The failure of secularization theory has met with a growing number of studies of the public face of religion. Recently there appears a growing interest in issues concerning the role religion may play in contributing to the public good of the society as a whole. Mirroring the empirical examples, the role religion can play in social engagements may be largely divided into two: First, religion may act as an indirect mechanism by providing a social basis of engaged actions. Second, religion can exist as non-governmental organizations which function as non-profits for specific causes by providing infrastructures, human resources, material goods, and services. Since most of the existing literature is based on studies in relatively mono-ethnic societies, and, in the case of the United States, tends to focus on mainline Christian churches, to what extent the role of religion in contributing to the public good may be different in the case of minority constituency is thus a question needing further empirical study.
The project attempts to examine the engaged religions among an ethnic minority in a modern Southeast Asian society. More specifically, the project focuses on the engaged religions among the ethnic Chinese in Malacca, Malaysia. The goal of the project is bi-fold: to analyze the role of religions in the public life of a minority group, employing the theories of engaged religion; and to examine the theories of engaged religion in a multicultural society. To achieve this goal, the project will examine the socially engaged actions of a set of religious groups and institutions from Buddhism, popular religion, and Christianity in multicultural Malaysia, and ask whether and how religious tradition, ethnic identity and boundaries, and modernization may shape the two different types of engaged religion. The project's significance lies in its potential contribution to the theories of social capital, NGOs, and the Chinese diaspora.
Huang will use the IIAS fellowship to write ethnographies of her fieldwork in Malacca, Malaysia (1997, 2004, 2006, and 2008). Parallel to the multiculturalism in the wake of NEP, Malacca witnessed a change in the scope and salience of engaged religions: old and established engaged religions such as popular temples and Christian churches began to embrace global and cosmopolitan approaches; and new transnational Buddhist philanthropic organizations emerged in the local religious landscape. Such changes parallel the modernization of religion in Malaysia as well as within the Chinese diaspora. Yet, at the same time, the changes beg new interpretation of the linkage between engaged religions and multiculturalism in both local and global contexts.