At the time of my first field research in the late 1970s, relatively uneducated Taiwanese villagers used to chastise me with their response to imported ideas of religion. ‘Don't you people know’, I heard over and over, ‘that all religions are really the same? They urge people to do good’. They meant this as a critique of the missionary message of monotheistic Truth, and it reflected the flexibility of their complex, pluralistic, and relatively uninstitutionalized religious context. I agreed with them at the time: religions do share some similar moral messages, and they also generally share a deep involvement in social bonding that can have important implications beyond religion.
Yet, in some ways those villagers were wrong. Moral messages across religions do indeed overlap, but they are not identical. Religions do intertwine with social bonds, but not all in the same ways. Spiritual capital, in brief, cannot be reduced to social capital, especially if we want to understand religion's broader influence on social, political, and economic change. Instead, we have to understand both crucial differences among traditions – levels of institutionalization, forms of socialization, messages and media –and the social contexts in which they evolve.
In this chapter I will discuss the ways that various religions have contributed importantly to Taiwan's market success and eventual democratization, and the evidence that they may play as important a role in the rapidly evolving situation in the People's Republic.