Secularism, Religious Change, and Social Conflict in Asia - Rethinking Secularism - Craig J. Calhoun

Rethinking Secularism - Craig J. Calhoun (2011)

Chapter 11. Secularism, Religious Change, and Social Conflict in Asia

Richard Madsen

In his monumental book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor distinguishes three meanings of secularism, at least as it refers to the “North Atlantic societies” of western Europe and North America. 1 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 political society is seen as that of believers (of all stripes) and non-believers alike.”2 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, to “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.”3 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, including the United States, 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 a framework grounded in a particular cultural and historical experience may nonetheless be useful for cross-cultural comparisons—if it is as profound and thoughtfully constructed as Taylor’s. 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 chapter, as I explore the fit between Taylor’s framework and contemporary developments in East and Southeast Asian societies. To keep the analysis focused, I will concentrate mainly on the political and religious transformations taking place in these societies in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Political Secularization

In form—at least that part of the form that is usually displayed toward international observers—most 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 but are, rather, geared toward providing economic development and political security for their citizens. They grant the basic rights of citizenship to believers and nonbelievers alike. 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 and often tortuous paths throughout the course of the twentieth century, but in formal terms, at least, they conform to North Atlantic models of secularity. This is an example of what 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).4

But the secular form of Asian political institutions often masks a religious spirit. Japan, for example, 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, in the face of strong criticism from China, South Korea, and many other Asian countries, not to mention the United States. 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. (In any case, the government does not seem very effective in doing this.) The Indonesian government is based on a national ideology of “Pancasila,” which proclaims a national unity based on mutual tolerance among believers in an “Almighty Divine.” And even the government in China, which is supposedly led by an atheist Communist Party, takes it upon itself to carry out religious functions. It has claimed the right to determine who is the true reincarnation of the Panchen Lama (and will undoubtedly do the same for the next reincarnation 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” such as Falun Gong. Moreover, the Chinese government invests enormous amounts of money in spectacular public rituals, such as 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, though one that had perversely gone astray. Inside all of this putative political modernization, however, other meanings were being constructed.5 Emerging and consolidating states were being seen not merely as providers of worldly goods but as necessary mediators between citizens and cosmic forces that transcended the visible world. States contained sacred power, which 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, the external surface, 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 the practical consequences of this interaction have been.

It would be beyond the scope of this chapter 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.

Social Secularization

The secularity of modern Asian states has by no means led to widespread social secularity, that is, to secularity in the second sense defined by Taylor, a decline of religious belief and practice among ordinary people. Taylor shows how and why many western European societies have become at least partially secular in this second sense, while the United States has remained highly religious, albeit with a predominantly individualistic form of religious practice.

In terms of the numbers of people regularly taking part in religious practices, most Asian societies are more like the United States than western Europe. 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 85 percent of the population engages from time to time in some form of religious practice.6 Moreover, throughout Asia, there have been impressive revivals and reformations of Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian religious belief and practice—a veritable religious renaissance. Asia is religiously dynamic.

However, this dynamism is of a different kind from that found in the United States, and it cannot be explained in terms of the narrative Taylor uses to account for patterns of popular religious commitment and social secularism in the North Atlantic world. Asian religious developments are often misread by Western observers (and also by Asian scholars trained in the paradigms of Western social science). 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 during the past three decades.7 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 Catholics whom I studied in China could only give a vague account of the creed to which they were supposed to assent. Most of the people building temples and, for that matter, churches, seem driven by desire to create a place where they can carry out rituals that would give shape to some order in their lives and in 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 that 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 them in life and death with their natal communities.8

Collective ritual, then, in this context—and in many Asian contexts—comes before personal faith. And for that matter, collective myths—stories about gods or spirits or blessed events such as apparitions, healings, or miraculous occurrences—also come before personal faith. 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 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,” which was the prevalent form in Europe during the Middle Ages. 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 of oneself and one’s community 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.9

These forms of localized, socially embedded religious practice have by no means entirely disappeared in the North Atlantic world. But, as Taylor shows, they have, through a long, complicated historical process extending over 500 years, 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. By now, in the United States, at least, 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 (and of the “magical” ritual practices oriented to this worldly success discussed by Peter van der Veer in this book). Just as the American government during the Cold War convinced itself and its publics that governments allied with the United States were part of the “free world,” even when these governments were dictatorships, 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 in by most governments in the free world.) The real processes of social development in Asia, however, usually took a different path.

