A discourse on the research on religion and society

LI Xiangping
East China Normal University

 

The socialscientific study of religionwas once generally marginal in Chinese religious studies. But gradually it has become a major force, now one of the triune fields in religious studies, along with the philosophy/theology of religious and the humanities study of religion.

Professor Fenggang Yang and his Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University continue to push forward the scientific study of religion in China. They have developed a distinct expertise and consciousness in the social scientific study of religion, focusing on investigating the role of religion in China’s changing society.

Accordingly, the Center on Religion and Chinese Society have organized 16 “Chinese religion and society research projects” in the past three years. These projects draw on perspectives from different disciplines to study Chinese Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and folk religions, along with their relationship to social theory. The Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University has hosted three workshops on Chinese religion based on these projects, each lasting a month; they included discussing and lecturing on various issues pertaining to Chinese religion and society. These workshops have become an important source of support for the research projects.

Professor Yang invited prestigious scholars in religious studies, social science of religion, and sociology of religion from both China and abroad to integrate the workshop and research into a single string. Each investigator considered his or her research questions in light of other perspectives, leading to important breakthroughs on the international academic front.

In terms of academic fields, the workshops included religion and American politics, religion and civil society, religion and politics, and the spatial study of Chines religions. They employed concepts such as spiritual capital, religious beliefs, religious attitudes, religious psychology, religious behavior, and religious politics, among others. The workshops covered not only academic exploration, but also practical problems from the research frontiers of sociology of religion and social sciences.

Based on the discussion of the above-mentioned theories, participants incorporated approaches from the social scientific study of religion to deal with contemporary China’s social changes. The participants operationalized various concepts to make them measurable for real world research in China.

Of special note is that participant scholars openly exchanged their viewpoints, interests, and expertise, leading to impassioned discussion. Surely this workshop on Chinese society and religion has benefited from the open exploration of theories and has enabled further exploration on China’s religions along with meaningful discourse on religious studies. A discourse on the research on religion and society We compare the different religions to investigate their similarities and differences so as to better understand their complicated relationships.

Among this survey’s 3000 participants, 932 (31.1%) had explicit religious identification, the largest component being Buddhist (823, 27.43%); followed by Protestant (81, 2.7%); Catholic (9, 0.23%); and Daoist (7, 0.23%). Atheists comprised 1143 respondents (38.1%); casual Buddhists without explicit faith accounted for 17.83%; other faiths accounted for 0.7% (21 respondents); and 369 people claimed no particular faith (12.3%).(Li(ed.) 2012: China Faith Research. 2nd edition, Shanghai Renmin Publisher).

Our study shows that religious expression and faith in contemporary China are situated both within institutional religion and within the interaction of social change, economics, and politics beyond the existing religious institutions. They have constituted the variety of morphology of religious and faith constructions. Based on this foundation of religious practice at the social level, we are able to understand the logic of religious practice in China without the arbitrary limits of previous studies.

Based on this project, the Center of Religion and Society Research at Eastern China Normal University trained a group to start the Forum on the Chinese Religions and a website on the study of religions (www.chinabeliefs.org). We have edited the series, Studies of Chinese Religions (now three volumes), published articles including, “Believe But Not Identify: Sociological Explanation on Contemporary Chinese Faith,” and “Review of China’s Sociology of Faith.” We are trying to establish a sociological framework of faith studies based on new developments in global academics such as the concept of the sociology of spirituality.

Three years is not a long time, but our project has reached great depth. The intensive sharing of knowledge through discussion and brainstorming in the workshop has benefited every participant. Because of this, the lectures represent the academic credo of “religion has a context; methodology can come across contexts.” This credo requires every scholar and project investigator to go beyond the context of his or her religious belief to comprehend different levels of meanings and to build up fruitful research using universally-recognized, rigorous methods. Yangtze Deltain Taiwan and Macau? We found that cultural factors play an important role in the civic engagement of the Catholic Church. Chinese culture emphasizes inner development, along with hierarchy and order, which are similar to Catholic culture. This may affect the civic engagement of the Catholic Church. The interpretation of the Vatican II Council in the four cities has also influenced the amount of civic activism. Surprisingly, recent social movements in Taiwan seem to have had little impact on the civic activism of the Catholic Church. We also took individual-level factors into consideration in our analysis. Indeed, we found that the clergy’s attitude toward civic engagement, especially bishops, directly influenced the Church’s civic engagement in that area. In the case of Hong Kong, this is a powerful explanatory factor that explains why the Church there outperforms those in the other three cities.

Sixteen projects have been conducted as scheduled and have achieved important findings during the three-year Chinese Spirituality and Society program. Without a doubt, this is a marvelous beginning and a milestone in China’s social science of religion. It is hoped that the deeper influence of religion in the contemporary changing society of China will gradually manifest the transcendental values of this series of research projects. As investigators for these projects, we deeply feel that the social scientific study of religion, as a universal scientific enterprise, has a consistent belief that started as early as Max Weber’s value neutrality: the pursuit of scientific methods and universal academic norms. Based on this pursuit, we hope to comprehend religious issues in different countries, societies, and ideologies beyond parochial limits, and to push religious studies, sociology of religion, and social science of religion to a higher scholarly level.