Monday 27 August 2012

Herodotus and/or/in the Jataka Fables



In the middle of my earlier article on Buddhism and/or/as/vs. vegetarianism, I offered the following example in passing:

"…the Ucchaṅga Jātaka tells the story of a woman who is asked to choose between saving her son, her husband and her brother, if two of the three were to be executed.  She chooses to save her brother, on the grounds that "the two others were replaceable" (Malalasekera, q.v. Ucchaṅga).  Let us be very clear: this was a story written primarily for the purposes of entertainment, and nobody in their right mind would surmise that the Buddha set down as a rule/principle that that you ought to save your siblings and let your spouse and husband die in such circumstances.  Such an attribution to the Buddha (or even to "Buddhism" more generally) would be absurd; and such absurdities are now normal, partly because of the over-arching misunderstanding of what the structure of the canon is, and where we need to look for the answers to various types of questions."

This anecdote (paraphrased above from the Ucchaṅga Jātaka) appears in the Histories of Herodotus, Vol. 1, book 3, part 6.

The striking difference between the two accounts is in the context (not the content) of the story.  Whereas the Buddhist Jātaka has the quality of a fable (along with a happy ending and some sort of a moral to the story) the version that Herodotus preserves for us is presented in all seriousness, and is notably lacking the happy ending.

Herodotus tells the tale as a real historical event that transpired when the Emperor Darius was consolidating his power, and exterminating the extended family of a potential rival to the throne (whom he suspected, rightly or wrongly, of rebellion).  In that context, it ends with the woman saving her brother's life, and the rest of the family being executed, with her offering the same explanation as to why she made the decision: she could find another husband, and thus have another child, but she is incapable of replacing her brother.  As with the Jātaka story, the emperor in question is impressed by the woman's logic, but Darius merely grants her the life of one son as a bonus (i.e., in addition to sparing her brother as requested) --and so the Greek tale lacks homiletic character of the Jātaka fable.
You can read the passage of Herodotus's text in English translation here.

I doubt that I'm the first to point out this particular correlation, but I did just discover it myself by happenstance (and apparently Malalasekera was unaware of the connection, if it had been observed before his time).  The letters-to-the-editor of 19th century journals were full of observations of this kind (sometimes from officers of the British Empire in India, etc.) reflecting the fact that so many of the people working on Ancient Indian literature were educated in Ancient Greek.

Sept. 6th, 2012, Addendum.  Although I wish I could report that someone had sent me this citation by e-mail, I did in fact dig it up myself.  Apparently the first person to observe the resemblance between the two texts was C.H. Tawney (b. 1837, d. 1922), whose brief mention of it in an 1883 publication alludes to another article on the same subject that was earlier still: "A still more curious parallel between Herodotus and the Játaka book is furnished by the story of Intaphernes (Herodotus III, 118, 119).  This is, as I pointed out in the Indian Antiquary, to be compared with the Ucchanga Játaka, No. 67."  The citation: C.H. Tawney, 1883, "Indian Folklore Notes from the Pali Játakas…", The Journal of Philology, Vol. 12 (?), p. 121–2.

Thursday 23 August 2012

When Statistics are Junk: a Study of Religion and Atheism Worldwide

If the social sciences are at all scientific, we have to admit, bluntly, when we're looking at junk science.  I am going to argue (briefly) that a recent poll on religion and atheism (that managed to grab headlines) is junk.



The case is not hard to prove.  The study states that they interviewed 51,927 people worldwide.  It also states misleadingly, that, "In each country a national probability sample of around 1000 men and women was interviewed" (p. 7 of the press release).  If that were true, we would have an absurd situation: how could 1,000 interviews be equally representative of Lithuania and the People's Republic of China?  Indeed, how could you even conduct research with the same methods in the (starkly different) political conditions of those two countries?

The reality is even worse: they did interview 1,000 people in Lithuania (1,025 to be exact) and they did interview about the same number in Canada (1,003).  How many people did they interview in all of mainland China?  Precisely 500.

That's right, just 500 interviews are supposed to represent the religious diversity of the country, from Xinjiang (新疆) to Shanghai (上海), and have a reasonable level of statistical significance for a population of well beyond one billion people.

On this basis, they offer the absurd claim that China has the highest rate of atheism in the world (47%).  Perhaps the readers of newspapers would take this claim less seriously if they realized that this generalization is based on only 500 interviews --half as many as the company had used to represent the tiny population of Lithuania.

