15 December 2023

Book review: Buddhism, Islam and Religious Pluralism in South and Southeast Asia

By Ian Shaw

Professor Emeritus, University of York.

Evans, J., Starr, K. J., Corichi, M. and Miner, W. 2023.
Online: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2023/09/12/buddhism-islam-and-religious-pluralism-in-south-and-southeast-asia/

I suspect that some readers of Foundations rely on one or other of the excellent publications from Operation World,[1] that give an information-based prayer guide to every nation. I remember the late Errol Hulse telling me that he took a country each day to guide his prayer. In a different way, this Pew Research Center report gives a picture of religion in three Buddhist-majority countries (Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand) and two Muslim-majority countries (Malaysia and Indonesia), as well as Singapore, the last being by careful estimates perhaps the most religiously diverse country in the world.[2] The Center is a Washington DC based nonpartisan ‘fact tank’ that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world, and this is the latest of a series of careful reports, including one several years ago that studied ‘being Christian in Western Europe’.[3]

In general, these are all, by Western expectations, very religious countries. Almost all people in each of the countries identify with one or other religion. Even in Singapore, this is the case for four out of five of the population.

The research strategy was strong, and in that regard is a model for Christians who often treat such questions as needing basic skills that most people possess. 13,122 interviews with adults were conducted face-to-face in Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. They were conducted via mobile phones in Malaysia and Singapore. Local interviewers administered the survey from June to September 2022, in eight languages.

There are a number of stand-out findings. In the five Buddhist or Muslim majority countries, religious adherents share a strong link in their minds between their religion and their country. To ‘deviate’ from the majority religion may therefore be seen as a form of betrayal of the nation. In the most recent constitution in Thailand, for example, the state is required to ‘have measures and mechanisms to prevent Buddhism from being undermined in any form.’ In a similar way, nearly all Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia say being Muslim is important to be truly Indonesian or Malaysian.

Those who want their society’s laws to be based on their religion, i.e. ‘religion-state integrationists’, are more likely than other Buddhists or Muslims in their countries to support religious leaders’ involvement in politics; less likely to want neighbours from minority religions; and slightly more likely to see threats to their religion from minority religious communities. This is strongly the case with regard to how Thai Buddhists regard the growth of Christianity in Thailand. With the exception of Singapore, with its growing Christian community, most respondents considered it unacceptable for someone to try to persuade others to join their religion.

The evidence about attitudes toward those who do not share one’s religion is not straightforward. In Malaysia, for example, over 60% claim to believe that having people of many different religions, ethnic groups and cultures makes their country a better place to live, yet about a quarter of people in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand believe that using violence against people because of their political beliefs or religion can at least sometimes be justified. It is Buddhists and Muslims who are most likely to see other religions such as Christianity as a threat to their faith.

Free speech and democracy are not always widely embraced in the region. Perhaps surprisingly, Indonesia was the only country with a clearcut majority of people supporting the view that democracy was to be preferred to having a leader with a ‘strong hand.’ Oddly to some eyes, it was Singaporeans, comfortable in their soft authoritarian, economically prosperous state, who were the least likely to agree that adults should be free to publicly criticise the government.

There was, as these results begin to show, diversity between countries. For example, Buddhist monks are not allowed to participate in politics in Thailand, whereas in Sri Lanka there is a long tradition of such action for monks. Of particular interest is the evidence that there were recurring elements of religious syncretism. We read that in Sri Lanka between 40% and 60% of professing Christians pray or give respect to the Buddha, Allah or Ganesh. Conversely almost half of Malaysian Hindus and three out of five Singaporean Hindus say they pray or offer respects to Jesus Christ, while ‘About one-quarter of Christians in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore – and fully two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s Christians – have a shrine at home.’ The report also is helpful in showing how there is considerable diversity of practice within religions between countries. Having attended a Christian funeral in Singapore I know that how this is practised is very different from a Christian funeral in the UK.

The question of how far religious allegiance is only formal does raise its head. This is partly because for a very large majority a religion is not only religion, but also “a family tradition one must follow, an ethnicity one is born into, a culture one is part of’. Roughly half of professing Christians in each country agreed that ‘many religions can be true.” Christians are numerically the strongest in Singapore – the least religious of the six countries surveyed. In some countries, substantial numbers express negative feelings about Christianity. In Indonesia, for example, a fifth of Muslim adults surveyed say Christianity is not peaceful. Alongside this, it was Indonesia where Christians were most likely (82%) to think it unacceptable to leave Christianity for another religion, suggesting perhaps the cost of being a Christian in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

The report is invaluable as a basis for understanding the context for the work of gospel churches and missions in these nations. The report does not make any distinction between Catholics and Protestants, and so we have to live with some generalities when we may wish to understand more. However, the report well repays careful reading and would, along with one or two other reports in the series, make an excellent basis for meetings of ministers’ fraternals, mission gatherings, seminary classes and theological study conferences.


[1]  http://operationworld.org/publications/

[2]  For a recent account of Singapore, where about one in five identify formally as Christian, my ‘The church in Singapore’ is in #307 of Reformation Today (2023).

[3]  https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2018/05/29/being-christian-in-western-europe/