About us   |   Research Program   |   Conferences   |   Publications   |   Resources   |   Contact

Subject Areas

Guiding questions

Research Program: Overview
The concept of "religious pluralism" has garnered fresh attention under the combined impact of fundamentalist terrorism and the challenges encountered by religiously pluralistic societies. Religion is perceived alternately as a constructive and a destructive social force. The historical process of globalization greatly influenced not just the political and economic spheres, but also the coexistence of the religions. In Europe and North America with their monotheistic heritage a religious pluralism has only (re-)emerged in the modern age, a development that was enhanced in recent decades by migrations and the aftereffects of colonialism. These Western societies are still struggling to develop adequate strategies for this situation. Here the scholarly study of religion is called upon to make important new contributions.

The quite different historical experience of China offers a valuable comparative perspective on other models of religious coexistence in a globalizing context. Imperial China was characterized by a state-sanctioned and supervised religious pluralism. The religious sphere presented itself as a market where people could choose more or less freely among various religious options. However, religious providers did not have free and equal access to this marketplace. The state regulated access and could penalize unwelcome providers (e.g., by banning "heterodox" groups in the legal codes of the Ming and Qing dynasties). Nevertheless, within the permitted framework forms of religious competition, interaction, and mixing were able to develop in great variety.

The second wave of globalization from 1800 onwards integrated China more and more into a "global society." Since then China's development cannot be studied without reference to its external relations. Resulting changes on the religious marketplace include, for example, the increasing entry of religions with a decidedly exclusivist outlook (Christianity and Islam). While the early modern Jesuits up to the Chinese Rites Controversy had tried to adapt to the rules of the Chinese religious market, the new Christian missions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries employed their imperialist privileges in an attempt to monopolize this market. Even though their actual successes never lived up to expectations, the very presence of Christianity had a profound impact on the structure of the marketplace and on the underlying understanding of religion. The concept of "religion" (zongjiao) itself-imported from the West via Japan-combined with the missionaries' presentation of Christianity as "the religion" par excellence to shape Chinese constructions and perceptions of their own indigenous religious traditions.

Apart from these external influences, we must also pay attention to active Chinese endeavours to reach beyond its cultural borders. An example is the expansion of Qing rule into Central Asia and Tibet, which brought large numbers of Muslims and Tibetan-Buddhists under Chinese influence and created conditions that would engender ethnic and religious conflicts in the 20th century. Another example is provided by the Chinese migration abroad, especially to Southeast Asia where new religious market structures arose within the different cultural, political and economic frameworks in these locations.

Modernization also produced new ideologies such as nationalism, scientism, communism, and Sun Yat-sen's teachings, which claimed to be superior to and even to supersede the religions. At the same time, the Republican period saw the beginnings of a scholarly study of religion. The new ideologies and the dramatic political changes of that period had a significant impact on the religious scene. Greater, constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms were balanced by quasi-religious claims of the new political movements (Guomindang, Communist Party), which saw themselves in competition with purveyors of religious worldviews.