Friday, June 24, 2005

Religious Tolerance in Taiwan

An acquaintance observes:
I must admit to having trained to be a [Christian Cleric] many years ago. It did not take me very long after training to become an atheist! Years have now passed, and my studies of religions or curiosity have not abated. Buddhism became something which I have felt most comfortable with,and I guess as a philosophy it quite suited me. Since marriage and being introduced to Daoism, Taiwanese buddhism and other "isms" I learned something very important from my lovely wife. She, in all her wisdom simply says that no matter what you believe in, you should show respect...for people, their beliefs and their culture. She is not critical of any religion or belief....(except for the JW's and the Mormons). It is a moving experience to go to the temple and just observe whole families paying respects. It is something which we foreigners should consider more, not as a religion, but as a lifestyle.
It's interesting, the tolerance here, compared to how bad things are getting in the US. Katha Pollitt in the Nation logs this sad tale of an atheist who was attacked by the tabloids and essentially denied a position at a university in NY city. Bertrand Russell? No, this one happened in 2005. Taiwanese do occasionally go ape over sex (note how the attack on Ms. Ho was driven by foreign-introduced religious groups, whose primary goal appears to be control over the minds and bodies of others), and there is of course the omnipresence of political issues. But religion is simply not on the radar here.

Meanwhile, in Taiwan, people of all religions live together peaceably, and atheism is widely accepted. I always tell my atheist friends in the US, where atheist males outnumber atheist females something like 2-1, that East Asia is an enormous pool of atheist females -- and tolerant ones where not atheist -- that they should take advantage of.

UPDATE June 25: An incredibly virile and stupendously effective gamer sent me an article he wrote recently on this issue. Here's a excerpt:

The Taiwanese seem to have figured this out, while the rest of the world stumbles along with religious condemnation, relentless proselytizing, and the occasional holy war. That makes Taiwan a great place for atheists, and a tougher ride for those who feel compelled to come here and save souls. The advanced attitudes of people in Taiwan towards religion makes converting them to a new faith very difficult. Consider our diligent Mormon missionaries- The LDS church has been in Taiwan since 1956. Total Mormons in Taiwan today: 38,735. There are still more Muslims in Taiwan (53,000) than there are Mormons, and I have yet to see a single Muslim missionary here. Of course, that could be because Muslims don't spend much time at PJ's or FM.

So true!



28 comments:

Maoman said...

Sure, there's tolerance, but only because there's very little depth of understanding of *any* religion here - even the local ones.

I'd attribute this to a lack of religious education. Whereas Sunday School is such an important part of a North American church upbringing that all of the major bible stories have cultural resonance even among non-believers, most people here have only the sketchiest knowledge of any religion, foreign or local.

I'm glad that there's no religious friction here the way there is in other communities, especially ones where fundamentalism is dominant, but the theological/philosophical void that serves as the religious millieu of Taiwan isn't exactly inspiring.

Michael Turton said...

That's an interesting take, Maoman. But there's no depth of religious understanding in the US either -- "Sunday school" is essentially enforced indoctrination, and Bible Study is even worse, mere memorizing of interpretations. I know few Christians who are aware, for example, that the New Testament was originally written in Greek or that the stories of Moses are now known to be non-historical, etc, and outside of a skeptics and religious scholars, few in the US do any serious thinking about religion either. They simply accept what they are told -- if there is any body of voidheads, it's Christian religious believers in the US (well, Mormons are probably even worse).

I like the "void" here, I think it is a positive thing. Here religion is not something you are, it is something you do. This may reflect the difference between a polytheistic religion that emphasizes religious practice and religious experience over a text-based religion that emphasizes specific knowledge and specific interpretations linked to specific sects (if you're Preterist Mark 13 means one thing, if you're Catholic, another). Religious is not so strongly linked to self-identity here. I suspect you interpret the lack of knowledge as a "void" because of your cultural expectations that religious experience will be presented as "knowledge about religion" whereas the Chinese see that as tedious and prefer to focus on the useful actions of the gods -- will they make me rich/cure my disease/get rid of the ghost of the baby I aborted?

Michael

Anonymous said...

It is a little odd that the JW's should actually have a web site with some amazing statistics on it. For those interested here it is http://www.jwic.com/stat.htm
You have to admire them for their tenacity. Just imagine spending 18,000 hours preaching to convert 1 Japanese!
Most people have better things to do.
Did you know that JW's especially women are not allowed to read the bible unless there is an elder present? Did you know that every educational decision made by JW's has to be approved of by elders?
Did you know they are actively dissuaded from going to university?

Maoman said...

