2018 EASSR Presidential Address

Religion in the Global East:
Challenges and Opportunities for the Social Scientific Study of Religion

July 3, 2018
Singapore Management University
Fenggang Yang
The theme of this Inaugural Conference of EASSSR is Religiosity, Secularity, and Pluralism in the Global East. I’d like to have a brief discussion of these terms.
First of all, what is the global east? When we take a broad view of the world, there have been two common ways of grouping: East verses West, which was commonly used during the Cold War; North verses South, which has become common since the 1980s. While the East-West was about the ideological divide, the North-South is about the economic divide. However, it is difficult for East Asia to fit in. Both groupings are Euro-centric or North-Atlantic-centric notions, and this is a problem. The North-Atlantic world has a population of 1.1 billion, whereas East and Southeast Asia have a combined population of 2.3 billion people, or 30% of the world population. When 30% of the world population has difficulty to fit in the grouping, we have to find the alternative to it. Ideologically, some East Asian countries belonged to the West; economically, some Northeast Asian countries belong to the South. Culturally, East Asian cultures are distinct from the rest of the world. Moreover, Edward Said’s Orientalism, which has been popular in the West, was not applicable to the Far East because European colonialism failed to colonize most of East Asia.
In economy, Japan was the first developed country in the Far East. Since the 1960s, there rose the four little tigers or dragons: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. This was followed by the so-called tiger cubs of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, then the big dragon of China. Vietnam has been coming up in recent years too. In contrast, some of the Eastern European countries in the so-called North have been struggling in their economies.
Max Weber brought scholarly attention to the relationship between religion and economy. He tried to explain why modern rational capitalism first emerged in the West but not elsewhere, and he made careful examination of religions of China and India in addition to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But, these books are full of insights, but are so far off of the social reality of East Asia. By the time of Weber’s writing, Buddhism had been a major religion in East Asia for more than a thousand years and negligible in India. More importantly, shamanism and folk religions were prevalent throughout East Asia. Furthermore, several institutionalized religions coexisted without a religious monopoly, which was very different from the west or the Muslim dominant countries. In addition, the post-Weber new phenomena are very important for scholars today: the economic rise of East Asia and the widespread of Christianity in East Asia.
About Christianity, some Western scholars have paid great attention to the phenomenon of Christianity moving to the south. For example, the historian Philip Jenkins published a book in 2002 called The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, which highlights the rapid growth of Christianity in the Global South, especially in Africa. In 2006, he published another book, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South. Most recently, an Encyclopedia of Christianity in the Global South was published a couple of months ago. The editor Mark A. Lamport invited me to participate in the project. I told him that I didn’t like the notion of the global south. My complaint about the notion of the global south was because it renders Christians in East Asia invisible. Following the notion of the global south, someone drew such a seismic map of the gravity of Christianity. But this seriously distorts the reality, as a significant segment of the Christian population is in the far east, as the Pew Research Center’s report suggests. How can you group South Korea and China into the Global South? Geographically they are in the northern hemisphere. Culturally, their religious traditions are very different from Africa and Latin America. Socially and economically, these countries have been developed or fast-developing. Mark Lamport came back to me again and encouraged me to write down my thought about the global south vs. global east, and eventually included the piece of my reflections as an afterword in the Encyclopedia. I was pleased by the inclusion, but we need to do more to change the grand discourse that renders East Asia invisible and incomprehensible.
We know that about 90 % of Filipinos are Christian. Some survey studies show that about 30% of South Koreans are Christian. Actually, there is another big problem. Max Weber said that Confucianism and Daoism were the major religions of China, by expansion we may say they were major religions of East Asia. But where are the followers of Confucianism and Daoism in South Korea? We did a survey of religion in China in 2007. The result was similar: very few people self-identified with Confucianism and Daoism. The Pew Research Center conducted a survey of Asian Americans in 2012. It reports that Christianity is a major religion among several Asian ethnic groups: Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Japanese Americans, and Korean Americans. The only exception is Indian Americans with a majority of Hindus. Buddhism is a major religion among the Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans, but not Indians. Again, where are the adherents of Confucianism and Daoism? These raise another question on measurement.
