Engaged Religions and the Public Good in Chinese Societies

Julia Chien-yu Huang (Anthropology, National Tsing-hua University, Taiwan)

Robert Weller (Anthropology, Boston University)

Lizhu Fan (Sociology, Fudan University, China)

The expanding role of socially engaged religions can be seen across the entire world, from American arguments about government support for churches taking increased education and welfare roles, to the role of Islamic groups whose social base rests in part on such services (like Hamas in the Middle East or the Welfare Party in Turkey), to new Buddhist groups providing medical aid around the world.  This project will clarify how particular religious traditions, in their political and social contexts, may become engaged and what the social consequences are for civil life.  The project speaks to religious policy debates in Chinese and other socities, as well as adding to academic thought about religion and civil life.

We will base the research in three different Chinese societies, although the theoretical issues at stake have global significance.  Chinese societies offer some of the most fruitful ground in the world to examine problems of religious variation because they offer us a shared cultural tradition placed into very contexts.  Our comparative project will focus around three core questions.  First, what difference does the particular religious tradition make?  The main lines of comparison will be Chinese popular temple worship, new Buddhist religious developments, and Christianity.  The second core question involves the role of religious scale:  What are the social effects of differences between diffuse local religion and the centralized institutions of Buddhism or some Christianity, or between China’s official churches and the localized house church movement?  Third, how does the broader political and social context shape religious possibilities?  To explore this, we will compare religions across three quite different political and social systems, in China, Malaysia, and Taiwan, which created very different conditions for the development of engaged religions, and thus provide a very useful basis for comparison.