When I talk about religion having cultural resonance, I'm talking about understanding the basic tenets of the faith. In the west, even non-believers understand the basic story lines of the creation story, original sin, David and Goliath, Samson & Delilah, Daniel & the Lion's Den, Noah's Ark, Moses & the burning bush, the story of exodus, and from the new testament, the parables of Jesus, the sermon on the mount, etc. Python's Life of Brian wouldn't be funny if the people watching it didn't "get" the jokes, no? This indicates at least a general knowledge of the religion and its stories that doesn't exist in Taiwan with *any* religion.

And as far as the useful actions of the gods (-- will they make me rich/cure my disease/get rid of the ghost of the baby I aborted?), that is not religion in as much as it is a spiritual lucky rabbit's foot. There's not much room for spiritual questions of theology, redemption, sin, evil, love, etc.

Of course this doesn't apply to the very small minority of Buddhists and others in Taiwan who actually understand their religion - but these tend to be few and far between, IMO.

Karl said...

"In the west, even non-believers understand the basic story lines of..."

Maoman, if this were mathematics, I would be the exception that ruins your proof. Originally raised Southern Baptist, baptised in a Methodist church, and I had no earthly idea that there even existed a story about Daniel and the Lion's Den. Sermon on the Mount? Um, Jesus gave a Sermon, and it was on a mount somewhere?

But this is religion, not mathematics, so I may be dismissed as a sarcastic aberration. And instead of logic I'll just go back to good ole fashioned rhetorical chicanery. Tell me Maoman, if you took a poll of self-professed American Christians, what % of them could tell you the substance of the Sermon on the Mount? All? Half? A quarter? I'll buy you all the pizza you can eat if it's over 10%. Monty Python's 'Life of Brian', while screamingly funny to you, me and Michael, was not exactly a huge smash hit. But man, people sure did like MIB, didn't they?

Maoman said...

Karl, as you say, you'd be the exception. Of course aberrations exist with any generalization, but generalizations can still be made.

Most of my peers, religious or not,know what the trials of Job refers to, they know that Muslims, Christians and Jews share the same God, they know the story of Noah's Ark, and of course the story of Bethlehem, mangers and wise men. They might not know the Sermon the Mount by name, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that a majority of people with a liberal arts education could finish this sentence: :Blessed are the ______, for they shall inherit the _______."

Of course none of this competes with pop culture in terms of familiarity, but that's not the comparison I'm making. I'm comparing knowledge of basic tenets of faith among westerners and Taiwanese. I maintain that Taiwanese know very little about the religions they profess to identify with, certainly much less than westerners, and that that is a factor if not a primary reason for the lack of religious friction in society here.

It's also why I never get into arguments about calculus with my buddies - we just don't know anything about the subject...

Michael Turton said...

And as far as the useful actions of the gods (-- will they make me rich/cure my disease/get rid of the ghost of the baby I aborted?), that is not religion in as much as it is a spiritual lucky rabbit's foot. There's not much room for spiritual questions of theology, redemption, sin, evil, love, etc.

Again, that's just your culture's way of constructing what religion is. In the US, religion is X, in Taiwan, religion is Y. Or even simpler, you consider the Taiwanese vacuous because they don't consider such questions, they consider you vacuous because you do.

As I said to the Mormon guy posting on the other blog entry, in the Christian theological matrix, these ideas of sin, love, and redemption are the devices of authoritarian control, Maoman. When a Christian says "love" he means "power" just as when a Communist says "worker" he means "slave" and when a Facist says "citizen" he means "subject." The whole idea behind words like sin and redemption is to the believer to modify their behave toward desired System norms without the System having to expend precious resources in monitoring believer behavior. There's no difference in function between a concept like "sin" and one like "counterrevolutionary thoughts." That is why most authority systems, be they Christian, Communist, Corportae, Muslim, Mormon, Facist, whatever, indoctrinate the young. We send our kids for First Communion at Church, and then to McDonald's for their birthday party, and both are equal though different forms of the same kind of indoctrination. Such activities get the young to internalize System values and identify with the System so that they accept it before they have developed a robust intellectual capacity to think about it. The result is that otherwise sensitive, rational, and intelligent people can write nonsense like "your religion is magic, mine is miracle."

So perhaps another reason that Taiwanese don't think about such things is that they instinctively recognize and reject attempts to impose (yet another) system of authority and control on their lives.

BTW, Folk Taoism produced almost exactly the same set of religious motifs and ideas that Christianity produced, including a triune God, a savior figure, a madonna and child, heaven, hell, sin, a devil, and even a pope. Maybe you'd like to rethink this whole idea of the shallowness of the local mind on religion...

