Richard Madsen, Democracy’s Dharma: Religious Renaissance and Political Development in Taiwan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 207, 192 pp.
The four groups studied, particularly the three Buddhist ones, are among the largest non-governmental organizations in Taiwan, claiming millions of members and operating branches in several countries. They are “modern” religious organizations in the sense that they are based on voluntary adhesion rather than the ascriptive, customary membership of traditional groups. Although they have a core of monks, nuns and priests, their membership is primarily made up of laypeople who are efficiently organized to carry out volunteer, public service and administrative tasks. They own extensive financial assets (reaching the billions of dollars) and properties (including universities and hospitals). They are highly adept in the use of modern media, operating high-quality newspapers, magazines, websites, and TV stations.
Although nominally Buddhist or Daoist, the groups share a common “Confucian” core expressed as a commitment to this-worldly self-cultivation, upholding the family virtues of filial piety (xiao), and nurturing social harmony – values which are given new meaning in the context of modern, middle-class lives. Indeed, the groups give expression to the spiritual and social yearnings of Taiwan’s new middle class – and each is associated with one particular segment of that class: the lower middle class of shopkeepers, clerical workers and retail clerks for the Enacting Heaven Temple; affluent business owners, government officials and politicians for Foguangshan; modern managers and service professionals for Tzu Chi; and intellectuals for Fagushan.
All the groups combine the local lore, traditions and symbols which are familiar to anyone growing up in Taiwan, with a more transcendent, universalist and cosmopolitan orientation. As a result, they contribute to articulating a positive, “ecumenical” expression of Taiwanese identity, in contrast to the divisive formulations advocated by the parties confronting each other in the political sphere. Since the Taiwanese state is not recognized within the global society of nations, it cannot fully incarnate the collective aspirations of the Taiwanese people; while the four religious groups, with their transnational networks of followers, their relief and philanthropic operations in China and abroad, and their contacts with foreign governments and dignitaries, act as emissaries of a benevolent Taiwanese identity on the world stage.
For Madsen, the Taiwanese religious groups demonstrate the fallacy of the secularism of liberal political theory, which posits that a healthy democracy rests on an enlightened citizenry freed from the mental shackes of religious mythology, and on a civil society which asserts its independence vis-à-vis the state and keeps the state in check. The Taiwanese religious movements, however, have grown and acquired mass followings in parallel with the process of Taiwan’s democratization, but, while maintaining their autonomy through rootedness in their spiritual principles, they have maintained cooperative relations with the Taiwanese government – in contrast with American churches which seek state funds to build religious schools, Tzu Chi uses its own funds to build public schools controlled by the government! But for Madsen, such close relationships do not indicate an unfinished stage of civil society development; rather, they have contributed to the consolidation of Taiwanese democracy by softening its “rough edges”, by nurturing the volunteer engagement of citizens, and by providing a conservative force which has helped to stabilize a still young and fragile democracy.
Madsen even sees these groups as offering a beacon of hope to the world. On the one hand, secularism has failed and there is increasing recognition of the need for society to rest on shared sacred and moral foundations; on the other hand, most religious movements which, today, would claim to provide such foundations are divisive and dangerous for world peace. In Taiwan, however, we see the emergence of universalistic groups which, though rooted in local traditions, lead their followers to transcend particularistic divisions, to become aware of the unity of humankind, and to engage with other cultures and religions in a truly ecumenical spirit. These “moments of axial religious creativity” are thus models to be studied and emulated around the world: they should be investigated while they are still alive, so that we may cultivate similar “shoots of hope” in other times and places (p. 157). What Madsen is proposing, in effect, is a new agenda for research and action in the sociology of religion: what are the characteristics of the “new axial age” he suggests the Taiwanese groups are expressions of? If secularism is not a viable model for an emerging global society, then what type of “progressive” sacrality and religion is appropriate? What conditions facilitate the emergence of such progressive religious traits? And how can they be actively nurtured?