September 7, 2013

Find him where Faith Meets Science

By Taya Flores


Fenggang Yang, a Purdue professor of sociology and director of the university’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, at Covenant Church in West Lafayette. Yang has been elected the 2014-15 president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.


Western philosophy captured Fenggang Yang attention when he was a graduate student and set him on a path to study religion like a scientist.

“I’m not from any religious background,” he said. “In China, because of the state policy, there is an atheist-based education. So I was atheist. My family was not religious at all. (But) almost every Western philosopher from ancient Greece until modern times talks about God. That was strange to me. It was so intriguing. I did my master’s thesis on the notion of God in Western philosophy.”

His intellectual pursuit of God has even garnered notice.

Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and director of its Center on Religion and Chinese Society, has been named president-elect of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, a scholarly association that produces the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, one of the most cited in the field.

He will serve as president from October 2014 to October 2015 and will deliver the presidential address at the 2015 annual meeting in Newport Beach, Calif. He also will serve as past president through 2016.

Yang is the author of “Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule,” and “Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities.”

He answers the Journal & Courier’s questions about his election, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, his research and faith.

Q: How does one study religion, which is faith-based, scientifically?

A: We often get that question. Faith and religion seems to be not in the same sphere as science. Science is limited. We only study things empirically. That’s the limit of science. It does not mean that science is the only kind of knowledge. There are still other kinds of knowledge (such as) philosophical or theological. But that’s not what we do.

We study empirically and follow the scientific principles. We use the scientific methods of systematically collecting data, not only quantitative. That’s another misconception people often have. We could do (a) study by participating (in) observation like anthropologists. They go to another society and observe. We do the same. We go to church and observe how people interact with each other, what’s the message of the sermon and observe how people behave. Those may not be quantifiable but (it’s) still empirical. We can see. We can hear. We can smell.

Q: How do you feel about the election?

A: It’s a great honor to be elected because this is the most important and prestigious association within this field. There are other associations but smaller in terms of membership and prestige. This is the largest (and) the most international. I couldn’t believe it … I feel like the former presidents, some are giants in the field, really star scholars …

I’m the first non-white person to be elected as president. Some of my friends in the society already commented (and said), ‘this is a breakthrough for a person of color.’ ”

Q: Why do you think that’s important?

A: This field has been dominated by Europeans, European Americans (or) Caucasians and their research interests, which focuses on Christian congregations, mostly Protestant and Catholic — the mainstream religion.

My election shows that the members in this society now increasingly (are) interested in religion in other parts of the world … that helps to broaden the social scientific perspective on religion. It’s not only a European (or) European-American experience anymore. It’s really becoming a universal discipline.

Q: What does your research focus on?

A: My earlier research was on immigrant religion in the U.S., especially Chinese Christians and Chinese Buddhists in the U.S.

(I explored) how they accommodate (and) adapt in American society (and) life and their reconstruction of identities. They are Chinese. They are Christian or Buddhist. They are American. How do they construct their identities?

Q: What were some of your findings?

A: Before 1943, the Chinese were not allowed to become American citizens. There was the Chinese Exclusion Act. Since 1943, there is a set number of immigrants from China, especially since 1965 when the immigration law changed. It opened up and allowed for more immigrants and many Chinese came. But still there is a historical exclusion lingering.

Can we be Chinese and American at the same time?

My findings find that people in the (Christian) church feel it’s perfectly fine. They can still be Chinese and be American.

Their Chinese identity underwent changes. When they first came (to the United States) they still strongly identified with the state of China, the political identity. But through the church, their political identity becomes weaker with the state of China and stronger with the U.S.

Also, the third or fourth generation Chinese in the U.S., they have little Chinese (culture) remaining such as what they eat and like. But the church helps to strengthen their ethnic and cultural identity.

They identify with the Chinese culture, trying to maintain the best of Chinese culture but at the same time accept American values and norms. … They can do this because now they have a new faith in Christianity because Christianity is not a traditional Chinese religion. Many are converts. … They feel religion gave them the power to do that.

Without such a religion it would be much more difficult to either preserve some Chinese culture or be consciously selective of American values.

Q: What does your research focus on now?

A: Since 2000, I have done field work research in China on different religions. I mostly focused on Christians. Christianity has been growing very fast in China. I interviewed many Christians, especially Christian entrepreneurs, business people. I want to examine whether the Chinese Christian ethic has any contribution to China’s transition to a market economy.

There is a classic theme in the sociology of religion (based on) “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (a book written by Max Weber, a German sociologist, economist and politician). Max Weber thinks these two (concepts) are compatible, in affinity. I want to examine whether that is true in the Chinese context with a market economy developing and at the same Christianity rapidly growing.

It’s interesting. Christian business people do things somewhat different from non-believers.

My latest book was called “Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.”

I didn’t start with that project but people kept asking me this question: “If the Chinese Communist Party has tried to suppress religion (and) even eradicate religion from society, how do you explain the revival of religion in China, especially because Christianity has grown so fast?”

The book tries to answer that question.

Q: Do you have a faith of your own? If so, how did you come to it?

A: In 1989, there was a student democracy movement in China that was crushed by the government. It was watershed to the Chinese mind.

Before the democracy movement was crushed many young people held communist ideals. But when the student democracy movement was suppressed violently by the government, we lost hope.

We became desperate. We didn’t see any hope of changing China and making it more equal, free and democratic. Also, the killing of people suddenly made me realize the terror of atheism. Atheism as a personal choice might be fine or benign but when a government’s policies are based on atheism, killing its own people is not a big deal. That made me for the first time doubt my own atheist belief. Then, I realized maybe there is a God. I started searching for my own value system realignment. I tried more traditional Chinese religions such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, but I find in Christianity my spiritual home.