. Hakeem felt this was an unfair comment that doesn’t do justice to a lot of ex-Muslims because many ex-Muslims had an Islamic upbringing and had spent a lot of effort studying and practicing Islam. According to Hakeem, he knows ex-Muslims who had graduated from Madrasahs and visited Mecca. Thus, ex-Muslims were as Muslim as many other Muslims are.

 

Freedom of religion includes freedom from religion

This is our official response to the backlash against the Atheist Republic in Malaysia, first shared on our Facebook page on August 14, 2017. Please read and share.

Freedom of religion includes freedom from religion

It is alarming that one of Malaysia’s ministers, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim has called for Malaysian atheists to be “hunted down” vehemently by the Malaysian public.

What sparked such a call? A photo of an atheist meeting organised by an international group, the Atheist Republic, in Kuala Lumpur that had gone viral online. The photograph sparked anger because it appeared to feature young Malay Muslims.

The backlash is troubling. Online responses have called for the government to arrest these alleged apostates, with some even going as far as to suggest beheading the group’s founder, Iran-born Armin Navabi.

For a long time, God (or to the atheist – the notion of god) has been seen as the source of morality, and atheism equated to the lack of moral values. For perspective, a Pew Research Center’s global study in 2011, of 230 countries and territories found that 16% of the world’s population is not affiliated with a religion.

Globally today, there is still considerable hatred towards atheists and Malaysia is not the only country where such hatred exists. The government of Saudi Arabia has equated atheists to terrorists, and Bangladeshi government’s inaction in reining in atrocities towards atheist bloggers, real or suspicious are but two.

The notion that atheists are immoral simply because they do not believe in a God, is nonsense.

THE MYTH THAT ATHEISTS ARE IMMORAL

The Humanist Society (Singapore), a community of atheists and agnostics in Singapore, had organised more than 150 gatherings since its inception in 2010.

The Society had long known about the presence of atheist groups in Malaysia. Many Malaysian atheists who had travelled to Singapore for Humanist Society events are well-educated, articulate and forward thinking Malaysians. These Malaysians are also very respectful of the rights of all people to hold religious beliefs or none. There are many Malaysian atheists working and living in Singapore, too, as productive members of the cosmopolitan Singapore society.

Photo below: The Humanist Society organising a Charity Book Sale to raise funds for the needy:

Atheists are capable of being good people, doing good things and living in harmony with religious people. People do bad things regardless of race or creed. Many freethinkers still share universal human values with the religious, such as the cardinal rule of treating others as one would like others to treat oneself.

The two largest charitable donations in the history of the world were by atheists: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates donated US$30 billion and US$11 billion of their wealth respectively to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The rest of the list is long, and many of them atheists.

The religious often ask: Where do atheists get their morality from?

A growing volume of scientific literature is shedding light into the origins of our morality over the course of our evolution into human beings. It is found, for example, that many mammals are also capable of empathy and kindness, just like human beings.

Evidence suggests that humans have an innate capacity to do good for goodness sake. While there are many instances of selfish behaviour around the world, the bulk of human beings is generally good, regardless of race and religion. This includes atheists too.

Young children, with limited capacity to understand complex religious ideas, have demonstrated kindness and empathy towards fellow children, adults and animals at a tender age. Children can sometimes display selfless and selfish behaviours, and as atheist parents, we encourage the former and dissuade and educate them away from the latter. This is moral education that emphasises on treating other humans and living things as equals.

MUSLIMS AT ATHEIST EVENTS IMPROVE SOCIAL HARMONY

The Malaysian government, public and religious clergy have expressed alarm at the presence of Malays who are officially Muslims at the Atheist Republic event.

Firstly, Muslims do not become an apostate simply by mingling with atheists.

In Singapore, Muslims have visited the Humanist Society (Singapore). We have also visited Muslims during Iftar to reciprocate their gestures. Over time, friendships have formed and we talk about a great deal many things, such as culture, history and language.

Photo below: Humanists and atheists with interfaith activist Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, at one of the Iftar talks held at SCWO during the Ramadan of 2016.

These Muslims have remained Muslims and the atheists have remained as atheists. Not every interaction between people of different beliefs has to be about conversion, but it must be about understanding.

Muslims at atheist gatherings act as a valuable bridge between Muslim and non-religious communities. For example, Muslim visitors can clarify misconceptions about Islam and offer religious points of view.