Whether through colonialism or through anticolonial 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 themselves 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 publicness introduced potential weaknesses into the sturdy foundations on 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. This was 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-optive strategies. This was the case in Taiwan under the Kuomindang, which we will describe in more detail below.

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, to be 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 seeming to be 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 premodern religious experience. But 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 simply 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 the Cold War, Asian states in the “free world” that could once count on strong support from the United States have found the 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.

Nonetheless, 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 (all too often unreflectively based on the American experience) for political incorporation: officially consider religious belief as 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 such as 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. But does this mean that it will be impossible in most parts of Asia to develop moderate, democratic, stable, but adaptable polities? It is not impossible, 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 Taylor: a move to a society in which religious belief and practice are no longer unchallenged but are seen as one option among many, and not necessarily the easiest to embrace.

Cultural Secularization

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 so as 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, indeed, migrants travel through chains of relationships—extended family ties, regional associations connected with their local communities—and once in the city, they set up little shrines to the deities of their homes. 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 they make pilgrimages home for important festivals. While at work in 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 communities’ 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, however, 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 nonmonotheistic 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 them and making them more universal 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 and 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.

Let us consider how the cultural boundaries between the religious and the secular have been shaped by three different contexts, chosen because they represent a wide spectrum of political regimes: China, where the state tried to suppress and dominate religions totally; Indonesia, where the state tried to co-opt religions into a corporatist regime; and Taiwan, where the state tried a mixture of suppression and co-optation but finally moved toward a liberal tolerance of religions.


At the time the Communists established their government in China, the primary form of social affiliation among the peasantry (who made up at least 80 percent of the population) was the extended-family lineage, whose identity had long been maintained through rituals of ancestor worship, reinforced through popular versions of Buddhism and Daoism. This led to a society plagued by “localism,” which presented a major challenge to the project of creating a powerful modern state. Besides rituals and myths that solidified local solidarities, however, there were other forms of religious practice that linked people in large regional and even national networks. One example of this was the Unity Way (yi guan dao), which propagated a syncretistic mix of Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian practices and had branches throughout northern China.10 Another example was the Christian “Little Flock” established by the charismatic preacher Ni Tuosheng (“Watchman Nee”), which developed an extensive network of an indigenous Pentecostal-style Christianity throughout northern China.11 Such local solidarities and extensive regional networks presented obstacles to Communist ambitions to build a strong, mobilizing state.

The strategy of the Communist government of the PRC for overcoming these obstacles was to impose a thick net of organization, justified by its version of Marxist-Leninist ideology, upon the whole society. This entailed the harsh suppression of popular religious practice. Local temples were destroyed, “superstitious” customs forbidden, religious practitioners eliminated, and scientific socialism incessantly propagated. Independent regional religious networks such as the Unity Way were methodically attacked. Watchman Nee, of the Little Flock, was imprisoned for the rest of his life. (He died in prison in 1972.) Although freedom of religion was officially guaranteed in the Chinese constitution, the only forms of religious organization permitted were the headquarters of five officially recognized “world religions”: Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. The leadership of these approved religions were incorporated into official patriotic associations, which were tightly controlled by the Communist Party’s United Front Department. The leaders were not allowed to promote any grass-roots development of their religions.

In the 1960s, however, China’s leaders went beyond suppressing and controlling religion. They attempted to create a “new socialist person,” whose life would be given meaning and purpose through total dedication to the Revolution. This was to be accomplished through ritual and myth, culminating in the “worship” (chongbai) of Chairman Mao. The new socialist person was supposed to be detached from all particularistic loyalties to family or friends. Indeed, he or she was supposed to be willing to sacrifice his or her own life for the good of an imagined community of equal comrades. To learn how to do this, he or she was supposed to recite continually the “three constantly read articles”—short, mythic stories written by Mao Zedong that told the tale of a humble soldier who had sacrificed his life for revolutionary comrades who hailed from the four corners of China (“Serve the People”); of the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, who died while serving the Red Army and manifested the spirit of revolutionary internationalism (“In Memory of Norman Bethune”); and the “Foolish Old Man Who Moved the Mountain,” who was willing to begin a task that would only be completed many generations in the future.12