It is absurd, and this is not the only absurdity.  The press release very casually mentions that the interviews in some countries were conducted by telephone, in some face-to-face, and in some they were merely an online survey!  Fully 10,376 of the surveys were internet questionnaires: this data would not in any way be comparable to the other methods described.  Among other serious forms of bias, of course, is the fact that you would only get replies from people who use the internet (!) and who are comfortable reporting sensitive information over the internet; this excludes the average man in your average poverty-stricken totalitarian regime.

Some of the other categories are self-evidently absurd as well: the total number of Jews interviewed (in the entire world!) was only 106.  If someone offered generalizations about Judaism in England on the basis of merely 100 interviews, people might look askance at it, although the number of Jews in England is relatively few; in this study, instead, we have claims made about Judaism from Texas to Tel-Aviv, being made on the basis of only 106 interviews (and I do not know how many were by telephone, vs. internet, etc.).

The number of Buddhists interviewed (in the entire world) was a total of 725.  I do not know how many hundreds of millions of Buddhists there are on the planet, but 725 persons would be an extremely small percentage of them, and certainly incapable of representing even the diversity seen from Thailand to Taiwan, let alone from India to Japan.  The number of Hindus whom they interviewed was a similarly puny 974 persons (and, again, we are using the term "interview" very loosely, as I would not normally count an online form as an interview).  There is no basis whatsoever for any generalization about the state of these religions in this study.

Why is it that journalists (reporting these numbers as matters of fact) did not see any of these warning signs?  This is junk science, and the conclusions do not deserve to be taken seriously by anyone.  (Links to examples of the source being cited as factual: (1) in the Washington Post, (2) by the BBC, and (3) by the Ottawa Citizen).

I have the population of Lithuania as 3.2 million.  They interviewed roughly 0.032% of the population of that country, and if they had used a consistent and robust methodology (not internet questionnaires!) that might be a study worth reading.  The population of Canada is more than ten times larger than Lithuania, but the sample size is still the same, so we're talking about only 0.0029% of the population being interviewed.

How about China?  Can we even express the same equation as a percentage?

Interviewing 500 people out of 1.344 billion equates to 0.000037% of the population.  That would round off to zero.  Even if the best methodology imaginable were used, this would be insignificant --and there are serious warnings that the methodology was in fact inconsistent and (in my opinion) deeply flawed.

Full citation of the study: Gallup International Association (not related to Gallup Inc.), "Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, 2012", Press Release.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Peer-Review Works (or Doesn't) Both Ways

Below is the abstract (in English and Chinese) for an article that I have previously mentioned on this blog ("Canon and Reason…").  I was reassured that it would be published several months ago --but after repeated delays, I lost faith in the journal that would have (supposedly) already published it by now.  That's right: I completed the laborious peer-review process, and then I myself ended up cancelling the article anyway.

This isn't the first time that this has happened to me.  It is the second time.  I hope it will be the last.

A handful of people might have noticed that I had an article listed as "forthcoming" for a period of about one year, because it had already been approved and accepted by the editors at the Journal of Contemporary Buddhism.

The eventual cancellation had nothing to do with the quality of the articles: in both cases the articles in question passed peer-review, and were accepted by the editors.  If you asked me when you'll be able to read either one of these articles in print, the answer is that I don't know.

Publishing specialized non-fiction of this kind isn't about money: there's no way that any of these publications could remunerate me for the number of hours of work that go into research of this kind.  Even if they could, they don't.  There's no money in the game, so what an author is hoping for is professionalism, some degree of mutual respect, and (hopefully) access to an audience of other specialists.

However, at some point (after inexplicable delays of some number of months, and some number of incoherent e-mails) the author may feel that it's better to walk away from the publication than to continue to pursue it (not knowing when the thing will appear, or if any of the promises made on the editorial side will be kept).

In the case of my article that was accepted by Contemporary Buddhism in the U.K., so much time had passed since the editors assured me that it was accepted for publication, that I started asking questions.  The answers that I received were incoherent at best (and insulting at worst).

In that case, I had received detailed comments from one of the two editors, showing that he had really read it in detail (and considered the subsequent revisions, etc.) and, for that reason, I had taken the approval of the article seriously.  It became evident (many, many months later) that the other editor had not read the article (and perhaps never did).  In the antics that ensued (in which, basically, my one question was, "All the revisions were approved, so when's the article going to press?") I eventually cancelled the article.  Again: I cancelled it myself, not the editors.

Several of the deadlines the editors had declared for themselves elapsed (with no explanation) and, as alluded to, the answers to my simple questions were raising more questions.

