Prospects of Social Scientific Study of Religion and the Role of EASSSR

I sincerely express my thankfulness to all of us here attending this ‘new normal’ Executive Council Meeting through Zoom. I think, as the second president, that I must express my special and valuable gratitude to the first President of the Society, Professor Fenggang Yang for his leadership with enduring efforts for the birth and development of our academic society, “EASSSR”. As you all know, EASSSR would not have existed without his outstanding and perhaps painful leadership. I deeply appreciate his hard work and dedication over his two-year presidency, or for three to four years, including the preparation period for establishment. Even though his term ends, he will continue to serve in the role of past President with us.

First of all, I am very pleased and honored to be elected the second president of EASSSR. As the new president, I would like to briefly mention what the EASSSR community as an international academic organization wants to do over the next two years. Of course, in order to successfully plan and implement all projects or events of the Society, support and cooperation from members of the EASSSR community is required.

1) We will try to expand the base of the membership of the Society.

-In particular, we will hold small or medium-sized academic conferences or seminars one or two times a year to motivate and attract young East Asian scholars to participate.

-And, if possible, we will expand the national boundaries of the Society to a wider extent than the current national composition. We will endeavor to encourage the participation of scholars from mainland China and Vietnam, in particular.

2) We plan to hold an online seminar on the subject of the nature of religion and its public/private roles and functions in the unprecedented existential situation – “New Normal” – due to the persistence of the corona virus pandemic situation. It will be planned to be held within this winter if possible. A proposal will be prepared and announced soon. We ask for your help on better techniques and methods to hold this sort of first online seminar.

3) We will actively prepare for the 2021 EASSSR Conference to be held in July or August at Jeju Island. Given the current corona virus situation, it seems that both offline and online-based conferences should be considered. To that end, a working group will soon be formed and those members who have experienced the varieties of on-line meetings, from highly commercial ones to DIY styles, will be asked to participate.

Now let’s move on to the subject of what EASSSR as an academic community should do in the near future. In the past few years I have often thought over the spirit and goal that underpin the ‘East Asian Society’ for the Scientific Study of Religion. To be honest, I haven’t made them clear yet. However, I see that there is something looming large on us.  Today, the research findings by both Western and Eastern scholars show that the discussions on ‘religiosity’ and/or ‘secularity’ might have failed to reflexively address the significance of East Asian cultural-religious factors.

East Asian religion has many distinct features that challenge religious scholars. First, this challenge relates to the latest issues with the hypothesis of religious secularization theory, which traces even back to the roots of Max Weber’s and Emile Durkheim’s sociology of religion. The two great sociologists, who had sharp insights into the nature of European societies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which were transforming into modern industrial societies, have each recognized the important role and function of religion. However, they both predicted that progress in the modernization and industrialization process would inevitably lead to a gradual decline in the social influence of (traditional) religions. Of course, they did not seem to be positive about whether these changes would be desirable. But their (pessimistic) predictions have become the hypothetical proposition of the ‘orthodox’ secularization theory, “more modernization, more secularization”, since the mid-20th century.

Since then, this ‘orthodox’ secularization theory has undergone a series of theoretical evolution, which in turn led to the path of the ‘neo’-secularization and ‘de’-secularization theories. However, the debate over the theoretical consistency of the concepts, assumptions, and methodologies of religious secularization theory still persists. What we must note here, however, is that the discussions on religious secularization have overlooked from the outset the understanding of the significance of the long-lasting and persistent role of most East Asian religions that are inherently ‘implicitly diffused’.

However, as the issue of the so-called ‘Religious Nones’ phenomenon have globally spread over the past decade, the social scientific investigations into ‘secularization’ or ‘religiosity’/ ‘secularity’ came to have a different trajectory from the conventional interpretation patterns. In other words, the emergence of the ‘Religious Nones’ issue with multi-dimensional implications has resulted in the demand for a ‘paradigm shift’ in the ‘ordinary’ social scientific study of religion. The following suggestion by British sociologist of religion, Linda Woodhead, well reflects the need for this sort of paradigm shift.

Insofar as “no religion” is unlike existing forms of Western religion, however, these tools [ordinary sociological surveys and censuses tools] are insufficient. The rise of “no religion” is forcing a serious rethink of the Sociology of Religion, pushing it more firmly into the broader realm of culture and values, and pushing scholars of religion in countries where the line between religion and culture has never been drawn as sharply to correct their ethnocentric bias.[1]

In a similar vein, but in connection with the realities of East Asian religions, professor Fenggang Yang says in his presidential address at the EASSSR Inaugural Conference held at SMU in 2018:

By the time of Weber’s writing, Buddhism had been a major religion in East Asia for more than a thousand years, and was negligible in India. More importantly, shamanism and folk religions were prevalent throughout East Asia; furthermore, several institutionalized religions co-existed without a religious monopoly, which was very different from the West or Muslim-dominant countries.[2]

East Asian religion has many distinct dimensions that social scientists of religion need to deal reflexively with. For example, religious identity in East Asian cultures is often non-exclusive, so that many East Asian people unintentionally combine elements from Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, shamanism, Christianity, and other folk religious sources to form an individualized spirituality.

Very briefly, let us talk about my recent work. I will soon publish a book translated into Korean in October. Its title, The Korean Tradition of Religion, Society and Ethics, represents the religion in Korea, but one of author’s core ideas is that East Asian countries such as Korea, China, and Japan share the underlying structure of the same religious-cultural habits of the heart associated with the syncretistic tradition of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and shamanism (spirit-worship). In this regard, we may say that, regardless of whether he or she is religious or not in institutional terms, a single East Asian would probably be a Confucians when in society, a Buddhist or Taoist when he philosophizes, and a spirit-worshipper when he is in trouble.

