Religious florescence in Taiwan. A project in search of help.

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 14 Oct 1995 13:51:57 +0900

Religion and Capitalism in Taiwan

In my previous note, I offered three hypotheses about the
flourishing of temples, festivals, pilgrimages, etc. as Taiwan's
economy took off in the late '60s, '70s and '80s. Here I want
to rephrase them and try to be a bit more precise.

CAUTION: What I am saying is not a general theory of Chinese
religion in Taiwan. It is, instead, an attempt to explain a
specific historical phenomenon, the flourishing of religious
activities in Taiwan in the third quarter of the 20th century. As
I indicated in previous notes temples, festivals, pilgrimages,
and other forms of ritual activity have deep roots in Chinese
history. Their appearance antedates monopoly captalism by
several thousand years. Also, there are numerous issues having
to do with the specific forms and meanings of Chinese
religious activities that require other approaches: historical,
linguistic, etc. These are not my concern here.


Rapid economic development provided the resources needed
to fund and implement the religious florescence to which I
refer. The three hypotheses I offered have to do with peoples'
motivations to use their resources in this way.

(1) Pent-up demand: Here the argument is that religious
activities provide a traditional way to convert financial into
social capital (a la Bourdieu, for example). Building a temple
is, in effect, equivalent to buying a Rolex watch or driving a
BMW. The unexplained question is why a temple instead of a
Rolex? One may then observe that temple builders grew up in
a still largely rural, largely peasant society, where education
was limited, for most, to elementary school. The inference
would be that in choosing temples they are acting on values
learned in childhood. The theory that modernization equals
secularization suggests that their more highly educated
descendants will move away from these activities. This,
however, remains to be seen. We should note, too, that temple
versus Rolex is not a simple one or the other choice. Many
contributors to temple-building also own Rolexes.

(2) Political resistance: Since the mainlander-dominated
Chinese government had, in time-honored Chinese intellectual
fashion, attacked popular religious activities as irrational and
wasteful, they had, in the process, created the possibility of
support for these activities to become a political expression of
Taiwanese versus mainlander identity: a highly charged
political issue. Here, again, complexities loom. What will
happen to support for these activities now that political
liberalization has opened the way for more direct forms of
identity politics?

(3) Empirical confirmation: Observers of Chinese popular
religion have long noted its highly this-worldly, pragmatic
tone. Wealth, long-life and healthy children are the overt goals
of activities that generally take the form of negotiated
relationships between worshippers and the gods, ghosts and
ancestors with whom they interact. One observes that in a
rising economy where life-expectancy is rising, infant
mortality is falling and modern medicine becoming more
available, those who pray for wealth, long-life and healthy
children will have empirical confirmation that their prayers
have, in fact, been answered in ever increasing numbers.

Thinking about hypothesis No. 3 suggests a model that I would
love to have some help in developing.


(1) We are dealing with a population big enough for the
normal distribution to be a good approximation of how
phenomena are actually distributed.

(2) There will be a constant stream of new entrants into the
religious marketplace. Each will claim special knowledge or
powers of one kind of another. (In the case of Taiwan entrants
include magicians, spirit mediums and spirit writing cults.)

(3) There is a high level of skepticism toward the claims of
new entrants. However,

(4) There is also a widespread belief that in a world largely
populated by charlatans there are rare individuals who do, in
fact, possess the knowledge and powers they claim.


(1) The normal distribution will ensure that at least some new
entrants to the market will appear to have the knowledge and
powers they claim. Pure chance will ensure that whatever they
do, it will have appeared to work.

(2) Apparent failure will lead to criticism. This criticism,
however, will disappear into the general skepticism
surrounding these activities.

(3) Apparent success will lead to a snowball effect as those for
whom an entrant has appeared to be successful provide the
word of mouth advertising that attracts new
clients/worshippers in search of those rare individuals who
seem to "have it."

(4) Once snowballing clienteles reach a certain size, they will
tend to become institutionalized as relatively stable cults. The
fund of available success stories will overpower complaints
about apparent failures. These will rarely be effective in any
case, since clients for whom whatever was done didn't work
tend to leave the snowball.

(5) The result will be an on-going process in which a some
incipient clienteles are being turned into cults. Most will fail;
the normal distribution will ensure that. But as long as enough
new cults are formed to support the overall culture, the
process will continue to work.


No one has yet collected the statistical evidence needed to
validate or disprove this model directly. It is, I will claim,
consistent with evidence provided by Chinese historical
records over a span of some thousands of years.


As noted above I would love to work with some one well-
versed enough with computers to develop a simulation. I
would also welcome comments for those with expertise in the
relevant historical evidence to refine its empirical basis. I will
note, too, the possibility of similar processes at work in other
times and places: the ancient Middle East, Greek, Roman and
Hellenistic worlds and India, for sure. Cults of saints in
modern Catholic and Islamic regions; Santeria, voudon and
similar cults in Latin America; anyone of a number of
psychotherapies and other forms of counselling/consultation,
including, in particular, the advertising industry in which I
make my living.

Anybody interested?

John McCreery