Unbelief : Atheism in Malaysia Explained
Religion. Accompanied with race and politics, they are the triumvirate of sensitive issues, which dictate Malaysia’s multicultural dialogue since conception. As globalization continuously sows the seeds of material wealth and secular ideas into Malaysian’s social life, the budding notion of atheism adds piquancy to the country’s already-fiery political discourse. Perhaps the most infamous trappings of which is when Ministers called for “hunting down” Malaysian members of the Atheist republic (its website banned in Malaysia) who had a gathering in Kuala Lumpur in 2017. The event had in some way reinstated atheism to its rightful position in the national dialogue.
What is atheism?
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, atheism is defined in two ways: as “a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods”. Most atheists would identify their conviction closer to the former definition — a lack of belief in the existence of god or any gods — which is to say that they are not convinced by the arguments expounded by their god-believing opponents. Unlike what many believers perceive, it is not a belief system, just as not playing badminton is not a hobby. Another good way of conceptualizing atheism is that a Christian is an a-Muslim, an a-Hindu, an a-Pastafarian (Pastafarians believe that the world is created by an all-mighty and all-benevolent Flying Spaghetti Monster, affectionately called FSM), an a-Hellenic polytheist and other thousands of religions at a same time; an atheist, compared to a Christian, doesn’t believe in one god further.
There is no holy book for atheists. There are no ceremonies or gatherings to celebrate atheism. There is no prophet or spiritual leader in atheism. Religion and faith of a supernatural being are not part of their way of life; they live without them. So technically, atheism is not a religion.
A small demographic would subscribe to the latter definition, which is to actively claim that no god exists. They are the direct opposition of theists (believers on the existence of god or gods). Some might call them “anti-theist” because they believe that the existence of deity is not only false, but also dangerous and encourages malicious acts. A shining exemplar from this radical clique is the late Christopher Hitchens, as his book God is not Great stridently suggests: religion poisons everything.
Is there a difference between atheism and agnosticism? Yes there is. The former deals with a belief and the latter deals with knowledge. An agnostic recognizes that they do not know the existence of a god or gods, which is to imply that everyone is an agnostic, since up till now no concrete impersonal evidence has been found to unequivocally prove Its(or His) existence. Admitting the distinction between atheism and agnosticism resolve the perennial confusion when one confronts the question “Do you believe in god”. And the answer must either be yes (which implies you are a theist), or not (atheist). “I don’t know”, a response most people who would employ in alluding to their agnosticism, is not a valid answer because it’s impossible that you don’t know what you believe.
Atheism is not humanism as well, although there is a high correlation between both. Humanism is the emphasis of human beings under moral and philosophical considerations. Humanists are necessarily atheists because they value the right and welfare of humans above anything else, including god(s).
Atheism is not equivalent to secularism either. Secularism is the principle of separation between the state and religious institutions. It means that the government does not interfere with religious matters and the opinions of religious institutions are not privileged in the public sphere. The antithesis of secularism is theocracy, where all modes of public-policy-making and political conduct are informed according to religious figureheads and ultimately, the holy scripture.
Why is there a trend towards atheism?
As suggested in the beginning of the article,the rising standards of living is supposed to be a huge contributory driver for the global acceptance of atheism. Experts think that the relative material comfort and financial stability liberate people from therapeutic consolations offered by the divine. Such speculation is affirmed by the fact that developed countries have a greater atheist demographic compared to the global South. In Malaysia, partly due to greater material wealth, the Chinese ethic group are more open to atheistic beliefs compared to Malays, Indians and indigenous groups. Hence, as the (soon) booming economy continues distributing its benefits to developing countries, we would see an expanding population of atheists in those areas.
The increasing cultural favour towards atheism could be attributed to the popularity of “New Atheism” — an Anglo-American movement pioneered by “the Four Horsemen”, namely Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Bennett — on the Internet. By advances in education and communications technology around the globe, their trenchant wit, humour, and self-proclaimed battle for scientific reason successfully “proselytize” atheism across the world. With a touch on the screen, any young child who has doubts about their faith could easily find at least one of them explaining the contradictions in the holy scripture or rebuttals of God’s existence. Their books are widely popular too. An exemplar of which is biologist and the inventor of the word “meme” (just saying) Richard Dawkins’ go-to atheist book The God Delusion, where its 35 translations had been sold millions including in religious countries like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Is atheism legal in Malaysia? Can a Muslim convert into atheism?
