Friday, October 5, 2012

Taiwan, in an Atheist's Eyes

This is one thing that's been on my mind recently, as I make arrangements to go to Donggang for this year's King Boat Festival, which centers very much around gods (or god-like beings) and how they are worshipped in Taiwan.

I'm an open atheist (used to be agnostic, but some life events changed my mind and hardened my views) - and very much a secular humanist in my moral code. This has led to problems in the USA - I do still have family members who aren't happy about, or don't accept, my lack of faith and who have said so openly. I've had people just assume I'm Christian - I was asked "where's the reception" a few times when planning our wedding (the assumption being that the wedding was in a church) and shocked people by revealing that I had no intention of getting married in a church, even if we were married by my parents' pastor.

I've had my beliefs questioned, been told I'm "wrong", and had people say - as well as seen many a comment online - about how I'll eventually "find the way" or some such. I know that I can never run for public office (not that I ever would!), because I won't hide my beliefs as many secular politicians do and an atheist is more or less unelectable. I've sat through a work event in which an award recipient spent 20 minutes talking about God. I was happy he found fulfillment in his faith, and some mention would not have bothered me, but 20 minutes? At a work event? I'd rather that work be a place where faith may be mentioned briefly but is otherwise not an issue up for discussion. It still would have been fine if he'd kept it to personal anecdotes of faith, but all the talk about how it's the "one true way" and the implication that this is what "good people" believe really got to me. Would he stop thinking I was "good" if he knew what I really thought? And why was it OK for him to talk about God for 20 minutes at a work event, whereas if I'd won the award it would have been extremely gauche for me to talk about my lack of faith for even a second? Not that Id've wanted to - just sayin'. It wouldn't have been acceptable in the same way.

I get the very strong sense when I'm back home that my lack of faith is an issue and something people would worry about if they knew me. I've had friendships fail to grow because being a part of a community of faith was extremely important to the other person, and not something I could share in. I had one relationship - a bad relationship, but it happened nonetheless - in which faith was an issue: I didn't mind that he was Christian, but he sure seemed to mind that I wasn't (and seemed surprised to learn that I wasn't: I honestly believe he had this idea in his head that good people are religious in a way he understands, and atheists are sketchy people, and since I was a good person, it shook his worldview that I did not share his belief). In another, faith was not an issue, but had the relationship lasted - good relationship, not right for me - hed've been OK with me not converting, but would have wanted any children raised Jewish. Leaving aside my desire to remain child-free, that was not going to work for me.

And, of course, the constant reminders that, despite a separation of church and state, that there's quite a bit of church in the state. I'm not leading the charge to take God off of our money, out of our pledge of allegiance (I always mouthed the words anyway and have very little allegiance to the USA) or take Bibles out of the halls of politics or the justice system: I've got better things to do than that. All it does for me is serve to remind me that I don't fit in, that I'm not one of "them", that there are a lot of people who'd view me as a weirdo or outsider for being an atheist.

And, you know, as someone who has no faith but is interested in how faith is practiced around the world, I do like to visit temples and churches, and I do like to observe religious customs when appropriate. It feels kind of weird, however, to have a look inside a church in the USA - even though I'd probably be welcome if there were no service going on, or be welcome to sit quietly and listen to the service if one were, it would label me as someone who shared the beliefs of those in the church. It would be interpreted in a way I am not comfortable with - so I don't.

I will say that this is not a problem among my friends. They are either atheist, secular, "spiritual" (as in they believe in a supreme being but aren't interested in organized religion), culturally religious (as in "I'm Jewish, I guess, but whatever" or "I celebrate Christmas because it's fun but that's about it") or are religious but respectful of differing views (which is cool - unlike women's rights, racism, certain views on poverty and gay rights, this is not an area where a difference of beliefs causes me to question someone's character). It's more of a family (not every member of my family, but some) + everyday life issue.

Then, I moved to Taiwan.'s great. Religion is just not an issue. Nobody cares that I'm atheist - even my Taiwanese Christian friends. Well, I am sure some of them care, but we respect each other and don't talk about it. I don't feel like they worry about my eternal soul the way people back home might, or judge me for it. I can go to temples - fine, nobody cares. I can even light incense or draw a fortune stick. Nobody cares. Even if I say openly that I don't believe in something...OK. That's fine. So what? I can go to festivals and watch temple parades, and it's all cool. Nobody will come up to me and ask me if I want to chant a sutra or join their fellowship group. There's no cultural equivalent I can find (anyone?) to Bible study so I can't even make a comparison there.