Michael

Michael Turton said...

I maintain that Taiwanese know very little about the religions they profess to identify with, certainly much less than westerners, and that that is a factor if not a primary reason for the lack of religious friction in society here.

I think we're going in circles here, so I'll just drop in at Barna, the Christian survey group
and who, by lucky coincidence,has a story on this very topic today
entitled "Christians Say They Do Best At Relationships, Worst In Bible Knowledge." Barna always has lots of great information, and continually chides Christians for holding unChristian beliefs (35% of born-agains believe Jesus was only spiritually, not physically, raised). If you hop over to their topics list, you can learn a lot about how little Christians actually know.

One of the things I do in my spare time is converse with evangelicals, for I believe as an atheist that unless rational people reach out to the Fundy whackjobs, we are all doomed. I have no problem with liberal Christians, so I ignore them most of the time. One thing I have found, time and again, is how little they know. In fact, their ignorance of the bible and Christian history is so vast it is almost impossible to hold a conversation with them. One of the first things I usually do is recommend some basic intro texts.

I maintain that Taiwanese know very little about the religions they profess to identify with, certainly much less than westerners, and that that is a factor if not a primary reason for the lack of religious friction in society here.

No, I believe it is because the Taiwanese do not adhere to any exclusivist, evangelistic, oppressive, apocalyptic authority beliefs like those that emerged out of the Middle East. There is next to nothing in the major Taiwanese religions that requires exclusion of others for being non-believers, gay, different religion, etc. There was never any Pauline theology with its sexual neuroses and its fear of being "unequally yoked" and its hatred of everything human. The reason there is religious friction in the West is precisely because there is at bottom no tolerance in any of the major Christian religious views, though there is of course endless tolerance in many wonderful Christians. Prior to the introduction of Islam and Christianity there were no religious wars in China. That should tell you something.

Michael

Karl said...

Yesterday the wife and I were up at the Yi Kuan Tao temple in Dakeng, taking pictures of their 五老聖人statues. The five sages (saints?) are: Confucious, Lao-tzu, Jesus, Mohammed, and the big Buddhist guy whose name I can't spell (Shakira? Shaka-zulu?)
So we had a nice chat with a nun, who explained that each of the five sages spoke the truth, and that we must learn from all five to achieve peace and understanding and yada yada and I stopped paying attention because I really just wanted the pics of Jesus and Mohammed up there next to each other (They are actually on the ends, with the other guys in the middle).

Anyway, the whole temple exemplifies this practical, philosophically mature approach to religion that the Taiwanese are so good at:

A:"Here, see all these religions? They are all correct."

B:"But they contradict each other"

A:"That is only a problem for you, God is not bothered by contradictions."

Anonymous said...

Taiwanese athiests are different too. They are not so dogmatic like American athiests, don't prosythletize their atheism, and don't disdain those (like their parents) who do believe.

Michael Turton said...

Most American atheists don't prosyletize their atheism either, as they are generally both tolerant and easygoing about the beliefs of others. So was I once, until the Religious Right rose. Additionally, there is widespread prejudice against atheists in the US -- more people would vote for a gay than an atheist for president, and in several states the constitution specifies that religious belief is a requirement for public office. That can't be enforced (at the moment) but it is indicative. Thus most atheists in the US are firmly in the closet. Indeed, I know of several pastors who are atheists.

Michael

Michael Turton said...

A:"Here, see all these religions? They are all correct."

B:"But they contradict each other"

A:"That is only a problem for you, God is not bothered by contradictions."


*sigh of pleasure*

Red A said...

Michael,

You and Karl are like HIGH PRIESTS of Atheism.

I am basically an agnostic/atheist, but you don't see me researching the Bible, etc. You do know that time could be spent productively looking for porn on the internet or thinking of ways to stop Malv?

I am also interested in a little experiment. Please ask your Taiwanese atheist friends if they ever worship their ancestors, say for Chinese New Year.

I'd like to know the percentage that answer YES to that question.

And explain again why I cannot call the police and have the Matsu 5:00 a.m. procession stopped seeing as we are in a religiously tolerant society you'd think they'd take us non-believers into account.

And don't even get me started on the begging monks or the pressure to donate to temples.

I think you guys have married into and stayed away from religious families here...talk to Garret whose ex-girlfriend's father was a geomancer. My business partner's aunt is a crazy buddha freak.

And I do recall leading buddhists claiming 921 was a punishment for all of the sins in Taiwan. Sounds like Falwell to me.

Red A said...

Though it must be said I grew up in California, and was in a non-religious household, though technically Mom claims we are Christian (funny, never got around to baptising me...LOL.)

