label r shifted
Session A7
Controversies about religious organizations within an evolving Taiwan civil society
Richard Madsen
Department of Sociology, University of California, San Diego, USA

A staple of political theory is that democracy depends on a vital civil society.  What are the indicators of such a society:  the number of voluntary associations, their relative independence from government, the content of their activities, their systemic relationships with one another – and/or the way the relationships among these variables are evolving over time?  In this paper, I place special emphasis on the systemic relationships among civil society organizations and their evolution over time, and I revisit some of the findings from my book Democracy’s Dharma to show how this emphasis might give a new perspective on the development of Taiwan’s civil society today. 

In Democracy’s Dharma, I argued that Taiwan’s major humanistic Buddhist organizations played a significant role in the consolidation of Taiwan’s democracy, not because they were overtly political, but because they provided an experience of community and a spirit of care that helped to stabilize Taiwan society in the face of the centrifugal forces that come with a transition of political regimes.  The emphasis was more on the content of their teaching and nature of their practice.  Here, by analyzing recent controversies about these organizations, I shift the emphasis to consider their connections with the over-all system of Taiwan’s civil society.  With increasing economic inequality and social competition, civil society begins to become polarized. The very success of groups like Tzu-chi and Foguangshan leads to populist criticism from citizens concerned about elitist control of their society.  This can give rise to polarizing critisms, not so conducive to a strong democracy. Exploration of these issues might give new insights into the evolving health of Taiwan’s civil society.