A Secular Age: Embedded religion in Asia posted by Richard Madsen
In my previous post, I suggested that under certain specific conditions a framework grounded in a particular cultural and historical context—such as the one presented by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age—might yield fruitful cross cultural comparisons. In this spirit, I analyzed the manner in which Asian societies might be understood as politically secular (or not) according to Taylor’s analytic framework, and will now turn to an analysis of the social secularization process in Asia...
Asian religious developments are often misread by both Western observers and Asian scholars trained in the Western social sciences. When Western scholars have looked for religion in Asian societies, they have often looked for it in the form of private faith. But in most Asian societies, much of religion is neither private nor faith.
It is often not faith, in the sense of a personal belief in doctrines. In China, for example, there have been literally millions of temples built or rebuilt in the countryside over the past three decades. Most people doing this rebuilding would be hard pressed to give a consistent and coherent account of the Daoist or Buddhist philosophies that one might think were behind this revival. Even the rural Chinese Catholics I studied could only give a vague account of the creed to which they were supposed to assent. Most of the people building temples and churches seem driven by the desire to create a place where they can carry out rituals that would give some order to their lives and their community life. It can be meaningful to carry out such rituals even if one does not believe in the theology that supposedly underlies them. For example, in the Chinese Catholic villages I studied—which typically consisted entirely of Catholics who had carried on their identity through many generations—there are many “lukewarm” Catholics who don’t regularly pray, are skeptical about doctrines, and don’t follow many of the moral teachings of the Church. Yet they still consider themselves Catholics and would still want to be buried with Catholic funeral rituals because that is the way to connect, in life and death, with their natal communities.
Collective ritual, in this and many Asian contexts, comes before personal faith, as do collective myths—stories about gods or spirits or blessed events such as apparitions, healings, or miraculous occurrences. Rituals and myths are public rather than private. Even when they have to be carried out surreptitiously, out of sight of suspicious government regulators or condescending urban-based mass media, they are, in the local context, public. Under such circumstances they create alternative public spheres that sometimes complement, but at other times contradict, the public projects of their governing states.
This is a form of religious practice akin to what Charles Taylor calls “embedded religion.” The world of embedded religion is “enchanted,” filled with good and bad spirits. Religious practices are used to call upon the good and control the bad, as much for the sake of the material health and prosperity as for any otherworldly salvation. One’s community is under the protection of local spirits—patron saints in the European Middle Ages and ancestors and various local protector spirits in many parts of Asia—and although these local spirits may be imagined to be under the control of a supreme being, much of actual popular religious practice is aimed at getting one’s own local spirits to take care of one’s family and friends in the here and now.
These forms of localized, socially embedded religious practices have by no means entirely disappeared in the North Atlantic world. But as Taylor shows, they have largely been eclipsed. A key event in this process was the Reformation, which condemned much of Catholic sacramental ritual as “magic,” to be replaced by personal devotion driven by interior faith. In the United States the prevalent forms of religion are individualistic expressions of a desire for personal authenticity carried out through voluntary association with other like-minded individuals.
Until relatively recently, scholars in the North Atlantic world have usually assumed that modernization entails the eclipse of localized, socially embedded religion. Just as the American government during the Cold War convinced itself and its publics that governments allied with the USA, even dictatorships, were part of the “Free World,” so did American scholars imagine that societies open to influence from the West were becoming “free societies,” composed of instrumentally rational individuals who had sloughed off communal traditions, especially religious traditions. (If there was any future for religion in such societies, it was assumed that it would be in the form of Christianity, brought by Western missionaries, who were welcomed by most governments in the Free World.)
The real processes of social development in Asia, however, usually took a different path. [...] However, none of these strategies used by Asian states to tame local religions actually destroyed them. The suppression strategies drove the practices underground while in many cases maintaining the communal ties with which these religious practices had been intertwined. The co-optation strategies helped to reproduce and maintain communal religious identities.
[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.] The Immanent Frame is now on Facebook. Become a fan here. The Immanent Frame is a production of the Social Science Research Council1 Pierrepont Plaza - Brooklyn, NY 11201 - USA - firstname.lastname@example.orgLearn more about the SSRC’s work on religion & the public sphere 8:40 AM