Some Key Issues in Religion and Culture in the Asia Pacific in the 21st Century

The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre at UniSA, together with the Adelaide Asia-Pacific Studies Group, the Australian Research Council's Asia-Pacific Futures Research Council, hosts of the 2008 Signature Event Conference, Globalising Religions & Cultures in the Asia Pacific, will present two public forums on some fundamental intersections of religion, ethics and social change in our world and our region.

Forum One
Playing God? Genetically Modified Organisms, Miracles and Monsters

Tuesday 2 December - Proudly supported by the University of Adelaide

 Audio transcript: Forum one: Playing God? (31MB mp3 format)

Australia, Anglophone countries and Europe have long been vexed by the ethical and moral problems thrown up when the modern science of genetic engineering meets the legacy of 2000 years of the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, the future of such technologies may not be in the hands of scientists, theologians and politicians in the West.

The GMO future may instead lay in the hands of scientists from the East, particularly the rising science powerhouses of China and India and Asia more generally. These societies have religions, cultures and traditions that are very different so their attitudes to what is permissible and desirable genetic modification are likely to diverge from Western ones in significant ways.

Professors Ron Herring of Cornell University and Ann Gold of Syracuse University address the issue of these differences in attitudes, the implications of their potential consequences, and how people in places like India are responding to the challenges posed by GM. They discuss some Asian concepts of what constitutes “natural” and how some religious beliefs may make modifications desirable while others can result in resistance from some groups.

Professor Ron Herring is the Director of the Program on Development, Governance and Nature at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York State. In recent years Prof Herring has published prodigiously on genetic modification and reactions to it, particularly in India.

Professor Ann Gold is Director of the South Asia Center, Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs, Syracuse University in Ithaca, New York State and an expert on Indian religious beliefs and Indian attitudes to the environment. Her most recent book is In the Time of Trees and Sorrows: Nature Power and Memory in Rajasthan (with Bhojo Ram Gujar) Duke University Press.


Forum Two
Religious Revivals: Challenges and Prospects for Islam at the Grassroots in the Age of Global Media

Thursday 4 December - Proudly supported by Flinders University

 Audio transcript: Forum two: Religious Revival (37MB mp3 format)

Religious beliefs are fundamental to many peoples’ lives and the idea that modernisation through economic development automatically means ever-increasing secularisation is questionable at the beginning of the 21st century. There are some indications that in Asia some groups are becoming more secular as modernisation continues apace, but at the same time we are also seeing strong religious revivals, often as responses to these processes of rapid development and change.

Globalisation coupled with the falling costs and increasing prevalence of global mass media means that, for the first time, Islam can also be promoted and reflected around the world in movies, music and popular soap operas. These new influences can both support revivals of Islam by showing its place in the world, as well as challenge those forms which evolved unique traditions as a result of their relative isolation from the Middle East for centuries, especially after the advent of European colonialism.

Western media, especially in Australia and America, have been very concerned with the rise of fundamentalism but the speakers in this forum are interested in other equally, if not more important, forms of Islamic belief now rising in popularity amongst some of Australia’s nearest neighbours and beyond.

Associate Professor Julia Howell of Griffith University is keenly interested in how modern media is influencing grassroots perceptions of what being a Muslim means to believers around the world, including in places like Australia. Dr Syed Farid Alatas is interested in how the revival of Sufism in Malaysia is resulting in tensions between the old and the new while simultaneously significantly reshaping how ethnic Malays view them selves. Dr Joseph Tamney of the Catholic University of America, is one of America’s foremost academic writers on religion has been researching how modernisation has been handled in Malaysia as its peoples seek to balance religious beliefs and the forces promoting greater individualism, and the need to separate politics and religion in a constitutional democracy.

Dr Syed Farid Alatas is Associate Professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore with an active interest in the forces supporting extremism and the role of Sufism in combating such tendencies. He has published on the teaching of sociology and is researching the connections between the current Muslim revival and Malay identity.

Dr Joseph Tamney is Associate Fellow, Life Cycle Institute, at the Catholic University of America and Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Ball State University (USA) and past president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (2003-4). Dr Tamney has published extensively on Christianity, Buddhism in America, religion in Singapore and China and most recently has been researching religion and state relations in Malaysia. His books include, The Resilience of Christianity in the Modern World, The Struggle Over Singapore’s Soul, and The Resilience of Conservative Religion as well as having contributed to or co-authored many other books, encyclopaedias and articles.

Associate Professor Julia Day Howell is a researcher at the Griffith Asia Institute and is interested in the Hindu and Buddhist revivals in Indonesia as well as in new religious movements. More recently Dr Howell has been researching aspects of Islam, particularly Sufism. She has published widely in academic journals and recently published, Sufism and the Modern in Islam (with Martin van Bruinessen) and is currently working on Cosmopolitan Sufis: Pluralism and Piety in Indonesia.


While the views presented by speakers within the Hawke Centre public program are their own and are not necessarily those of either the University of South Australia or The Hawke Centre, they are presented in the interest of open debate and discussion in the community and reflect our themes of: strengthening our democracy – valuing our diversity – and building our future.