Sponsored by the Washington Area Secular Humanists (WASH).
Sunday, May 08, 2016
Establishment of atheism in China
By Mathew Goldstein
Questions pertaining to what beliefs to adopt regarding the existence of a supernatural realm, or for that matter questions pertaining to what beliefs to adopt on other topics, are ultimately individual decisions. Being human entails freely adopting, possessing, and expressing, our own beliefs. In a democracy the citizens guide the government. To the extent that government is telling its citizens what they are supposed to believe, and openly favoring one belief over another, the government is attempting to influence its citizens in ways that restrict their governing role. Accordingly, democratic government tries to avoid using its authority and powers to actively instruct people, or lead people, on what their beliefs should be.
Yet government also has responsibilities and interests and accordingly needs freedom of action to carry out its responsibilities regardless of whether or not some of the citizens disagree with the government policies. Religious beliefs can dictate what is deemed to be ethical or unethical over a wide range of behaviors. Non-ideological, pragmatic, evidenced based, government policies, enacted and enforced without regard to religious beliefs, are going to sometimes conflict, to some extent, with the religious beliefs of some citizens. This is, like death and taxes, an unfortunate and unavoidable fact of life. Non-establishment of religion does not entail that there will be no conflicts. It merely entails that government will avoid actively taking sides, either for or against, religious beliefs. We make an effort to accommodate religious believers by recognizing free exercise as an individual liberty also meriting legal protection.
China has a more top down, authoritarian, ideological, approach to governing. There is one political party and that political party governs. Government censors all sources of information that could influence its citizens beliefs about government policy, including the Internet, and sometimes imprisons people merely for criticizing government policy or officials or for trying to utilize otherwise legal process to try to help people harmed by questionable government practices.
Zhu Weiqun, head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the advisory body to China’s legislature, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, recently wrote in the official Global Times newspaper that the party should “unambiguously promote Marxist atheism to society,” and preserve "its leading position in the thinking of the masses of the people," describing it as “the nations’ mainstream ideology.” And he said it was particularly important to “strengthen propaganda education about a scientific worldview, including atheism, for young people." He said that while China protected the rights of religious believers, “as a nation led by the Communist Party, we cannot abandon atheism and turn to religion for spiritual support, nor take a neutral or conciliatory attitude [when choosing] between atheism and religion, and cannot allow religion to spread without limits and become the mainstream ideology."
China has overtly promoted atheism to Communist Party members, who are not supposed to believe in any religion. It imposes controls on its five officially registered religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and the Catholic and Protestant churches – and acts against unregistered religious groups. Yet in recent years the number of religious believers has grown rapidly.
Since President Xi took office more than three years ago, the leadership has increasingly sought to promote more communist party orthodoxy, criticizing Western cultural and liberal values and other “unhealthy foreign infiltration". Zhu Weiqun said that a number of party members had “found consolation in religions,” something that had “seriously damaged the party’s ideology, organization and work style.” The Communist Party had not come to power by “guiding people to put their hope on heaven or future life.” Zhu said it was necessary to guide people to “draw a clear line” between “atheism and religion, science and superstition, civilization and ignorance.”
Here in the United States, organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Freedom from Religion, Secular Coalition for America, American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, American Humanists, etc. do not want, or seek, government establishment of atheism. We hear some critics of government non-establishment try to associate government non-establishment of religion in the United States with the policies of the former Soviet Union or the current Chinese Communist Party government. They are mistaken. Insofar as the U.S. government resembles those governments, it is partly because of our government establishments of theism. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950's it was argued that by passing laws implementing establishments of theism we were asserting one of the most important differences between them and us. In fact, we actually accomplished the opposite. We made ourselves less democratic and more like the Soviet Union and China.