Recent research shows that the number of religiously unaffiliated is increasing in Thailand, more now than a decade ago. Many students oppose the compulsory teaching of religion in school. At the same time, conversions to Catholicism are growing, after a path of search and study.
Bangkok (AsiaNews/ÉdA) – For nearly 10 years, more and more Thais have described themselves as “religiously unaffiliated”, this according to the Pew Research Center. Many Thai students also oppose compulsory religious education in school. Paradoxically, this may lead some to a more freely chosen personal quest for meaning. For example, Thanatos Sriyotha, a 20-year-old programmer, looked for meaning in his life. “For about ten years, I was an atheist.” Baptised last Ester Sunday, he explains that Christianity is “a religion of freedom” for him.
According to studies by the Pew Research Center (a Washington-based think tank), the number of Thais who are “religiously unaffiliated” is higher now than a decade ago. Recently, some students oppose compulsory religious instruction in the national education curriculum. They even call for religion courses to be optional, so that each can be free to choose according to their interest and learn about other spiritualities in the world. For some young people, this demand could open up a path towards a more freely chosen personal life.
Currently, many Catholic chaplaincies include both Catholic and non-Catholic members. “Non-Catholic students are very visible. They are as active and engaged as others,” said Chontawat Wano, a young Jesuit-in-training who heads the Catholic Student Network of Thailand, a Jesuit organisation that supports Catholic students in Thailand.
“Everything turned upside down from that meeting”
“I was on a quest,” said Chaturawit Saenchum, 17, who was baptised this year. Speaking about his his life before his conversion to Catholicism, the high school student said he was searching for meaning and a reason to exist, reading a lot and meeting members of various religions. “I learnt about several religions,” he added. “I talked to imams, and during my studies in Japan, I participated in religious debates between Buddhist monks.” But it was a talk with a Sister of St Paul de Chartres, at a Catholic college in Bangkok, that was a trigger for him.
Curious about Christian life, he approached the Sister and asked her: “How did you become a nun?” “Everything turned upside down from that meeting,” he said. She helped him make an informed choice. For Chaturawit, “she was like a guide, who confirmed that I was on the right path,” on the way towards conversion and the request for baptism.
Thanatos Sriyotha, a young programmer in his twenties, also looked for something to give his life some meaning. He explained that “For about ten years, I was an atheist.” For him, Christianity is “a religion of freedom”. At the age of 15, he became interested in it. But his choice to connect with the Church was made only on the day he was able to lead his own life. “As soon as I started making a living, I began to find time to read books about philosophy, religion and spirituality, and then I felt that the Catholic Church was calling me.”
A path that opens up horizons
The desire for God can sometimes remain hidden for years. This was the case of an older man, 40, who preferred not to give his name. He had already asked himself many questions starting at the age of 12. Born into a Buddhist family, it seemed essential to him to know Buddhism first before thinking about a possible conversion. “I lived like a true Buddhist. I became a monk. I also went to a retreat in a temple as soon as I had time.” Yet, he always felt that he could not fill a kind of “void” in him.
For Thanatos, the Christian faith turned things upside down. “I can better recognise human values. Before, I could not understand why some people were opposed to the death penalty, why we had to take care of the poor, and many other things like that.” Today, he understands all this “without the need for explanations or theories.” More importantly, his choice to become a Christian allows him to be “himself” and “forever free”.
For some Thai youth, the path to the Christian faith appears like a road that opens horizons and gives their lives as young adults a meaning they often unconsciously sought.