"I don't really believe it either," some will say, "...but Grandma wants me to do this so I'll just do it."

"Does Grandma know you don't believe it?"
"Yes, but she doesn't care. As long as I do it she's happy." or "I don't know, she's never asked. It's probably not that important to her whether I believe it or not."

Imagine that - while some of that's true with my family: they know I don't believe but would prefer I go to church with them anyway, but there's still this lingering hope that I'll find my way back to the path they want for me. Grandma Huang doesn't worry about it in the same way.

If I tell people I'm an atheist - which I only do if asked, or if the person is a very good friend - the reply is generally "cool". It's just not a big deal. So much of life in Taiwan centers around religion: Tu Di Gong shrines, temple parades blocking the street, the lunar calendar cycle of holidays, the fortune telling required before marriage or baby-naming, the "yellow" almanac telling people when they may do things, and yet if you don't participate, or just observe, or go through the motions without believing, it's not a problem.

Best of all, you don't have to worry that someone's faith will come with a pre-set belief system. I realize that not everybody who is Christian shares the same beliefs - Stephen Colbert has been quite the shining example for the liberal, irreverently faithful, to the point where I refer to my liberal Christian friends as "Colbert Christians" - but there's really no fear in Taiwan that someone who genuinely believes in praying to Guangong or Matsu will let that belief influence their opinion in other areas. In the USA, I always have a moment of worry when talking to a new person who has professed a faith - so, do they think gays are evil because someone told them it's in the Bible? Not necessarily, but it happens. Do they believe that a woman's place is subservient to a man's, because that's what they've been taught is God's way? Again, not necessarily but it happens (am thinking of a blog I was reading once in which the blogger said something along the lines of "well, it makes sense that a household should only have one head, and the Bible says that's the man so I accept it to be so"). Are they going to be super conservative and go all ape-shit about Obama being a Secret Muslim or have retro views on sex in society? Not necessarily, but again, it happens. I've had such a debate - and at the bottom of it, the other person believed that pre-marital sex was wrong for religious reasons. Fine if she's just applying it to herself, but she was judging others for their choices - and how do you even have that debate when you don't agree on the fundamentals? What do you say when what you want to say is "I can't agree with you, because your views is based on a belief in a God that I do not share"?

In Taiwan, I love that someone can believe, or not, and have their views without worry or the need to reconcile them with their beliefs: nobody's going to go all "Tu Di Gong says gay sex is wrong!" (hey, that rhymes). Nobody's going to say "well because I pray to Hua Tuo, I believe that women should be silent in temples". You can believe in Tu Di Gong, or not, and it has no bearing whatsoever on how you feel about women or homosexuality. I realize there are Christians out there with similar worldviews, but it seems to me like those views would require at least some thought and reconciliation with the teachings of the Bible.

Are they going to assume that because their way is the right way, that I necessarily agree? Like that one  Western couple I was chatting with awhile back - I said something about the fat, laughing Buddha - and the guy said "well you know he isn't real, right? You know there's only one true God and it's not him?" and I was all..."uh...there is no non-awkward way to respond to that". Which, again, it's socially sanctioned in the USA for him to say that, but not for me to talk openly about my beliefs. Why? And Taiwan is so much better in this regard because I can speak openly if I choose without it getting awkward.

Nobody will make you feel like a weirdo. Nobody will make you feel like an outsider. Nobody will make assumptions about you, or be shocked that such a good person doesn't believe in the Baosheng Emperor or Matsu. Nobody will judge your character. You don't have to worry about people's reactions to your atheism. Religious displays - especially festivals - are as much cultural as they are religious, like the bling-blingiest bits of Christmas parading down the street every few weeks. Observing a festival or going to a temple is not linked to an assumption about belief - it's linked to a cultural practice.

People in Taiwan tend to joke about the local folk religion all the time - and nobody's offended. You can make a joke about Wenchang Dijun, Guangong or Confucius's birthday ceremony and people will laugh sincerely. It's just not a big deal. You don't have to worry that you've offended someone - "you can't say that about the City God!" is not something you'll hear crossing anyone's lips.

You can

And it's great.


Brendan said...

"Like that one Western couple I was chatting with awhile back - I said something about the fat, laughing Buddha - and the guy said "well you know he isn't real, right? You know there's only one true God and it's not him?" and I was all..."uh...there is no non-awkward way to respond to that"."

