Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gray matter

Just read a first book about religion in contemporary China, and it's amply confirmed my religious studies excitement about going there next year. Purdue Sociologist Fenggang Yang's Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Community Rule (Oxford, 2012) surveys the place of religion in China before, during and after various communist measures at control - or, during the Cultural Revolution, elimination - and develops a broader theory of religion to make sense of it. A great place to start exploring!

Yang challenges secularization narratives as well as the "new paradigm of religious vitality" in recent US religious studies, the idea that China has never been religious (Hu Shih) and also the view that China has always been religiously pluralist in a "diffused" way (C. K. Yang). China is better explained as a religious "oligopoly" - several religions are officially recognized by the state, all others repressed - and an object lesson in the futility of religious regulation.

The main theoretical proposal is a "triple-market" understanding of religion. When what is permitted (he calls it the "red" religious market) doesn't meet everyone's religious demands (he takes from Janos Kornai the idea of a "scarcity economy" found across communist societies), a "black" market of underground practices and communities emerges. The costs of participation in the black market are high, however, so a third market emerges, a "gray" one, which includes the forbidden activities of members of permitted religions as well as alternative religions presenting themselves non-religiously (as culture or folklore, as economic driver, or - as in the case of Qigong - as health science). If all these are included, China seems religiouslyvibrant beyond most estimates, and likely to remain so as long as the government tries to manage the religious sector.

It's a rich and intriguing thesis, engaging many of the broad theory of religion questions I love to discuss. Yang rejects those views which suppose religion culturally or historically contingent, something which might not be a feature of some societies and will in any case disappear from any society as it modernizes, but also those like the "new paradigm" which presuppose an unchanging demand" for religion among all people which religious organizations seek to meet. As Yang reads the Chinese evidence, religious demand, at least "active demand," does seem to ebb and flow in response to changing environments.

Despite its title, though, Religion in China offers itself as a contribution to the sociology of religion as a whole, not just the study of a region; indeed, Yang scorns regionalist views (like the exceptionalisms bedeviling the study of religion in America) as unscientific. Leave the search for the "idiosyncratic uniqueness" of particular regions to the humanities, he says (10). Fighting words - but I can understand his desire to shake up a sociology of religion seeking universals in European and North American experiences but seeking culturally specific phenomena - if anything - everywhere else.

The book does leave me wanting more texture in its account of China, though - and not just, I think, because I'm in the humanities. Yang rightly questions the "new paradigm" assumption that the story of religious change is the story of competition among suppliers in the face of a constant demand, but he doesn't provide any account of the nature (and varieties?) of religious "demand" or what drives it, and drives it to change when it changes. By default he winds up endorsing a somewhat flabby version of the "new paradigm" view, a view suggested by occasional use of phrases like "religious" or "spiritual hunger" (144, 152) and reference to a "spiritual consciousness ... waiting to be awakened" (118, see 139). Are all people spiritual, then, needing a religious dimension to their lives? If one think so one should admit it, and, especially if a scientist, give some reasons for others to agree - and explain why it doesn't express itself consistently in "active demand."

I have no doubt Yang has interesting and considered views about all this, just not in this book. But on reflection I find that these are precisely the questions most interesting to me - and the ones which make me think that a sojourn in China would be so edifying. There may be better ways than thinking of religious "demand" but I'll let it stand. What I want to know is what the oligopolistic Chinese past, always with attendant black and gray markets, has done to understandings of cosmos and society. More recently I want to know how religious "demand" has been shaped by violent collective traumas, massive social disruptions, collectivizations, the Cultural Revolution, the one child policy, and the future shock of contemporary China's top-speed transformations. Etc!

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