A Christian among Humanists: A chat over Easter

St Peter and Paul 29 July 2016

Today, Christians around the world celebrate Easter, remembering the resurrection of Jesus Christ around 2000 years ago. Although the Humanist movement and the Humanist Society in Singapore (also called HumanistSG) have occasionally been perceived as anti-religious, small numbers of Christians have been attending its events for years. Far from being ‘religious shoppers’ or confused people, these Christians are independent-minded and well-read, holding their own against both religious and non-religious standpoints. They are also passionate defenders of reason and Singapore’s secular space and are thus often supportive of many Humanist causes.

One of them is John Hui, a Singaporean Christian man in his 40s. Today, we talk to him about his eight years of experience in the Humanist movement. The viewpoints expressed are solely his own.

What is your religious belief?

John: I am a Christian. I became a Christian during my university days. It was not through other Christians’ evangelism attempts, but through my reading of books, I bought from various bookshops. At that time I found both Buddhism (not Daoism) and Christianity to be attractive (even though I was hostile towards both Buddhists and Christians who attempted to convert me to their respective worldviews) and hence I read both Buddhist and Christian books.

As I read I became more and more skeptical of Christianity and more and more attracted to Buddhism. However, in the end, Christianity won the tug-of-war. About one or two years after I became a Christian, I chose to join the Methodist denomination because I was impressed by the work and words of John Wesley (18th-century revivalist), the father of Methodism. Usually, I go to a handful of Methodist churches though I also enjoy participating in the Mass held in the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd (below) of the Roman Catholic Church.

How did you come to join the Humanist Society?

John: Back in 2009, I was already hoping and looking out for an organised group that can represent the non-religious in Singapore. I almost proceeded to set up one myself if not for the formation of the informal group Com.passion.com by some other persons who soon after invited me to join them (which I did). In such a context, I chanced upon an online humanist forum called the Singapore Humanism Meetup.* This online forum was run by a man called Ryan. I started participating actively in that forum. Over there and over time, I got to know a number of humanists and atheists. Some of them subsequently formed Humanist Society (Singapore) in October 2010 and I joined it as a member in November 2010.

*Admin note: The Singapore Humanism Meetup was a series of gatherings that came before the HumanistSG.

What is your first impression of humanists and atheists?

John: Very argumentative people! LOL

Have you met any hostile reactions?

John: I have not encountered any hostile reactions directed at me. I came across occasional scornful remarks but I do not consider those to be hostile.

How do you feel whenever the HumanistSG releases statements that are critical of religion? Or other religious institutions?

John: So far, those statements that I have come across are sensible statements.

Have you met other Christians or any other religious people at the Society? If yes, what do you say to them?

John: Yes, I have. If I have not already known them beforehand, I tend to ask them whether or not they believe the key content of their religious faiths. This is because I am aware that there can be atheists who identify themselves as “cultural Christians” or “cultural Buddhists” (back in 2010 I came across an atheist who identifies himself as a “cultural Christian” who attends church services regularly). Most of the handful of Christians I met in HumanistSG are believing Christians.

How did the humanists, atheists and agnostics react whenever you revealed you are a Christian? How did you respond to them?

John: Typically, they would wonder how I can be a humanist who believe in evidence-based critical reasoning and yet at the same time be a believing Christian. They would usually think that evidence-based critical reasoning contradicts Christianity. Just last week, after the Humanist Cafe (a monthly event), one atheist asked me how I managed to reconcile my Christian conviction with being a humanist. Whenever I have sufficient time to respond to such questions, I would point out a few things:

1. Historically, the earliest modern humanists were Christians and theists/deists. Humanists per se need not be non-religious. The essential elements of being a humanist per se is the adherence to humanistic values such as the promotion of human well-being base on evidence, reason, and compassion. The types of humanists include secular humanists, atheistic humanists and religious humanists (note: secular humanists is not exactly equivalent to atheistic humanists).

2. When a religious person discovers that certain elements in his religious worldviews contradict evidence-based critical reasoning, then he ought NOT continue to believe in those elements. There are elements within Christianity that I do not hold a belief in. One example would be the large scale Conquest of the Promised Land by ancient Israelites as described in some documents of the Old Testament which many Christians believe in just because they read it in the Old Testament. I do not find sufficient evidence to warrant a belief in that event.

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Photo above: A beautiful mural of Jesus’ birth at the St Thomas Orthodox Syrian Cathedral 

3. The essential element of Christianity is the bodily resurrection of Jesus. When I apply evidence-based critical reasoning to the data related to that alleged event (this involves (a) applying the historical-critical method to the text in the relevant ancient documents, (b) using abductive reasoning or inference to the best explanation, (c) employing Occam’s Razor, (d) differentiating between a-posteriori probability and apriori probability, and (e) giving a sceptical treatment of the data by intentionally searching for my intellectual blindspots, i.e. actively seeking reasons and evidence to reject the resurrection, such as by stepping into the perspectives of various well-established atheistic scholars in the relevant fields who argued against that resurrection), I find it likely that Jesus’ bodily resurrection really happened in history. Like scientific theories, this conclusion of mine is held as a tentative conclusion. If new evidence arises such that it warrants a change or a modification of the conclusion, I will change my conclusion accordingly. In other words, I will let evidence-based critical reasoning shape my conclusion.

4. If Jesus indeed was bodily resurrected from the dead, then Jesus would have earned the credential for me to take him seriously in what he taught and did. This implies that his theistic worldview is probably correct, at least in the essentials. Of course, the attempt to discern what Jesus taught and did 2000 years ago is not a straightforward bible-reading affair. We would need to apply scholarly tools to the text in the relevant ancient documents to differentiate between what he probably taught from words that might have been put into his mouth, and between what he probably did from actions that might have been fictionally created. So evidence-based critical reasoning is also needed in determining what Jesus probably said and did, even if one were to be convinced that Jesus was the person qualified to teach us about God and about the telos of our existence.

5. It does not mean one is not rational in not believing in Jesus’ resurrection. As long as one has applied critical reasoning properly, one is rational to believe or not to believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. In other words, given the data, philosophically speaking, believing in Jesus’ resurrection is “rationally allowed” and not “rationally required”. The reverse is also true: not believing in Jesus’ resurrection is “rationally allowed” and not “rationally required”.

What kept you going at the Society? What value-add does it provide for you?

John: I just find it worthwhile to support a group that caters to the well-being of the non-religious. What has been lacking for a very long time in Singapore is a formal organisation that promotes the well-being of the non-religious and voice out for them AS AN ORGANISATION in our pluralistic society. There is a great imbalance of influence between the religious and the non-religious persons in the public sphere because the former persons have many organisations that voice out for them while the latter do not.

Given that a 2015 survey reported in the newspapers informed us that the percentage of non-religious people is roughly equal to the percentage of Christians in Singapore, it is important that HumanistSG exists to contribute a public voice for the non-religious especially in situations where the religious organisations (especially Christian groups) sought to publicly influence society with their religion-based values which might contradict some values of the non-religious (note: the non-religious people includes both atheists and people who have supernatural beliefs).

Among the humanists, what are the types of people you get along well with?

John: Those who can reason well, regardless whether or not they have different convictions from me in any issue. I place a lot of weight on the reasoning process rather than the conclusions. I am not bothered by people having different conclusions as long as they arrived at their conclusions via proper critical reasoning. Critical reasoning can lead to more than one rationally allowed conclusions, even contradicting conclusions.

Overall, how does the environment in the Humanist Society compare to that of a church?

John: Difference: In churches, things are more organised and proportionately more people are more willing to sacrifice their time and put in their effort, even over the long-term, to meet the various needs of the churches.

Similarity: The presence of people who are intellectually arrogant and overconfident in their respective worldviews as if theirs is the only rational option while all other positions are irrational.

On the Christian side, there are many overconfident and arrogant people who failed to see the fallacies of their apologetic arguments for their religious worldview. The same occurs on the atheist side. Such people failed to take seriously their fallibility and susceptibility to having intellectual blindspots. They do not actively search for their intellectual blindspots nor do they seek to really understand the intellectual grounds of those worldviews that contradict their own worldview when they criticise the rationality of the other worldviews.

Often their understanding of others’ worldviews is only a caricature and often what they manage to criticize are only strawmen build by themselves and not the real arguments of the competent deep thinkers of other worldviews. They overestimate the intellectual strength of their own worldview while simultaneously underestimate the intellectual strength of the opposing worldviews.