Browsing through the Internet, one could feel that the signal is mixed and obscure: one stance which particularly reverberates with the conservative sphere is that since Malaysia is a Islamic State, atheism is illegal, or to be precise, unconstitutional. The stalwart believer who instigated this rhetoric was Dr Mahathir in September 2001; some lawyers believe that the constitution does not explicitly recognize atheism as a legitimate religion in Malaysia and hence beyond the reach of legal judgement; some believe that atheism is at variance with the National Principle Rukun Negara, namely the first which mandate the belief in God (Kepercayaan kepada Tuhan), and hence prove atheism illicit.
To settle this contention, I would advisedly resort to the edicts in the Constitution as it is the supreme law of the land. As opposed to the Rukun Negara which is meant to be a motto rather than a legally-binding legislation, no law shall be passed going against the constitution. Therefore, if the Constitution commands that atheism is illegal or otherwise, it is indisputably effective across the whole nation.
On the question of whether Malaysia is an Islamic State, according to the Constitution, and endorsed by many respected lawyers and academics, contra to conservative opinions, Malaysia is a secular state rather than a theocratic, Islamic one. In other words, even though Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, the government is, at least in principle, prohibited to influence religious affairs, and religious institutions shouldn’t disproportionately inform governmental policies and agendas. Concluded by Tommy Thomas in the 13th Malaysian Law conference in 2005:
“ [During the formation of the constitution for an independent Malaya,] the British, the Alliance Party, the Malay Rulers and the majority in the Reid Commission and, in particular, Tunku Abdul Rahman, the chief architect of Merdeka, was at pains to expressly declare that Malaya is a secular state … [F]or a period of 44 years until September 2001, no one had suggested that Malaysia is an Islamic State … Dr Mahathir’s statement [on the contrary] was not based on the Federal Constitution of the law; his statement was made solely for political purposes.”
Therefore, can we deduce that atheism is legal? Not quite. According to article 4(1), the Constitution enshrines the freedom of religion. At least to non-Muslim Malaysians, they are endowed with the right to profess and propagate any religion, and — as many experts would broadly interpret — including the freedom to espouse no religion. However, these rights are heavily circumscribed among Malaysian-Muslims, mainly due to two reasons.
First, the conversion from or renunciation of the Islamic religion is not a personal, self-autonomous decision. Rather, the Syariah (Islamic) court has the ultimate power to place final judgement on individuals’ decisions. And if the court adjudicates against their wish , even if apostasy by Muslims in Malaysia wouldn’t be sentenced death penalty, these potential apostates would have to pay fines, go to jail, or undergo counseling and re-education sessions. Since it has been observed that there is an unclear demarcation of judicial power between the Syariah and civil court on this issue, the success, and hence the legality of apostasy or conversion varies on a case by case basis. Nonetheless, the complicated constitutional and legal impositions on Muslims would certainly pose a rougher time abandoning their faith.
Second, Article 11(4) imposes limitations on the propagation of “deviant” Islamic schools of thought and non-Islamic religious doctrines. Its purpose is to preserve social harmony (according to experts) and not to “confuse” Muslims (according to politicians).
These two legal restrictions don’t only happen on paper. Both are enforced, as in case of Ayah Pin — a tea pot cult leader — and his 4 cult apostles who publicly renounced Islam were jailed for apostasy. In addition, as Malaysia adopts the Sunni school of thought, Non-Sunni interpretations are absolutely forbidden. One of the popular crack-down on such deviant Islamic teachings happened in 1994 when the government disbanded the burgeoning al-Arqam sect which allegedly strayed Malaysian Muslims from true path to Islam. The leader of the al-Arqam movement, Ustaz Ashaari, was purportedly extradited from the Thai border to repent his sins for misguiding his gullible acolytes.
Is Atheism a good force for the world?
