Taoism: Not easy to keep devotees
It is losing the most followers, especially among youth under 24 (By Yen Feng)
IN 1988, Taoist devotees scurried to meet their elders when a government survey found that half their clan had defected to other religions.
Plans were made to stem the bleed, but a new study suggests these have been less than successful.
The study commissioned by The Straits Times in June to find out patterns in faith-switching among 993 people here found that, among the religions surveyed, Taoism had lost the most followers.
Almost a quarter - 24 per cent - said they had switched to another faith or were getting along without one.
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.
Seventeen-year-old Justin Yeo said of his monthly visits with his mother to Sengkang's Chong Ghee Temple: 'It just doesn't make sense to me.'
He said of the numerous shen or deities: 'I kneel before the different shen, but I don't know their names. I don't know if this shen is the right one to pray to for what I need. It's easier when there's just one God.'
He became a Christian three years ago, something he has kept from his mother.
To Gen-Y devotees, the complex world of shen, along with fortune-telling implements like the thin bamboo qian and the castanet-like bei can be a dizzying act to swallow.
It does not help, added graphic designer Shine Seow, 23, that she can barely read Chinese, Taoism's lingua franca. She said: 'If my Mandarin was better, probably the rituals would seem a lot less like hocus-pocus.'
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.
This umbrella body was given the job of uniting and promoting the 2,000 or more temples here.
A manual of the basic tenets of Taoism was distributed to the public, and Feb 15 - Taoism founder Lao Zi's birthday - was declared Taoist Day.
Twenty years on, Taoists are still fighting to keep their spiritual kin together.
Sociologist Tong Chee Kiong, in a book he wrote last year on Singapore's religions, argued that Taoism suffers from its image as a 'superstitious religion'.
For example, he said, those who call themselves Taoists make it a ritual to ask the shen for 'lucky numbers', with which they play the lottery.
This is not part of orthodox Taoism, said Professor Tong, noting: 'Many of the practices today associated with Taoism are, in fact, corrupted by lay people who do not understand its beliefs and rituals.'
He also noted that, unlike Buddhists who have started their own outreach programmes to propagate their faith, Taoists had failed to raise the profile of the teachings of the Tao in the last two decades.
So they are playing catch-up.
They are now starting to educate and draw followers, especially among the young and English-educated, into their temples' gilded halls and are working at keeping them there.
Taoist Federation chairman Tan Thiam Lye said he is optimistic about Taoism's future.
The temples have tried in recent years to correct misconceptions about the religion, he said, from one that is only about praying to shen, to one with a history and a culture.
Tao means 'path'. Metaphorically though, it is one that leads nowhere, because its founder Lao Zi was not as concerned about his disciples' spiritual destination as he was about their journey.
It is not just about the busy-ness of worshipping the entire pantheon of shen, but about wu wei, or 'non-action'; it is about being in harmony with the universe, and being compassionate, moderate and humble.
To reach the younger set, the federation set up its youth website, Taoist youth.sg, last year.
And Taoists like Mr Victor Yue, 56, have, on their own, done their bit by starting online forum discussions on the faith and gathered Taoists on Facebook, the social networking site.
The federation is also planning a multilingual exhibition of its central text, the Dao De Jing; multilingual temple publications; and even a bilingual diploma programme in Taoist studies.
Mr Tan's approach to spread the Tao teachings through different languages is a good start to netting a wider audience. It will go some way to dispel the idea that Taoists are uninterested in reaching out to those on the sidelines.
But whether that will translate to more devotees at the next national tally of religions remains to be seen.
* 94% were born into the religion
* None were converted in school
* 90%say religion has no influence on their chioce of friends
* 4% are married to Christians