A Secular Age:

Embedded religion in Asia

posted by Richard Madsen

<br />In my previous post, I suggested that under certain specific conditions a framework grounded in a particular cultural and historical context—such as the one presented by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age—might yield fruitful cross cultural comparisons. In this spirit, I analyzed the manner in which Asian societies might be understood as politically secular (or not) according to Taylor’s analytic framework, and will now turn to an analysis of the social secularization process in Asia.

The secularity of modern Asian states has by no means led to widespread social secularity, Taylor’s second secularity, a decline of religious belief and practice among ordinary people. The degree of religious practice varies from country to country, but almost everywhere temples, mosques, churches, and shrines are ubiquitous and full of people, especially during festival seasons. Even in China, where the government actively propagates an atheist ideology and has severely restricted open religious activities, it has been estimated that as much as ninety-five percent of the population engages from time to time in some form of religious practice.  Moreover, throughout Asia there have been impressive revivals and reformations of Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian religious beliefs and practices—Asia is religiously dynamic.

However, this dynamism is of a different kind than that found in the United States, and it cannot be explained in terms of the narrative Taylor uses in the North Atlantic world. Asian religious developments are often misread by both Western observers and Asian scholars trained in the Western social sciences. When Western scholars have looked for religion in Asian societies, they have often looked for it in the form of private faith.  But in most Asian societies, much of religion is neither private nor faith.

It is often not faith, in the sense of a personal belief in doctrines.  In China, for example, there have been literally millions of temples built or rebuilt in the countryside over the past three decades.  Most people doing this rebuilding would be hard pressed to give a consistent and coherent account of the Daoist or Buddhist philosophies that one might think were behind this revival.  Even the rural Chinese Catholics I studied could only give a vague account of the creed to which they were supposed to assent.  Most of the people building temples and churches seem driven by the desire to create a place where they can carry out rituals that would give some order to their lives and their community life.  It can be meaningful to carry out such rituals even if one does not believe in the theology that supposedly underlies them.  For example, in the Chinese Catholic villages I studied—which typically consisted entirely of Catholics who had carried on their identity through many generations—there are many “lukewarm” Catholics who don’t regularly pray, are skeptical about doctrines, and don’t follow many of the moral teachings of the Church.  Yet they still consider themselves Catholics and would still want to be buried with Catholic funeral rituals because that is the way to connect, in life and death, with their natal communities.

Collective ritual, in this and many Asian contexts, comes before personal faith, as do collective myths—stories about gods or spirits or blessed events such as apparitions, healings, or miraculous occurrences. Rituals and myths are public rather than private.  Even when they have to be carried out surreptitiously, out of sight of suspicious government regulators or condescending urban-based mass media, they are, in the local context, public.  Under such circumstances they create alternative public spheres that sometimes complement, but at other times contradict, the public projects of their governing states.

This is a form of religious practice akin to what Charles Taylor calls “embedded religion.” The world of embedded religion is “enchanted,” filled with good and bad spirits.  Religious practices are used to call upon the good and control the bad, as much for the sake of the material health and prosperity as for any otherworldly salvation.  One’s community is under the protection of local spirits—patron saints in the European Middle Ages and ancestors and various local protector spirits in many parts of Asia—and although these local spirits may be imagined to be under the control of a supreme being, much of actual popular religious practice is aimed at getting one’s own local spirits to take care of one’s family and friends in the here and now.

These forms of localized, socially embedded religious practices have by no means entirely disappeared in the North Atlantic world.  But as Taylor shows, they have largely been eclipsed.  A key event in this process was the Reformation, which condemned much of Catholic sacramental ritual as “magic,” to be replaced by personal devotion driven by interior faith.  In the United States the prevalent forms of religion are individualistic expressions of a desire for personal authenticity carried out through voluntary association with other like-minded individuals.

Until relatively recently, scholars in the North Atlantic world have usually assumed that modernization entails the eclipse of localized, socially embedded religion. Just as the American government during the Cold War convinced itself and its publics that governments allied with the USA, even dictatorships, were part of the “Free World,” so did American scholars imagine that societies open to influence from the West were becoming “free societies,” composed of instrumentally rational individuals who had sloughed off communal traditions, especially religious traditions. (If there was any future for religion in such societies, it was assumed that it would be in the form of Christianity, brought by Western missionaries, who were welcomed by most governments in the Free World.) The real processes of social development in Asia, however, usually took a different path.

Through colonialism or through anti-colonial and revolutionary movements that sought national autonomy, wealth, and power by building strong, bureaucratically organized governments modeled on those from the West, national political leaders imposed centralized states upon societies that had not undergone the North Atlantic world’s path to modernity.  In particular, these societies had not radically loosened the ties that bound local corporate communities together—especially the local rituals and myths that generated the enchanted identity of such communities.

