Why Doesn’t Asia have Religion?

Having spent the past 10 years writing and teaching on Asian religions, I now have something to confess:

Asia does not have religion.

“But what,” you may ask, “about that college class I took on ‘world religions?’ We learned about Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism and Shinto. Half the class was about Asia.”

Between you and me, I hate that class. I hated it as a student, because I thought it didn’t make sense. I hate it even more as a professor, because I know it doesn’t make sense. Here’s why.

Think about the religions the Western world knows best: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Whatever the differences that separate them, these three religions all share a great deal in common. Each one, for instance, is centered on a text — a holy and inviolate scripture. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, the sacred text is never wrong — although man’s interpretation of it often is. Based on this knowledge, it would seem sensible to assume that religion and scripture are inseparable. But in fact, the central role of scripture, like much of what we assume about “religion” as a concept, is uniquely Western.

The same applies to the rules about how religion functions in society. What the West knows best is its own religious history, which was shaped in large part by the question of where Christianity should fit into politics. As we all know, European kings once claimed to rule by divine right, at least until the age of the great revolutions came along and banished organized religion from political life. But the declining political prominence of Western Christianity was more than just a battle between kings, popes and the awakened masses; it was also mirrored by a new understanding of religion itself, a sense that God resides, not in the church, but in the heart of and soul of the believer. True religious belief thus came to be seen as somethng very personal. This understanding shapes our idea that religion does not belong in the public sphere (some countries like France take this idea very seriously), but also means we do not accept the validity of religious conversion made at the point of a gun. The freedom of religious conscience has taken on a global currency, and is now portrayed as a basic human right. It is the standard used by the United Nations, and most of the world pays lip service to it in at least some form. Whatever the reality, religious freedom is enshrined in the constitutions of Cuba and North Korea. At least on paper, even Iran formally accepts the existence of certain religious minorities.

The fact is that the Western idea of religion did not reach Asia until very recently. When it did, the concept was so foreign that many Asian languages had to invent a new word for it (specifically for making diplomatic treaties with the Western powers who insisted on a clause protecting “religious freedom”). This puts Asia’s own traditions into a strange bind. Even now, we face the problem in deciding just what to call the ideas of Confucius or the Buddha. Calling them “religions” clearly doesn’t work, because Asian traditions look and behave so differently from what we know in the West.

Daoists, for example, don’t have a Bible. In the entire canon of Daoist scripture, there is nothing that compares to the central role occupied by the sacred books of Western religion. Shinto has no scriptural tradition at all. Historically, East Asia has had far less religious conflict than the West, not because Asian religions are inherently any more peaceful, but rather because they have a very different concept of religious membership. In Western religions, affiliation is absolute: you cannot be a hyphenated Muslim-Jew, or a Christian-Hindu. Asian religions, in contrast, treat religious membership in more fluid terms. Everyone in China is to some degree influenced by Confucian ethics, but nobody would call himself a “Confucian.” Trying to fit Asian beliefs into Western categories produces the classic square peg-round hole scenario.

As always, one needs travel no further than “The Simpsons” for a good example. When Lisa’s quest for religious identity (driven by her dissatisfaction with the fictitious Presbylutheran congregation) led her to embrace Buddhism, she promptly shouted the epiphany, “I’m a Buddhist!” out her bedroom window. In doing so, she was actually echoing a classic Christian metaphor of religious belonging — the lightning-bolt conversion of Paul of Tarsus. Lisa may have been a Buddhist, but she became one in a very Christian way.

This is not merely a cartoon dilemma (pun very much intended). Our understanding of what religion is, what it should look like, and what role it should play in society all have real world ramifications. When political figures like Michele Bachmann cynically promise to outlaw shariah, they are doing more than merely repeating the mistaken assertion that the United States is foundationally a Christian nation, they are also making a broader statement about what constitutes legitimate religion. Such ideas may play well with American voters, but they compromise our ability to understand the world outside our borders, and tangibly harm our image abroad.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that many of those who reject religion themselves rely on this same limited definition. Religion is in no way inimical to science. Certain interpreters of Christianity may reject evolution and global warming. That is unfortunate, but it is neither representative nor exclusive. Pig-headedness is not unique to Christianity, or even to religion. Just like the anti-Islamic screed emerging from the political right, dumping everything we dislike about Christianity into a single bucket we call “religion” serves only to muddy the waters.