July 13, 2016
Malaysia’s Atheists: Malaysia’s Atheists: Endangered Species or Quietly Burgeoning?
by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee
Although we have detailed statistics on most subjects of importance in the country, we do not yet have a definitive set of statistical data on the religious beliefs and affiliation of Malaysians. The closest we have to a reliable breakdown of the country’s population by religious belief is somewhat dated as it is derived from the country’s last census.
According to the 2010 Population and Housing Census, 61.3 percent of the population practice Islam; 19.8 % Buddhism; 9.2 % Christianity; 6.3 % Hinduism; and 1.3 % traditional Chinese religions. From the official statistics, it appears that the official major religious groupings add up to 97.9% of the country’s 30 million population today, leaving a tiny minority of 2% or about 600,000 Malaysians belonging to the category of non-believers in God or those adhering to non-religious systems of belief.
Surprisingly, the official data has included the followers of Sikhism together with the tiny minority professing non-religious faiths such as animism, folk religion, and other belief systems. Recent estimates place the size of the Sikh community at 350,000 members. Should this number be taken out of the over 600,000 Malaysians adhering to folk, animistic or non-religious systems, this leaves a total of at most 300,000 Malaysians professing to belong to what may be described as other non-religious belief systems or belief systems that do not believe in God.
Is this very small number according to the official count reliable or believable? Or are there more atheist or agnostic Malaysians who, for various reasons, have been missed out in our national profiling?
Before we can answer this question, it is necessary to point out that religions and beliefs are difficult to survey. They involve subject matters that are held by respondents to be deeply personal and hence the outcomes may be influenced by the way questions are worded, the methodology used or by other factors.
Among the reasons why the very small official number can be regarded as an under-estimate is that the drafters of the Rukun Negara thought it necessary to place the principle, ‘Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan’ or ‘ Belief In God’ as the foremost tenet to guide and unite Malaysians of the various religions.
This may have resulted in our census authorities being predisposed or biased towards identifying their Malaysian respondents as believing in God rather than to be more open towards the opposite possibility. Or perhaps the respondents themselves may have taken the line of least resistance and concurred that they belong to some faith group for fear of official disapproval.
An important factor explaining why the number of self-described atheists in Malaysia are few is because of state and societal discrimination and disapproval. There is presently no official secular organization in the country and, under the present government, no likelihood that such an organization will be allowed to be set up.
Despite the official efforts directed at discouraging the spread of atheism, some attempts have been made at bringing together individuals from this grouping. An internet website called “Malaysian Atheists” was set up recently in response to the need for the country’s atheists “to come together and be recognized as a significant segment of a society dominated by religious peoples and state-supported religious laws, policies and bodies” (see http://www.malaysianatheists.org/). There is also an informal grouping in Facebook group known as MAFA (Malaysian Atheist Freethinkers and Agnostics) that was once active but is now apparently defunct.
Both of these initiatives have had to operate well beneath the official radar because of the recent increase in state discrimination against atheists and those with non-religious beliefs.
Although some estimates indicate that the number of atheists and non-believers has further declined in Malaysia, there is reason to dispute these estimates if we consider the world wide trend of growing agnosticism and atheism.
According to the 2014 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, a majority of the population in nine European countries surveyed, as well as in Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia, Argentina and Chile did not think that a belief in God was a necessary part of being moral. This figure was as high as 85% in France and 80% in Spain. The young and the university-educated were found to be more likely to hold this view in many countries.
In the two countries which are frequently used as proxies for the developed countries of the world, the trend towards being non-religious or religiously unaffiliated is clearly growing.
According to National Public Radio (NPR), an American privately and publicly funded non-profit membership media organization that serves a network of 900 public radio stations in the US, one-fifth of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. This is a higher proportion than at any time in recent U.S. history with those younger than 30 especially drifting away from organized religion. A third of young Americans also say they don’t belong to any religion.
In Britain a WIN/Gallup poll in 2014 found that its citizens were very skeptical on the benefits of religion. Only a third of British respondents saw religion as a force for good, whilst over a quarter believed it to exert a negative impact. In Denmark, Belgium, France and Spain, the overall perception of religions was negative. The same poll found that 36% of the world’s population could be defined as non-religious, with 13% of that self-defining as atheists – a significant increase on previous years.
Current Trend of State-Led Hate Against Atheists
Amid the global decline in religious belief, some governments have been stepping up efforts to portray atheists and secularists as a danger to society and even as terrorists
A recent study by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), a United Nations-accredited NGO that promotes the welfare and growth of humanist, atheist, rationalist, free thought and similar groups around the world has pointed to “hate campaigns” against those who renounce the dominant or state religion in Muslim nations.
The latest IHEU’s annual survey on discrimination and persecution against non-religious people has noted that “the overwhelming majority of countries fail to respect the rights of atheists and freethinkers” as set out in UN treaties and that 13 Muslim states had made apostasy or blasphemy against religion a capital offense.
Back home in Malaysia, the report noted that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has branded humanism, secularism and liberalism as “deviant” and a “threat to Islam and the state” – seehttp://freethoughtreport.com/download-the-report/.
There is little doubt that the Prime Minister’s unprecedented attack against atheists and free thinkers has been responsible for the charge that Malaysia, together with Saudi Arabia and Iraq, are “the worst places [in the world] to be an atheist” (http://www.worldreligionnews.com/issues/the-worst-places-to-be-an-atheist-are-malaysia-iraq-saudi-arabia).