Since most of the readers of this interview are likely to be atheists, I would like to quote here the words of atheist philosopher of religion Quentin Smith:

“The great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false…the vast majority of naturalist philosophers have come to hold (since the late 1960s) an unjustified belief in naturalism. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification for naturalism. They may have a true belief in naturalism, but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief. If naturalism is true, then their belief in naturalism is accidentally true.”

– The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo: A Journal of Philosophy(Fall-Winter 2001)

In your opinion, what are the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the Humanist Society?

John: Greatest strength: Its emphasis on the use of evidence-based critical reasoning. Greatest weakness: The lack of sizeable active members contributing to meet the various needs of HumanistSG.

Should one day, a humanist or atheist gets arrested due to police reports filed by offended religious people, how would you respond?

John: I would see the merits of the specific case to determine the type and level of response I should give. If the case warrants it (e.g. if the religious people are offended due to their own fault for being intolerant of a justified critique in an academic tone), I probably would write a letter to the relevant party to voice my opinion (e.g. the complaints were unjustified).

How long do you see yourself coming to Humanist Society events, and why?

John: As long as (a) HumanistSG events continue to be appealing or (b) HumanistSG is weak and needs my support. And of course, implicitly, as long as I am able to.

How do you think the Humanist Society can be of help to the more progressive religious people?

John: Within the context of my response to this question, I need to clarify how I use these two terms: “progressive religious people” and “religious fundamentalists”.

Here, I define “progressive religious people” as those religious people, regardless of whether they are having conservative or liberal beliefs and values, who respect others’ share of our pluralistic public space to live out different beliefs and values, including beliefs and values opposite to theirs, as long as those beliefs and values do not cause professionally-recognised empirical harm to people.

I define “religious fundamentalists” as those religious people who (a) do not respect others’ share of our pluralistic public space to live out different or opposite beliefs and values, and (b) seek to reduce or remove others’ share of that public space to live out their different or opposite beliefs and values.

The HumanistSG can help such progressive religious people to build up their strength to counteract against religious fundamentalists.

April Fools : CoCC rules against Humanists

HumanistSG executive committee will be holding an urgent closed-door discussion , in response to this recent announcement.

 

CoCC DECIDES AGAINST HUMANIST SOCIETY – AFNN

(1st Apr 2017)

After long consideration, the Council of Committed Communities (CoCC) has ruled that Atheism is a religion. The Humanist Society (HSS) now has thirty days to register as a religion with the Board Licensing Societies (BLiSs).

The Honourable Bjetahan of CoCC said that despite the protracted and careful study of the rise and popularity of Atheism, it was a relatively simple decision to make. “They organize regular social events, bringing stability to otherwise meaningless lives; they do charitable work for the poor and underprivileged and they do so with the conviction we have also observed among other religions.”.

Another CoCC council member Li Chin Gong added: “The decisive thing was once they launched Celebrant activities for weddings, deaths, moonyöt (babies’ full month) and gay outings. That’s a clear sign of religion-commercialization.”

Mr Li was reported to have said in private, “We are doing these goondus a favour. Terrorism has no religion, and since atheism is now considered a religion, its followers will no longer be branded heretics, nor persecuted for lack of morality.” . He added ‘it was a thankless job but the authorities had to regulate this bunch who were making a mockery of non-religion.’.

In a related development, current HSS President Ng Chai See suddenly found himself embroiled in a power struggle. A rival group, understood to be led by ex-President Jessie Low, is gearing up for the upcoming AGM elections on the platform of an HSS in worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monstress (female of ‘Monster’). When interviewed Jessie Low shared, “The Flying Spaghetti Monstress, power be unto Her, is not a make believe mascot. More of us have had personal visions of Her. She has come into our dreams to challenge us to take Atheism where no atheist has gone before. We will be led to victory in the elections.”

Other ExCos could not be reached for comments. Mr Ng claimed ‘other ExCos do not exist’ and ‘will be postponing all activities until they have consulted with their accountants.’. The optimistic, revenue-minded Mr Ng revealed that ‘blessing new subway trains is potentially a new source of income.’ – AFFN

(Original announcement can be found at this link :  http://www.fiends.net/index.html )

Public Talk on Will Writing, Advanced Medical Directives and

By Huang Yihua

On 25 March 2017, around 20 people attended a public talk on advanced medical directives (AMD), will writing and estate planning by Mr Patrick Chang, a veteran of the financial industry who has written over 12,000 wills for more than 600 families.

