The Humanist Society: Serving non-religious folk here more actively

Humanist Society head Tan Tatt Si spraying holy water on one-year-old Julian, who is carried by his mother Andrea Savage, in a godparent naming ceremony last month. Ms Savage and her husband Cameron Richards (extreme right in blue), an Australian cou
Humanist Society head Tan Tatt Si spraying holy water on one-year-old Julian, who is carried by his mother Andrea Savage, in a godparent naming ceremony last month. Ms Savage and her husband Cameron Richards (extreme right in blue), an Australian couple based here, had asked Mr Tan to conduct the ceremony. Ms Savage was brought up Catholic while her husband is an atheist.PHOTO: TAN SER JAY - THELOOK.SG

Humanist Society has evolved since starting out in 2010 and aims to meet rising demand for officiants, celebrants

Over the past two months, Mr Tan Tatt Si, head of Singapore's Humanist Society, has played the role of celebrant and officiant, respectively, at a wedding and a godparent naming ceremony of two non-religious couples.

At the wedding last Tuesday, Mr Tan held a candle-lighting ceremony and a "warming of rings" ritual for the newlyweds. In the rings ritual, the couple's wedding bands were passed around for guests to "bless" with congratulatory words and positive declarations.

While some of the rituals might take inspiration from the religious and cultural backgrounds of the people involved, most of the events are designed to be "human- centric celebrations", said Mr Tan.

The Humanist Society, officially set up in 2010 to represent Singapore's non-religious population, has evolved to serve this community more actively, its treasurer Zheng Huifen, 34, told The Straits Times.

This comes as the proportion of people here with no religion has grown - from 17 per cent of the resident population in 2010 to 18.5 per cent last year, based on the Department of Statistics' General Household Survey 2015.

This is a sizeable jump from 36 years ago, when the proportion stood at 13 per cent. People with no religion comprise freethinkers, atheists, humanists, sceptics and agnostics, as well as others who do not belong to any organised religious groups. Based on the trends in other developed countries, the number is set to grow even further.

  • The Humanist Society's 'lifestance'

    The Humanist Society was gazetted as a society in 2010.

    The group adheres to guidelines from the International Humanist and Ethical Union, a European body of humanist societies around the world, which it is also part of.

    In 2014, it joined a second international organisation, the Atheist Alliance International.

    The society describes humanism as a "lifestance" aimed at "the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living". It says it offers an ethical and rational approach to addressing "the challenges of our times", and rejects a theistic or supernatural explanation of reality.

    Another fundamental idea is that human beings have the agency and the right and responsibility to give meaning and to shape their own lives - without turning to the supernatural.

    Melody Zaccheus

Among the society's short-term goals is to cater to the rising demand for officiants and celebrants, by roping in about a dozen of its members to eventually get licensed as marriage solemnisers and to be on call to conduct funerals for the non-religious.

It also plans to expand its scope and reach by establishing co-curricular activity groups in tertiary institutions to offer an alternative to the established religious groups on campus, and organising "critical thinking" and science workshops for children, as requested by its members. A long-term goal is to set up its own resource centre, said Ms Zheng.

The society has come some way since its days as a group that existed mostly online, with its founding members banding together eight years ago through social networking site www.meetup.com.

Registered as a society in 2010, it started with 20 core members. Today, it has 60 official members and its Facebook page has more than 4,400 likes, 40 per cent of which are by users aged between 18 and 35. Its events, which include talks and film screenings, are held once to thrice a month. Each event is attended by about 20 to 30 people.

The Humanist Society is the only such group here registered as a society. Other groups such as the Singapore Philosophy Group and Singapore Skeptics were formed for people interested in alternative ways of pondering about the mysteries of life.

Ms Zheng said the Humanist Society provides an official structure to represent non-religious people, which makes it easier for government bodies and researchers to approach and consult them to "hear the views of a significant portion of the population". For instance, it has been involved in discussions organised by the Inter-Religious Organisation and the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles.

Ms Zheng said the purpose of speaking up is to provide a counterbalance to other religions, which appear to have become increasingly vocal in the common space.

Earlier this year, the society weighed in on protests made by some religious leaders against American singer Madonna performing at the Singapore Sports Hub. Some of the leaders described her music and props as blasphemous and disrespectful to the Catholic and Christian faiths and cited the concert as an example of how the secular world promotes immoral values.

The Humanist Society's executive committee, which took issue with the linkage of the promotion of immoral values to the secular world, said on its website that it strongly disagreed with how the secular sector was portrayed. It said no single group can or should claim to have monopoly over what constitutes morality and immorality.

Experts said the society's growth comes as no surprise - it mirrors the growth of the non-religious population here, which is about the same size as the Christian community. Christians comprise 18.8 per cent of the resident population.

The non-religious group is also larger than the Muslim and Hindu communities, which stand at 14 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively.

Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute sociologist Terence Chong said: "It has become necessary to ensure notions of morality are not dominated by religious values but broadened to include secular ethics, moral philosophy and progressive values.

"The Humanist Society probably seeks to meet this need."

On the incorporation of rituals into secular ceremonies, he said it is unlikely that other faiths will be offended. "Rituals are part of ceremonies and people will invent or appropriate them. Rituals give meaning to events."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'Group serving non-religious folk here more actively'. Print Edition | Subscribe