AsianScientist (August 30, 2018) – By Sim Shuzhen – Religions are nearly impossible to contain, as people move from place to place, and so do their beliefs, cultures, and worldviews. Evangelical movements are further accelerating the spread and influence of religions, and in today’s globalized, hyper-connected, social media-fueled world, religions have gained mobility.
How has the movement of people and beliefs across borders affected landscapes, cultures and religious identities? Scholars explored these and other questions during the “Religion on the Move in the Global East” session at the inaugural conference of the East Asian Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, which was held from July 3 to 5, 2018 at the Singapore Management University (SMU).
Buddhism, nationalism and evangelization
In his talk, titled “Towards Transnational Buddhist Nationalism: Dharma Sinicization and Buddhist Evangelization,” Assistant Professor Huang Weishan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong examined how Chinese culture influenced Han Buddhism and, in turn, helped to increase the religion’s international reach.
This influence of Chinese culture, or sinicization, can take the form of several narratives, Professor Huang said. For example, monastic narratives—official announcements or communications from temple abbots—may place religious stories in a historical Chinese context or address how temple functions align with secular social functions such as the preservation of the Chinese art or architecture.
State-level narratives that touch on “telling Chinese history fairly” can also validate or lend more legitimacy to temples, Prof Huang said. In interviews, Professor Huang has also documented the narratives of local governments that view Han Buddhism as part of Chinese culture, as opposed to other “foreign” religions.
“There is less tension between government policy and Han Buddhism. [as compared to other religions],” she says.
At least one abbot has used the emerging discourse of Sinicization – as well as social media platforms like WeChat – to position and gain support for international evangelical projects, such as the “One Hundred Temples for the Promotion of Buddhism” initiative aimed at to build temples overseas, Professor Huang said. This temple-building initiative has had considerable success, with donations of land and money from benefactors in countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and Australia.
These trends may indicate a shift towards what Professor Huang called a new transnational religious solidarity and a new transnational Buddhist nationalism – two phenomena that her research aims to better understand, she concluded.
A new country, a new religion
It’s not just religious beliefs that cross borders. People are also on the move, and migration can bring them into contact with religions to which they would otherwise not be exposed in their country of origin.
Many migrants from China to Singapore, for example, encounter religion for the first time in their host country; indeed, many Christian groups in Singapore actively target Chinese migrants in their evangelistic efforts, SMU Assistant Professor Orlando Woods said in his talk, “Fractured Lives, Newfound Freedoms: The Politics of Religious Seekership Amongst Chinese Migrants in Singapore”.
Having grown up in a system where religion is suppressed, migrants who convert to Christianity in Singapore are likely to go through a renegotiation of their values and identity, Professor Woods added.
“For many [Chinese], Chinese identity and Christian identity are mutually exclusive. Bringing them together is problematic and involves various forms of negotiating difference.
In work with SMU Senior Professor Lily Kong, Professor Woods explores how Chinese Christian converts in Singapore reconcile these differences, as well as how their conversion affects their relationships with groups such as other Chinese migrants, Singaporeans, family and friends.
At the start of the project, the researchers assumed that the harmonizing and inclusive aspects of religion would help overcome differences and bring people together.
“However, what our findings have shown so far is that the opposite is true,” Prof Woods said. “The [inclusive] the teachings of religion are there in Singapore, but they often fail to overcome differences within society and in many cases actually create new forms of difference and division.
Conversions and Conflicts
After conducting in-depth interviews with Chinese Christian converts in Singapore, Singaporean Christians and Singapore-based Christian clergy, Professor Woods and his team structured their findings into four dialectics: freedom and control, giving and receiving, questioning and authority, and community and identity. .
The Dialectics of Questioning and Authority, for example, explores how Chinese migrants, who have gone through an extremely secular education system, approach Christianity with a much more analytical attitude and with many critical questions.
This level of control has sometimes rubbed Singaporean Christians the wrong way, Prof Woods said. A Chinese interviewee, for example, recounted being offended at a Bible study when she persisted in questioning the study leader’s views on human evolution; Singaporean Christians, for their part, have described Chinese migrants as “demanding” converts.
“[Chinese migrants’] Christian peers were ill-equipped to answer these questions sufficiently, which caused tension within the community,” Professor Woods said.
Both migration and conversion involve leaving behind communities and identities and forging new ones – ideas that researchers have explored in the dialectics of community and identity. Here too, respondents reported conflict and division. Some Chinese converts, for example, recounted drifting away from their non-Christian Chinese friends because they could no longer get along; other converts felt out of place or in an “in-between” position when they later returned to China, Prof Woods said.
The impact of religion on societal integration and communities is particularly relevant to Singapore, which in recent years has increasingly relied on Chinese and other migrants to fill various skills gaps in the workforce. work, added Professor Woods.
“The Singapore context is helpful in giving us empirical insight into the process of associating these ideas of being Chinese and being Christian,” he explained.
Asian Scientist Magazine is a media partner of Singapore Management University’s Office of Research and Technology Transfer.