PLEASE tell me that's actually what you said, because I think it's just about the perfect response. Especially if you say it matter-of-factly and then just keep talking. Tactful on your part and maybe they'll get the hint.

Also the fat, laughing Buddha was totally a real Chinese Buddhist monk in the 10th century. I know it's not what that couple meant, but it's true.

MKL said...

I see the Taoist beliefs more like superstitions - they tell you what you should or should not do, they are usually related to good luck, good business, good health or good relationships - very practical, but not too intrusively moralistic. I believe it's the Confucian beliefs, that are serving a similar role like the Church is in the West, a moral institution that is. Imagine, if you had kids without getting married or if you just don't feel like meeting parents for lunar new year, because you wanna go on a vacation... it would be a huge moral problem (a shame) and I could imagine, that my Taiwanese friends would not be able to understand or accept the reasons, however logical they would seem to my Western friends. Nevertheless, as a foreigner, if you make a cultural faux-pas, you can usually get away with them, as they sometimes think that you just can't understand or it's just too hard for me to accept their norms (they put a wall between you and them). Like you highlighted in your post, there is a culture of not getting too much personally involved with other people, especially with those way outside of your circle. Politics is what gets people fired up in Taiwan, but religions are just not seen as something important on the national level. You'll hardly see a more religiously diverse country like Taiwan and that's one of Taiwan's biggest achievements of society (this religious tolerance is much more mature than the young democracy).

Btw, I'm an atheist myself, my whole family is, most people in my country are. Until I started to travel abroad, I never felt that my non-belief would be an issue. But ever since I came to Taiwan and met quite few Europeans and North Americans who were religious, I see how this can be an issue, so I usually try to avoid talking about it. But all in all, I can hardly be close friends with someone who is religious and judgemental of those, who are not.

Jenna Cody said...

I think that is more or less exactly what I said, but it was years ago - the wording might have been slightly different!

MKL - the thing is, plenty of people I know in Taiwan do decide to take a vacation rather than visit their parents on CNY or do other things that seem like shameful faux pas: I think there's more leeway than many Westerners realize to do those things in Taiwan, and it really depends on your family.

I"ve always liked Laozi more than Confucius because, well, his philosophy (rather like Jesus' when you strip all the 'supreme being' stuff from it) makes sense to me in a way that Confucius doesn't. I mean, here we have Laozi saying "follow your life like a leaf floating in a river" or some such, and Confucius saying "dance to music the same way everyone else does, with the same steps in the same order, for a harmonious society" (not exact quotes but a fair approximation of things both philosophers said) - and I do identify much more with Laozi (I think most Westerners in Taiwan would be likely to agree).

Confucian ideals are strong in Taiwan, but there's just enough of Laozi that people have some leeway to rebel a little bit.

Of course, Laozi's Daoism isn't really the same thing as the folk Daoism practiced at temples in Taiwan, which is much more deeply related to the ancient and once universal practice of praying to different gods for different kinds of help, not to the teachings of one philosopher.

Mike Fagan said...

Hitchens said religion was "our first attempt at philosophy" and although he was referring to American society, I think it's also true of many individuals who, for one reason or another, aren't especially well read.

That being said, Christians and other religious people certainly do not have a monopoly on either ignorance, prejudice or bigotry.

blobOfNeurons said...

Among other things, Confucius advocated that people be principled, educated, humane and compassionate, and that they follow proper procedure (The details of what he said are of course highly specific to his time period.)

You wrote "dance to music the same way everyone else does, with the same steps in the same order, for a harmonious society". I would not call that a fair approximation. It seems to be a reference to his love of rites, rituals, ceremonies, etc. but you completely miss the context which is that this is advice he was giving to the ruling class. I see this as analogous to modern-day complaints about the government's failure to be consistent and follow proper procedure.

Jenna Cody said...

blob - I'm practically (though not exactly) quoting from something I read on Confucian philosophy way back in college. For me, it does sum up a lot of Confucian teachings. Some of the other bits are OK (I quite like his proverb that a tyrannical government is worse than tigers attacking), but at its heart it doesn't resonate with me the way Laozi and Zhuangzi do.

Plus, not such a fan of the Five Relationships - especially the one where wives are below husbands and people are below their ruler - also not so big on the one where children are below parents. Makes sense when children are children, but not when it's interpreted to include adult children, as it often seems to be in society. So that's three of five relationships that I don't care for. Not a great start.

Mike Fagan said...


There is, apparently (pdf), a considerable difference between the writings of the early Confucians and the later Confucians which is significant in that some elements of Laozi's writing seem to be derivative of the early Confucians.