This is why a new multidimensional definition of concepts such as ‘religion’, ‘religiosity’, and ‘secularity’ are required. The multiple concepts of religiosity, i.e., flexible and/or liquid religiosity different from the conventional concept of religiosity that is ‘solid’ in its nature are indispensably required. This new concept of religiosity transcends the sort of ‘solid’ religiosity, measured according to such factors as frequency of religious participation, prayer, ritual, reading scripture, donation, etc.

Although somewhat paradoxical, this will in turn lead to a seminal idea of the necessity and possibility of measuring the religiosity of ‘religious nones’. In particular, from the perspective of East Asian culture, this includes the task that must go beyond the limits and limitations of the concept of ‘religion’ or ‘religiosity’ defined in the so-called Eurocentric perspective.

Then, above all, it is necessary to develop a new religious measurement model that can measure and quantify an ‘East Asian’ religiosity applicable to all cultures. Indeed, it was from this kind of task of the times that our EASSSR fellows gathered at Purdue University, led by Professor Fenggang Yang, to discuss the development of a new measurement model of East Asian religion or religiosity. As some of you may know, although the progress of this research project has been delayed for a while due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I believe it will resume in the near future. I think this research project should continue to be one of the core research topics of our Society. If, contrary to our expectations, the second and third corona virus situations continue to persist, we expect to find out other methodological alternatives possible.

Here, let me conclude my address by referring to the 2000 American biographical disaster drama film, “Perfect Storm” starring George Clooney to unleash our (sociological) imagination of the role of religion (or spirituality)  in the era of ecological endangerment.  As you may know, a perfect storm is an event in which a rare combination of circumstances drastically aggravates the event. The term is used by analogy to an unusually severe storm that results from a rare combination of meteorological phenomena. This film aims to show the greatness of human beings struggling for survival from a severe disaster – a perfect storm. This is truly impressive! On the other hand, however, contrary to the film director’s intention, this film gives us an insight into the realities (sources) of the nature of what we call natural disasters and the structure of human desires against them.

In the movie, six crews including George Clooney, leaving a developing perfect storm behind them, are in a situation where at the height of their fishing, the ice machine breaks down. They had to choose. The only way to sell their catch and make a lot of money before it spoils is to hurry back to the port through the perfect storm. Otherwise, even if all of the fish spoil and lose the opportunity to make a fortune, they have the option of saving their lives by evacuating to a safe zone. They choose the former, and eventually they all die in a perfect storm with no way to escape.

Is the confrontation between nature and human a fate? It may be, but it may not be. Aren’t we humans already trapped in a Perfect Storm consisting of man-made disasters? As the truth behind the film deeply implies, it may be the structure of human desire that makes human’s struggle against natural disasters ‘fateful.’ What causes conditions of ecological and/or anthropological crises, such as the corona virus pandemic that we face today, is a network of microscopic but very powerful desires built up by our humans.

It is time for an authentic exploration of more radical changes in the form and politics of human life is truly required. Not a few experts warn of a more dangerous virus coming in the future. Record heat, record drought, record floods and rainy seasons are reported all over the global community. Global catastrophes caused by extreme weather and climate change are being witnessed.

Can science alone afford this overwhelming task? Definitely not! As Ulrich Beck has already pointed out,[3] the logic of the calculus of disaster based upon the competence of the (post)modern science and technology has already been judged incompetent. Here we must gain an insight into the significance of the ‘new’ or ‘deep’ dimension of religion or religious spirituality. This dimension, of course, is very different from what functionalist social scientists often refer to as the comforting function of religion in response to the level of ‘existential security’.[4] This relates to such concepts as ‘transcendental breakthrough’ or ‘transcendent sensitivity’ provided by the great religious traditions of the East and West.[5] I believe these concepts should be inextricably linked to the above-mentioned subject of the possibility of radical shift of existing human civilization. Though not long to say here, the main reason is that the discussion of the limits and limitations of competitive capitalism and biased liberal democracy on which the human civilization is based is inevitably linked to the moral and spiritual issues that are accompanied by religious dimensions. In this regard, the subject of religion or spirituality may share a common ground with the topic of “ecological civilization,” which is receiving new attention today. Of course, this also resonates well with the aforementioned theme of a paradigm shift in multidimensional understanding of East Asian religions.

Thank you very much for your attention!

Francis Jae-ryong Song.

[1] Linda Woodhead, 2017. “The Rise of “No Religion”: Toward an Explanation”, Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review, 78(3), p.262.

[2] Fenggang Yang, 2018. “Religion in the Global East: Challenges and Opportunities for the Social Scientific Study of Religion”, the Presidential Address at the EASSSR Inaugural Conference, the 3rd–5th of July 2018 at SMU, Singapore.

[3] Ulrich Beck, 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, London: Sage.

[4] Roland Inglehart and Pippa Norris, 2007, “Why Didn’t Religion Disappear? Reexamining the Secularization Thesis”, in Helmut K. Anheier and Yudhishthir Isar (eds.), Cultures and Globalizations: Conflicts and Tensions, London: Sage.

[5] Karl Jaspers, 1953, The Origin and Goal of History, (trans by) Michael Bullock(1st English ed.), London: Routledge & Keegan Paul; Robert Bellah and Hans Joas(eds.), 2012. The Axial Age and Its Consequences, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press; S. N. Eisenstadt(ed.), 1986. The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations, N.Y.: SUNY Press.

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