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Regard atheists and religious people as equals

While one's outlook on religion may largely be an accident of birth, the lack of religious belief can be an educated choice, and as equally valid as the choice to be religious ("Atheists deserve a place in interfaith dialogue"; last Sunday).

"Atheist" is a label adopted by people who do not believe in deities. They usually come to this position after significant reflection and exploration of the various religious and life stances available.

It is unfortunate that atheists are not correctly portrayed in public discourse, or that certain segments of society refuse to accept that atheism exists here. Mentions of non-religious Singaporeans in media reports are often accompanied by the speculation that they may also hold spiritual beliefs or participate in rituals and worship. This is not true for atheists.

Attempts at discounting or diluting the experience of atheists may arise from the thinking that it is impossible to have no religious beliefs at all.

Indeed, atheists and other non-religious people are fodder for proselytisers, and are even called "pre-believers", implying that they do not believe because of ignorance, and will convert with enough knowledge about a particular deity.

All this is not helpful for societal harmony or interfaith discourse.

Interfaith exchanges will be constructive only if society has an honest and accurate view of people who do not subscribe to any religious or spiritual belief.

Atheists should be regarded as equals, and not as outsiders in society or potential converts.

They can contribute to interfaith discourse by giving their views of morality and ethics, which have been developed by reasoning, and without reference to religious leaders and texts.

Perhaps to better reflect the variety of world views, including non-belief, "interfaith" can be rebranded as "interpath" instead.

Such dialogues will help foster societal harmony in Singapore.

Chen Liyan (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 10, 2016, with the headline 'Regard atheists and religious people as equals'. Print Edition | Subscribe