James said...

Good post - a lot hear that I can identify with: Being married into a Taiwanese family, I've always been amazed by the inclusiveness and the way they are happy for me to participate in the rituals even though they know a don't believe a jot of it.

The most amazing experience was being asked to actively participate in a large funeral procession for my wife's grandma in her home town. The 'master' who was presiding over the ceremony chose three young males of the family (grandchild generation) to bear objects (one cousin an urn, another cousin a pic of grandma and me some kind of small branch) as we marched for a mile or so through town.

The very fact that he chose me, a unabashed atheist, without batting an eyelid exemplified the open, inclusive and nondiscriminatory nature of folk religion in Taiwan as you have touched upon it.

I also agree that it depends on your family. My father-in-law lives in Australia and has a very relaxed, take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward rites and rituals here. If he's around we'll go tomb-sweeping or bai-bai-ing, if he's not, well that's all right. As his folks are interred in a Hakka cemetery where 掃墓 takes place on a different day, we might even do it then. It's all pretty ad hoc.

I usually go back for LNY but there definitely wouldn't be a massive deal if I didn't (the only reason my wife is is because she's married to a foreigner, otherwise she would be going to her in-laws like other Taiwanese women).

Where I do slightly diverge is the idea of religious/cultural mores not infringing on other spheres of life. It is when this happens that I have to say 'enough'.

If, for example, I have to walk 10 minutes out of my way each morning to take my son to school, for a whole month, because it's 'bad' to take him past a funeral marquis that is hogging up the lane near our flat, then I feel it is starting to interfere with my life.

Or, when my son, who is desperate to learn how to whistle, manages to make a little toot one evening, only to be told to be quiet as it is summoning ghosts, well ... Sorry but I'm not having the lad being forced to follow such hocus-pocus. I suppose, though, a lot of these things cross over into social customs (including a lot of the unscientific 'medical' beliefs: cold food will give you a cold etc.)

There is also a lot more influence on politics than you allow for, I think. In a society that still abides by deeply ritualistic and superstitious practices, politicians have to factor this in - particularly on the local level where it's categorically not about policies but interests. Of course it's not of the same nature as what is going on in the US, but I could explain some of this with some concrete examples given more time. Still, overall, your point stands: Muslims and Christians can (and have) been involved in politics with not so much as a murmur.

Again, thought-provoking post. Cheers.

MKL: 'You'll hardly see a more religiously diverse country like Taiwan'

Do you mean that one won't find a more religiously-diverse country of Taiwan's 'level' (i.e. 'status' or 'development'?). It's certainly nowhere near as diverse as, say, the US or the UK, though it's obviously more tolerant in the ways Jenna has described.

Marc said...

The French writer, Edmond de Goncourt, was well known for his great skeptical quote "S'il y a un Dieu, l'athéisme doit lui sembler une moindre injure que la religion." (“If there is a God, atheism must seem to Him as less of an insult than religion.”). Most atheists I know are so because of their informed experience with religion rather than from purely philosophical reasons.
I remember reading somewhere that after WWII many French Catholics and Jews (perhaps many Europeans) simply abandoned religion after what had been done to or by people in the name of religion.
After discovering that my 17th century ancestors were most likely Portuguese and could have been "conversos" (Portuguese Jews posing as Christians who fled from the Inquisition to England, then Canada and the American colonies), my father's first cousin, an Anglican vicar in Canada who was also doing his own family research spat out, "We were never disgusting Jews!" when I suggested my unproven theory to him. Pax vobiscum? Like hell.
I embrace the idea that people are often enthralled by their myths. Myths (and the mythic) are still powerful forces even in these so-called post-modern times, and good luck in trying to change the myths or saying they are fiction. Jesus died for your sins; Mazu will protect your ship from harm; the Messiah will appear to us one day and we shall be born again; Allah will grant you entry to Jannah - where palaces are made from bricks of gold, silver, pearls, and rivers flow in valleys of pearl and ruby, etc. These are powerful concepts which deserve respect – and by respect I don’t mean that we would all accept these in empty-minded veneration, but at least respect them like the Rukai of Taiwan honors the mythical power of a snake that will cause you actually to drop dead in a hundred paces!

Mike Fagan said...

"These are powerful concepts which deserve respect..."


Is toleration not enough? Must they also be respected even by those of us who don't believe such "powerful forces"?

FTNM said...

'Is toleration not enough?'


'Must they also be respected even by those of us who don't believe such "powerful forces"?'