The Outgoing Speech by Fenggang Yang

East Asian Society for the Scientific Study of Religion: Past, Present, and Future


As the outgoing president, I want to make this speech short, so that we leave more time for the new president and future planning. Nevertheless, I want to make three points.

First is a brief account of the history of our association, as it is important to know where we have come from in order to better know where we are going. The idea of establishing a new association first came up during a conference in 2016, which was held on June 18-20 at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, Korea. Our center, the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue, organized that conference as part of a new initiative to expand the scope of the social scientific study of religion in China. We selected a group of young scholars from China and hoped to create opportunities for them to interact with scholars from other East Asian societies and North America. Through the introduction of several other scholars I made contact with Professor Francis Jae-ryong Song. He and his colleague, Professor Kwangsuk Yoo, responded positively and enthusiastically about hosting and co-organizing the conference. During a conversation among several scholars from Korea, China, Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States at the conference, the idea of organizing a new association emerged. I had recently finished my term as president of the Society of the Scientific Study of Religion, so as the conversation continued, I agreed to study similar associations based in North America and Europe and draft the constitution and bylaws.

In summer 2017, our center’s initiative took us to Hong Kong. The conference at Hong Kong Baptist University on July 11-13, hosted by Professor William Ng, invited Francis Song and Lily Kong of Singapore Management University as keynote speakers. During the conference, we held preparatory meetings, had extensive discussion on the draft of the constitution and bylaws, and finalized the name of the new association as the “East Asian Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.” The preparatory committee then elected me as the first president of the association and decided to hold the inaugural annual conference in Singapore the following year. Soon we put together the initial Executive Council.

On July 3-5, 2018, the Inaugural Conference was held at Singapore Management University and hosted by Professor Lily Kong. More than eighty scholars from more than a dozen countries gave presentations under the theme “Religiosity, Secularity, and Pluralism in the Global East.” Professors Francis Song and Yoshihide Sakurai joined me to form an ad hoc editorial committee, and, following a rigorous review process, we eventually published a special issue of Religions under the title of the conference theme.

In 2019, we held the second conference on July 27-28 at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, hosted by Professor Yoshihide Sakurai, with the theme “East-West Encounters and Religious Change in Modernizing East Asia.” About a hundred and twenty scholars gave presentations. Seeing the increase of interest among scholars from East Asia, North America, Europe, and elsewhere, many of us became very hopeful for the new association. We had good momentum.

The second point I want to make is about the challenges we have faced. Big challenges may derail the train of progress or even destroy the new association, and they may also make us stronger if we handle them well. Following the conference in Hokkaido, the association successfully carried out the election of officers and council members, and made preparations for the third conference in Jeju, Korea. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world and we had to cancel/postpone the third conference. It was a difficult decision we had to make.

Another challenge the EASSSR has encountered is related to finances. As an association in its infancy, the conferences we have held have relied heavily on grants from foundations and the generous support of the hosting universities, along with membership fees. Unfortunately, the association fell victim of email scams and lost some money. The scammer found that a weakness in our new association was email communication across different countries and languages and faked some emails in the name of the president. First, they moved some funds into the EASSSR bank account, then made multiple requests to the treasurer to wire out funds. Without knowing that those emails were from faked emailed addresses, our treasurer approved the requests and wired out some funds. I became aware of the transactions many months after their occurrences, because my actual email address was never part of the communication. I spent much time and effort to gather information and conclude that we had fallen victim of scams. Our colleagues in South Korea reported the problem to the South Korean police, and I reported it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States. An FBI agent told me that this kind of scam happens frequently, that scam cases across national borders are difficult to solve, and that the loss would be almost impossible to recover.

In addition to losing money, there was also the bigger danger of losing trust among the EASSSR officers. Trust is vitally important for the EASSSR to survive and succeed. Thankfully, the key people involved had sufficient patience, understanding, and tenacity, and as volunteers, they have dedicated themselves to the association beyond their routine responsibilities. Personally, I believe we have overcome this challenge and have become stronger because of it. In addition, we have improved our communication processes. Email communication regarding financial matters must include all officers: the President, Vice President, General Secretary, and the Treasurer. As a new international association, we remain vulnerable and will undoubtedly face other challenges. But, I am hopeful that we will not make the same mistakes twice.

My third and final point is about the future. The General Secretary, Dr. Kwangsuk Yoo, created the initial website My center recently helped to upgrade it to its current form, which enables management of the membership and conference registration within the website. Now, I am happy to pass on the baton. Under the leadership of President Francis Song and Vice President Yoshihide Sakurai, I hope EASSSR will succeed and thrive in the years to come. I will continue to serve in the role of past president. I will also strive to develop research projects across multiple societies. In fact, we recently changed the name of our center at Purdue to the Center on Religion and the Global East. I hope the study of religion in the Global East will make important theoretical and methodological contributions to the social scientific study of religion in general. I hope to see many of you in person in many years to come.

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