Asia's Religious Renaissance

Article excerpt

DEFYING A CENTURY OF PREDICTIONS that East and Southeast Asia would become increasingly secular in an age of modernization and globalization, these regions are in the grips of a religious resurgence. Intriguingly, it's not a return to old-time religion but an explosion of religious movements that are distinctly modern in character. They tend to be laity based, to be receptive to leadership by women, and to preach a path to material wealth, observes Robert W. Hefner, director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University.

One of the most dramatic arrivals is El Shaddai, an officially Catholic but Pentecostal-flavored movement with millions of members in the Philippines. Its typically very poor adherents are promised "wealth in magical exchange for tithing donations to the 'treasure boxes' so prominently displayed at El Shaddai's five-to-10-hour prayer rallies." Followers chant the slogan "I am rich! I am strong! Something good is going to happen to me!"

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In Thailand, the Buddhist Dhammakaya Temple near Bangkok has attracted throngs of middleclass Thais using similar messages and slick advertising. But like many of Asia's religious innovators, the temple is not concerned only with material well-being. It upends tradition by giving ordinary followers access to the forms of meditation once monopolized by monks. In a world in flux, says Hefner, institutions such as the Dhammakaya Temple offer people "confidence and moral security."

Of all the religious resurgences, China's has been the "most startling," in light of the aggressively secular state there. …