The process was painfully unprofessional: I would receive an isolated e-mail after they broke their own deadline saying, "we'll have another meeting in a week, and get back to you then", but then I would, in fact, hear nothing.  Months and months passed during this silent drama, and when I finally cancelled the article (to enter it into peer-review elsewhere) I never heard any reply to confirm the cancellation from the editors' side, either.

"Canon and Reason" was supposed to be published months ago, but now I have no idea when it will be published.  Likewise, "Mind and the Material Elements" should have been published in Contemporary Buddhism more than one year ago by now, and instead it has had to re-start the peer-review process (in the latter case, repeatedly).

I have worked as a professional editor, of both academic non-fiction (in book form) and of newsprint with daily deadlines (but lower standards of accuracy, etc.).  I have also been a peer-reviewer (i.e., reviewing some other author's article for some journal: you may be thinking this is impossible because I don't have a PhD, but it isn't).  I know what the editorial process is, and I know what the peer-review process is, and there is a huge difference between the two.

The ritual of peer-review is not nearly as thorough as a professional editor who is paid to conduct fact-checking.  In the humanities, peer-review isn't a mode of fact-checking at all.  It has an interesting history, originating as a uniquely British system of decentralized state censorship (read more about the history here) and evolving through its interaction with the "hard sciences".  However well (or poorly) it may work for physics or chemistry, there's an entirely separate question of its effectiveness in the quagmire of cultural issues where religious, political and linguistic domains overlap.

 
Peer-review didn't originate in Asia, and it certainly didn't originate as an instrument that was useful for (e.g.) cultural anthropology, comparative philology, or the study of contemporary politics and religion.  There are many mismatched expectations applied to the process of peer-review and the results are… not what Francis Bacon would have hoped for.

From direct experience, I can report that some some reviewers (in Buddhist Studies) think that their role is to prevent anything offensive to Buddhism being published (which is a fairly fundamental conflict of interest), and some think that their role is to prevent anything being said to diminish the memory of deceased European scholars (again, a conflict of interest, and an obstruction to ever admitting or addressing the errors of past scholarship… one of the favorite subjects of Francis Bacon, it so happens).  I've now received more than one peer-review stating that I should not be allowed to point out errors in a 100 year old Pali-English dictionary; ask yourself if a scholar of Ancient Greek would receive a similar criticism, for reporting an error in a 100 year old dictionary for translating Greek to English, or if a scholar of Christianity would be discouraged from discussing a similar problem of the definition of terms in Aramaic, Hebrew and so on.  "Buddhist Studies" exists at a very problematic intersection of religious attitudes, and may be especially ill-suited to the process of peer-review.

This is part of the scientism of the social sciences: we pretend that a reviewer can verify my critique of Cambodian Anthropology in the same way that a reviewer of chemistry can check the equations in a lab report.  It is difficult to pretend that any reviewer has the time or ability to check even the most dry, factual, and philological claims in my work --because, in fact, the more dry they are, the more time-consuming they would be to verify, and the more demanding of the special expertise of the reviewer.  At some level everyone knows that peer-review isn't equally effective for all of the sciences and humanities; if it were, we'd use the same method to gamble on racehorses.

This is all very much a digression for the purposes of this short article: all that I have to say here is that (to my own surprise) I have ordered one of my own articles to be cancelled, and for the second time.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Tzu Chi's Reformation of the Buddha Image


If you compare the image above to the images below, there are many differences of iconography, but, perhaps first and foremost, we might notice that one depicts the Buddha as bald whereas the other depicts him with a full head of hair.  They're both contemporary Mahayana images, produced by exactly the same Buddhist organization: Tzu Chi (慈濟基金會) based in Taiwan's coastal city of Hualien (花蓮).


I mentioned this in some of my earlier writing, but never put the photographs together to make the point clear.

The mosaic from the hospital wall (here shown as photographed by the semi-anonymous Sue W., with due credit to her) is presumably several decades earlier than the gleaming, bald image that radiates magical rays down onto a representation of the globe.  The latter image is now apparently known as 宇宙大覺著, and, contrary to some of the explanations I've seen scattered around the internet, what I was told (by a tour guide at the Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien) was that this depicted "the Buddha healing the world", and related to the institution's (current) ecological mandate.

That mosaic, however, already presents a significant challenge to Mahayana tradition, by depicting the Buddha with naturalistic hair, and a non-supernatural cranium in general.  The mosaic looks much more like modern images that you would see in the Theravāda world, including the style of the robes and the (apparent, if non-specific) ethnicity of all the monks shown (including the Buddha himself) in ancient India.

