Religion: The big switch
[The Straits Times - Special Report]
Taoism is losing believers as Chinese turn away from their parents' faith. Christianity is growing its flock and Buddhism is also seeing a revival (By Arti Mulchand)
CHINESE religions here, specifically Taoism, have been trying to stem the bleed of believers from their ranks, but their followers are still abandoning them for 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.
With the next census not due till 2010, The Straits Times commissioned a study aimed at uncovering trends in religious conversion and why people switch from their childhood faiths.
The 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.
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 multi-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: 'There's a 'leakage' from traditional Chinese religions, which don't seem to have the same appeal to younger people.'
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.
Mega-churches such as the 24,000-member City Harvest are known for using marketing and pop culture to win over the young.
What indeed, do people look for when they abandon one faith for another?
Mr Randall Ong, 20, offered an answer: 'In Chinese culture, your parents always tell you to study hard, make a lot of money and become successful.
'But some people find it a shallow goal to live for. You can't buy happiness with money.'
What of Islam and Hinduism then, in this study of religious conversion, and the free-thinkers?
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.
Membership among the Muslim and Hindu faithful, therefore, has been fairly constant: The ST survey found that Islam kept 99 per cent of its followers; among Hindus, just 7 per cent switched faiths.
The last census put free-thinkers at 14 per cent of the population - those who see no need to answer to a higher power.
The ST study found that three in 10 of them used to have a childhood religion, but dropped it, mainly before age 24. The remaining seven have no plans to take on a religion.
This leaves the key fight for adherents between Taoism and Christianity. What this bodes for the future remains to be seen.
Sociologists like Dr Pereira feel that Christianity's expansion will eventually peak and reach a saturation point.
One reason could be as young Christian converts marry and set up their own families, they are likely to bring up their own children as Christians. The conversion rate will probably slow down.
As is happening in other multi-religious societies, 'religious competition' will mean that other, perhaps newer, faiths will continue to fight for converts, said Dr Pereira.
As National University of Singapore sociologist Tong Chee Kiong put it in his book on the subject published last year: 'To an extent, in a multi-religious society experiencing rapid social change in the religious scene, a zero-sum game is being played between religions, and conversion becomes an integral part of the game.'