A Secular Age:

Discerning the religious spirit of secular states in Asia

posted by Richard Madsen

<br />In his monumental book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor distinguishes three meanings of secularism, as it refers to the “North Atlantic societies” of Western Europe and North America.  The first meaning is political.  In this sense, secularism refers to political arrangements that make the state neutral with regard to religious belief.  The legitimacy of the government is not dependent on religious belief and the government does not privilege any particular religious community (or any community of non-believers).  The second meaning of secularism can be termed sociological.  It refers to a widespread decline of religious belief and practice among ordinary people.  The third meaning is cultural.  It refers to a change in the conditions of belief, “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”   In the North Atlantic world, all governments are (for all practical purposes) secular in the first sense, Western Europe, but not the United States, is secular in the second sense, and all societies are secular in the third sense.  Taylor tells the story of how the three modes of secularism have developed throughout the course of Western history and of how they have mutually influenced one another.  He is especially concerned with the third mode, the development of secular conditions of belief.

Can this analytic framework be applied outside of the North Atlantic world, particularly to Asian societies?  Taylor himself would not claim to have created a framework for a universal theory of comparative religion.  But this framework, grounded in a particular cultural and historical experience, may nonetheless be useful for cross cultural comparisons.  The conditions for its comparative use, however, would be as follows.  First, we acknowledge its limitations from the outset.  Second, we apply it as a first draft approximation to understanding the historical transformations of religion in another culture to see if there is at least a rough fit with these processes. Third, we are careful to see how it doesn’t fit and then use this discrepancy as a stimulus to expand our horizons. This can set into motion not an objectifying, essentializing gaze upon cultural difference, but a fruitful dialogue across cultures.

This is the approach I will try to take in this post, as I explore the fit between Taylor’s framework and contemporary developments in East and Southeast Asian societies, concentrating mainly on the political and religious transformations taking place in these societies in the aftermath of the Cold War.

In form, all modern East and Southeast Asian governments are secular in the first sense of the term defined by Taylor.  They are based on constitutions that do not ground the state’s legitimacy on beliefs in realities that transcend this world and do not privilege any particular kind of religious belief.  They relegate religious belief to the private sphere. Even the constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees freedom of religious belief as long as it is kept private—so private that it is not expressed in any venue that is not approved and regulated by the state.  East and Southeast Asian governments arrived at their present-day secular constitutions through various, often tortuous, paths throughout the course of the 20th century, but, in formal terms at least, they conform to North Atlantic models of state neutrality with respect to religion.  This is an example the sociologist John Meyer and his collaborators would call global “institutional isomorphism,” a tendency of political, economic, and cultural institutions around the world to assume a uniform style of formal organization (based on Western templates).

But the secular form of Asian political institutions often masks a religious spirit.  Some examples:  Japan has a secular constitution, but many of its government leaders have felt compelled to pray for the spirits of the war dead at the Yasakuni shrine.  The pressure to visit the shrine comes from nationalistic constituencies within Japan, but it is indeed a pressure to worship at a Shinto shrine, presided over by a priest, which purports not just to memorialize the names of the dead but actually to contain their spirits.  (Japan’s Asian neighbors are more upset about this than Americans. Could this be because Asians take more seriously the living presence of spirits of the dead?)  Through its “Vigilant Center” at the Ministry of Culture, the government of Thailand is supposed to protect the nation’s culture and values by, among other things, keeping people from using images of the Buddha for profane purposes. The Indonesian government is based on a national ideology of “Pancansila,” which proclaims a national unity based upon mutual tolerance among believers in an “Almighty Divine.” And even the government in China, which is supposedly led by the atheist Communist Party, takes it upon itself to carry out religious functions.  It has claimed the right to determine who is the true re-incarnation of the Panchen Lama (and will undoubtedly do the same for the next re-incarnation of the Dalai Lama).  It claims to be able to determine the difference between true religion and “evil cults,” and tries to root out even private belief in “evil cults” like Falungong.  Moreover, the Chinese government invests enormous amounts of money in spectacular public rituals, like the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, which are redolent with symbols of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.

