Sun, Dec 19, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Taiwan's complex religious life gets clarification

'Religion in Modern Taiwan' takes on the daunting task of making sense of the country's huge diversity of religious beliefs

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Religion in Modern Taiwan
Edited by Philip Clart and Charles B. Jones
334 pages
University of Hawall Press

There's a fundamental problem that lies at the heart of cultural studies wherever religion is concerned.

Essentially -- though there are exceptions -- many modern Western men and women can't bring themselves to subscribe to any religion at all. With the choice between believing in a virgin birth, the vengeful ghosts of aborted fetuses, the rebirth of your soul in the form of a cat, or a jealous god who allows the death of his son to temper his anger at humanity, many modern Westerners throw up their hands and exclaim: "Let's just believe we are life forms similar to other animals, and that after death it's all over. As for spirits, if there are any, I've never seen one."

On the other hand, however, they tend to look at the world and find themselves coming to the rather startling conclusion that religious societies are generally preferable to non-religious ones.

This is particularly the case when observing Chinese societies.

The Communists in China, who parroted Karl Marx by declaring religion to be the opiate of the masses, proceeded to prohibit religious observances. During the Cultural Revolution, China's anti-religion fervor reached its apex when Red Guards tore down all the shrines and temples they could find.

With this virulent phase of the revolutionary cycle passed, there's often little left now to practice. The temples have gone, the priestly line of succession has been broken, and, though people might want to have something to believe in, they can't easily discover appropriate vehicles for their instincts. Hence, some say, the popularity in China of Falun Gong.

In Taiwan, by contrast, the thread has never been severed, and the island is awash with religious observances of every kind. It's a phenomenon to which Religion in Modern Taiwan, a collection of academic studies by different scholars, abundantly attests.

Few would deny that Taiwan's situation vis-a-vis religion is a great deal preferable to China's, and many interesting questions about religious observance and practice in Taiwan are raised in this probing book.

Did the post-war government in Taiwan, by pursuing a policy of modernization and rationalization, actively promote Confucianism while seeking to downgrade Daoist traditions, seeing them as superstitious and wasteful?

What was the relationship between the KMT and the Buddhists? (In other words, did Buddhists, secretly or otherwise, advocate democracy? The answer here appears to be no.)

What are the historical reasons behind the strong showing of the Presbyterians among the Amis Aboriginals?

And so on.

It's hardly surprising that the academics responsible for this collection don't address the problem of what they, as writers, might or might not believe. Mostly, you imagine, they would turn in embarrassment if asked whether they believe in Presbyterianism, Daoism, Buddhism or Confucianism.

It's not good manners in the academic community to raise such matters.

Instead, they look at the religious life of Taiwan as they would look at any other sociological phenomenon, such as housing, perhaps, or international trade statistics. Their disinterestedness is markedly advantageous to their analysis.

Religion, the editors say in the introduction, is a social construct. It's like languages -- although they can die completely, they tend instead to change slowly. Old rituals, like old words, fall into disuse, and new religious practices, like new words, emerge to replace them. The one thing they rarely do is stand still.

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