Posted to Religious Diversity News on November 13, 2006
Source: MSNBC/Newsweek International
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.