No religion: why more and more Singaporeans are turning away from traditional beliefs

SINGAPORE: Teenager Yuxuan ticks the “Buddhist” box on official forms, but does not practice Buddhism.

Calling herself a Buddhist has been a “habit” she has had since childhood, said the 18-year-old, who declined to share her full name.

“I’m supposed to be a Buddhist, but I’m more inclined to (be) a free thinker,” she said. “My parents practice (Buddhism), so when they practice it, I just follow.”

His views mirror those of a number of young people CNA has spoken to, including some whose families are Christian or Muslim. A number of them said that religion is not a big part of their lives, although they do participate in religious rituals with their parents.

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The 2020 Singapore Census showed that 20% of Singapore residents had no religious affiliation in 2020.

They are now the second largest group after Buddhists, who make up about a third of the population (31.1%). The third largest group is Christians (18.9 percent).

Just over 15% identified themselves as Muslims, 8.8% as Taoists and 5% as Hindus.

In 2020, one in five inhabitants said they had no religion, an increase from the previous decade. (Graphic: Rafa Estrada)

The census, which surveyed Singapore residents aged 15 and over, also found that young people were more likely to have no religious affiliation.

In 2020, 24.2% of people aged 15 to 24 reported having no religion, which was higher than the 15.2% of residents aged 55 and over. From 2010 to 2020, the share of residents with no religion increased in all age groups.


Dr Mathew Mathews, senior researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), said the growing number of people without religion is “an expected trajectory”.

The trend has been seen in many societies where there is “an abandonment of organized religion as people take root in a secular world,” he said.

“People rely less on religion to provide them with an explanation of the many things that happen in life, but instead turn to the sciences,” Dr Mathews said.

“Religion as an institution no longer plays a major role in life and therefore fewer people will pass the faith on to their children. “

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He added that there are certainly those who officially identify with a religion but do not practice it.

“But often they can have some nominal acceptance of some of the fundamental beliefs or practices of religion,” he said.

“Even though they are not loyal to many of them, they are probably open at some point in their lives to explore their faith further or may find solace in some of the rituals of the religion.”

The growing number of people without religion is not a new trend. The share of these people – whether atheists, agnostics or free thinkers – has been increasing since 1980, when it was 13%.


In 2010, when the proportion of free thinkers reached 17%, the Humanist Society (Singapore) was created to provide support to people without religion.

The group has around 100 to 120 paying members and a growing number of social media subscribers with nearly 6,500 Facebook followers.

In a Zoom interview on June 22, members of society told CNA how they began to question some of the central tenets of the religions they grew up with and eventually turned to humanism.

“Sometimes I find that the morality from above that you are taught may not be right after all, and sometimes you have to think for yourself, what is moral and immoral? So it was my estrangement from religion, ”said Paul Tobin, 56, founding president of the company.

“Labels like atheist and agnostic tell you what you are not … while a humanist, in my opinion, tells you what else – you see as humans we add value to our lives, we give meaning to our life. “

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Society performs some of the functions traditionally performed by organized religion – providing community for its members, organizing charitable activities, and officiating at events such as weddings and births.

Vice President Tan Ding Jie pointed out that Singapore was still a largely religious society – with 80 percent of the population officially identifying with a religion.

He observed that an increasing number of religious individuals have developed “a good understanding of humanism and atheism”, and the company has been invited to interfaith dialogues in recent years.

“We have developed deep friendships and no longer see ourselves as religious or non-religious, but as Singaporeans in search of mutual understanding and self-improvement,” Tan said.


Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Waterloo Street

Worshipers pray outside the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple on Waterloo Street in June 2021, which was closed due to the COVID-19 situation. (Photo: Chew Hui Min)

Singapore Taoist Federation head Mr. Tan Thiam Lye told CNA that the number of young people participating in major Taoist festivals and ceremonies is still quite high.

Many participate in the festival of the nine emperor gods, where there are processions to mark the occasion. The young people are responsible for carrying the palanquins in the processions, he said.

The federation was established in 1990 to stem the downward trend in the number of Taoists and the aging of the Taoist community, he added.

The proportion of Taoists among Singapore residents fell from 30 percent in 1980 to 22.4 percent in 1990. There was a sharp drop to 8.5 percent in 2000, rising slightly to 10.9 percent. percent in 2010, before falling back to 8.8 percent in the 2020 count.

“So we were already aware of that at the time. In fact, thanks to the efforts of the federation over the past 30 years, the decline has slowed down from the sharp drop in the 80s and 90s, ”Tan said in Mandarin.

“We have worked hard to attract young people. We have set up a youth group and assembled a group of passionate and capable youth to spread Taoist culture. We are also trying new ways to spread the faith.

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The federation is on Facebook and has set up a website where Taoism lectures, cultural seminars and shows are broadcast live.

“There may be fewer worshipers going to temples now due to the safe handling measures for COVID-19,” Tan said.

The younger generation may not have altars in their homes, but they will attend temples on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month and on other special occasions, he said.


With a growing number of people claiming to have no religion, Dr Mathews postulates that the religious landscape may, in time to come, be marked by the differences between this group and those who are committed to their faith.

“These identities can sometimes be at odds with each other and can lead to more conflict as both groups may view whether or not they have a religion as an important marker of their identity,” he said. .

“Those who do not have a religion may think that the religious plan to impose their beliefs and traditions on them, while the religious may perceive that the non-religious are trying to downplay their religious goals.

“And with the more educated on both sides of the religious spectrum, you can expect them to feel more confident in their beliefs and may find it easier to make their case.”