There was some laughter but not everyone in the audience appeared amused. Eugene Quah was sharing about the time he had pointed out to his Muslim and Christian classmates that according to each of their texts the other was going to hell!
He was one of four panelists at the Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) community here. They were asked what spirituality and religiosity personally meant to them.
Eugene, a lawyer by profession, added how hard it was to “reconcile a lot of teachings in the different faiths”. “This pains me. Why is that you all are trying to find the divine but it has to be so divisive?”
Which is why he decided he did not want to belong to any religion. He even co-founded the “Supernaturals*”, Singapore’s largest meet-up group of individuals who are spiritual but not necessarily religious.
His words may seem rather frank but that is precisely what the AMA series is designed to do – create a safe space for everyone to speak honestly. After all, the way to mutual understanding starts with authenticity. It was in this spirit that around 100 participants turned up for the event on Dec 7 at the Sapphire Ballroom in Village Hotel Bugis. The event was the first of its kind in Singapore.
Unlike Eugene, fellow panelist Moses Mohan felt that religion is “very useful in offering us tools, methods” to read, probe and explore questions. He believes everyone can be spiritual and it is not mutually exclusive with religiosity. Hence his disagreement with the “but not” in SBNR.
Moses was born into a Protestant Christian family, became Catholic Christian, but later “went secular”. He said he could not reconcile between his personal beliefs regarding the rights of sexual minorities and the Church’s stance on the matter.
However, he soon felt that “something was missing”. This led him to Zen Buddhism and he eventually became a monk. Although the former Management Consultant now identifies as a Catholic Protestant, he emphasises that he has “multiple belongings”; as in, identity is multifarious.
Similarly, panelist Terrie Wong has had multiple experiences with other religious traditions – Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and now Christianity. That does not mean, she said, that she treats religion like a “buffet” to pick and choose what suits her mood. Rather, it’s a deliberate and serious “internal response” on her part. It’s deeply personal.
For Diana Ng, an integrated mind-body therapist, “spirituality is a direct experience”. She added: “Spirituality for me is an ongoing question to understand what is this animating force that makes nature the way it is around us?” As such, she “continues to find sacredness in different places”.
With that, the first panel discussion came to a close.
Lead facilitator Farid Hamid took charge and set the tone for the ensuing facilitated small group discussions: “It’s not about Sociology 101, Political Science 101. It’s not about exploring the Other. It’s about personal stories.” In other words, engage with one another as people and avoid analysing each other. Be human.
Participants were split into groups of six or seven. Right off the bat, a young Malay-Muslim woman in her early 20s said she had her assumptions shattered. She had grown up studying in a religious school and always thought that one “needs to be religious to be spiritual and vice versa”. But Eugene’s comment that one need not be religious to be spiritual” had struck her. She’d never seen it that way before. Hearing the other panelists further emphasised the point for her.
A Catholic lady in her 50s shared that she too grew up seeing religiosity and spirituality as one and the same – until recently. She said: “The older I get, the more religion doesn’t hold as strong a pull as the spiritual.”
Interestingly, one of the group members felt safe enough to share that he was anti-religion. The older man, in his 70s, have had negative experiences with various religious groups in his younger days. Nonetheless, he encouraged all his children to read up and know more about other faiths.
The conversations and discussions flowed from personal experiences into reflections on how culture and politics interacted with religion and its various forms of expressions. Perhaps spirituality was simply a desire to pull away from the material and profane aspects of religious life?
The small group discussions set the stage for some interesting questions during the final panel of the day.
One participant asked if an SBNR Utopia had space for religious people. This prompted the moderator to ask what the Utopian ideal was in this case.
Moses’ response elicited much clapping and approval from the audience: “Right here, right now… seriously.”
Terrie brought up the importance of diversity and the privilege of being in Singapore “where we are not boxed up”.
“I thought I was an oddball but there were many also moving from one religion to another, not by choice necessarily but things happen for them,” she added. By “things happen for them,” she meant that individuals may have had a transcendental experience which inexorably pulls him or her toward a particular faith tradition.
Such experiences could be milestones in life, like getting married or having children. Terrie terms these “peak experiences”. “When we get peak experiences, you wonder about the bigger power of God/creator.”
Moses had a different point of reflection; what happens after the high? He recalled the wisdom from one of his favourite books, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry**”.
“If we get caught in the high, that means we are missing the point,” he said. The profane is the sacred: “Washing the dishes is like washing baby Buddha.” In other words, spirituality is to be found in everyday life, not just peak events.
Diana agreed: “It’s about the dual understanding, or rather the non-dual understanding, that both (the sacred and profane) are present. That there is something greater but I am also here as a human doing human things.”
As the experiences of the panelists showed, there is no standard set of rules and doctrines which define the SBNR community as a whole beyond some short points of agreement. Indeed, some like Moses and Diana do not even agree with the term Spiritual-But-Not-Religious.
Nevertheless, the SBNRs exist as part of a wider group of people who do not identify with religious communities like the Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and so on.
According to the General Household Survey data from 2015***, the latest available figures, the religiously unaffiliated make up 18.5 per cent of Singapore’s resident population. Only the Buddhist/Taoist and Christian communities are larger at 44.2 per cent and 18.8 per cent respectively.
Extrapolating from the same survey shows that the religiously unaffiliated are growing much faster than other religious groups. Their proportion in Singapore had increased by 8.8 per cent since 2010 compared to the 2.7 per cent increase amongst Christians. All other religious groups experienced a decline in the same period.
However, this large segment of Singaporeans is often overlooked when it comes to interfaith dialogues and initiatives. Left unaddressed, a potential fault-line could form in Singapore’s social cohesion.
Which is why Ms Shahrany Hassan, Director of The Whitehatters, decided to organise this AMA session as a follow up to previous instalments on faith groups like Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, among others.
She said: “We realised and acknowledged that there is a rising demographic of people who do not subscribe or identify themselves with any particular faith.”
As Diana stated earlier, we are all in this “cosmic soup” together. The collective efforts we carry out today will contribute to the generations tomorrow.
** “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path” by Jack Kornfield