We feel that Islamic leaders should applaud, rather than condemn, the efforts of well-meaning Muslims. In Singapore, we have very vibrant interfaith initiatives, led by the government as well as civil societies, with the aim of forging even closer ties.

Photo below: Singapore regularly conducts interfaith gatherings, with representatives from ten different faiths taking part.

Secondly, if any person wishes to change his or her religious beliefs out of pure conviction, not even the most eloquent atheist or religious person can change his or her mind, and neither will the largest atheist or religious gatherings change their minds. However, just like there will be people who will take up religion or switch religion, there certainly are people who may eventually leave religion, through their own volition and needs, and there has to be a legal path to that which does not involve being threatened by death.

As Gus Dur once said – God, can take care of himself. Freedom of religion, as enshrined in Article 11 of the Malaysian Constitution, is not as narrow as a one-way street – it includes freedom from religion and the safe passage of people between religions or non-religious, at least of faiths other than Islam. No single group should be singled out for prosecution or persecution.

Atheists are found in every country on Earth, from every era and from all walks of life. No society has been completely religious. The fact that Malaysia has atheist gatherings is nothing unusual. If the situation were reversed, that a country was to unilaterally ban all religions, the humanists and atheists will be the first ones to denounce such draconian moves.

Humanists and atheists have a fundamental understanding that borders are man-made and ideologies see no borders. We hope there can be space for Malaysian atheists to form supporting communities in their own country. In our view, Malaysian atheists are great ambassadors for Malaysia. Rather than sidelining them, they should be celebrated as part of the diverse richness of Malaysian society.

Tan Tatt Si
President, Humanist Society (Singapore)
For Humanist Society (Singapore)

Musicians of HumanistSG – Bryan Gan

Bryan was a devoted metalhead long before learning to play music. Picking up the guitar casually at age 17, he dabbled in classical music as part of an ensemble (while unsuccessfully trying to play Malmsteen licks) until joining one of Singapore’s premiere death metal acts – Oshiego (www.facebook.com/Oshiego). There, he was schooled again and again in the art of aggressive yet precise riffing, the hallmark of any heavy metal band worth their salt.

Using a guitar amplifier that also doubled as a stereo, Bryan performed two Oshiego songs to a backing track, The Great Architect of Nothing and Crossing the Bridge of Siraat, the title tracks of two of the band’s albums. Oshiego’s style of death metal takes big influence from the Stockholm scene of early 90’s Swedish death metal, as well as German thrash metal from the 80’s, notably from Kreator (who will be performing in Singapore in August). This style of music is understandably and desirably abrasive for the uninitiated listener, albeit bolstered with strong melodic lines.

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Bryan considers heavy music to be anathemic to the glossy and dull pop songs that adorn megachurch halls. It’s not for everyone and it doesn’t try to be. Despite that, many of his musical influences are less sonically devastating – Marty Friedman, Jon Schaffer, Neil Zaza, etc.

https://www.facebook.com/Oshiego/

HumanistSG Read for Books

Read for Books is the Singapore National Reading Movement‘s book charity drive in which for every 10 people who read for 15 minutes, one book will be donated. This year, the organisers are aiming to give 4,000 books.

In support of the National Reading Movement, we held a Read for Books session on 22 July at the National Library Hanis Café from 3-5 pm. This blog post contains some of our readers and their books!

You can still submit a photo of yourself reading a book – simply upload it to our Facebook event wall, or email it to events@humanist.org.sg by 30 July. We hope to submit at least 30 entries to NLB by the end of the campaign. Have fun!

Photos by TheLook.sg


Yuekong read The AWARE Saga: Civil Society and Public Morality in Singapore, by Terence Chong. He said that it’s an interesting analysis of the conflict between civil society and religion


Chee Hoew read The Duck That Won the Lottery: 100 New Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher, by Julian Baggini. To him, it is a great guide to critical thinking.


Kelvin read Persuasion, a novel by Jane Austen. “I like it because the book has very rich and interesting characters.”


Anita read The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. “I like how it describes the importance of treating the country’s people well-being first.”


Ashley read Against Empathy, The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom. “It is about how we can be more aware of our cognitive bias even as we try to do good.”


Xianghong read a book titled A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian. He feels it gives him very specific, constructive and layman advice.