So maybe I consider Taiwan's religious environment differently than a guy from Florida would.

Maoman said...

Wow - this should be a thread on Forumosa - I need the quote function!

I haven't been talking about the knowledge of believers or the rightness of one set of beliefs or the other - I'm talking about awareness of religion within the general culture.

Even non-believers in the west are familiar with the examples I pointed out in my earlier posts - religion has been an integral part of of western history for the last couple of thousand years. In the west, educated people need to understand religion even if they don't believe if they want to understand their cultural heritage. Bertrand Russell wouldn't be able to wax so eloquently about atheism if he didn't know so much about Christianity. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel requires an understanding of the tenets of the faith, as does so much of pre-renaissance art. To understand Bach, Beethoven or Mozart, you need to understand (not believe, necessarily) the religion that inspired them. Handel's Messiah doesn't make a bit of sense if you're ignorant of the story behind it.

Unfortuately, many Taiwanese I have met who identify themselves as Buddhist have no understanding of what it means to be Buddhist, which is too bad, as Buddhism is a beautiful religion. For completely secular Taiwanese, the amount of any kind of religious knowledge is next to nothing. Back to my original point - I believe this lack of knowledge is a major reason for "harmony" of religions here.

Any comments about the degree of knowledge amongst believers here or in the west, or the rightness of any religion, is outside the scope of my post.

Michael Turton said...

I am also interested in a little experiment. Please ask your Taiwanese atheist friends if they ever worship their ancestors, say for Chinese New Year.

I'll try that. I bet the answer will be yes in many cases. Just more of that Taiwanese ability to juggle many religious ideas at one time.

I think you guys have married into and stayed away from religious families here...talk to Garret whose ex-girlfriend's father was a geomancer. My business partner's aunt is a crazy buddha freak.

My wife was pretty deep into Tibetan Buddhism, made a good living for someone with her donations. She stopped that after she got married. Her father is an actual skeptic and doesn't believe in anything.

And I do recall leading buddhists claiming 921 was a punishment for all of the sins in Taiwan. Sounds like Falwell to me.

I seem to recall something like that too.

Michael Turton said...

religion has been an integral part of of western history for the last couple of thousand years.

Also true of China...

Unfortuately, many Taiwanese I have met who identify themselves as Buddhist have no understanding of what it means to be Buddhist, which is too bad, as Buddhism is a beautiful religion.

Maybe they just understand it differently...

For completely secular Taiwanese, the amount of any kind of religious knowledge is next to nothing. Back to my original point - I believe this lack of knowledge is a major reason for "harmony" of religions here.

Maybe. But maybe it is also because few Taiwanese subscribe to religions that are militant about other beliefs. None of the major beliefs of China, Taoism, Buddhism, or Confucianism, require that all other beliefs be stamped out for being wrong. That is not true of any of the Abrahamic beliefs, except perhaps for Judaism, though it has had periods of both missionizing and militancy.

Would the converse be true? If Taiwanese really understood their religions, they would all fight each other all the time like westerners do? Somehow I don't see that here. Locals who are religious seem to lack the urge to stamp out other beliefs, unlike in the west. Religious intolerance has never been a characteristic of Chinese religious life.

Any comments about the degree of knowledge amongst believers here or in the west, or the rightness of any religion, is outside the scope of my post.

But Maoman, you claimed there was something deep about theology, sin, redemption, etc, whereas those are ideas with little or no depth whatsoever. Your assignment of "depth" to these ideas is cultural baggage. I've been an atheist since I was about 11 or so, the whole of my cognizant life, so these ideas have no depth for me -- I see them for what they are, the artifices of control.

They are not any more "spiritual" than putting out mirrors to ward off evil spirits. Your whole way of thinking about what is spiritual and what is not is shot through with cultural assumptions about what religion should look like. A friend of mine who researches Mormons here has pointed that out repeatedly in discussions of his research with me -- the whole construction of religion is completely different here, and western religious practice does not feel like or look like "religion" to many locals. Locals are in fact very knowledgeable about their religious practices. They burn ghost money in the right way and at the right times. They place tables of goodies in front of their shops when they open it. They consult feng shui and other practicioners when necessary. I don't think you've really faced this point: your idea of what "religion" mean is confounded by cross-cultural issues.

Michael

Michael Turton said...

BTW, on knowledge of the Bible and Christianity in America...

Here's the Bible Literacy Project

Now let's consider the actual results. What do high school students know?

