Allow me to share something that has been bothering me for some time now.
If you’ve been visiting Christian or Buddhist bookshops here in Singapore, and if you’ve been paying attention, you’d notice that over the past few years, there’s been a drop in the selection of intellectual books and a sharp rise in devotional materials.
Here are two examples:
Novena Church (currently closed for renovation) has a bookshop, which for many years, used to sell a wide variety of books. Years ago, they used to have a good mix. You could find intellectual books dealing with the doctrines of the faith or ethical issues. And that was balanced with a variety of devotional books and devotional items (statues, prayer beads, etc.).
However, as the years went by, the selection of intellectual books dwindled until there was not a single book on doctrine or ethics at all. In the two years before the Church closed for renovation, the bookshop sold nothing but devotional materials.
This trend is present in many other Christian bookshops.
But this trend isn’t just confined to Christianity. Buddhism seems to have the same problem too.
Years ago, there used to be a huge Buddhist bookshop housed in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown. It was so huge that it occupied an entire floor. I loved to visit that bookshop because of the incredible selection of Buddhist philosophical books. They had a wide variety – and a good balance – of intellectual and devotional materials.
That bookshop, however, closed down, and a small souvenir shop was opened at a corner of the temple selling nothing but devotional books and items (prayer beads, etc.).
I asked a very intellectual Buddhist friend if he noticed a similar pattern in other Buddhist bookshops. He agreed and commented that many Buddhist circles were intensifying their devotional practices, paying little or no attention to the intellectual aspects.
This too is the trend in many Christian circles too.
The demise of intellectual books in religious bookshops has been a worrying indicator for me. The demand for intellectual reading material has dried up, while the appetite for devotional materials has increased sharply in recent years.
And this is a problem not confined to a single religion.
Let me state this to be clear: I am not against devotional practices.
Devotional practices are important in the context of religion. I believe that there must be a healthy balance of both the devotional and the intellectual aspects of religion. Devotional practices help to cultivate the heart, just as how the intellectual aspects help to cultivate the mind.
What bothers me is the sharp drop of religious intellectualism here in Singapore while religious devotion is increasing at a rapid rate.
Of course, I know some atheists and secular humanists might be laughing. Religious intellectualism sounds like a paradox. How can you be intellectual if you are religious?
To some degree, one can be intellectual and religious. At least to be able to justify, with reason, certain tenets of one’s religious beliefs, or of one’s ethical principles.
The slow death of intellectualism, which I’m seeing in Buddhism and Christianity here in Singapore is a worrying trend. Buddhism and Christianity are two of the biggest religions here in Singapore. That this is a trend affecting at least two big religions is disturbing for it points to greater problems slowly simmering in society.
Karl Marx wrote that religion is an “opiate of the masses,” in the sense that people flock to it seeking relief because they are in great pain. The spike in devotion and piety is a symptom of societal stresses. People are alienated from themselves and their work. One of the many outlets from the misery of such a fast-paced, high-stress society and the existential agonies is religious devotion, where they find spiritual and emotional relief. An oasis of calm and peace in a world of madness.
Marx isn’t saying that religious devotion is bad. Religious devotion brings relief from a life of constant pain and agony. That more and more people are flocking to it is a sign that the stresses of modern life is taking a huge toll on people, more than what they are able to bear.
Will we soon be reaching a critical point of high stress in our society that Singapore society breaks down?
That is one of my worries.
To reiterate my point: devotion is useful in cultivating a good heart. What bothers me is the death of intellectualism the rise of devotionalism, and its consequences on society.
Many do not have a good understanding of their own religious beliefs, teachings, or ethical positions. For example, there are many out there who are so fired up about their relationship with God, or with their rituals, but they know nothing about their religion’s teachings or scriptures.
Those who do have some knowledge of these issues, however, do not really know the justifications or rationale behind them.
With good intentions, and with a zeal cultivated by devotion and piety, we are witnessing a decline of religion.
Religion has turned into a soccer match. People take sides depending on their own initial biases. Sometimes the fights occur within one’s own religion.
What I am seeing in real life and on social media are people parroting material they’ve read without really thinking whether what they say is true or problematic.
Worse still, in the name of defending one’s religion (or one’s position on a religious matter), people are parroting terribly irrational answers, the kind of answers that deride the opponent (“Oooo… BURN!”), stirring up their team mates to cheer for them, like a striker scoring a goal.
This can and does lead to extremism.
But I’m not just talking about religious extremism in the kind of fundamentalism of ideas (that happens too). Rather, I’m concerned about extremism involving devotional practices, and its consequences.
Fuelled by religious zeal, one can get too carried away with certain practices or ideas about practices, taking them to an extreme level with dire consequences on others.
Yes, sinners should atone, but to what extent? Of causing bodily harm to themselves? Should we begin forcing certain sinners to atone publicly in certain ways? Yes, modesty is important to the cultivation of virtue and holiness, but to what extent? Of covering up from head to toe? Of imposing the covering up onto everyone else?
The danger begins when people uncritically attach values or high lofty ideals onto specific actions or items, judging those who do not practice those actions or carry those items as having rejected those set of values.
The danger begins when people uncritically think that they have achieved the spiritual goal by doing a certain set of actions, or carrying certain items, thinking that they have no further need to cultivate themselves (they have attained the religious ideal, what more is there to do?), and thus behave in a self-righteous manner.
The danger begins when people in their good intentions and zeal begin to impose – quite uncritically – certain norms onto others (and their community) without realising the consequences of their actions.
The REAL danger is when no one is willing to listen to any opposing voices that find it necessary to examine and critique what’s being done in the midst of all that religious zeal.
The path of dialogue and communication closed, there will only be greater misunderstanding and lack of trust among different parties. Society will thus become increasingly polarised and fragmented.
With the slow death of intellectualism, comes a decline in critical voices and critical examination. Religious circles thus become echo chambers, breeding extremism fuelled only by religious zeal and good intentions.
As the famous saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”