The talk started with some common misconceptions about will writing. Mr. Chang noted that 87% of working adults do not have a will according to a 2011 survey.

Why should we write wills? It lets us decide who should inherit our assets and in what proportion. We can also appoint appropriate trustees, executors or guardians, so as to avoid confusion and conflict down the proverbial road. A will should also be reviewed and rewritten from time to time as needed.

A will, however, only takes effect upon the death of the person. In the event of mental incapacity such as dementia, a person should have a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) drawn up to decide who has authority over his or her assets. And in the event of a medical crisis where death may be imminent, an Advanced Medical Directive (AMD) lets her decide what steps are taken to prolong or without life support.

Despite the sombre nature of the topic, Patrick managed to give the attendees a light-hearted yet informative lesson on writing the all-important will.

Rounding up the event, President Tan Tatt Si of Humanist Society Singapore reminded the attendees to not avoid talking about death, but to embrace it and make leave a worthy legacy for loved ones, friends and other fellow beings who continue to live on Earth.

Young Humanist SG Meeting #4: Setting up a resource centre

We held a lunch networking session today to discuss the Humanist Society’s plans of setting up a resource centre. The resource centre aims to provide support for non-religious people in distress. We opened the meeting to people from all ages and all walks of life. About 20 people attended the discussions, held at Safra Toa Payoh.

In February, the Humanist Society placed an advertised Facebook post calling for resource centre suggestions. Many of those who responded wanted the centre to provide support in the form of counselling, meditation, temporary shelters and conflict resolution. They were also looking for a space to provide learning opportunities, such as establishing a small library with a dedicated list of books, holding workshops / classes and providing free tuition for low-income families. Others even suggested holding celebrant services, other interest group activities, and sharing a physical place with other NGOs,

Following the Facebook post, the Humanist Society held internal discussions with educators, psychologists and social workers within our network. We concluded that the Society should not replicate existing professional services. We should instead complement professional services by providing informal support in the form of first responders. Some have pointed to existing practices in religious institutions and NGOs. For example, a trained professional can provide basic training to first responders who could then escalate a serious case to professional help when needed. This is an existing model the Society can take up. These first responders do not provide solutions. They only act as a listening ear.

At today’s discussion, the 20 participants broke up into 3 separate discussion groups to discuss the next steps. The first group proposed that the resource centre could start with a tighter list of items, instead of trying to fulfill all requests gathered from the Facebook post at once. It can start with establishing a small team of first-responders and provide a listening ear to anyone who feels troubled.

The first group felt that great care must be taken to explain the resource centre’s purpose, striking a balance between being specific (and searchable in Google) and what is acceptable to the general public. It should not be discreet because we are not doing anything illegal. At the same time, it cannot be antagonistic because it could attract the wrong type of volunteers and draw public backlash in a conservative country. There was also some debate about whether to keep the resource centre religion-neutral, or whether the Humanist Society — as a civil society and not a public service — should stay true to its original purpose and focus on helping the non-religious. One way to frame the resource centre, the first group concluded, was to describe it as a place for people “exploring non-religious alternatives to meaning in life.”

The second group discussed methods to seek funding. Establishing a resource centre would require some money and a good fundraiser is needed to drive the Society’s fundraising efforts. Once the funds are secured, the Society could look at temporary places to stay, such as hostels and backpacker hostels. The second group said it is important to present ourselves as a diverse community with different beliefs.

The third group noted that the Humanist Society currently lacks the expertise to provide such support. It suggested that in the meantime, it can rely on support in online forums. Although such forums already exist, they are very scattered and perhaps one dedicated forum could be set up to address people seeking psychological and social support. The third group also said that information for people seeking help should be made easily available online.

The first group also argued that online counselling could form the bulk of support efforts. A physical face-to-face meetup can be held, “friendship bench” style (see more above), at a central location such as the Hanis Cafe at NLB in town. After the initial contact has been made, the first responder can follow up with a mixture of online and physical engagement. Such an arrangement can ease the workload of first-responders who are unpaid volunteers with day jobs.

