Malaysiakini NEWS

Are Malaysia's atheists an endangered species or quietly burgeoning?

Lim Teck Ghee  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT 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% 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 2.1% 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 underestimate is that the drafters of the Rukunegara thought it necessary to place the principle, ‘Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan’ or ‘Belief in God’ as the foremost tenet to guide and unite Malaysians.

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...

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