Back to the drafting of the Constitution for the Federation of Malaya. To maintain national harmony, our founding fathers — as emanated from Tunku Abdul Rahman’s “live-and-let-live” philosophy — had vehemently insisted that the multicultural and multi-ethnic Malaysia shall be a secular state so that each cultural groups are able to live their own life without state interference or coercive assimilation. Islam was enshrined as the official religion in Malaysia, with its role confined to merely “rituals and ceremonies” and its corresponding legal institution only governing the narrow remit of “the law of marriage, divorce, and inheritance only”. The limitation of propagation of divergent religious belief in the Muslim community is later negotiated in the name of social peace and order.
It wasn’t until in the 1970s and 80s, somewhat due to the Iranian revolution (transformation of the erstwhile secular nation of Iran into an Islamic state) that we saw the resurgence of Islam in Malaysia. From then, the Saudi Arabia’s puritanical, stricter version of Islam — where the religion permeates into every aspect life that all Muslims must abide to — started to seep into the national consciousness. Under this new regime, authorities regimented strict adherence to the Arabised Islamic dressing, suppliers are compelled to follow the stringent label of haram and halal food, and security forces raid nightclubs and hotels to moral police Muslims who secretly drink and gamble. Slowly, the Muslim community began deracinating non-Islamic local cultural practices too.
In politics, the revival of Islam was — and still is — catalyzed by conservative political parties (ie. PAS and UMNO) for engaging in the so-called “Islamization race”. It is the race in which rival parties boast themselves as the true representative of Islam in Malaysia by mainly playing the “religious card” and appealing to Islamic supremacy (Ketuanan Islam), jockeying for power. The race manifested itself in a reformation of the high school education system: the government placed excessive chapters about Islamic civilization in the Middle East and only reserved one chapter for pre-Islamic civilization in South East Asia in KBSM history textbooks. Another attempt of which occurred when Terrenganu and Kelantan flirted the idea of passing Hudud law which if official properly enforced, would require limb amputation for theft, death penalty for apostasy, and severe corporal punishment for women who committed pre-martial sex.
Slowly but steadily, the accumulating chain of events culminated in a grim socio-political phenomenon that in many ways insulted Malaysian youth’s presumption of ineluctable moral progress. The constant chauvinism for the primitive Islamic way of the life desensitized modern moral intuition to the extent as to politically legitimatize female gender mutilation, repudiate homosexuality and exalt misogynistic attitudes in Malaysia. Who could even neglect the Muslim contrarians suffering under Malaysia’s saturating moral parochialism? Just fathom the constant farrago of psychological distress, social marginalization, and intellectual assault ex-Muslims have to endure day and night. In a interview with Zaribah Abdullah, a member of Malaysian Atheist and Secular Humanist, deftly summarised a bitter biography of a typical closeted Muslim in Malaysia:
Some of them [have even] been betrayed by their family members or schoolmates and brought in for questioning by the religious authorities. They are suffocated in Malaysia, being unable to live their lives as non-religious people publicly, a privilege the non-Muslims in Malaysia are afforded, and being silenced for speaking their minds out.
This leads me into responding to the long-evaded normative question of whether atheism is moral, or socially beneficial to Malaysia. Observing the dark side of religious fanaticism that I have discussed hitherto behooves me to say that not only atheism is moral, Malaysian atheists, along with their humanist and secularist compatriots, are desperately needed to restore peace and harmony in the country. Atheists are the unappreciated minority in Malaysia that celebrates multiculturalism and diversity instead of subduing them. Atheists don’t obey morally irrelevant scripture that whittle away their nation’s secular foundations. Instead, they loudly and proudly defend democracy, equality, liberalism and racial tolerance against religious absolutists and fear-mongers who, as Christopher Hitchens put it, “may speak about the bliss of the next world, but wants power in this one.”
My bitter tirade against religion might earn myself the label “anti-theist”, as if I think that religion really “poisons everything”. But what I’m call for is not to completely banish religion and theism from modern human civilization, but, with the help of atheists and progressive thinkers, to salvage Malaysia’s secular aspirations and push religion back to its role for the community and the individual rather than for the policymakers and megalomaniacs. The reverse of which is to promote bigotry, to brainwash and bludgeon everyone into looking at the world only through the ideas which are picked to be sacred. Isn’t doing so blinding us from the variety and multifaceted society that we Malaysians have always taken pride of?
[Written by: Yew Jun Hao]
Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore, Routelege Series
The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins
God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens