Charles Taylor’s framework for understanding the advent of a “secular age” in the North Atlantic world offers a useful first draft for understanding the place of religion in Asian modernity. As I have shown in my previous two posts, modern Asian countries have secular states, but, despite efforts of some states to destroy all religion, they still have religious societies. In this post, I will discuss how new cultural conditions of belief give religion a different valence than it had in pre-modern times.
Taylor’s framework, however, is only a first draft. While presenting a secular face to the West, many Asian states have what could only be described as religious pretentions. This is true of the Chinese state under Mao, and to a lesser degree even under Mao’s successors. Indonesia under Suharto was the guardian of a sacred canopy that was supposed to encompass Indonesia’s major religions. Taiwan’s state has taken a secular turn with democratization, but it still relies on religion to provide public stability and generate international recognition.
Although many people in these and most other Asian societies continue to practice religion, it is a different kind of religion than in most Western societies—more a matter of ritual and myth than belief, and deeply embedded in the social, economic, and political life of local communities. Religion has not undergone the transition from public practice to private belief that Taylor discerns in the West.
Finally, Asian religions are practiced under new cultural conditions of belief, even in an age of social mobility and global communication. The result is somewhat different than Taylor describes in the North Atlantic world.
Although religion in most Asian societies has been more a matter of communal practice than of individual belief, the meanings of such communal practice have been changing. This is the result of social mobility, social differentiation, and the expansion of cognitive horizons. Social mobility happens mainly when people move from countryside to city, from agricultural to industrial labor or to commerce. Social differentiation refers to the separation of work (which is increasingly dependent on a globalized economy) and education from family and kinship. The expansion of cognitive horizons is the result of the exposure to diverse people and ideas through exposure to modern media and to life in the metropolis. Most Asian societies have experienced all three of these processes, but the processes have unfolded in different ways along different paths. The result is that these processes now intersect to form different contexts, which shape the specific transformations of religion in different societies.
When members of rural communities travel to the city, either within their own country or abroad (as with Indonesian or Filipino guest workers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea), often as low paid migrant workers, they do not leave behind the rituals that sustained their community life back home. Often migrants travel through chains of relationships—extended family ties, regional associations connected with their local communities—and, once in the city, set up little shrines to the deities of their home. Often, though, the pressures of industrial work make it difficult for them to reconstitute the full range of community liturgical life in the city. But they remit money back to the countryside partly to support their home community shrines and make pilgrimages home for important festivals. While at work in a city or town they encounter many people with different gods, different rituals—including of course highly educated cosmopolitans. Moreover, they have to conform to rhythms of work that do not fit their community’s customary patterns, and they try to educate themselves and especially their children in “scientific” education that contradicts folk practices but provides some hope for upward mobility.
Becoming all things to all people, they are skeptical with the skeptics, politely tolerant with those who worship strange gods, all the while never rejecting the ritual practices of their home communities. As they do so the result must be a kind of hybrid consciousness. In Chinese culture, at least, there has been a long tradition in favor of such consciousness. In different aspects of their lives, people could adhere to Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist teachings without worrying much about their logical inconsistencies. Such are the flexibilities of a non-monotheistic culture, rather than a culture that assumes that there is a single jealous God who demands that all things conform consistently to His will.
However, another result of the possibility to choose one’s own faith from among various options can be increasing demands for purified religion. If one is going to choose one’s own faith rather than simply adapt to the various practices that have been handed down through one’s corporate group, one may want a system of practices and beliefs that seem consistent. This may be one reason for the attraction of Christianity (especially evangelical Protestant Christianity) among rising middle classes in South Korea and to some degree in urban China. It may also be the reason for the embrace of reformed versions of Buddhism and Daoism in Taiwan, and of movements toward stricter forms of Islam in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Western China. The attempt to “modernize” religious practices by rationalizing and universalizing them may help to create new forms of religious fervor—and in turn inspire missionary tendencies. Maintaining one’s religious conviction cannot depend on hiding within an enclosed community. It requires getting other people to follow it as well. The stage is set for development of large scale religious movements that can then clash with one another in new ways.
Will this new cultural churning lead to syncretistic, hybrid practices that peacefully knit together various strands of traditional practice? Or will it lead to sectarian struggles among those devoted to purified faiths? Answers to such questions are highly context-dependent. The restructuring of cultural boundaries between the religious and the secular will be influenced by a confluence of factors, such as the rate and pace of social mobility, the extent of and the pace of social differentiation, and the suddenness of expansion of cultural horizons—as well as the cultural resources provided by various traditions for reconciling diversity.