These stories were true myths. They were not supposed to be critically discussed or analyzed. They were memorized (even by illiterate people) and recited over and over. They were supplemented by other stories of revolutionary heroes who had died serving the People—for example, Lei Feng, a humble PLA soldier killed in an accident, who had written in his diary that he just wanted to be a “small screw in the great locomotive of the Revolution.” These messages were embedded in the Chinese People’s identity through great political rituals carried out in incessant political campaigns. Some of these were rituals of struggle, in which “class enemies” were brought before screaming mobs and literally expelled from among the People. The People (renmin) consisted of all of the people in China with the exception of “class enemies”—and according to the logic of the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, one’s class status was determined not only by one’s socioeconomic origins but also by one’s moral attitude. Even senior political leaders with impeccable Communist credentials (such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping) could be labeled “class enemies” because they had taken the “capitalist road.” In the end, the final arbiter of who did or did not belong to the People was Mao himself, the “Great Sun Shining in Our Hearts.”

Besides the rituals of struggle, there were also what I have called “ceremonies of innocence,” in which people told stories about how sweet things were in the present in contrast with the bitterness of the past, sang songs in praise of Mao, and even danced a “loyalty dance” to the chairman. In doing so, they were ritually affirming a common transcendent unity as Chinese People, in spite of all of the things that divided them in this world.13

Can we call this “religion”? Heir to the defiance of early Christians facing the cult of Roman emperors, the common Western understanding of religion recoils against this. But the cult of Chairman Mao makes no sense in terms of the positivist categories of standard, secular modernization theory. It begs for some interpretation and explanation in terms of the categories of the sociology of religion, categories that try to make sense of ritual, myth, and transcendence. So, from a comparative-sociological perspective, we can say that the cult of Chairman Mao with his project to create a “new socialist person” was at least as much a religion as was the cult of Emperor Nero. It might even be fruitful to see analogies between the rise and fall of the cult of Chairman Mao and the rise and fall of the cult of Roman emperors. Both were attempts to unify a realm that had been fragmented into a pantheon of many gods. Both attempted to do this through the sacralization of the leader of an imperial state. Both eventually exploded into absurdity because of the hubris, cruelty, and ultimate pettiness and decadence of the rulers who were supposed to embody the holy. There are also similarities in the consequences of the downfall of such imperial cults. In Rome, the downfall of the imperial cult lead to a partial “secularization” of the emperorship. Constantine did not make himself divine, only the patron of Christianity, the new state religion, whose martyrs had died in defiance of emperors’ pretenses to divinity. But in many parts of the empire, the Christian faith was embedded in the mundane social fabric of families and villages and imbricated upon local cults and local rituals—eventually provoking calls for purification and reform.

The story of China after Mao follows a roughly similar script. Political scheming and infighting between Mao and other top leaders sent the Cultural Revolution spiraling into chaos. Millions of Maoist devotees had their faith utterly shattered. For all of its effort to create a new socialist person, the Maoist state had only applied a thin veneer of ideology to community consciousness. Rural people, especially, learned to recite the slogans just as they sometimes recited Buddhist sutras, as efficacious incantations that need not be understood to bring good fortune ex opere operato. Other customary religious rituals were put aside—most Chinese gods aren’t jealous gods who demand martyrdom—but not forgotten. Maoism had created a syncretistic, hybrid consciousness.

After Mao died and his coterie of close followers was overthrown, power was seized by Deng Xiaoping, whom Mao had once condemned as an arch-capitalist-roader. Deng launched a “reform and opening” whose goal was defined as the creation of a “small well-being” (xiao kang) society, as opposed to the great unity (da tong) that been the goal of the Maoist era. The Classic of Rites (part of the Confucian canon) had described “small well-being”—a life of this-worldly comforts achieved through care for family, friends, and neighbors—as a moral devolution.14 It was what one had when the Great Dao was lost. One might call the Deng Xiaoping reforms a secularization of hope. The new regime would be legitimated on the basis of its ability to provide a comfortable standard of living for all. Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader, did not claim the awesome power of the holy but just the practical wisdom of a skilled politician and economic manager. The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party was now at least partially secular.

