*Dr. Tsai is a postdoctoral researcher in the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy of Academia Sinica, Taiwan; Mr. Xu is a research assistant in the Research Center of Applied Science of Academia Sinica, Taiwan. The article was published in Chinese in Taiwan’s The New Lens. The opinions expressed are the authors’ and do not necessarily represent CESNUR’s point of view.
Recently, the new coronavirus has spread from China to East Asia, Europe and America with an even larger scale. It not only claimed innumerable lives but also caused serious panic across the global society.
Especially in the last few weeks, South Korea, our neighborhood country in Northeast Asia, seemed to blame all of the troubles on one specific religious group, due to scaling cases of infection within this community, threatening to hunt down all its devotees and perhaps also members of other innocent groups. Some Internet celebrities immediately catched up with the trend, and criticized the religious groups with their “objective evidence,” just in order to earn more clicks.
All of the sudden, everyone becomes a public enemy as long as you’re accused of being part of one among these groups. The accident caused a mass hysteria, which was further intensified by the manipulated news. Right now, a modern version of the old witch hunts had begun.
A well-developed democratic society should have been more tolerant and open toward diverse opinions. New religions are often treated unfairly due to mysterious imagination and fear of religious fanaticism. However, the sense of mystery itself ironically originates from the smears by conventional mainstream religions. The member of new religious groups are forced to hide and act carefully because of relentless persecution, discrimination and intolerance against them.
Although some of the new religions may seem extreme and are suspected of religious fanaticism, most of the new religions are simply just like other more traditional religions, except for their different interpretations of doctrines and scriptures. In fact, most of them seem to incorporate modern science and support women's rights, gender equality or fundamental human rights.
Lin Man-houng (Chinese: 林滿紅; pinyin: Lín Mǎnhóng), an economic historian and the first female president of the Academia Historica (國史館) of Taiwan, wrote an article on “Social Phobias in World History: From Witch Hunt and Soulstealers to the ‘Identity’ Crisis in Taiwan,” to investigate different social phobias in global history, mentioning that there are some special social phobias under specific historical circumstances. Many people regard thus as a taboo and refuse to say a word in order to protect themselves. However, most of the hatred, biases, jealousy or even opposition against each other arises from this problem.
She gave an example of that. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, witch hunting was widespread in the UK. Back then, the concept of immorality due to demon possession was popular in theology. Many of those who were in charge of trials were clergy. They tended to think that some elder women they accused of immorality were possessed by demons. They felt obliged to burn and torture them. Who exactly will be sentenced for demon possession corresponded to the social phobias of that time.
Prof. Lin used witch hunting as an example for the Taiwanese society, hoping that “all citizens should respect themselves as well as others.” This idea is valuable today. Especially what happens now looks pretty much like a campaign or propaganda against new religions.
Dr. Massimo Introvigne is a famous sociologist of religion and also serves as the managing director at the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR). He has been studying how the new religions are persecuted in China and keeps trying to speak out for them internationally.
He argued that, in addition to totalitarian countries like China, democratic countries in East Asia sometimes are also intolerant toward minority religious groups. The governments are often manipulated by conventional religions through malicious smears.
“While arch-conservative and fundamentalist Protestantism is not so strong in other countries, it is the largest segment of Protestant Christianity in South Korea. It has promoted vicious campaigns against minorities who are labeled as ‘cults,’ as well as against Roman Catholics, homosexuals, and Muslim immigrants and refugees,” reported Introvigne. Not to mention the Shincheonji Church. “In fact, he continued, South Korea will have general elections on April 15, and blaming Shincheonji is a convenient excuse both to avoid a wider debate on how the authorities handled the epidemic and to court the bloc vote of fundamentalist Protestants.”
Many innocent groups of new religions or ordinary people are hurt and labeled as cults unfairly, causing them to live under fear and worries. In fact, they have already stopped all gatherings even before the government asked for it What they are facing is not only the disease itself but also the oppression of social discrimination.
The past tragedies have already taught us precious lessons, revealing the importance of the spirit of enlightenment. It brings us the care for basic human rights in modern society. You shouldn't be discriminated against because of your gender, social class, religion or race.
Taiwanese society has grown from the tragedy of the period of White Terror. The trauma didn’t defeat us but became the seed of freedom. Our parents pursued the human rights with blood and tears. Their sacrifice and giving made Taiwanese society the most democratic and diverse country among all of the East Asian countries.
Recently, the citizen cultural literacy of younger generations is becoming better and better. Even though we are facing the threat of the coronavirus, the social order is kept extremely well, showing the flexibility of Taiwanese government and citizen literacy. The efforts and success against the disease are recognized widely around the globe.
However, even though the disease is controlled well and citizen literacy is widely praised, even in Taiwan some people are misled by the ignorant internet celebrities or manipulated by the conventional religions for their own purpose. It’s a shame to hurt somebody who looks just like you and me with simply different beliefs. When we face similar social phobias, it’s time to learn from history and make the right choice now!