Another problem is about atheism. Religion is a universal phenomenon of human society. According to Robert Bellah, religion emerged along with the human race in the process of evolution. Of course, in any given society, be it a primitive society or modernized society, there are always some individuals who do not believe in any supernatural being or supernatural force. In other words, atheists are not a modern phenomenon; they have existed in all societies, but atheism as a secularist ideology is a modern phenomenon, and it has a twisted affect in Asia.
By some measures, East Asian societies have the highest proportions of people claim to be atheists. For example, according to the World Values Surveys, about 5 percent of Europeans (N=62,545) and Americans (N=2,232) are convinced atheists, but there are nearly 30 percent of “convinced atheists” among South Koreans (N=1,200), 17 percent among the Taiwanese (N=1,238), 27 percent among the Chinese (N=2,300), and 11 percent among the Japanese (N=2,443). Hong Kong was first included in the WVS in 2005, which had 5 percent atheists. In the 2013 sample of 1,000 Hong Kongers, however, 55 percent reported to be atheists. Something must be wrong, even though the World Values Surveys have been considered one of the best cross-national surveys. Many of the self-claimed atheists are actually believers of some supernatural beings or forces.
Similarly, the measures of religion are problematic too. In East Asia, some people may admit to be Buddhist, Confucian, or Daoist, but would not admit to be religious, or belong to any religion, as they honestly do not regard Buddhism, Confucianism, or Daoism as religions. There is a modern language problem. In Chinese, zongjiao 宗教 is a modern term, borrowed from Japanese, which in turn was a kanji translation from some European languages. During this translation and importation, the exact meaning could be twisted. For most Asians, religion is not a concept in their everyday language. For those who have received much secularist education, religion is a sabotaged concept in their normative thinking.
The problems of measuring atheism and religion post serious challenges to scholars in the SSSR who try to find common patterns of religion or religiosity in East Asia. We have to learn the spiritual language of ordinary people.
In fact, even the cultural and political elites in Asia are confused and confusing. In China, Confucianism is not classified as a religion, and Daoism is. However, not many people self-identify with Daoism the religion. In real life, Daoism and the so-called folk religions share many of the beliefs and practices. Some scholars want to include all folk religions in the greater Daoism 大道教, and at least one scholar has advocated to establish the zhonghua jiao (Chinese Religion) based on the greater Daoism. Some others have advocated to make Confucianism a religion, even the national religion of China. These advocates have thought about the model of Hinduism as the religion of Indians or Shintoism as the state religion of Japan until 1945. They are thinking that if Indians and the Japanese have their own named religions, why not the Chinese have their own named religion. But, a scholarly question is: under what social and political conditions can you construct a religion? Also, we have to reexamine: how successful is it in constructing the religions of Hinduism, Shintoism, Daoism, and Confucianism? What are their relationships with folk religions and other world religions? And, how are things changing in the globalization era? There are some difficult questions to ponder: Can non-Japanese convert to Shintoism, non-Indians convert to Hinduism, non-Chinese convert to Daoism or Confucianism. In fact, Confucianism and Daoism have transcended Chinese boundaries and shared by the Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese, but is that in the religious sense or in the philosophical sense? These questions all need to be answered with care and nuance, and more importantly, with systematically collected data and objective analysis in the social scientific study of religion.
Back to Robert Bellah, in 1985, he and his colleagues coined a new term, Sheilaism, for a new phenomenon in American religion: the individualized eclecticism – taking some elements from various religious or spiritual traditions to form one’s own religion. Sheila is good hearted and spiritually conscious, but very individualized. Can we find Sheila in East Asia? Probably the major of people are Sheilas. It is common for East Asians to take something from Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and some other sources and form one’s individualized spirituality. Instead of converting to one particular religion, they are moving around different religions without dedication to any particular religion.
In the United States, in recent years scholars have noticed several new phenomena: the rise of Sheilaism and New Age spiritualities in the 1980s, the rise of people who claim to be spiritual but not religious since the 1990s, and the rapid rise of religious nones or who claim no religion at all even though most of them do hold religious beliefs and engage religious practices. These may be new in the new world, but Hello, America, welcome to East Asia. In East Asia, these are traditional patterns of being religious or spiritual. In modern scholarship, we often refer to these as folk religious expressions. Now we need to study them as part of the postmodern or late modern world, both in East Asia and North America.