I have previously explained that the Buddha really was described as bald in the ancient, canonical accounts pertaining to him, and that the timeline of later beliefs arising (about supernatural hair, a supernaturally deformed skull, etc.) is not at all mysterious --however, many people would pretend to treat this history as if it were mysterious, because the earlier sources contradict the later ones.  The canon does contain some very human, down-to-earth descriptions of the Buddha, in which there is nothing supernatural about his hair or appearance (and, in fact, people in the narratives have difficulty distinguishing the Buddha from the other monks surrounding him, because they all wore the same uniform, and had the same "hairstyle", which is to say, none at all).  The article in question is here, followed by a long list of disparaging comments from people who would prefer if I had never written it:
• 2010, "The Buddha was Bald, but is Everywhere Depicted with a Full Head of Hair." New Mandala.
http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2010/12/30/the-buddha-was-bald/

There is a third very interesting image that I don't have a photograph of: the massive bronze doors to Tzu Chi's great hall (in Hualien) depict the founder of the organization having a vision of the Buddha (in bas relief).  In that (very formal) depiction of the event (that I assume was at least vetted by the master herself, and likely made by the artist following her direct instructions) the vision of the Buddha has a naturalistic, bald-shaven head.  I assume that this event (the founder's vision) has also been depicted in printed illustrated books from Tzu Chi over the years; it would be interesting to know if the Buddha image therein has been consistently depicted one way or another, or if the (naturalistic) bad head is only shown after a certain year.

Given that the background of Cheng Yen [證嚴法師] was almost entirely in the (Mahayana) Lotus Sutra [法華經] tradition, it is remarkable that she would either see the Buddha as bald in such a vision, or that she would choose to depict the Buddha this way in retrospect (or both).  I have no reason to think that Cheng Yen (or anyone surrounding her in Taiwan) is aware of the canonical facts set out in my article, cited above; quite the contrary, my impression is that the Taiwan's Human Realm Buddhism [人間佛教] is leery of Theravāda influence, if not openly hostile toward it (I've never met anyone in Taiwan who has comfortable with openly discussing the blatant contrasts between the ancient Indian texts, more recent Chinese texts, and contemporary practices --or, at least, I haven't met anyone yet).

How and why did Tzu Chi end up challenging Mahayana assumptions in this way?  I'm asking this quite openly, as someone may write in with the answer (or to tell me about some research into the question).

Although the naturalistic bald-shaven head shown in the new image promoted by Tzu Chi (i.e., 宇宙大覺著) is in some ways more challenging to Mahayana traditions than the mosaic, in other ways it is less so.  Unlike the mosaic, the image of the bald Buddha looming over the world has East Asian facial features (further, I cannot say if it is intentionally androgynous, but it is, at any rate, of nearly indeterminable gender).  When it is shown in color (as in the reproduction of paintings, etc., rather than the monochrome statues) the skin is pale, and neither the robes nor the overall appearance suggest any connection to ancient India.  Of course, the globe of the world as depicted is incompatible with ancient India's cosmology, and also with medieval China's cosmology; it reflects a modern, western scientific notion of what the world is, under the fingertips of the Buddha.

If someone would send me an e-mail with the date of the hospital mosaic's completion, I'd like to know; I'd also be interested in the date when Tzu Chi formally unveiled the 宇宙大覺著 image (as of 2012, this is now the "standard" image, seen in the halls and offices of their organizations all around the world, but this hasn't always been the case).

Friday 17 August 2012

Buddhism in 21st Century Lebanon


The Buddha-Statue that you see in these images has been defaced, in every sense of the term.

The photograph was taken in Lebanon, and I found it floating around the internet, along with other fragments of the effort to create a Buddhist community in that country (I do not know who the photographer was, but he or she retains the credit).  There's no reason to assume that this statue was connected to those efforts, but one at least illustrates the other.  It's entirely possible that some unrelated (overseas) Buddhist charity created this monument in Lebanon that, evidently, the local populace did not appreciate.

The Buddhist Society of Lebanon still has a listing online (here) but if you click through to its former website, you'll find that it is missing (and has been replaced by an advertising page for utility vehicles).  Beiruit's Daily Star newspaper published an interview with the founder of the group in 2007 that can still be found online (here), along with one stray blog-entry that the same man contributed to a blog on "Progressive Buddhism" (here).  Paul Jahshan (the name that all of those prior websites have in common) has a website devoted to poetry (in English, some of it of his own authorship, but not all) on a separate blog (here).


This was not (and is not) the only attempt to create a Buddhist tradition in 21st century Lebanon: there is an unrelated (Tibetan-traditionalist) group that reports it is now translating Mahayana Buddhist texts into Arabic over at DharmaBeirut.