Nic read Islam and the Future of Tolerance, by Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris. “It is a necessary conversation about Islam and the future.”


Shamima read Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell. “It provides a literary analysis of a book I previously read for enjoyment.”


Megan read Inside the Kaisha, a book by Noboru Yoshimura. She likes its unique insider perspectives of Japanese business conduct.


Zhang Quan read The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli. It taught him some of the common thinking errors made by people.


Paul Amazona read Mastering Logical Fallacies: The Definitive Guide to Flawless Rhetoric and Bulletproof Logic, by Michael Withey. Paul likes reading about logic and the book has shown him examples of logical fallacies and how to counter them.

Musicians of HumanistSG – Nora

The first piece by our friends from Council of Ex-Muslims Singapore (CEMSG) came from Nora. Nora is a founding member of the group, and a mentor to the community.

Nora chose the Malay song poem “Tekad” , music by brothers Nur & Adee in the 1990s, based on a poem for lyrics by Mohd Latiff Mohd from 1970s. Tekad, roughly translated as ‘determination’, is about the feelings of post Singapore-Malaysia separation, leaving ethnic Malays in Singapore with a feeling of isolation, and the subsequent need for reflection and determination. Nora likened that to the separation of oneself from a religious faith, and the very similar feeling losing faith among a community of faithfuls evoked. It was a very meaningful interpretation of the song and it exhibited emotions with brilliance.

The feelings of separation are mixed. One could feel probably grief, despair, heartache; Or one could feel freedom, happiness, satisfaction; Or sense of longing. Nora’s delivery was one of quiet desperation & stoicism, with feelings of imposed hopelessness, subsequently living with it, and eventually overcoming it. The song’s minor key was well exploited by Nora, who most likely felt deeper as a daughter and a mother. Ponybard provided guitar accompaniment.

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Is there any new sense of belonging after separation? Any other things worth looking forward, rather than backward to? We anticipate, and we hope, and we celebrate.

Musicians of HumanistSG – Paul Amazona

Paul hails from The Philippines, and has been working in Singapore. Paul is a free-spirited performer, finding church repertoire in his early days ‘too careful’ and ‘lacked freedom’.

His music background began with the recorder; went on to guitar ; had a trying time with the keyboards ; dabbled in tin whistle and ocarina; and considered the ukulele a piece of toy and ‘prop for jokes’.

Being a founding member of the Humanist Music Day, he surprised us by choosing an instrument that is not usually associated with virtuoso performance. Three years working at the ukulele, he now composes on it, and thinks it a great instrument for painting on a silent canvas , doing art through the constant tweaking of acoustic rhythm, timbre and harmony.

Plucking and strumming , Paul played the ukulele connected into the guitar amp, with notes reverberating and hovering within the gallery. An instrument that featured generally bright sounds began to yield to his serious rendition of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. Paul was visibly immersed in this opportunity to bounce these notes around, taking the audience’s returned energy to fuel his rhythm and movement with the four-stringed instrument. His powerful strums were counter-balanced by the deliberate and crisp slow plucks, as the music died. The applause was quick & furious , for most , if not all, had never heard a ukulele taken to such heights.

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The encore piece was “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele,  cheerful and well tempo’ed. Paul had the entire audience clapping along. You had to be there.

Humanists hold their first music day at Selegie

Music is an arrangement of sounds that are pleasing to the human ear. To many, it is the lifeblood of their souls. Humanists and freethinkers are not immune to the feelings of wonderment, luminosity, or bliss. One could be overwhelmed and moved to tears by a symphony orchestra without having to attribute these feelings to imaginary beings.

Since its founding, the Humanist Society (Singapore) has strived to promote the fullest possible use of science and the arts for human welfare. While the Society has organised many sold-out lectures on science and nature, it took a little longer to embrace the world of music and art. Apart from singing sessions at Winter Solstices and some guitar performances at year-end dinners, the Society had no music performances on a scale seen at religious institutions.

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This changed on June 24, 2017, when the Society finally put together its first event dedicated to music. The performance was also held to celebrate World Humanist Day, which usually falls on June 21 every year. President Tatt Si, a saxophone player himself, rallied musicians scattered across the humanist community and persuaded them to contribute some songs. Together, these musicians planned a simple but genuine programme over the months of May and June.