Last, let me say something about the great debate of secularization. For several decades, Peter Berger was one of the most important secularization theorists who argued that modernization will lead to religious decline. Both of the keynote speakers of this conference, Jose Casanova and Grace Davie, have played important roles in the great debate. Facing myrod empirical evidence as well as theoretical development, Peter Berger rescinded his secularization theory since the 1990s. Steve Warner, Rodney Stark, myself, and many others argue that there has been a paradigm shift: the social scientific study of religion has shifted from explaining religious decline to religious vitality in modern societies. After a decade, however, David Voas and Mark Chaves have revived the debate again, arguing that secularization finally takes effect in the United States as well.
What about East Asia? In China, secularization was a state-engineered program, but since the 1970s, religions have been reviving and becoming increasingly important in society. How about other East Asian societies? Recently my students and I began to explore some survey data. Unfortunately, survey data are very limited and less reliable for this part of the world. The best available data is probably the World Values Surveys, which began in 1990 and included some of Asian societies in various years. Based on these limited surveys and our very preliminary analysis, we do not see a clear pattern of religious decline. Take the question of the importance of religion in one’s life as an example: it seems a flat line for most countries. By the mean, we do see a significant drop in Singapore, but when we look at the categories carefully, it seems that fewer people claim religion to be very important, but more people claim religion to be rather important. This kind of change perhaps has a lot to do to the public discourse instead of change of religiosity.
We have looked at the Japan General Social Survey, since the year 2000, the proportion of people who have a religion or a family religion remained about the same. The proportion of people claimed to be Buddhists fluctuated a lot, but no clear pattern of decline.
We have also looked at the Korea General Social Survey. There are noticeable fluctuations among Protestant Christians and Buddhists, but no clear decline of religion in general. Look at religious attendance, there is no clear pattern of decline either.
But, we think there are a lot serious work to be done. One key problem is how to measure religion and religiosity in East Asia? The existing measures used in the West are primarily based on Judeo-Christian understanding of identity, membership, and attendance. But East Asian religion has some distinct characteristics: non-exclusive nature of religious identity, the lack of common understanding of the term religion, the ambiguous boundaries of religiosity and secularity, and the lack of religious monopoly.
In short, the cultural and social differences of East Asian societies from the rest of the world make it necessary to adopt a new concept – the Global East. Global East societies share some common cultural traditions, including Confucianism, Daoism, and local or folk religions. This is not to gloss over internal differences of East Asian societies. Good scholarship should examine both particularities and commonalities, but the commonalities in East Asia deserve to be examined carefully. The Global East is a cultural and social concept. Given their distinct cultural and community characteristics, the Global East not only includes East Asian societies, some of Southeast Asian societies, but also includes ethnic communities of East Asians in other countries around the world that maintain East Asian cultural traditions, closely connected with East Asia and playing important roles in East Asian developments. Furthermore, in this era of globalization, some westerners have adopted religions of the Global East as well. Recently I reviewed a book Dream Trippers: Americans who have become Daoists and took trips to sacred mountains in China to meditate in caves in the mountains. These are all part of the Global East.
Religion in the Global East presents theoretical and methodological challenges for the social scientific study of religion. First, there are the modern language problems, as discussed above. Second, the religion-state relations in the Global East have been very different from Europe and Americas. Religious monopoly has been rare throughout the history. Multiple religions have coexisted most of the time. Third, at the micro level, religious identity may not be exclusive or salient. A majority of people have been open to beliefs and practices of multiple religions, yet may or may not self-identify with any particular religion, or when they do, identify with multiple religions.
I also think that religion in the Global East presents great opportunities for the social scientific study of religion in the globalizing world. First, if we can develop good measures of religiosity in the Global East, it should help substantially improve the measurement of religiosity around the globe. Second, cross-referencing and comparative studies of religions in the Global East is likely shed light on many theoretical issues in the general social science of religion. Third, a better, scholarly understanding of the religion-state relations in the Global East may help to present meaningful alternatives to the existing models of modern religion-state relations.
There have been scholarly associations based in North America and Europe. Religions in East Asia are quite distinctive from other parts of the world, and religious change in this part of the world has been rapid and dramatic. I hope EASSSR will become an important platform for scholars of religions in East Asia to regularly engage with each other. Together, we can make great contributions to better understandings of religion in the modern world, and make great contributions in methodology and theory to the social scientific study of religion in general in the globalized academe.