There's a clear contrast between these two examples in so many different ways: Jahshan offered a starkly "modernist" retelling of Buddhism, borrowing excerpts from different traditions at opposite ends of the earth through the medium of English translation.  He picks and chooses from Theravāda and Japanese Zen textual sources, and throws the results together in a package that celebrates "rational inquiry" and rejects what he considers superstition or blind faith.

By contrast the Tibetan traditionalist group seems to be embracing all the tropes and trappings of their version of Mahayana Buddhism --or, at least, the same made-for-export version of the Tibetan religion that has reached the decadent West.

The followers of Goenka also have a branch within Lebanon, reportedly (here).

For anyone who is old enough to remember the newspapers of the 1980s, Lebanon (and the city of Beirut especially) has an iconic status: the photographs of the ruined buildings of Beirut were a major part of the apocalyptic aesthetic of the times --perhaps especially for those of us who were too young or too ignorant to understand what the conflict was about (it never fit neatly into any of the cold-war categories that then dominated propaganda and education alike).

It would indeed be interesting to know how certain core doctrines of Buddhist philosophy (non-violence, no soul, etc.) are received in that post-war context; hopefully, they're not as badly received as this statue.

Taiwan's Funeral and Cremation Statistics (2001–2011)

After looking at the Taiwanese government's data on religious identity, the obvious next step was to try to spot trends in the various types of funerals conducted on the island.  The results have not been so obvious.

I have a lot to learn about the funeral business in Taiwan.  Somehow, they're managing to bury, cremate and inter vastly more people than the number who actually die on the island.  I assume that there are some very interesting reasons for the discrepancies in these numbers (perhaps some overseas Chinese are shipping their remains to Taiwan, etc.) but it is wildly incongruous that 139,125 corpses were cremated (火化場) in Taiwan in 2011.  Why?  Well, only 153,206 people died in Taiwan in that year (meaning that the cremations would seem to be, prima facie, more than 90% of the deaths), and a further 68,336 corpses were sent to funeral homes (殯儀館); and when you add those two figures together, you're looking at much, much more than 100% of the corpses that you would expect to be in circulation.

Although a human corpse may be reduced to ashes just once, apparently the process of interring the relics happens repeatedly in 21st century Taiwan.  As a cultural outsider, I'm assuming that a large portion of the repeated interring are the result of urbanization, land-scarcity, and the resulting relocation of human remains from one place to another.  I do not know if families now relocate human remains for other reasons (perhaps to consolidate remains from a family in a single location, that were formerly dispersed at various sites, or perhaps some families simply upgrade their cenotaphs).  I've certainly read about traditional re-burials and re-interring of remains (in passing) in the last few centuries of Chinese tradition.  However, starting only in the year 2008, the government started tracking a separate statistic for the number of ashes "moved out"; I assume that the majority of the remains "moved out" of one location are then interred again in another location, meaning that the statistics for the number interred in one particular year are not (alas) proportional to the number of deaths in that year.

Just how disproportionate do the statistics get?  In the year 2011 alone, we had 175,956 ash reliquaries (骨灰) interred in Taiwan, but only 153,206 people died.  When you look at the first chart, you can see that the black line for ashes interred exceeds the number of deaths per annum.

Although some (unknown) number of these could be people who died abroad whose families relocated (or repatriated) the remains to Taiwan, a large proportion of this total must have been interred some number of years after the death --and not necessarily interred for the first time.  Even if we subtract the number of ash reliquaries recorded as "moved out" (only 4,206) from the number interred in the same year, we still have a number that exceeds 100% of deaths in 2011.

In other words, the numbers don't make sense, but they probably fail to make sense for reasons that are really interesting, and deserve further research.  I have no idea whom I could ask for more information on this subject (has anyone heard of a professor with some salient research background?).

I'm still inclined to consider the funeral statistics relative to the total number of deaths on the island, because population has grown significantly (2001–2011) and the number of deaths increased from 127,892 (in 2001) to 153,206 (in 2011).  I have to compensate for population growth somehow, and measuring funerals relative to deaths makes more sense than births (or total population).

In looking at the statistics, it is clear that the government is trying to track the total amount of ground occupied by cemeteries and cenotaphs of various kinds (and, yes, the total area is growing) but the methodology of what exactly they're tracking under these headings is unclear to me.  I have separate statistics from the Taiwanese government for (1) bone relics 骨骸, (2) ash relics 骨灰, (3) planned burials, in contrast to (4) unplanned burials (a distinction that I assume concerns the type of land occupied by the grave); and then there is also the aforementioned contrast between the numbered of corpses registered at (5) the crematorium 火化場 and (6) the funeral home 殯儀館.  It is entirely possible that all of these categories are overlapping (and double-counting) in ways that I can't guess at.  None of them add up to 100% of anything, and, as explained, they certainly exceed the 100% standard we might expect to find in the number of deaths per annum.