As Deng Xiaoping’s reforms got under way in the 1980s, however, there was no replacement cult to unify the nation. Into this vacuum flowed modernized versions of China’s old-fashioned polytheism. Now, after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, the various religious forces in that pantheon have begun to reassemble in new ways. As Chinese society becomes much more porous, millions of farmers migrate to cities in search of work, although most still cannot obtain permanent urban residence, cannot gain access to the health and welfare institutions of the cities, and periodically have to return to their rural communities and depend on their families of origin for social and moral support (even as these families depend on the migrant laborers for economic support). The obligations of mutual support are expressed through ritual and myth.

But conditions of belief have changed, and one consequence is an abandonment of religious practice. Even then, the abandonment is often only partial. While sojourning in the city, for example, many migrant workers may have little interest in participating in religious rituals (with the exceptions of those who seek good luck). But when they return home, they may contribute to the construction of an ancestral temple and take part in community festivals.

Another consequence of the new conditions of belief, however, may be an openness to new religious movements, guided by visions that transcend family and locality. There were antecedents of these in so-called sectarian movements, such as the White Lotus movement, in premodern Chinese history. Now, with the help of globalized communications, these take on new forms and new force.

One set of new religious movements entails a search for physical healing and moral reform based on qigong, the evocation and channeling of the primordial energy that in traditional Chinese cosmology pervades the universe. The most notorious form of this qigong practice was the Falun Gong (“wheel of dharma practice”), which developed an elaborate ideology based on Daoist and Buddhist ideas to explain and guide such practices. But there were many other forms, including the xianggong (“fragrant practice”) and the zhonggong (“middle practice”), which were popular in both rural and urban milieus. Such forms of spiritual practice transcended local corporate communities. They spread through ramifying personal networks that linked people throughout China and have even spread globally. As is well known, the Chinese government has found such large-scale religious organizations threatening and has ruthlessly moved to suppress them. Nonetheless, some of the movements have gone global. From havens in exile, the Falun Gong leaders spread their message and gain adherents around the world through the use of modern media. The message becomes increasingly polarizing and even apocalyptic: the Chinese Communist regime is an evil regime that must and inevitably will be destroyed.15

Another example of a disembedded religious movement is the rapid spread of Evangelical, mostly Pentecostal, Christianity in China (especially rural China). Because the government inhibits systematic research into this topic, accurate statistics about the spread of Christianity are hard to come by. But it appears that the number of Christians has grown from less than 1 million to more than 50 million within the past thirty years. And some observers (mostly associated with Evangelical churches themselves) claim that the population of Christians has grown to more than 100 million.16

Much of the religious ferment is found in the countryside, which is still the primary home of more than 60 percent of the Chinese population. But new devotions are also taking hold among the urban population. The Falun Gong, after all, mainly attracted middle-aged city dwellers. It has become fashionable for city people to undertake various forms of Buddhist meditation, often in an attempt to overcome the various addictions that urban life brings. Among intellectuals, there is a renewed interest in “cultural Christianity,” a search for ultimate meaning through study of Christian theology without necessarily any corresponding institutional affiliation. And around major university campuses, there is a lively array of “house churches,” unregistered (and therefore officially illegal) Evangelical Christian fellowships.17

Thus, after Mao, Chinese society and culture have been churning with religiosity, much of it a hybrid mix of modern symbols (communicated through modern media such as the Internet and cell phones), polytheistic myths, and socially embedded rituals. This hybrid religious mix mirrors the contemporary Chinese political economy—an inconsistent, ad hoc assemblage of state socialism and globalized market economy, a blend of inconsistent pieces that makes little logical sense but for the time being seems to work to deliver economic growth and political stability.

An authoritarian government tries to impose some stability on the unstable mix of social and cultural forces boiling up beneath it. To maintain such order, it claims the capacity for religious discernment that Chinese emperors once had and popes still have today: the infallible authority to distinguish between true and false religion. Thus, in the fall of 2008, the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department issued a video about the distinction between true and false religion. Religions such as Buddhism, Daoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam (at least, those parts of them that accepted surveillance and control from the government) were true religions because they promoted social harmony and respected modern science. The Falun Gong was a false religion, because it did neither.18 It has been reported that some members of China’s ruling elites have concluded that the Communist Party overreacted in 1999, when it launched a campaign to crush Falun Gong, but that the party cannot admit that it was wrong because this would destroy its myth of infallibility.