In an age of social mobility and global communication, Asian religions are practiced under new cultural conditions of belief, and the result is somewhat different than Taylor describes in the North Atlantic world. There, modern people are presented with a stark choice between understanding existence through an “immanent frame” or a “transcendent frame.” As I have noted, in many Asian societies, including China, the immanent and transcendent are much more mixed up in various hybrid combinations. In accord with widespread traditions of syncretism, many people believe and practice many things at once. But modern conditions of belief also impel some believers to purified forms of religious practice. This is something like what happened in Europe during the Reformation, as Taylor describes it. When it happens in the unsteady world of Asia today, this is not necessarily a good thing—at least for those who love peace, predictability, and order.
A purification of practice usually involves an attempt to recover the axial age roots of local traditions. (The term “axial age” was coined by Karl Jaspers to refer to the period in the first millennium B.C.E. when visions of a universally transcendent reality were created in Israel, Greece, India, and China.) Buddhists, Daoists, Muslims, and Christians seek purified versions of their practice. This means rejecting the accretions of tradition and of all those practices that embed religion in local communities with particularistic loyalties. Rituals are deemed to be efficacious not ex opere operato, but on the strength of the interior conviction that they express. Religious practice gets transformed into religious faith—a personal belief in world transcending ideals that demand universal loyalties.
These purified faiths grow up parallel with older, community embedded practices, but they often claim continuity with them. Often they gain inspiration and energy through connection with global religious movements. At least when they are appropriated by ordinary people, these forms are never purely universalistic. Under conditions of belief where one can never take one’s religious practices for granted, religious believers yearn for signs that their beliefs are on the right track. One important sign is that their kind of faith is expanding. There is thus a strong missionary impulse in all of these new universalizing movements.
Fearing that such faiths could inspire independent social movements, most Asian governments used some combination of suppression or co-optation to prevent such universalizing faiths from flourishing and to keep them firmly within bounds. The collapse of such political structures after the Cold War has given a new impetus to such globalizing faiths. They were attractive at least partly because they were once forbidden fruit. With the crumbling of political barriers that once confined universalizing, missionizing religions in place, there is now a global scramble for souls.
Depending on the particular contexts in which they develop, new expansionist religious movements can lead to serious social and political conflict or can provide resources for reconciliation and healing. In China, the scramble for souls leads to relatively more conflict. In general, the movements direct their adherents to otherworldly concerns rather than to this-worldly political activity. But some of their beliefs give the government cause for concern—especially eschatological beliefs. The Falungong believes that a great millennial transformation is coming in which the good will be saved and the evil punished. Many Chinese Pentecostal Christians believe in Premillennialism, which holds that the Last Times are coming soon and that those who have accepted Jesus will be raptured up to heaven, while the world undergoes great tribulations which will end with the triumphant Second Coming of Christ. The government also worries about the public health implications of practices like faith healing. Thus it steps ups efforts of surveillance and sometimes suppression. But eschatological religious movements organized through ramifying networks cannot easily be suppressed. If the government punishes particular leaders, the act only inspires members who revere martyrdom. If the government cuts off a part of the network, other shoots can quickly grow up elsewhere. The networks cannot easily be co-opted. Members who expect otherworldly salvation do not need anything that the government has to give them. Despite government attempts to stop such beliefs and practices, the networks that foster them are expanding very rapidly.
In Taiwan, though, socially engaged Buddhist movements seem to have made a positive contribution toward healing the tensions of a democratizing society. Their ideologies stress generous acceptance of all people and they motivate their members to build a better world through sustained, gradual effort. By dampening the tensions that have come from Taiwan’s many conflict-producing forms of identity politics, the Buddhist movements have helped shore up the shaky foundations of Taiwan’s democracy. In this context, the universalization of religious visions has led to confluences of care rather than conflict.
In Indonesia, on the other hand, the record is mixed. In places like Aceh, newly energized Islamist movements have clashed with newly energized Christian missionizing movements. (Such clashes of course often are intertwined with clashes over the distribution of natural resources—in Aceh’s case, of petroleum.) Fortunately, these clashes have subsided in recent years with the help of astute efforts at political compromise and reconciliation. In the long run, though, sustainable reconciliation may involve a religious dimension. This is the promise—and the challenge—of groups like Dian Interfidei which seek through ecumenical dialogue and creative common ritual to create “cross-religious persons.”
Internationally, the new scramble for souls can lead to intensified conflict, especially since the universalistic, world transcending impulses often get submerged quickly into worldly nationalisms, enlarged, ambitious communities created by expanded imaginations. The newly universalizing impulses do not have to lead to conflict, however. As we have seen, much depends on the content of the traditions out of which they arise and the specific context in which they evolve.
[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.]