TAIWAN: Taiwan’s religious success story
By Knox Thames
Taipei Times (19.11.2023) – Taiwan has a good story to tell regarding religious coexistence and religious freedom. The peaceful coexistence of multiple sacred sites from different faith and belief communities found across the island is tangible proof. Every context is different, but as a young and pluralistic democracy, Taiwan’s positive approach provides a model for the region to emulate.
Taiwan is a religious place. Survey work by Academia Sinica in 2021 found a vibrant religious scene. Approximately 67 percent of the population exclusively practices traditional folk religions, Buddhism and Taoism, their research shows. These traditional Chinese faiths have been present in Taiwan since the 17th century due to migration from the mainland, practiced alongside the indigenous religions.
During the Dutch and Spanish era of trade and exploration, missionaries introduced Christianity to the island. Today, 7 percent practice Christianity, and 24 percent identify themselves as nonbelievers. The remaining identify with various faiths, including Islam, Bahaism, the Unification Church and others.
Since Taiwan’s democratisation, the island has experienced a growth in religious communities. Taiwan has learned how to be a leader in the region on democracy and human rights. Taiwan’s constitution protects religious freedom. Article 7 guarantees equality before the law, regardless of “sex, religion, race, class, or party affiliation.”
Regarding religious freedom, Article 13 succinctly states, “The people shall have freedom of religious belief,” and Article 14 states, “The people shall have freedom of assembly and association.” Taiwan recieves high scores in the Freedom House index for political rights and civil liberties.
Multiple sacred sites dot the island, a physical manifestation of Taiwan’s religious freedoms. Successful religious cohabitation is demonstrated by the syncretism seen at some temples of the three major religious traditions in Taiwan: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. “Many of the temples in Taiwan reflect a fusion of all three traditions,” Cultural Atlas observed.
However, the fusion, while accepted today, was at times forced. It was said that: “This is in part due to Japanese occupation, which led many Taoists to secretly worship in Buddhist temples.”
Taiwan is not alone in its diversity, as Asia is a deeply religious region, with thousands of sacred heritage sites bearing witness to the long history of many faiths. While membership in a belief community has spiritual importance, the Pew Research Center said that many in the broader region consider membership in a country’s majority religion “very important to national identity.”
In some contexts, this has led to repression, such as the actions of the Burmese regime against Rohingya Muslims or Beijing against Uighur Muslims. Governments in Vietnam and India have responded with a heavy hand to their minority faith communities.
Singapore, also a place of religious diversity and social harmony, provides an interesting comparison to Taiwan. An island nation, the city-state of Singapore is considerably smaller, with one-fourth of Taiwan’s population. However, like Taiwan, the multiplicity of faiths is evident in the broad array of churches, temples and mosques. The Pew Research Center states that in Singapore: “26% identify as Buddhist, 18% as Muslim, 17% as Christian, 8% as Hindu, 6% as a follower of Chinese traditional religions like Taoism or Confucianism, and 4% as some other religion, including Indigenous religions. Another 22% do not identify with any religion.”
No other country in the region has such balanced religious demographics.
Article 15 of the Singaporean constitution states: “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.”
US Department of State reports highlight how Singapore’s legal system ensures the “right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to, or employment in, any office under a public authority.”
However, Singapore is less open to democracy, scoring lower than Taiwan on the Freedom House’s democracy index, described as only “partly free.”
Restrictions also impact religious life, and the Pew Research Center found Singaporean government policies greatly curtailed freedom of expression regarding religious issues in the name of national security and religious harmony.
A recent report by the Asia Centre described the Singaporean government as “‘engineers’ [of] a national sense of social and religious harmony with the narrative that the Chinese population, despite constituting the majority, does not demand special privileges, so that other minority groups can enjoy equal rights.”
Singapore’s management of religious life at times conflicts with international human rights standards. However, its stability has provided an environment of remarkable tolerance and coexistence, which has contributed to national unity. Yet while Singapore shares notable commonalities with Taiwan, Taiwan’s approach has found a way to foster peaceful religious coexistence in the context of a full democracy.
Taiwan stands apart in the region for its religious diversity, interfaith harmony, freedom and democracy. Our research program hopes to explore how the presence of Taiwan’s many sacred sites contributes to respect for pluralism and diversity. Understanding Taiwan’s success could inform reform programs elsewhere.
Highlighting this good news story would contribute to Taiwan’s effort to expand international contacts and overcome its diplomatic isolation, but in a way that does not directly confront mainland China. Taiwan’s sacred sites stand as physical testimony to their successful approach.
Knox Thames served in a special envoy role for religious minorities at the US State Department during the Obama and Trump administrations. He is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University.