Meanwhile, local religious groups and local officials work out compromises and construct appropriate fictions to make the friction between state and society tolerable. “Underground” Christian communities build big churches in plain sight, and these are usually tolerated (as long as officials receive sufficient bribes), although they are sometimes subject to demolition when the government decides to make a show of toughness. Local temples get renamed as “museums” for preserving “nonmaterial cultural heritage,” even as the temples continue to carry out the full range of religious ritual.19


The United States turned Indonesia from nonalignment to a stable pro-Western stance after 1965 by firmly backing the anti-Communist dictatorship of General Suharto. Under the Suharto regime, the religious diversity of the vast Indonesian archipelago—88 percent Muslim, but fragmented into a variety of Muslim sects, and significant populations of Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists, as well as practitioners of a wide variety of folk religions—was contained from the top down within an authoritarian political structure based on the national ideology of Pancasila, which kept the various approved religions from encroaching on one another while keeping all of them dependent on government patronage. In some areas of Indonesia, religious attachments are deeply intertwined with ethnic or regional attachments. One’s religious identity is ascribed at birth, and religious rituals and practices render sacred one’s ties to family or local community. Such ascriptive identities were deepened and solidified by the Suharto regime’s policy of keeping each religious group in its place. Eager to maintain political stability in Indonesia, the United States endorsed this top-down effort to achieve “unity in diversity.”20

Shifting balances of global power have led to a demise of this system of integrating Indonesia’s diverse religious communities under a dictatorial regime. From the 1980s on, increased connections of Indonesia’s Muslims with global Islamic movements led to movements of reform and revival. One side effect of this was the opportunity to carve out spaces for resistance to the Suharto dictatorship. After the Suharto dictatorship collapsed in 1998 (a victim of popular outrage caused by economic hardship brought about by IMF demands for “structural adjustment” of its economy in the wake of the Asian economic crisis), ethnic and religious tensions began to escalate. In the first five years of the twenty-first century, there was a brutal pogrom directed against Chinese in Java and violent clashes between Christian and Muslim communities in Ambon and Aceh. Since then, however, efforts of both political and religious mediation have maintained peace.

Even as religion reinforces local communal or ethnic identities, however, believers in Indonesia are becoming influenced by global movements of religious renewal, which encourage dissatisfaction with habitual adherence to local custom and inspire believers to seek more systematically reflexive understandings of universal truth. Thus, some Indonesian Muslims are inspired by global Islamist movements, Christians by global missionary movements, and Buddhists by international revival movements.

This creates the potential for even more harsh clashes among groups who are now filled with enthusiasm to undertake universal missions to promote their particular understandings of God. For example, some Christian groups (with help from networks of Christians around the world) are getting new energy by trying to win souls away from Islam, and Muslims (with connections to global Islamic movements) are excited by the possibility of expanding at the expense of Christianity. At the same time, ecumenical countermovements have arisen, such as Dian Interfidei, founded in 1991 by the late Dr. Sumartono, which has built networks of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians and holds seminars and workshops that introduce participants to the history, theology, and ethics of the various traditions. The goal of all of this is to create a new kind of religious person, a person Sumartono called a “cross-religious person,” who does not abandon a faith tradition for another but becomes an intentional religious citizen of the world.21

Such efforts at reconciliation and mediation seek to produce a hybrid form of religiosity, rather than a consistent devotion to one single truth. Such hybridity is perhaps the most viable way to knit together a public moral order in an archipelago with such diversity of communities interlaced with so many levels of economic development.


When it was defeated in the civil war and moved the entire government of the Republic of China (ROC) to Taiwan in 1949, the Nationalist Party (KMT) confronted the challenge of maintaining control over a hostile population. The KMT had taken control of the former Japanese colony after its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1945. Although they initially welcomed their new government, the native Taiwanese population soon became outraged by the KMT’s corruption and incompetence. In response to widespread protests against KMT rule that had erupted in February 28, 1947, the government killed and arrested tens of thousands of Taiwan’s indigenous elites. This “White Terror” continued throughout the 1950s.

