Disclaimer: Lest anyone think I have a problem with Christianity or Christians, I have to provide a disclaimer right at the beginning for those knee-jerk reactive individuals that I remember about the Ren Ci affair. In fact, such shenanigans don’t just happen at  religious organisations (think NKF) but I should say that the general perception is that it should be less likely to happen in religious organisation (maybe the threat of a higher being overseeing from above?) The only reason this post starts with the CHC affair is because this news triggered my thoughts.

Two years and some after receiving a tip-off, the Commissioner of Charities (COC) and Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) have finally concluded investigations and taken action against some of the executive members of City Harvest Church, most notably (as extracted from the COC’s press release here):

Kong Hee (Member of the Charity’s Board and Executive Member);
Lam Leng Hung (Chairman of the Charity’s Board, Trustee, Agent and Executive Member);
Tan Ye Peng (Vice-Chairman of the Charity’s Board, Trustee, Employee, Agent and Executive Member);
Tan Shao Yuen Sharon (Employee and Executive Member);
Chew Eng Han (Agent and Executive Member);
Ho Yeow Sun (Agent and Executive Member);
Kelvin Teo Meng How (Agent, Employee and Executive Member); and
Tan Su Pheng Jacqueline (Employee and Executive Member)

Those were the ones suspended from duties as directed by the COC while CAD arrested five of them: Kong Hee, Tan Ye Peng, Lam Leng Hung, Chew Eng Han and Sharon Tan (link here).

If you read the COC’s press release, there are some details of the improper transactions that took place and I must say running a mega-church seems to a be a really profitable business. At least based on one datapoint:

The City Harvest Church is a registered charity since 1993. As at December
2009, the Charity had a congregation size of about 33,000 people.

Based on the Charity’s financial statements for the financial year ended 31
October 2009, the Charity’s income amounted to about $72 million whilst
expenses amounted to about $48 million. Its net assets are estimated at $103
million.

Net profit margins of 33.3% and average revenue of $2181.82 per customer per year (which is most probably recurring on a long-term basis), these are numbers any public-listed CEO would die to have. Ok, CHC isn’t exactly a business and I’m letting my investing side get carried away (anyone know what the tax rate is for charities? =P).

The point I wanted to reflect on is not so much of the failing of a particular religion or organisation but rather reflect on my own beliefs and thought processes. Growing up, I studied in Methodist Christian schools and my family (grandparents, parents) have been subscribing to the Chinese folk tale brand of Buddhism so I pretty much grew up knowing or at least had the good fortune to observe what religiosity is like.

I’ve seen too many people believe in a certain thing just because it seemed to be the safer thing to do (rather than not believe); or to only convert to a religion on one’s deathbed because of the promise of a good afterlife; or for extrinsic motivations such as fitting into a social group. I’ve seen too many people become religious for non-religious reasons and it all stems from human behaviour.

And that’s where my scientific brain kicked in. In science, all you need to dispute a theory is to find one counter-example . Therefore, when someone tries to sell me the notion that a particular religion will make a person good. I have to stop and think of one counter-example and very often, I don’t find it hard to come up with one. Because there are examples of good and bad people, regardless of their faith, naturally, I think that whether a person is good or bad is irrespective of one’s faith. Sure, you have stories of reformed gangsters and drug addicts who found religion and changed for the better but the flipside is that you also have people who have subscribed a certain faith from birth and they end up doing pretty crappy stuff.

What is my point in all this? Well, the problem with religions is that they require a certain amount of belief or faith. End results are not always apparent and open to interpretation. These interpretations are usually, also, dispensed by authority who after being seen in the limelight so often, can come across as a proxy to a higher being. Sometimes, these same authorities even delude themselves Very often when this happens, things start to go bad.

The pitiful part is that believers (and also, the critics) of the faith attach themselves to an institution and very often, forget that the faith and institution are two distinct but related concepts. And when authorities fall from grace, believers hang on to not just their faith itself but the institution as well.

If only they studied John Maynard Keynes who once said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

On a final note, funny enough, Kong Hee’s chinese name is pronounced ‘kang xi’. Looks like his legacy isn’t going to be nearly as illustrious as his namesake (I use the term namesake loosely here because their chinese characters are different but pronounced the same).

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