Religious tensions within home

By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 11 Mar 2005

Singapore -- WHAT'S in a bag of joss sticks? Too much, it seems. While shopping for Chinese New Year groceries this year, my mother bought some incense. It's customary, she said, to burn offerings to protect the family in the coming year. The bag was passed to my younger brother. He refused to touch it. He had, you see, converted to Christianity two years ago, and is now an active member in a charismatic church. He believes joss sticks and paper money are pagan. Carrying the bag would be wrong.

My family is agnostic. Burning incense is reserved for Chinese New Year, Qing Ming Festival and our grandparents' death anniversaries. To us, it is not so much a religious ritual as it is a cultural custom.  But already there is some uneasiness within my family. What more for families who are Buddhist or Taoist - the faiths of a majority of pre-'65 Singaporeans? This is an inter-generational tableau playing out in many families.

As church leaders tell me, tensions do arise when they win over young converts. Strain often arises in a family when a member converts to another religion, no matter which. But because Christianity is fast gaining popularity among the post-'65 Chinese, it has become the religion that often comes up against the traditional faiths of their parents.The proportion of Christians among the Chinese increased from 2.4 per cent in 1921 to 10.6 per cent in 1980. By 2000, 17 per cent were Christians, overtaking Taoists as the second largest group after the Buddhists. In contrast, Malays and Indians have largely stayed with their traditional faiths. It is also rarer that a Chinese converts to Islam or Hinduism.

So what accounts for the growing affinity for Christianity among younger Chinese? First, the post-'65ers are, by and large, a better-educated generation than their parents. Socialised into an English-stream system, they tend to be attracted to Christianity, perceived as a modern religion. They view their parents' faiths as superstitious and illogical, as sociologists Eddie Kuo and Tong Chee Kiong noted in a 1990 Census monograph. Second, as the monograph notes, the evangelical Christian movement has been 'particularly active since the early 1980s'. Today, half of the Christians are converts, compared to the 90 per cent of Buddhists, Muslims and others born into their respective faiths.

This has led to what Prof Kuo calls 'an inherent tension' in families. He told me in an interview: 'In Singapore, things change so fast there is no time to adjust. In other countries, a change in religion may take place over a few generations so there is a buffer zone. Families here are forced to confront the change overnight.' And so, difficulties arise. For instance, Taoist parents may unthinkingly light joss sticks, whose incense wafts into their children's room.

I know of an eldest son who refused to hold the joss sticks at his Buddhist father's funeral. His family is not speaking to him. Parents are hurt when children believe that they - non-Christian believers - are destined for hell. It doesn't help when some parents take the hardline route, and ban their children from church. One man, now a pastor, was thrown out of his home.

As a society, Singapore has done a wonderful job in maintaining harmony among the diverse religions. The Government is insistent on the cultivation of a common space, while the religious groups themselves are assiduous in avoiding stepping on one another's toes.

But it's different at home, behind closed doors. The emotional bonds between loved ones tear down the walls of politically correct niceties. Harsh words are said, camps are drawn. Some churches recognise this potential conflict zone. So City Harvest Church, for example, makes its members who are aged below 21 get a parental consent form signed before they can attend church.

But what happens if religion itself is the source of disharmony between family members? There is no easy answer, and it probably can never be resolved. The family has to work out some mechanism to cope with the differences so they will never be brought to boiling point. Pastor Lawrence Lim of New Creation Church said: 'We counsel the kids to be gracious, educate their parents so they understand Christianity.

Then, the misunderstanding will be lessened.' Communication - and respect - has to go both ways. As a friend, whose mother is a Buddhist, said: 'I have heart-to-heart talks with my mum about our religions.' And compromise. Be open. A Catholic friend has no qualms holding joss sticks at funerals.

'It's a sign of respect for them. God understands.' Indeed. For what is a bag of joss sticks, except for the meaning that you invest in it?