Often, the secular political form is what outsiders see, while the spirit is what insiders apprehend. In the 1950s and 1960s, Western scholars took the formal structure of Asian states as evidence of “modernization,” a universal process of (among other things) secularization that was transforming the whole world.  Even communist China was seen as an example of modernization, although one that had perversely gone astray.  Inside all of this putative political modernization, however, other meanings were being constructed. Emerging and consolidating states were being seen as necessary mediators between citizens and cosmic forces that transcended the visible world.  States contained sacred power—power that could be benevolent but could also turn demonically ferocious, as did the cult of Mao Zedong during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Political secularization, in Taylor’s sense, therefore is a reasonably accurate way to describe the formal structure of most East and Southeast Asian states.  But it doesn’t adequately describe the interior spirit of these states, which must be comprehended through a closer examination of how these states have developed within modern history.  Taylor’s account of political secularization does, however, help us pose the questions of how the external forms and interior spirit of modern Asian states have interacted with one another and what have been the practical consequences of this interaction. It would be beyond the scope of this post to give a full account of the development of Asian states.  But as we consider the development of the social and cultural life within some Asian societies, we can get some sense of how these societies and cultures have been influenced by the interplay between secular form and religious substance within their states. In my next two posts, I will explore the extent to which Asian states and societies have followed Taylor’s path to social and cultural secularization.

[Editor's note: This post draws from a draft chapter for the SSRC's forthcoming publication, Rethinking Secularism, co-edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, Craig Calhoun, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen.]

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One Response to “Discerning the religious spirit of secular states in Asia”

  1. avatar Saskia Schaefer says:

    I find the question of the applicability of Taylor’s framework to other regional contexts extremely interesting and find many of the points made in these two articles on Asia crucial. However, I would like to comment on the following statement—

    In form, all modern East and Southeast Asian governments are secular in the first sense of the term defined by Taylor. They are based on constitutions that do not ground the state’s legitimacy on beliefs in realities that transcend this world and do not privilege any particular kind of religious belief. They relegate religious belief to the private sphere.

    —and point out the cases of Malaysia and Indonesia with regard to the secular character of these states; as defined by Taylor, ‘secular’ in the first sense of the term, state neutrality.

    Calling modern Southeast Asian government secular in that sense may be an accurate interpretation of constitutions in Southeast Asia at the time of their formulation (after formal decolonisation)—and even this is disputable; it is certainly not true for today’s situation. This general characterisation ignores the tendencies to formalise religious influence, as can be observed in Malaysia and Indonesia, the latter being the largest country in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, there’s a widely noticed “Sharia-isation” of the legal (and banking) system on the regional level, even beyond the exception of the province of Aceh. While one can exaggerate the centrality of such “Sharia-sation,” these tendencies should not be ignored. Furthermore, Indonesia’s constitution provides that “the State is based upon the belief in the One, Supreme God” (Art. 29(1)), clearly favouring a) the belief in one God over other beliefs, and b) belief over non-belief.

    In neighbouring Brunei and Malaysia, the state bureaucracy favours Islam much more clearly. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir already declared in 2001 that Malaysia is an “Islamic state” and in doing so referred to the Malaysian Constitution that includes the special role of Islam as “the religion of the Federation” (Art. 3(1)). He declared this in order to meet demands by the Islamist opposition, one of the major challengers of the politically dominant party coalition. The status of Sharia court system was raised as early as 1988 and many voices see the two legal systems, Sharia and Civil Law, as parallel. There are no other religions recognised as the source of any legal system supported by the state. The special position of Islam as the official religion of Malaysia was confirmed by the then Vice and current Prime Minister Najib during the debates surrounding the verdict on the high profile case of Lina Joy, a Muslim-born convert to Christianity, in 2007. While conversion to Islam is encouraged through da’wah infrastructure, conversion from Islam to other religions is extremely difficult and rare.

    These examples from the legal settings show that the commitment to a special positioning of Islam is not merely rhetoric, even though this rhetoric itself should not be underestimated.

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