Thus, the governments that emerged or consolidated in Asia during the Cold War were imposed on top of societies that were still largely assemblages of corporate groups rather than the voluntary associations of a (Western style) civil society. Popular religion was mostly an expression of the identities of corporate groups—extended families and local village communities mostly, but also in some cases larger-scale ethnic identities, as with the Muslims in the western regions of China.  Religious ritual and myth expressed and reinforced particularistic loyalties within ascriptive communities.  The construction of local temples, churches, and mosques was connected to a wide range of economic, social, and political activity. Places of worship were also venues for commerce and public entertainment, institutions for ensuring trust, mediating disputes, and providing welfare to those in need.  They were also nexuses in regional networks of communities with similar religious practices.  Such communities and their networks constituted a kind of public sphere—a framework of connections within which discussions about local affairs could take place, a system of statuses that marked out paths of social mobility and recognition, a site for common celebrations and shared experiences.  These diverse bubbles of public-ness introduced potential weaknesses into the sturdy foundations upon which authoritarian governments wanted to build their version of public order.

To create national unity, maintain social control, and mobilize large and diverse populations, modernizing governments needed (or thought they needed) to get control over religious practices that fostered particularism, regionalism, and ethnic distinction.  There were two main strategies. One was to suppress religious practice—destroy temples, ban public religious rituals, eliminate religious leaders (by forcing them to change their professions, by imprisoning them, and sometimes by executing them)—and to replace this with a quasi-religious cult of the state and its leader.  This was the strategy of the People’s Republic of China and North Korea.  An alternative strategy was to co-opt religious leaders and to segregate religious communities, the strategy followed by Indonesia under Suharto. There, in the name of “Pancasila,” the regime restricted proselytization among the five main religious groups (Muslims, Catholics, Reform Protestants, Hindus, and Buddhists), and co-opted the leaders of each group by making them members of state-sponsored commissions.  Some countries adopted a mix of the suppressive and co-optative strategies, which was the case in Taiwan under the Kuomindang.

During the Cold War these various strategies seemed to work, at least on a superficial level. Throughout East and Southeast Asia local religions seemed to be tamed and rendered irrelevant to the big issues of the day. In some cases, as in China, religious practices disappeared from sight. In societies that relied less on sheer repression and more on co-optation, religion contributed some vibrant local color, while remaining comfortably within the grip of the state and irrelevant to the politically directed processes that supposedly constituted national modernization. As such they were mostly invisible to Western social scientists.  Anthropologists studied them, but mostly in an attempt to document them before (as it was presumed) they inevitably faded away, or to develop comprehensive theories about the roots of pre-modern religious experience.  Even anthropologists did not generally assume that such religious activities were especially relevant to current political or economic developments. Meanwhile, political scientists, economists, and even sociologists almost completely ignored them.

However, none of these strategies used by Asian states to tame local religions actually destroyed them. The suppression strategies drove the practices underground while in many cases maintaining the communal ties with which these religious practices had been intertwined.  The co-optation strategies helped to reproduce and maintain communal religious identities.

The recent emergence of religion as a visible force in Asian social and political life is at least partially connected with the end of the Cold War, after which Asian states in the “Free World” that had counted on strong support from the USA have found support diminished and at least partially contingent on adoption of democratic reforms.  Such states, including South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia, have been losing the capacity to tame local religions through suppression or co-optation.  Meanwhile, the communist regimes of China and Vietnam have had to loosen some of their social controls to permit economic reforms and integration into global markets.  Throughout the Asian region, a plethora of religious practices have blossomed forth.

It is unclear whether the loss of capacity to tame local religions through suppression or co-optation has actually led to a quantitative increase in religious practice, but the weakening of state capacities to control religion has at least made local Asian religious practices more visible, more energetic, and potentially more politically consequential.  All of a sudden the increased visibility of religion breaks down the imaginary communities of modernizing societies that Western intellectuals had created for themselves. Asian religious transformations now command the attention of all sorts of social scientists.

Thus, like America, Asia is “awash in a sea of faith.”  But the Asian sea of faith is different from the American one. Asian religious practices are less individualistic and more communal, socially embedded, and locally particularistic.  This makes it more difficult to imagine how Asian religions could be accommodated into the standard liberal model for political incorporation (often based on the American experience), which officially considers religious belief a personal preference of individual citizens, who will then form all sorts of different but overlapping private religious associations in an open religious marketplace and expect that these private associations will share enough in common that they will tolerate one another but have enough differences that they will not coalesce into any unified opposition to the state.  We are becoming more aware of the limitations of this liberal model, even in established Western liberal societies like the United States.  How much more difficult might it be for this liberal model to accommodate the local, particularistic, communal religions that are becoming newly visible in Asia?

Probably too difficult. It is not impossible in most parts of Asia to develop moderate, democratic, stable but adaptable polities, but we would have to expect that the paths to such an outcome would be different from the North Atlantic path.  The direction of these paths may depend on the precise ways in which local religious cultures are affected by secularism in the third sense defined by Charles Taylor: of a move to a society in which religious belief and practice are no longer unchallenged but seen as one option among many, and not necessarily the easiest to embrace.  I will discuss this third form of secularism in my next post.

[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 “Embedded religion in Asia”

  1. avatar Evan says:

    The part of Taylor that interests me is his idea of the church setting out to reform the culture of the masses in Europe. What particularly interests me is his idea that this is uniquely European.

    I would like to know if this is true or if there are reform movements like this in other countries.

    If this is distinctly European it seems very interesting. And if not it would be interesting to compare to other similar endeavours.

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