The society that the KMT was trying to control was at the time mostly agrarian, a society of extended families in farming villages. The major source of community life in such villages was the local temple, with its deities and rituals celebrating the particularistic obligations of membership in ascribed communities. Unlike its counterpart, the Chinese Communist Party on mainland China, however, the KMT did not attempt to destroy local religious practices. But it did attempt to weaken them. For example it limited the scope of local festivals “in the name of improving frugality in folk sacrifices.” At the same time, it provided various forms of patronage in order to co-opt the leaders of local temples. This produced a fragmented religious landscape that was conducive to the KMT’s agenda of control. Local temples could not coalesce in ways that might have challenged the government.22

The KMT strongly suppressed any pan-Taiwanese religious movements, such as the Unity Way (yi guan dao). It established firm control over all national religious institutions, such as the Buddhist Association of the Republic of China, and denied them permission to establish educational and research associations that would enable such Chinese religions to develop sophisticated interpretations of their doctrines that might appeal to educated elites. The big exception was Christianity. Because some of the ROC’s main American supporters during the early phases of the Cold War were former China Christian missionaries and since American ideology considered the United States to be a “nation under God,” the ROC could hardly afford to suppress Christianity. It allowed Protestants and Catholics to establish major universities, and it allowed Protestant and Catholic missionaries to be conduits of American foreign aid, especially of food and medicine. Most of the Christian missionaries had been displaced from the Chinese mainland. They spoke Mandarin, the official language of all of China, rather than the Taiwanese prevalent among the native population. In general, they had cooperative relationships with the KMT government and did not threaten its rule.

There were inevitably cracks in this hybrid program of co-optation and suppression. Pan-Taiwan movements such as the Unity Way went underground and continued to grow despite government suppression. Maverick Buddhist leaders established the core of new organizations in out-of-the-way locations beyond the range of the government’s surveillance. Christian groups that had sunk deep roots in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period, such as the Taiwanese Presbyterian church, benefited from the general protection offered to Christian churches, even though they were important sources of native Taiwanese consciousness, including a Taiwanese form of the “theology of liberation.” These openings to new forms of religious practice and new vehicles for religious identity would become important as the KMT’s authoritarian structures began to crumble.

The crumbling began in the 1970s as the result of both local and global factors. Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan’s dictator, died in 1975. During this time period, Taiwan was beginning the transition from an agrarian to a predominantly urban industrial society. Taiwan’s key patron, the United States, was beginning a rapprochement with the PRC and switched its diplomatic relations from the ROC on Taiwan to the PRC on mainland China in 1979. An opposition to the KMT monopoly government began to grow, and it could not be completely suppressed with the heavy-handed tactics of earlier decades. Finally, in 1987, the KMT government of Chiang Ching-kuo—Chiang Kai-shek’s son—lifted the martial law that had served as the justification for autocratic rule. The way was opened for multiparty elections and for the development of a lively civil society dominated by voluntary associations of Taiwan’s middle classes.

Modernizing religious movements played a vital role in the constitution of this civil society. During the 1970s, under the KMT’s radar screen, “socially engaged” Buddhist movements began to develop and propagate a universalistic vision of compassionate religious action to improve this world. With the end of martial law, some of these movements exploded in membership among middle classes eager for new forms of social affiliation. Especially important were Tzu Chi (the “Buddhist Compassionate Relief Association”), Buddha’s Light Mountain, and Dharma Drum Mountain. Although there were monastic communities at the core of these associations, they developed large lay organizations and made sophisticated use of modern media to propagate their messages. Although most of them did not take part in partisan politics, they played an important political role in the transition to democracy. They smoothed out some of the rough edges of demanding civil societies and helped to nurture some of the civic virtues that make democracy possible.23

These Buddhist organizations are globally expansionist. By the 1990s, they had begun to spread branches throughout the world. They carry out works of charity and education throughout East and Southeast Asia (including, for Tzu Chi, the PRC and North Korea) and, to a lesser but important degree, in Europe and the Americas, even the Middle East and Africa. In most such places, they form branch communities of devout laypeople drawn from local Taiwanese diasporas. Although they preach a religion of universal love and peace, they do so with a Taiwanese accent. They are an important way of representing the best qualities of diplomatically isolated Taiwan to the rest of the world and thus play an important role in the spread of Taiwan’s “soft power.”