As to what the real issues are at work here, I don't yet know: perhaps some social scientist will get in touch with me and explain how the various government registries really work.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Religious Identity in Taiwan 2001-2011


The statistics on religion in Taiwan are extremely interesting, but my initial warning (and final conclusion) here would be the standard refrain that "more research is needed".

The statistics that we have (on religion in Taiwan) are not provided by the census: the numbers are put together by a separate department of statistics inside the Ministry of the Interior (M.O.I.).  They rely on a number of other agencies, that evidently report on different religions in different ways.

Is that a problem?  Well, it means that each statistic can only be compared to itself over time, and that you can't really compare the numbers of one religion to another.  The measures used to define and document "membership" in different religions is not uniform, so you get a number that may be quite abstract that tracks the change within each religion, but that can't be compared to the others.

The threshold to be counted as a follower of Buddhism (n = 167,088) is completely different from the threshold to be counted as a Protestant (n = 401,023) and the two religions are administered by starkly different agencies.  Buddhism in Taiwan is governed by the B.A.R.O.C., a unique government agency, with unique restrictions that do not apply to any other religion on the island (cf. any of the work on this subject by André Laliberté).

If someone were looking uncritically at the bar charts of the raw numbers from the M.O.I., they would have the (incorrect) impression that Christians vastly out-number Buddhists on the island; meanwhile, the estimate offered by the C.I.A. would seem to devolve from a completely different universe.  It's the same universe, just two very differently calibrated statistics.


Although the C.I.A. is not my preferred source of information, their estimate that 93% of the population is either Buddhist, Daoist, or some combination thereof, would lead us to expect to find more than 21½ million people in this category in Taiwan (the island's population, in 2011, exceeded 23 million).  How many Buddhists and/or Daoists are recorded by the M.O.I.'s methodology?  Merely one million (n = 1,005,451) in their combined category of all "temple" (寺廟) religions (inclusive of Buddhism, Daoism, and a number of other East-Asian religions, the most numerically significant being Yi Guan Dao [一貫道]).

What none of these statistics indicate is how many people have no religion at all (be they atheist, agnostic, or otherwise).

The C.I.A. estimate does not leave any category at all for people who might be "none of the above".  In this cultural context, it seems that people who might otherwise be listed as having "no religion" are instead presumed to be "misc. Buddho-Daoist"; that's very misleading, and raises a set of issues that deserve some research unto themselves.  As with many post-colonial societies around the world, the contest between missionary Christianity and "Local Religions" has created a cultural assumption that anyone who has not consciously converted to a foreign religion will (by default) implicitly accept the local religion.  This is utterly untrue, and sets up a strange asymmetry of the religions: one category of religions is consciously chosen (and converted to), whereas the other is presumed to include everyone who does not reject them (by dint of their ethnicity).

The statistics we've got from the M.O.I. remain useful: they simply cannot be compared across categories and they have no relationship whatsoever to each religion's proportion of the total population.  Those are two considerable caveats, but I'll work with the numbers I've got.

Whatever paperwork is required for a person to be written down as a follower of a particular Buddhist organization in Taiwan (under B.A.R.O.C.) is evidently not the same as the procedure used for the other religions (not governed by B.A.R.O.C., nor any comparable institution).  Some of the smaller religions are reporting vague estimates to the government (e.g., it is not credible that Taiwanese Scientology [山達基教會] had exactly 1000 members every year since 2009, whereas they had only 100 members in 2008, etc.); others give very precise numbers, with annual fluctuation (there were exactly 902 Confucians [儒教] in 2011, whereas there were 909 in 2010 --or, at least, these were the numbers documented as formal members of one of the 15 confucian temples generating the paperwork).  I can also imagine, at least hypothetically, that some religions would be more motivated than others to provide documentary evidence of their following to the government, especially inasmuch as such paperwork may be linked to the regulation (if not subsidy) of social services provided by the religion.

Although Catholicism [天主教] is a minority religion in Taiwan, it is massively institutionalized: in 2011, Taiwan was home to 9 Catholic Hospitals, 7 Catholic Clinics, 16 Catholic Middle Schools, and 142 Catholic Kindergardens and Nursery Schools (exceeding the number of Buddhist institutions in every category mentioned; see the charts for some other examples).  This type of institutional depth probably produces paperwork documenting the membership of a larger proportion of their followers.  Religions, also, will vary as to their requirements for people to "enroll" to receive various rites of passage (and, again, the litigious nature of baptism, marriage, etc., in the Catholic tradition is a point of contrast).