The good news: If you ask questions that are so simple the average arthropod would find them patronizing, and cast them in multiple choice format to make things even easier . . . American high school students do okay. Almost three-quarters (72 percent) of students in the survey could answer correctly that Moses "led the Israelites out of bondage." Ninety percent could tell you that Adam and Eve were the first man and woman in Genesis. Sixty-nine percent figured out that "the Good Samaritan" was "someone who helps others." Break out the champagne!

On second thought . . . "Significant minorities of American students have not yet achieved even this rudimentary level of Bible knowledge." "Eight percent of American teens," for example, "believe that Moses is one of the twelve Apostles."

Go beyond rudimentary and you find that "very few American students" have the level of Bible knowledge that high-school English teachers regard as "basic to a good education." "Almost two-thirds of teens" couldn't pick the right answer out of four choices when they were asked to identify "a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount" ("Blessed are the poor in spirit"). Two-thirds didn't know that "the Road to Damascus is where St. Paul was blinded by a vision of Christ." Fewer than a third "could correctly identify which statement about David was not true (David tried to kill King Saul)." And so on.


And this one here:


Here's another take on literacy

Despite this fact, we are becoming what historian Stephen Prothero calls a "nation of religious illiterates." Prothero cites a 1997 survey in which 12 percent of Americans incorrectly identified Noah's wife as Joan of Arc and two-thirds were unable to name the four Gospels

I clashed with the Bible Literacy Project, a Christian Right Trojan Horse, on my NT studies blog here, on this very topic.

Karl said...

Maoman, you said: "I believe this lack of knowledge is a major reason for "harmony" of religions here."

OK, I'll bite. If that is true, then religious education is evil and needs to be done away with. Now excuse me, I'm off to blow up a few Sunday schools.

And this definitely should NOT be a thread on Forumosa. If I wanted my speech to be reined in by heavy-handed control freaks, I'd... go join a church or something.

Maoman said...

Heavy-handed control freaks?

Ouch.

Karl said...

Sorry, your last post was off-topic. I'm going to have to flounder it.

Red A said...

Never seen any Muslim missionaries in Taiwan, eh?

I have seen them. At Sahara. I also picked up a religious pamphlet.

Oh well, I gues I am just unlucky this way.

By the way, I can't consider someone an atheist if they persist in ancestor worship.

Red A said...

I'd say the most atheistic person I met in Taiwan (besides the two high priests here) would be an old guy named Joe who fought with the KMT.

He was of the old nationalist school that to strengthen China all the old superstitions had to go.

I loved him in class...talking about Feng Shui and the guy gets almost angry "That's just nonsense!" etc.

Cool for a 70 year old man.

Karl said...

Aaron, I seriously doubt that you have seen Muslim missionaries at Sahara. You might have seen a Muslim who wanted to give you information about his religion, but someone whose sole purpose in coming to Taiwan was to proselytize? Naw.

Red A said...

Thanks for doubting me, but I think I recognize an IMAM when I see one.

And he was not Taiwanese, so you'd have to wonder what he would be doing in Taiwan...hmmmmmmm. Well, there is that Saudi funded Mosque in DaTun.

The pamphlet was left on the magazine rack.

Jon said...

Hi Michael,
Enjoyed meeting you at Scott Turton's site. Here's a NYTimes article on an atheist summer camp I thought you'd like:
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/29/education/29camp.html?8hpib

On this discussion, I think several things are important:
(1) in both the US and Taiwan, there is something like "civil religion" that draws on a range of discourses. Thus, many Americans are basically monotheistic, "like" the Bible and Jesus, etc., but don't go in for church or pick and choose what they believe when they do go to church (Robert Bellah's "Sheelahism"). Similarly, I remember reading that Taiwan has the highest number of temples in the world per capita, but this doesn't mean everyone's actively professing.

2) Sometimes it helps to distinguish between world and local religions and between "universal" and ethnic religions. (I know, it gets messy.) Christianity is polemical just like many forms of Buddhism are polemical. Pretty much all world religions are growing or staying the same (Xty, Islam, Hinduism, etc.), but so is secularism. This is because the smaller tribal identities are getting bumped off and globalization is helping to carry the larger, stronger traditions.

My guess is that in 100 years in Taiwan, both Buddhism and Christianity and probably Daoism will have higher participation rates, and that nominal religion will be down but maybe secularism- atheism will be up?

I always get bogged down in particularity on these things...

Michael Turton said...

Jon, who is Scott Turton?

jere said...

A handful of brave souls risked torture and fire to liberate others.
They were pacifists, believers in equality of all before God.
This their story,
and of those who came to love them,
and of those who ruthlessly hunted them. These courageous teachers called themselves "Brethren".