Monday, 14 January 2013

Different under God

Jan 14, 2013

THE religious landscape in Singapore is a dynamic one. Buddhists, the country's largest religious group, have become proportionately smaller when we compare data between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.

Meanwhile, those who profess Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism and no religion experienced proportionate growth during the same period. This dynamism is evident not only between faith communities, but also within each faith community. The changes within the local Protestant Christian community are a case in point.

Two years ago, we embarked on a major survey of Protestant churchgoers in Singapore. Our sample consisted of approximately 2,800 Christians from some of the mainline churches, such as the Anglican, Methodist and Bible Presbyterian denominations, as well as non-denominational independent churches and megachurches.

The objectives of this study were to capture the socioeconomic profiles of Protestants and to understand their attitudes towards money and finance, politics, sex and sexuality, and perceptions of compatibility with other faith and ethnic communities.

While it is widely recognised that a large proportion of the Protestant Christian community in Singapore is middle-class, the study revealed that its middle- class character is neither unitary nor static.

Our study shows that although the level of education among those attending mainline churches and megachurches is comparable, they do have different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Broadly speaking, those who attend mainline churches have largely inherited their middle-class status, while those who attend megachurches tend to be part of the "new" or aspiring middle-class.

Our data shows that those who go to mainline churches are more likely to have lived in private property and have better-educated, English-proficient parents who are themselves Christians. In contrast, those who go to megachurches are more likely to have lived in public housing and have less-educated, non-English- speaking parents who are non-Christians.

Along with this discovery, we also found a trend in attitudes between mainline and megachurch Christians that we sought to explain with class analysis.

Members of a varied social group like the "middle class" may create social distinctions among themselves through types of education, family background, language proficiency and lifestyle tastes, also known as cultural capital. The effect of these social distinctions is evident in the way different subgroups engage with their social environment.

Our survey found that mainline-church Christians were more likely to participate in civil society. They were more comfortable with expressing their moral or political views through the public sphere. This suggests a sense of confidence consonant with the possession of cultural capital as long-time members of the English-proficient middle class.

Conversely, megachurch Christians were less likely to see civil society or public civic discourse as a means to express their moral or political views. Instead, many preferred to keep their moral and political opinions private among friends and colleagues. For them, private and informal networks were favoured for exercising moral influence.

On the issue of money and finance, we found that megachurch Christians were more likely to see a stronger relationship between the material and the spiritual.

Unlike mainline Christians, congregational and financial growth were seen by megachurch Christians as signs of divine blessing and personal faithfulness.

Market rationality was also extended to church organisation. For example, those who attend megachurches were more likely to agree that full-time church staff should be paid market-competitive salaries.

But why is there such a strong relationship between the material and the spiritual among megachurches?

There is certainly a penchant among megachurches to use quantifiable indicators of "faithfulness" and "blessing". This inclination to express Christianity in the language of market ethos and logic, we argue, converges with and appeals to the economic aspirations and consumer habits of many young, upwardly mobile Singaporeans.

These Singaporeans, in turn, not only find a brand of spirituality that is conducive in capitalist Singapore, but also empathy with fellow Singaporeans undergoing the same class transitions.

There were also other interesting trends with regard to relationships with other ethnic and faith communities. Although we found that all denominations were overwhelmingly in favour of sharing their faith, megachurch Christians differed from mainline Christians in their relationship with other communities.

There are two main differences. First, we found that megachurch Christians were more sensitive to negative reactions from other faiths when proselytising. A possible explanation for this is that megachurch Christians are more likely to have come from non-Christian backgrounds.

This, together with their greater proficiency in Mandarin, may have helped sensitise them to how other faiths view Christian proselytisation.

In this sense, the class-transitional nature of megachurch Christians may have endowed them with a broader sensitivity, as opposed to those who have inherited their class status.

Second, while all denominations were found to be conservative with regard to issues related to sex and sexuality, such as premarital sex, the moral status of homosexuality and abortion, megachurch Christians were more likely to have and have spent time with homosexual friends.

This may be due to the "seeker church" orientation of megachurches, whereby the distance between the church and the secular world is minimised to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity. Seeker churches thus make it a point to extend their reach and perhaps establish a presence in different spheres of contemporary culture, such that the conventional lines between church and society are blurred.

Another class-based explanation may also help shed light. Local studies elsewhere show that Christians and Muslims in Singapore have significantly more negative attitudes and less tolerance than Buddhists and free thinkers do towards homosexuality.

Given the transitional nature of many of our megachurch Christians - both from working- to middle-class, and from non-Christian to Christian beliefs - it is possible that they may have retained some of their tolerance for homosexuality.

In summary, our study demonstrated that the Protestant Christian community in Singapore is complex, dynamic and differentiated. It is not unreasonable to assume the same of other faith communities in Singapore.

As such, any accurate analysis of the religious landscape in Singapore will have to take into account the social and cultural distinctions within respective faith communities.

The authors are senior fellows at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. The report - Different Under God: A Survey Of Church-going Protestants In Singapore - is available at major bookshops at $29.90.

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