A sketch of Taiwanese Christianity

Written By Wen-Hsu Lin

Image credit: 東海大學 路思義教堂 Tunghai University The Luce Chapel by Chi-Hung Lin/Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0

According to statistics from 2017, about 6% of the Taiwanese populace are Christian. Despite having a history dating back several centuries, Taiwan’s Christian community remains largely understudied and rarely discussed. Scholars have tried to better understand this group using survey data. Through the data, we first reveal the demographic characteristics of Taiwanese Christians. More importantly, under the well-documented trend that the country  has become more secularized, we further investigate whether Christian faith still matters to Christians’ behaviour and attitude toward social issues.  

Who counts as a Christian in Taiwan? The Christian community in Taiwan has more female believers (66%), married (69%), and urban dwellers (68%). In addition, about 60% of Christians hold a post-college degree or higher (i.e., an average of 14 years of formal education), which confirms Christianity’s general impression as a “middle-class” belief. However, this demographic landscape is not unique because these figures are very similar to surveys in the West, such as general social surveys in the U.S. One of the reasons that urban dwellers are more likely to be Christians can be traced back to the rapid economic growth, urbanization, and the emergence of the middle class in the 1980s. These individuals face great societal changes that impact their lives; hence, they are eager to find “inner” comfort from religion, religious experience, and connection to the deity. Several new trend churches, such as Bread of Life Christian church, the Miracle Top Church in Taipei, and the Banner church in Taichung, developed around this time to meet these needs and soon grew to became mega-churches (i.e., several thousand regular members). Also, early observation also mentioned that some of the doctrines of Christianity, such as “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy,” fit well into middle-class “culture.” Furthermore, as many researchers and writers reveal, love and relationships are addressed in Christianity, which is consistent with female role “expectation.” Consequently, women and individuals with higher education occupy more seats in the Christian community.  

Regarding behaviour and politics, there are other notable similarities between Taiwanese Christians and their American counterparts. We can see this from two behaviours: social service participation and donation. The former refers to Churches’ outreach service that meets citizens’ and communities’ needs (e.g., homeless service or after-school care). The latter specifically focuses on the amount of money one donates. “Strong Christians” are more likely to participate in social services held by their churches. These Christians are those who have both public and private religious behaviours; that is, they have frequent church service participation and personal quiet time, such as prayer time and Bible study. In addition, they also have strong faith by declaring that their religious faith is important in their daily life. Concerning donation, a similar pattern can be observed. That is, Taiwanese Christians who participate in Church activities (e.g., Sunday service and prayer meetings) and hold core beliefs, such as believing in “Final Judgment” or do not believe in “doing acts of kindness leads to Heaven” (the exchange perspective)” donate more and are also more likely to be a volunteer than their counterparts who do not have this religious behaviour and belief.  

The above portrait clearly shows that the Christian faith still matters because it influences Taiwanese Christians’ altruistic behaviour (e.g., social service and donation). One may wonder if such faith influences moral attitudes toward controversial and important social issues. While we face different social issues daily, we often do not necessarily have an opinion on a particular issue. However, when these social issues are important, controversial, and/or related to morality, individuals tend to have a specific attitude towards these issues (Emerson, 1996). Although the demographic and altruistic behaviour of the Christian community in Taiwan is fairly similar to those in the West, is there a similarity toward controversial social issues? There are no issues that are more related to religion than life and death: the death penalty, euthanasia, and abortion. Here we can use one interesting concept, “intrinsic belief,” to differentiate between Christians. Intrinsic belief refers to strong religious belief and behaviour, which developed under the secularization trend in modern society because more churchgoers only go to religious services without internalizing its belief. Hence, pure religious behaviour cannot describe “true” Christians. Specifically, Christians who hold intrinsic belief have a strong religious belief (e.g., believing in Bible literalism) and behaviour (e.g., high frequency of church attendance and personal prayer time). As a result, these Christians are less likely to support the death penalty, euthanasia, and abortion. In other words, they have a consistent life ethic attitude: God created life, so humans shall not terminate it by force. While this association between intrinsic belief and persistent life ethic is similar to the results from the West, there is one interesting difference between Taiwanese Christians and their Western counterparts. Taiwanese Christians with strong religious beliefs are less likely to support the death penalty. This may be due to the intersection of the collectivistic culture of Taiwan and the Christian doctrine of submission to authority under free religious practice. Consequently, when government gradually pushes to abolish the death penalty, Taiwanese Christians show this pattern. 

Another set of relevant social issues is related to same-sex and heterosexual behaviour, including extramarital sex and same-sex marriage. However, one interesting cultural context in Taiwan must be mentioned in dealing with the Christian faith and its association with these social issues. That is its connection with other religions in Taiwan, including folk belief, Taoism and Buddhism. Taiwanese Christians face these different religions and show great cohesion. In other words, they strongly trust Christian-based public interest groups and are unlikely to trust Buddhist temples/organizations. This low cross-boundary trust can effectively distinguish Taiwanese Christians from others. Consequently, with this in mind, we see that Christians with a strong belief and who do not have cross-boundary trust are more conservative on same-sex issues, such as surrogate motherhood, than their Christian counterparts who have a weak belief and trust in Buddhist temples/organizations. The same pattern was found for premarital sex and extramarital affairs issues as well.  

In summary, while the history of Christianity in Taiwan is over a century, Christians remain a minority in Taiwan. Nonetheless, Taiwanese Christians are very similar to their Western brothers and sisters in terms of altruistic behaviour and attitude toward social issues. That is, Taiwanese Christians with strong beliefs (e.g., in the virgin birth and Bible literalism) and devoted faith practice (e.g., Bible study and prayer) are more likely to carry out social service, donate more and hold a consistent life-ethic attitude. They are also more conservative toward same-sex or pre- and extramarital sexual relationships. In addition, the demographic sketch of this Christian community in Taiwan is also similar to the Western Christian community. 

Wen-Hsu Lin is an associate Professor at the Institute of Health and Welfare Policy at National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University

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