A New Challenge to the Christian Faith in Thailand?

Written by Karl Dahlfred.

In the early 20th century, not a few missionaries believed that Buddhism in Thailand was a religion in decline that would soon crumble under the superiority of Christianity and American culture.[1]  However, as the century wore on, it became evident that those predictions were entirely premature. Buddhism has shown incredible resilience in the face of the challenges of the modern world. Contrary to secularization theory which posits that as a society becomes more educated and developed, it also becomes more secular (as evidenced in Europe), religious beliefs and modern, scientific learning have long dwelt side by side in Thai society, with little evidence of the so-called “science vs. religion” divide that has wedged itself into the thinking of many Westerners. As recently as 1990, Thai researcher Suntaree Komin found no significant difference in religious attitudes among Thai people of varying educational levels.  Her research showed that “the highly educated sought out fortune-telling as often as the uneducated” and “even Western-educated Thai Ph.D. scientists refused to fathom the scientific and religious conflict, and would behaviorally never forget to wear their charms and amulets when traveling.”[2]

Because of the powerful and abiding endurance of Buddhism and various spirit beliefs in Thai society, missionaries have often seen these faiths as the primary worldviews to which the Christian faith in Thailand has had to relate. Missionaries have studied Buddhism to varying degrees to better grasp the worldview and values of Thai people with a view to better understanding how they might view the Gospel and to anticipate misunderstandings and objections to the Christian faith. On one level this is important to do, and I would recommend that all missionaries to Thailand familiarize themselves with Buddhism, both what is written in books and what people actually believe and do in daily life. Theory and practice often differ! 

Though it is unlikely that Buddhism will fade from the scene in Thailand anytime soon, the political protests in the streets of Bangkok and other Thai cities in recent months have highlighted a new challenge to the advance of the Gospel in Thailand.  It appears that a number of Thai people, especially the younger generation, are questioning the traditional institutions of their society, including religion, in a way unprecedented among their parents, grandparents, and former generations.

 

 

Secular humanism, and its accompanying materialistic view of life, is on the rise among some Thai, and it may be displacing the primacy of Buddhism as their essential outlook on life. The exact nature of this humanism is hard to say. Yet, without a doubt, it will not be a carbon copy of secular humanism in the West, and is unlikely to look like the strident “new atheism” that has shown such hostility to Christianity. When Thai people adopt a trend from the West, they do so on their terms, not in ways that slavish copy what is happening in other countries. But whatever Thai humanism turns out to be, it did not start with Thailand’s most recent street protests. As Thailand has industrialized and modernized, especially since the late 20th century, motorbikes, smartphones, processed food, and other conveniences and comforts of contemporary life have become commonplace in Thailand and gained an important place in the lives of the average Thai, just as they have in many places around the world. The internet and social media have also surely contributed to this trend as people around the world are increasingly aware of how other people live and what is happening in other parts of the globe. Perhaps digital connectivity and consumerism have succeeded in promoting the rise of secular humanism in Thailand whereas traditional forms of modern education have failed?

Whatever the primary drivers of these changes have been, those who want to see Thai people embrace Christ need to realize that some Thai whom they meet may no longer have Buddhism and/or various spirit beliefs as their primary worldview. Buddhism may still be part of their understanding of the world, but it is in the background. Rather, their outlook is primarily shaped by a belief in human self-determination and autonomy, and freedom to pursue “the good life” apart from the restraints of religion. As such, the questions and objections that they have in relation to the Gospel may revolve around the validity of the supernatural and the “right” to choose one’s own destiny rather than obligations to their family’s traditional religion or the fear of offending various spirits. 

How influential is secular humanism among Thai people today? It is difficult to know, but it is probably safe to say that it is more common among those under 30 years old and those who live in large urban areas like Bangkok. Older generations and those in rural areas are likely to retain more established attitudes towards religion and the supernatural, but for Gospel messengers who work with the young, the urbanized, and the highly educated, the breadth of outlooks they encounter may not be what they’ve been accustomed to in the past.

The nature and future of secular humanism in Thailand remains to be seen and I hesitate to make any predictions. Nevertheless, this mode of thinking, especially among the youth, is worth watching. Culture is always changing and where it has been is no sure indicator of where it will go.

 


[1] Maen Pongudom, "Apologetic and Missionary Proclamation : exemplified by American Presbyterian missionaries to Thailand (1828-1978), Early Church Apologists: Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and the Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a Thai Buddhist monk-apologist" (Ph.D thesis, University of Otago, 1979), 58-65; Robert E. Speer, The Unfinished Task of Foreign Missions (New York: Chicago: London: Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1926), 22-24.

[2] Suntaree Komin, “Culture and Work-Related Values in Thai Organizations,” International Journal of Psychology 25, no. 3-6 (1990): 692-93.

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