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British religious thinker at Singapore forum challenges people to embrace the ‘discomfort of religion’

SINGAPORE — In a confronting speech at a conference here on how to build cohesive societies, noted British author and religious thinker Karen Armstrong challenged her audience to be comfortable with "a sense of great disquiet".

Singapore, as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation, is hosting its first international conference on social cohesion and interfaith harmony.

Singapore, as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation, is hosting its first international conference on social cohesion and interfaith harmony.

SINGAPORE — In a confronting speech at a ground-breaking conference here on how to build cohesive societies, noted British author and religious thinker Karen Armstrong challenged her audience to be comfortable with "a sense of great disquiet".

It is only by breaking out of comfortable bubbles and echo chambers that society can grapple with harsh inequalities and injustices around the world, and people can truly learn to empathise and become cohesive, Ms Armstrong argued.

Her audience on Thursday (June 20) comprised some 1,000 thought and religious leaders who had gathered for the three-day International Conference on Cohesive Societies — the brainchild of President Halimah Yacob. Held from Wednesday to Friday, it is Singapore's first international conference on social cohesion and interfaith harmony.

Jordan’s King Abdullah gave the keynote speech at the event, held at the Raffles City Convention Centre.

Ms Armstrong — whose widely acclaimed work has been published in 43 languages — illustrated her point by noting the way that Christmas has largely been celebrated by singing carols and being joyful.

“But the Christmas story is a terrible story... There is no room in the inn, (the messiah) was born in some kind of cattle shed, and then he becomes a refugee,” she said.

“And yet, here we are, prettifying this story, and we prettify our religions, too.”

Jesus Christ, Ms Armstrong said, was a “highly disturbing, uncomfortable character” in the gospels who was “constantly tearing down people’s comfort and making them see things differently”.

Somehow, Christ came to be depicted frequently today as a loving saviour with a lamb tucked under one arm and patting a child on the head with his other hand, she said.

“This discomfort of religion is lacking. It should grow (or) develop within a sense of great disquiet,” she continued. “Whereas all too often, we look for salam, for peace, for comfort, or the fact that at least I obey the Lord and I’ll go to heaven.”

The emphasis on heaven or salvation can be a distraction in and of itself — “something like paying into your retirement annuity, for a comfortable life thereafter”, she said.

In contrast, Ms Armstrong noted that the great prophets in the Bible were “not comfortable people”. They had let suffering and pain pervade their hearts and minds, instead of striving for spiritual comfort and joy, she said.

In this vein, she called a compassionate city “an uncomfortable city”.

Ms Armstrong’s message resonated with a number of young people in the audience.

Among them were Ms Mrithini Gritharan, 17, a Hindu, and Ms Low Wei Ling, a 25-year-old who describes her faith as Zen Shinto, who felt that Ms Armstrong’s topic could have made some people in the audience uncomfortable.

But that was the first step towards building a cohesive society, they said.

Mrithini, a Raffles Institution student, said: “I feel that we have to accept that it’s a touchy subject (which) we shouldn’t keep putting off. We have to accept the fact that there is that discomfort and it’s only when we accept the fact that there is this discomfort that we can move towards dialogue.”

Ms Low, an ambassador with interfaith group Roses of Peace, said that Singapore should progress from being tolerant to being accepting and appreciative — a society that takes great interest in others’ culture and religion instead of merely “putting up with the others”.

Mr Basil Kannangara, a Roman Catholic, agreed with what Ms Armstrong said about involving the spiritual aspect in interfaith dialogue.

“Spiritual conversations may add a deeper dimension to interfaith dialogue even though we know there will be differences at first," the 39-year-old said.

"What I got from her talk was not to shy away from differences. It is through struggling with the initial discomfort that we might discover the common human bond we share — that we all seek some kind of meaning in life."

The three-day conference on social cohesion and interfaith harmony is being attended by about 1,000 religious and thought leaders from around the globe. Photo: Facebook/RSIS

Ms Armstrong also stressed the importance of “transcendence” in the practice of religion — that no one really knows what they are truly talking about when they speak of God.

“Very often, we use our religious traditions to boost our sense of self, and that’s important because we need identity… But religion is not meant to just confirm us. It is meant to transcend what we call the ego,” she said.

Extremists turn to the Internet because that is where their egos are boosted, Ms Armstrong noted. “We really need to have serious thought about that, watch it in ourselves and try to create within our lives a moment where there is time for silence, reflection and certainly criticism.”

What struck Mr Saiful Anuar, 34, a Muslim youth leader with Singapore’s Inter-Religious Organisation, was that transcendence is “not about accepting all (beliefs), but it’s about being open to listen”.

Agreeing, Mr Ow Yeong Wai Kit, 30, head of Poh Ming Tse Temple’s youth committee, said: “We often fail to listen and everyone’s talking and not listening. In a way, that’s what we are trying to do here — to promote that space for listening as well as talking and we can see that in our everyday conversations (and) the way we respond.”

St Joseph’s Institution student Nur Nadia Suhaimi, 17, said that young people are ready to bridge that gap in tackling difficult dialogues. “Youths have this desire to change the world. They want to make an impact,” she said.

The conference was organised by S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, with the support of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Related topics

religion interfaith cohesion Karen Armstrong society

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