Conference on Religiosity, Secularity, and Pluralism in the Global East

The Inaugural Conference of the East Asian Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (EASSSR)

Singapore Management University, Singapore
July 3-5, 2018

Chris White

The inaugural conference of the East Asian Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (EASSSR) was held at Singapore Management University (SMU) from July 3-5, 2018. The gathering included 84 scholars from all over the world who gave presentations on various aspects of the conference theme: Religiosity, Secularity, and Pluralism in the Global East. The papers were presented in 21 sessions. Attendees came from Mainland China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Germany, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, New Zealand, Cambodia, Singapore, Canada and the US, and the interdisciplinary background of scholars from sociology, history, theology, anthropology, and other fields, made this conference particularly successful and set the stage for future annual conferences of the EASSSR.

This inaugural conference was opened with words of welcome from SMU Provost, Professor Lily Kong. The first president of the EASSSR, Professor Fenggang Yang, offered a presidential address in which he challenged the notion of the “Global South” as suitable for analyzing East Asian countries. Instead, Professor Yang put forth the concept of the “Global East” as tool to allow scholars to “reverse the discourse that renders East Asia invisible or incomprehensible.” According to Professor Yang, in terms of understanding religion, the “Global East” conceptual framework could include East Asia, at times even Southeast Asia, Asian diasporic communities, and even Eastern religions among Westerners. The challenges and shortcomings of utilizing Western categories or theories to fit Eastern realities was again brought up in the keynote address of day two, given by Professor José Casanova. In his talk, Professor Casanova gave an historical overview of the three phases of globalization in the East, beginning with the arrival of the Jesuits in the 16th century, followed by the age of imperialism from the 1800s to the mid 20th century, and finishing with discussion of the current era of globalization which began in the 1980s. Professor Casanova highlighted the foreign concept of “religion” for East Asia, noting that this term (and the accompanying “secular”) was not present in Asian cultures until the interaction with the West, and even after this, “religion” did not always mean what it means today. The final keynote address was given by Emeritus Professor Grace Davie on day three of the conference. In her talk, Professor Davie discouraged scholars from borrowing too heavily from the West in theories that may not be applicable to the East. As she summarized, theories, like French wine, “do not travel well.” The common theme in the presidential address and the two keynote speeches was that new theories and ways of thinking need to be established that are constructed specifically for understanding religion in East Asia. These then may be used to dialogue with, either in opposition or support, theories constructed for other regions, such as the West or Global South.

In addition to the numerous papers presented at the conference, attendees were also invited to attend the forum, “Understanding Religious Harmony,” which was held by the Institute of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and brought together scholars with government officials, religious leaders, and other stakeholders to discuss religion in Singapore. Some conference participants chose to tour notable religious sites in Singapore, including churches, a mosque, Buddhist temples, and Hindu and Sikh temples.

The inaugural conference of the EASSSR has highlighted the need for greater theoretical and empirical studies of religion in the East and has provided a solid academic platform for such scholarship to be developed and exchanged. The 2019 conference for EASSSR is currently scheduled to be held in late July in Hokkaido, Japan.