One indication that this globalization of Taiwan religion is at least indirectly connected with the growth of Taiwanese nationalism is the fate of the Christian churches. At the same time that socially engaged, middle-class Buddhist—and also to some degree Daoist—groups had begun explosive growth, most Christian churches had started to decline in membership and vigor, with the notable exception of churches such as the Taiwanese Presbyterian church, which had long been associated with Taiwan nationalism. The Christian churches have perhaps been on the decline precisely because they had earlier gained special privileges through the connection between the KMT government and the United States during the Cold War.24


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. Modern Asian countries have secular states, but despite efforts of some states to destroy all religion, they still have religious societies. New cultural conditions of belief give religion a different valence from what it had in premodern times.

This framework 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. The Indonesian state 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 from that 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. It is part of the public life of local communities. Religion has not undergone the transition from public practice to private belief that Taylor discerns in the West.

Finally, although in an age of social mobility and global communication, Asian religions are practiced under new cultural conditions of belief, the result is somewhat different from what 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.” In many Asian societies, including China, the immanent and the 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.25 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 in 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 Falun Gong 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 end 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 such as faith healing. Thus, it steps up 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, the socially engaged Buddhist movements I have described here 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 such as 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, 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 such as Dian Interfidei that 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.


1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), 1-22.

2. Ibid., 1.

3. Ibid., 3. Taylor says that even in countries such as Britain and the Scandinavian countries that have established churches, the state connections with those churches “are so low-key and undemanding as not really to constitute exceptions.”

4. John Meyer, J. Boli, G. Thomas, and F. Ramirez, “World Society and the Nation State,” American Journal of Sociology 103, no. 1 (1997): 144-181.

5. Richard Madsen, China and the American Dream (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

6. According to the 2007 Chinese Spiritual Life Survey conducted by Fenggang Yang and the Institute for Religion at Baylor University, in partnership with the Horizon Research Consultancy Group, with a nationally representative sample of more than 7000, only 15 percent of the Chinese population could be classified as “pure atheists.” Fenggang Yang, “Explaining the Failure of the Greatest Secularization Experiment in Human History,” paper presented at the ISA XVII World Congress of Sociology, Gothenburg, Sweden, 2010.

7. Kenneth Dean, “Local Ritual Traditions of Southeast China: A Challenge to Definitions of Religion and Theories of Ritual,” in Fenggang Yang and Graeme Lang, eds., Social Scientific Studies of Religion in China (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 133-162.

8. Richard Madsen, China’s Catholics: Tragedy and Hope in an Emerging Civil Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

9. Taylor, A Secular Age, 24-43.

10. David K. Jordan and Daniel L. Overmyer, The Flying Phoenix: Aspects of Chinese Sectarianism in Taiwan (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).

11. Daniel H. Bays, “The Growth of Independent Christianity in China, 1900-1937,” in Daniel H. Bays, ed., Christianity in China: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996), 307-316.

12. Richard Madsen, Morality and Power in a Chinese Village (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

13. Ibid.

14. Hanlong Lu, “To Be Relatively Comfortable in an Egalitarian Society,” in Deborah S. Davis, ed., The Consumer Revolution in Urban China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 124-141.

15. David Palmer, Qigong Fever (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

16. Yu Jianrong, “Religious Demography and House Churches 2008,” cited in Compass Direct News Service, July 3, 2009. For higher estimates, see David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing (Washington, D.C.: 2003).

17. Fenggang Yang, “The Red, Black, and Grey Markets of Religion in China,” Sociological Quarterly 47 (February 2006): 93-122.

18. See

19. Gao Bingzhong and Ma Qiang, “From Grass-root Association to Civil Society: A Close Look at the Organization of a Temple Fair,” in Fenggang Yang and Graeme Lang, eds., op. cit., 195-226.

20. Douglas E. Ramage, Politics in Indonesia: Democracy, Islam, and the Ideology of Tolerance (London: Routledge, 1995).

21. Clare B. Fischer, “Democratic Civility: Interfidei and the Work of Social Harmony in Indonesia,” University of California Pacific Rim Research Project, 2004.

22. Paul Katz, “Religion and the State in Post-War Taiwan,” in Daniel L. Overmeyer, ed., Religion in China Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 93-97.

23. Richard Madsen, Democracy’s Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

24. Ibid.

25. The term “axial age” was coined by Karl Jaspers to refer to the period in the first millennium BCE when visions of a universally transcendent reality were created in Israel, Greece, India, and China. Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953).