The raw data for the number of religious institutions (shown here as eight pie-charts) can be misleading in many ways: there is no correlation between the number of institutions and their number of beneficiaries.  10 small schools may have fewer students than 1 large one, and so on for the number of patients in hospitals, or the number of homeless people assisted by a shelter.  There are nevertheless a few interesting facts that seem to leap off of the page here.  The focus of Catholicism on early childhood education is an interesting contrast to the emphasis that Taiwanese Daoism (apparently) places on retirement homes for the elderly, and "welfare foundations" (presumably for the poor?).  The underwhelming performance of Buddhism in all categories is self-evident.


At any rate, you've got the incongruous situation that the Christian minority (estimated at 4½% of the population by the C.I.A.) dominates the institutional landscape, and has greater numbers of formally documented followers than Buddhism --with the significant caveat that the nature of the documentation applied to the two is not comparable, and has no correlation to real numbers of devotees.  Confused yet?

However surreal the statistics may be, they're still indicative of changes over time: from 2001 to 2011, the number of (documented) Buddhists actually declined.  This is both true in real numbers and when we render the number as a percentage of the (growing) population.

In the first chart, the orange line shows you that the decline took place between 2002–2004, and that the numbers have recovered some of their losses since then, from 2004–2011.  This orange line is showing the total for all of the "temple" (寺廟) religions measured as a percentage of the population (year-by-year), to compensate for the growth in the latter.  In raw numbers (with no such compensation) there were 1,053,165 "temple" followers in 2001, and this declined to a low of 946,469 in 2004; the number increased again to 1,005,451 in 2011 --but because of the growth of the total population, this is a more significant decline than the number itself would suggest.  As a proportion of the population, "temple" religions declined.  As already explained above "temple" (寺廟) is a category that includes Buddhism, Daoism, and a few other East-Asian religions (all 902 Confucians [儒教] aforementioned); the category excludes all forms of Christianity, Islam, and so on.

During this period, both Buddhism and Daoism declined.  In raw numbers, the documented followers of Buddhism declined from 212,671 to only 167,088 in 2011.  Although this is an abstract figure (with all of the caveats stated above) and does not indicate the proportion of the population that is Buddhist, when we compensate for population growth, we're looking at a decline from 0.95 to 0.71 (a number that is abstract, but still indicative of change).  The corresponding decline in Daoism can be seen on the charts.

What does that mean?  Is there a real and ongoing decline in Taiwanese Buddhism, or have there been institutional changes (in B.A.R.O.C.) during this period that would have distorted the figures?

One of my reasons for writing an article of this kind is to invite responses on that point from my colleagues (some of whom know much better than I) --but there does seem to be "cause for pause" in these numbers, and many questions that deserve some further study.

Monday 6 August 2012

Religious Identity in the Canadian Census

Canada does not operate under the principle of the separation of church and state (quite the contrary: we were founded as a British Empire colony governed through the collusion of church and state, and our "constitution"* opens with the declaration of "the supremacy of God").

* [The meaning of the word "constitution" is debatable: the document in question is actually called "Schedule B of the British North America Act", and it was, along with its prequel, an act of British Parliament.]

Although the disadvantages are numerous, the lack-of-a-separation between church and state entails that our census does report on religious identity (unlike the American government's census, that refuses to ask the question as a matter of principle).

If you're expecting to see the numbers from the 2011 census data, you may be waiting a few years yet.  The findings are "rolled out" in a series of thematically-specific reports.  The data on religion from the 2001 census was published in May of 2003; the publication of the 2011 results (pertaining to religion) are not yet on the docket for 2012.

The most striking thing about the data that I'm looking at is the near-zero rate of reporting for aboriginal religion (or First Nations "traditional religion", or whatever term we might apply).

In the year 2001, the only province or territory with a non-zero value for "Aboriginal Spirituality" was the Northwest Territories, where this category amounted to only 0.6%.

It is astounding to see an absolute zero for this category (or any equivalent category) in provinces like Saskatchewan, that have large populations identifying as First Nations (but not, apparently, identifying their religion as such).  Part of the reality here is that a very large proportion of Canada's indigenous people do identify themselves as Christian (with invidious divisions between Protestant and Catholic contested between communities, and sometimes within them).  In Southern Saskatchewan, I note, even the Mormons have made some efforts to convert the Cree and Saulteux, and I heard a few verbal anecdotes indicating that they have had at least a few converts so far.  Another part of the reality may be "survey fatigue", as the census has very specific questions for self-identification as aboriginal, including specific band association (i.e., a greater degree of specificity than for other ethnic groups).