The venue, Selegie Arts Centre (above), is a three-storey colonial-era shophouse that is home to the Photographic Society of Singapore. The privilege to perform in such a picturesque and historic place, however, was earned with considerable sweat. Without the help of elevators, musicians and volunteers had to lug instruments, stands, and PA systems up three flights of stairs!

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On the top floor, we were given a small hall, with a capacity to seat up to 80. Adorning its walls were rows of award-winning photographs, bathed in gentle light. While a far cry from the massive halls of a megachurch, it was no less meaningful to both players and listeners.

From 230pm to 6pm, humanist musicians presented a diverse offering. From classical Bach pieces to stripped down acoustic singalongs, from the blazing extreme metal to indie rock & roll, the performers surprised many fellow humanists their long-hidden music talents. Just as humanists demand no conformity in terms of intellectual positions, no genre limits were given to the performers either.

The first player, Paul Amazona (below), started with an amazing ukulele performance of the well-loved While My Guitar Gently Weeps (by Beatles) and Rolling In The Deep (by Adele). The audience broke into enthusiastic applause after his songs ended.

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Watch his feature & performance here.

 

Bryan Gan (below) followed up with a sizzling electric guitar performance of Great Architect Of Nothing and Crossing the Bridge of Siraat. No windows were harmed in the process.

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Watch his feature & performance here (watch this space)

 

Bryan’s electrifying performance then gave way to soothing classical music from the Bach era. Jianyue and Haina performed a piano-violin duet of a modified Bach Prelude No.1 in C major. The modified piece, called Ave Maria, consists of a melody by the French Romantic composer Charles Gounod that he superimposed over an only very slightly changed version:

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Watch their feature & performance here (watch this space)

 

Other performances include a series of classical guitar pieces by Adam Quek, accompanied by his daughter. Adam played Bach Cello Suite No 1 Prelude in G major, Bach’s well-tempered clavier Prelude in C major, and a modern piece called Circular Logic. Adam had just completed his exam in guitar and was clearly comfortable with these classical pieces!

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Watch their feature & performance here (watch this space)

 

Throughout the performances, Tatt Si (above) served as emcee, constantly engaging the audience and the performers. Ashley assisted with logistics and powerpoint slides. Supergrapher Ruey Loon provided video support.

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Shawn Somerby (below) sang Richie Jen’s (任贤齐) classic favourite Xin Tai Ruan (“心太软“), accompanied by guitar music by Ponybard (below, right).

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Watch the feature performance here (watch this space)

 

Nora sang Tekad, song poem by a musical group called Nuradee. Tekad is one of the poems from Mohd Latiff Mohamad’s antologi ‘Segumpal Api Selingkar Pelangi’, written between 1967 and 1977. It highlights the position of the Malays in Singapore at a time when the country was experiencing rapid change. Ponybard provided the guitar accompaniment.

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Watch the feature performance here (watch this space)

 

Ponybard himself performed four songs: The Path, the Epitaph of Seikilos, Merrigan’s I know you and U2’s The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”. His vocal performance accompanied by his own guitar playing.

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Watch the feature performance here (watch this space)

Our President Tatt Si gave a saxophone performance of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. Tatt Si himself served as a band player back in his school days.

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Watch the feature performance here (watch this space)

A National University of Singapore student band called ‘The Roses’ performed three songs: 1. Immigrant Song, TL;DR, Something There, and Greatest Night. The Society also invited professional buskers and encouraged the audience to sing several classics such as Yu Jian by Stephenie Sun.

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Watch the feature performance here (watch this space)

Overall, the Humanist Music Day was a success. The Society hopes to repeat this music day next year, and invite new musicians on board to perform! If you are interested in performing at a Society event, please contact us info@humanist.org.sg

Manila Lecture: Communicating humanism through interfaith

On June 10-11, 2017, the Humanist Society (Singapore) sent three representatives to the Asian Humanism Conference in Manila. Our Vice-President Shamima Rafi (second from left) gave a presentation about communicating humanism in a conservative country through interfaith dialogues. [Read more…]

Teaching my children about dilemmas

This is an abridged version of a speech given by HumanistSG founder Paul Tobin (left, with his wife and two youngest children) at an interfaith dialogue on March 21, 2015, organised by NTU student group PATH, where he talked about teaching his children about moral dilemmas. [Read more…]