At the end of our discussion, a total of 10 people signed up to be first responders for our resource centre. We will be continuing more discussions in the months ahead, refining our purpose and generating more action items. If you have any suggestions for us, please contact us at info@humanist.org.sg

Our concerns regarding ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Beauty and the Beast text

Beauty and the Beast text taken from commons.wikimedia.org

The society’s current President, Mr Tan Tatt Si, wrote to key figures regarding the negative reactions to the film ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

The Humanist Society (Singapore) expresses concerns over calls by some segments of the public to censor the upcoming film, ‘Beauty and the Beast’, over the depiction of a gay character in the film.

Our Society is a non-profit organisation gazetted in 2010. We are a community of humanists, atheists, agnostics, and other like-minded people in Singapore. Over the past 7 years, we have organised many public talks reaching hundreds of people, partnered with universities and public agencies for several projects, taken part in more than 10 interfaith dialogues, and worked with VWOs to engage in community service. We have also written to the press to contribute to public debates over key national issues.

Our Society recognises that many people in Singapore are still uncomfortable with the LGBT community and a delicate balance has to be achieved between those who want change, and those preferring the status quo. Our national laws and media regulations take into account these existing sensitivities. We understand that the mainstream media, such as national TV programmes, newspapers, and radio channels play an important role in nation-building and maintaining our social fabric. While the portrayals of LGBT individuals on visual mediums such as television programmes are carefully calibrated, a ‘light touch’ has been adopted for online content, and LGBT communities have found some space for expression on blogs and YouTube. LGBT communities also celebrate the annual Pink Dot event.

That said, the Humanist Society urges the government to allow our media regulations to evolve further with changing mindsets. An increasing number of younger Singaporeans are becoming more accepting and understanding of the LGBT community. Scores of global professionals, investors, as well as academics who live, work, and play in our city also look forward to contributing to a nation that is accommodating of different viewpoints. This includes highly-skilled human capital crucial for our ongoing economic restructuring.

We hope that the IMDA will not censor or rate ‘Beauty and the Beast’ excessively, over the depiction of one gay character in the film. Educating the public about inclusiveness towards sexual minorities and raising awareness about the discrimination they face will facilitate the maturing of views regarding the LGBT community. Censoring or banning the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ also deprives the chance for the majority of families who have no issues with the depiction of homosexual characters to appreciate the movie in the theatres as the filmmakers intended. This includes many humanists and freethinkers, many of whom have no issues with the LGBT community.

Best regards,

Mr Tan Tatt Si
President

On behalf of the Executive Committee
Humanist Society (Singapore)

Humanists at CRIX Interfaith dialogue

Photo above: Two of our representatives (far left) at the ‘Roadmap for Interfaith Action’ interfaith dialogue’ organized by Critical Xchange (CRIX) last week. Photo by CRIX.

On Feb 12, 2017, the Humanist Society (Singapore) sent two representatives (far left) to a dialogue called ‘Roadmap to Interfaith Action’, organised by Critical Xchange (CRIX). The dialogue engaged faith leaders from various faith organisations and communities in Singapore and selected youth faith leaders. [Read more…]

Our Darwin Day 2017: In the Footsteps of Wallace

Group-TS

The Wallace Trail at Bukit Timah is named in honour of Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist who independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection. He visited Singapore many times from 1854 – 1862 as part of his eight-year stay in the Malay archipelago. To get closer to the remaining primary forests, Wallace stayed with a French Roman Catholic missionary at St Joseph’s in Bukit Timah district. During his time in Singapore, Wallace trekked daily into the hilltops and collected thousands of insects and birds. [Read more…]

Superhero no more

Alvin Phua joined the Jehovah Witness (JW) denomination as a child. Many years after, he left the faith and eventually became an atheist. He also started a bar called the Public House and it became a popular gathering place for the local sceptic and humanist movement. In 2013, Alvin spoke about his experience at a Humanist Society event. Here is his story:

[Read more…]

Young Humanists SG meeting #3: Providing pastoral care

Feb 18, 2017

After Darwin Day, Young Humanist SG organised another meeting to discuss about the need to develop pastoral care services for students on school campuses. The main points discussed:

[Read more…]

Darwin Day reflections: Why ignorance of evolution can kill

This is a Darwin Day column co-written by Dan Dan Thio and Xue Jianyue. Picture above: The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, which killed millions and happened before the discovery of antibiotics. [Read more…]