Templeton Foundation Awards $1.7 Million for Research on Significance of Religion in China

May 23, 2006

The John M. Templeton Foundation has awarded $1.7 million to Baylor University's Center for Religious Inquiry Across Disciplines (CRIAD) to conduct a study on the spiritual beliefs and practices in China titled "An Empirical Study of Religions in China" (ESRIC).

"This grant allows us the chance to produce scholarship for the first time about the significance of religion in China," said Dr. Byron Johnson, professor of sociology and director of CRIAD. "We have anecdotal accounts of the influence of religion in China but next to no empirical data. This initiative will produce a series of objective studies, both national and local, of Chinese culture, society and religion."

Dr. Carson Mencken, professor of sociology, will serve as project director. Assisting Mencken will be Johnson and Dr. Rodney Stark, University Professor of Social Sciences. Dr. Christopher Marsh, associate professor of political science, Dr. Anna Xiao Dong Sun, CRIAD research fellow and visiting lecturer at Kenyon College, and Dr. Fenggang Yang, associate professor of sociology at Purdue University and non-resident fellow at CRIAD, will serve as co-principal investigators.

The cornerstone of the study will be a nationwide survey, conducted by the Gallup Organization, into Chinese spiritual beliefs. In a random sampling, the international polling organization will survey 1,500 residents in a telephone interview and then will conduct a "walk around survey" of another 1,500 residents. The telephone interview will have greater geographical coverage.

"The walk around survey will be in several major cities. In it, people are selected at random and are asked to do about a half-hour interview on the street. This type of survey works well in China," Mencken said.

Mencken said the group is interested in a variety of issues, including what types of religious practices, such as Christianity, Buddhism, Daoism, are practiced; how long respondents have practiced religion; the use of family temples; and how spiritual practices vary by ethnicity, age and geographic location.

Currently, the Chinese government classification system counts five major religions in China: Protestantism, Catholicism, Daoism, Buddhism and Islam. However, study investigator Anna Sun, who was born in Beijing, believes Confucianism has the potential of becoming a major source of spirituality in China.

She also said there is untapped interest among Chinese in this kind of study.

"I remember that when I was a teenager growing up in Beijing, I'd go to the few state-approved churches whenever I could get a chance," she said. "I also went to the famous 14th-century Confucian temple and the well-known Daoist temples. I even found my way to the Chinese Academy of Buddhism, where all the students were monks. My curiosity and religious need were not an isolated case, and I know public interest in religions has only increased in the past two decades in China. What prevents people from knowing more has been the lack of good empirical data, not the lack of interest."

The other important component of the project will be for Baylor to bring scholars from China and train them in the classical, social science approach to studying religion. Approximately five post-doctoral scholars and researchers will participate per year. Once these scholars are trained and return to China, they can undertake small-scale research projects with funds provided by ESRIC.

Led by Purdue University scholar and CRIAD non-resident fellow Dr. Fenggang Yang, the project includes hosting in China an annual summer institute on the social scientific study of religion as well as an annual winter workshop at Baylor on advanced research methodology. Additionally, the project will include translation into Chinese of influential Western works, providing free access to a major on-line journal dedicated to comparative studies of religion, and publishing journal articles, book chapters, and widely accessible books on the role of religion in contemporary China.

"This project will generate ground-breaking scholarship and thus build a new field of empirical research on religion in contemporary China," Johnson said.

The John Templeton Foundation seeks new insights into the spiritual nature of the individual and supports innovative new research in subjects ranging from unlocking the mysteries of spirituality in the human mind using recent advances in neurobiology to generating insights into the patterns and principles of spiritual growth during college years. All human sciences research is guided by Sir John Templeton's unyielding optimism that there is much to learn from examining scientifically the nature and benefits of such spiritual principles as creativity, gratitude and altruism. Ongoing research engages anthropologists, psychologists, economists, educational researchers and other scholars who pool their talents and expertise on topics as diverse as thrift, generosity and purpose.

For more information, contact Mencken at (254) 710-4863.

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