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Questions of Faith

Spring 2010 | By Grant Flora. Photo by Charlie Fong.

Is there a Chinese equivalent to the Protestant work ethic? Will Christianity continue to be China’s fastest-growing religion? Will spirituality and government control of religion clash as China’s global influence expands?

These are among the questions scholars will try to answer over the next three years as part of a research and training program now under way in Purdue’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society (CRCS).

The center’s new Chinese Spirituality and Society Program is spearheaded by CLA sociology professor Fenggang Yang, who recently secured $2 million in funding from the John Templeton Foundation to advance research and writing on Chinese religions and their impact on civil society.

This spring, Yang, his colleagues, and a panel of experts began sifting through more than 150 applications to award research grants to scholars of Chinese religion — a central component of both the center and its latest program. Finalists will be announced in November.

“We will award two or three large grants to research centers and about 10 grants to individual projects,” says Yang. “We hope to institutionalize the sociological study of Chinese spirituality.”

Recipients will participate in three workshops — two at Purdue, one in China — studying issues related to research methods, data collection and analysis, proposal writing, and findings publication. The program also will sponsor summer institutes in 2010 and 2012 at Chinese universities offering or planning to offer sociology of religion courses.

Yang says research on China’s diverse spiritual and religious behavior is both timely and relevant as the country rises to greater economic and political power. “Religion instills a politically sensitive topic in China,” he notes. Furthermore, under Communist Party rule, religions and other social movements beyond its control are often perceived as threats.

The Chinese government began lifting restrictions on religion during political and economic reforms that began in 1979. It now recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Meanwhile, these official faiths — as well as Chinese folk practices, spiritual and traditional groups, and others on the fringe— are growing.

“But government bans tend to drive religion and spirituality underground and make things more complicated,” he adds. “Independent social science provides better research and therefore better understanding of the forces in play, especially in a time of dramatic transition.”

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