There may also be a significant cultural difference between the expression of indigenous identity (qua religious identity) in the U.S. and Canada in the 21st century.  It will be interesting to see if these numbers remain at zero when the 2011 findings are published.

Unlike the U.S. data (that separately counted atheist, agnostic and "no religion") the Canadian data presents just one vague category of "no religion".  This has been re-enforced by having a check-mark box for the value of "no religion", in contrast to a blank line to write in any other religious identity as a noun of the respondent's choosing.  This standard continued in the 2011 census (see illustration).  In a sense, this precludes the possibility of diverse self-identification as various shades of "atheist", etc., and encourages the respondents themselves to subscribe to the category offered (if their religion does not correspond to the type given in the list of suggested identities on the left-hand side of the form).

Of course, an even more fundamental assumption predetermined by the wording on the census form is that each person can have only one religion.  In many cultural contexts (Taiwan, Korea, Japan, etc.) the opposite is true; we cannot guess from the census data to what extent the opposite might be true in Canada.  The reality of having more than one (simultaneous) religious identity can (and does) extend to people having multiple marriage ceremonies, and even multiple funerals.  Currently, this remains outside of the remit of the census.

The headline-grabbing story that emerges from the census data is that "no religion" has increased significantly across the country, and also that it varies significantly between provinces.  In the bottom half of the first illustration, you can see that Saskatchewan is significantly more secular than Quebec; however, Quebec itself also has a significant increase within the "no religion" category.

The other story, here, is that Canada is much more Catholic than it is commonly imagined to be: Catholicism is the single largest religion in Canada (43% in 2001) and this is not only for historical reasons, but is also re-enforced by ongoing patterns of immigration.  New immigrants who had arrived (in Canada) between 1991 and May of 2001 were only 4.6% Buddhist; 23% identified as Roman Catholic, the single largest religion amongst new immigrants, with Muslims constituting 15% by contrast.  However, new immigrants were also very frequently secular: 21.3% opted for the "no religion" category.

Without digressing into specific denominations, it is no surprise to anyone living in Canada that "mainstream protestantism" has been on the decline, coeval with a number of small sects increasing their numbers.  Roughly aggregating all protestants together, their share of the population declined from 35% (in 1991) to only 29% (in 2001).  I say that this is done "roughly", for several reasons, one of the most striking being that (in 2001) a statistically significant 2.6% of respondents identified as "Christian", with no further denomination or identification.  The decade's decline in the number of protestants would be much less dramatic if we were willing to assume that this further category was largely comprised of "misc. protestants" --or even if we were willing to assume that half of this category was protestant.

Contrary to many inflated claims that I have seen around the internet, Buddhism is not now (2001) and never has been a numerically significant religion in Canada; both its absolute size and its growth (1991–2001) are puny relative even to Islam.  As we should see the 2011 data within a few years, it might be interesting for anyone to take out a bet on whether or not these trends will continue.

The establishment of Buddhism in Canada (such as it is) has transpired in the shadow of war: the relocation of refugees (and wartime allies) created in the 20th century's wars in Asia brought Buddhists to Canada (the arrival of our Lao and Cambodian populations were very directly linked to that chapter of history, and do not reflect a constant form of economic migration; there have been several academic studies on the phenomenon, e.g., Penny Van Esterik, 1992).  The wars of the 21st century, following a familiar pattern, are now relocating Muslim populations to Canada.  I hear this discussed in a rather strange voice on C.B.C. radio, as if the broadcasters are not quite sure what angle to put on the fact that both refugees from Afghanistan and former allies/employees of the Canadian military are applying to permanently relocate to the country, and openly state that their families would be targeted if they remained in Afghanistan.

As with the evacuation of forces from Vietnam in the 1970s, there's an implicit recognition of military defeat if it is (in fact) impossible for the supposed conqueror's allies to remain in the country that they have allegedly conquered after the conquest is complete.  If (e.g.) the men employed as translators for the Canadian forces would be in danger if they remained in their countries of origin, this is a reasonable indicator of the extent to which Canada not only "lost the war", but has also created enduring hostility, and the conditions for civil war to ensue thereafter.  I do not think that this transfer of population will be from Afghanistan only, and I do not think that the full extent of it will be captured in the 2011 census (i.e., there will be a lag, for many years after the conclusion of the war, as with refugee camps on the Lao border continuing to send "evacuees" to the U.S. and Canada for a period of decades after the military had withdrawn, etc.).