Asia's New Gods; History and Culture Have Helped the Region Push Religion out of the Public Sphere, So It Can Surge toward Modernity

By Mahbubani, Kishore | Newsweek International, November 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

Asia's New Gods; History and Culture Have Helped the Region Push Religion out of the Public Sphere, So It Can Surge toward Modernity


Mahbubani, Kishore, Newsweek International


Byline: Kishore Mahbubani (Mahbubani is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and author of "Can Asians Think?")

Most Asians are unaware that Christian evangelical movements have gained enormous political power in America. And if they were to learn this, they would be mystified. Their images of America remain the old ones: scenes of Hollywood and sexual permissiveness, secularism, money worship and devotion to modern science and technology. None of these squares with an America under the sway of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity.

Asian intellectuals would be especially mystified. They have fully absorbed the Western narrative that

modernization should be the fundamental goal of contemporary societies. Deng Xiaoping chose his words carefully when he launched his economic reforms--dubbed the Four Modernizations--in 1977. "It does not matter whether a cat is white or black," Deng said famously. "If it catches mice, it is a good cat." With modernization was meant to come a pragmatic and secular state that focused on economic and social development. Both China and India--each in its own way--decided that they needed to shed their ideological straitjackets and work pragmatically to lift up their societies.

The big lesson that Asians thought they'd learned from the West was that reason and faith should be kept in separate boxes. Many Asians believed that religion and superstition had held their countries back while the West leaped ahead, even if few would have been as outspoken as Kemal Ataturk when he said: "The fez sat upon our heads as a sign of ignorance, fanaticism, obstacle to progress and attaining a contemporary level of civilization. It is necessary to ... adopt in its place the hat, the headgear used by the whole civilized world."

As East Asians moved decisively toward secularism, they were helped by the cultural fabric of their societies. Neither Confucianism nor Taoism inspires deep religiosity. The Confucian culture is attached to the world of today, not tomorrow. By contrast, West Asians (despite Ataturk's lead) have found it harder to emulate the West. Islam penetrates more deeply into the souls of its adherents. In recent centuries, many of its followers have moved away from the spirit of skeptical inquiry that inspired the scientific revolution (even though the Islamic caliphates nurtured this spirit). Hence, the spread of fundamentalist movements in the Islamic world is not surprising.

For different reasons, China and India today have a vested interest in restricting the political space for religious movements. The sudden emergence of the Falun Gong surprised the Communist Party of China. It reminded its leaders of the Taiping rebellion--a civil war (1851-1864) inspired by fundamentalist Christian beliefs. It also provided an early warning that the biggest threat to the Communist Party's political control and legitimacy could come from a religious movement.

Beijing is thus naturally wary of U.S. evangelicals, some of whom have been at the forefront of urging Congress to act against China. In 2005, after the West learned about the China National Offshore Oil Co.'s plan to raise $10 billion from Wall Street, much of it for oil investment in Sudan, articles blossomed in evangelical publications about the threat posed by this massive infusion of capital. Letters went out to large investors, and sympathetic political leaders blasted the stock offering as "blood money" that would aid Sudan's attempt to eradicate the population of Darfur. As a consequence, the Chinese company could raise only $3 billion of its goal--a demonstration of the power of American evangelical movements.

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