Purdue sociologist receives $3.5 million grant to study religion in China

May 4, 2015  

Yang China book

Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology and director of Purdue’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, received a $3.5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. (Purdue University photo)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Fenggang Yang, a Purdue University professor of sociology, has received $3.5 million from the John Templeton Foundation to map the religious and spiritual landscape in China and study how religions have flourished in the post-Communist country.

The three-year "Chinese Religious Markets and Spiritual Capital" project begins Aug. 16. Yang is the director of Purdue's Center on Religion and Chinese Society, and he is partnering with The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"There have been religious revivals in China in the last several decades even though religion was entirely eradicated in the 1960s and 1970s," said Yang, the current president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. "Because religion affects individual lives, community and society, it is important to understand how faith in the world’s largest country is evolving. The first part of this grant will literally map and track geographically what religions are thriving across the country in both urban and rural settings."

The second part will focus on the question of how have religions survived and revived under Communist rule, and what roles have Christians and Buddhists played in the growing civil society during its market and democratic transitions.

"How did Christianity and Buddhism survive during the 1950s to 1970s when all religions underwent one of the harshest suppressions in human history, how did Protestant Christians manage to grow three times more under severe persecutions during the cultural revolution, and how did Christianity and Buddhism revive and thrive since 1979," said Yang, who studies immigrant religion in the United States, Chinese Christianity around the world, and religious change and church-state relations in China. "And what does this all mean for China’s economy, human and civil rights, and democratization?"

Christianity and Buddhism are the two largest faiths in China today, and the Chinese Spiritual Life Survey of 2007 reports that 18 percent of the population believe in Buddhism and 3.5 percent in believe in Christianity. Currently, the government officially allows only five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, and exact numbers of religious participants are difficult to confirm.

"I am enormously proud of Dr. Yang, one of the world's leading experts on religion in China," said David Reingold, the Justin S. Morrill Dean of Liberal Arts. "I am also grateful to the John Templeton Foundation for their support of research in the college. It is noteworthy that this project combines both scholarly work and engagement, reaching beyond our walls and embracing a longstanding tradition of the liberal arts as a force for good in the world."

Through this grant, Yang also will offer workshops and seminars to train the growing number of scholars focusing on the social scientific study of religion in China. To date, the Templeton Foundation has awarded Yang more than $6 million, which supported his empirical research projects and past institutes to train new scholars.

Yang also is the author of "Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule" and "Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities." He has co-edited six books and has received two distinguished article awards.

Also working on the grant with Yang, is Jonathan Pettit, associate director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society; and Fuk-tsang Ying, an associate professor and the dean of the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Purdue's Center on Religion and Chinese Society also is offering a summer study abroad course for students, "Study Religion in China," and the center is planning to organize a 2016 event taking United States religious leaders to China.

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for research and discoveries relating to what scientists and philosophers call the "Big Questions." It supports work at the world's top universities in such fields as theoretical physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and social science relating to love, forgiveness, creativity, purpose, and the nature and origin of religious belief. The foundation also seeks to stimulate new thinking about wealth creation in the developing world, character education in schools and universities, and programs for cultivating the talents of gifted children. 

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Fenggang Yang, fyang@purdue.edu 

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