The Mississippification of China. Not on My Watch.

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Longtime followers of China Hearsay will not be surprised to see that the topic forcing me off the proverbial blogging sidelines is religion, the question being whether China should use the “beneficial” aspects of organized religion to promote social harmony. This of course made my head explode and drove me to the keyboard. To be honest, though, this post is also the product of some self-inflicted mental ass-kicking. I’ve tried to make myself feel guilty about the extended blogcation, but thus far, I seem to be shockingly remorseless in that regard. Perhaps this post will get me back in the action.

One quick administrative note. I’m also now back on Twitter after some long-term VPN trouble that nearly drove me to tears. I’ve bypassed all that by using Buffer, which is ostensibly just a Tweet scheduler but also allows one to post while not being in direct contact with the social media platform, which requires a reliable VPN. I’m trying to simplify my life. Note, however, that using Buffer like this means that I’m not really on Twitter, so if you reply to one of my Tweets, chances are that I will not see it, or at least not immediately.

So, the article that finally jumpstarted my intra-cranial jelly was in Reuters and was entitled “China aims to harness religious beliefs to promote harmony.” I started groaning immediately after reading the lede:

China should harness the positive influence of moderate religious believers, including their traditions of benevolence and tolerance, and recognize their contributions to society, the country’s top religious affairs official wrote on Tuesday.

Bleah. The assumptions here are:

  • Religion is a positive influence on society.
  • Government can pick and choose between religions and emphasize certain doctrines within religions.

Bad idea, since those assumptions are false and naïve. Can religion promote social harmony in China? Perhaps a better question would be whether religion is likely to promote social harmony in China.

Those of you out there who agree with the old theory (discredited by several studies as well as common sense) that an effective moral philosophy is impossible without a deity would say that religion is exactly what China’s cynical, dispirited, material-minded masses need. I would agree with the description of the problem, as there are certainly a lot of unhappy people out there.

But I do not agree that China’s social ills result from the lack of a firm belief system. The longstanding canard is that since Communism fell by the wayside, Chinese folks have been metaphorically wandering aimlessly in search of an ethos or a meaning to their lives, holes that could, or should, be filled by religion. This is a preposterous notion no doubt started by opportunist proselytizers. No surprise there, as most proselytizers are accomplished opportunists; just visit the nearest religious-based charitable organization if you need a reminder.

There are undoubtedly many different reasons for what is contributing to China’s social malaise. Some folks are pissed off about pollution, or income inequality, or the price of housing. There is a general sense these days that everyone is in it for themselves in a relentless struggle for material wealth, and our public institutions can’t seem to reform fast enough. (All of the above is also applicable to the U.S., but that’s a topic for another day.)

But is religion really a solution? For example, are religious people more likely to eschew material gain, care about the poor and support tolerance? Depends, doesn’t it? Contrast the American conservative Tax Cut Jesus with Pope Francis. Same religious text, totally different emphasis. Certainly the American evangelical movement, with its rabid fascination with The Gay and abortion, is not a good model for social harmony. Then again, American evangelicals are really into supporting the establishment and demonizing porn, so maybe Beijing can find something to like there.

I would, however, ask why the focus is on religion at all as a way to address social ills. If indeed folks are upset about income inequality, pollution, etc., why not just solve those problems, attack them head on instead of indirectly? Hmm. Well, that one is rather obvious. I think I’ve inadvertently touched upon the classic “Opiate of the Masses” discussion.

Fixing social problems only covers some of the disgruntled out there, though. Some people just need some greater meaning to their lives. Having a family, friends, a profession, hobbies and access to a plethora of movies and TV shows put out by Marvel and DC is apparently not good enough. Puzzling, but I’ll assume, arguendo, that this is a possibility.

The idea, therefore, is for religion to be that source of meaning, such as a reward in the afterlife or a forum for community interaction. As to the latter, I trust I don’t need to point out that there are countless options these days for people who want to join some sort of group, online or otherwise. Sure, joining the Cat Fancier’s Club is not as awe-inspiring as worshipping Baal (or so I’ve been led to believe), but I would argue that you get the same human interaction either way. Admittedly, some secular attempts to ape the congregational aspects of religion have thus far been a joke. Completely unnecessary, if you ask me.

As to that reward in the afterlife, that’s a tough one. If your life sucks, the prospect of having a beer with Jesus for eternity sounds mighty good. No surprise that there is a strong correlation between poverty and religiosity. To reiterate, though, there is a lot that we can do collectively to make sure life is decent for most people, such as creating a strong social safety net, reforming public institutions and so on. To put it another way, we can make people’s lives better now, or we can placate them with fairy tales.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of pushing religion in China is the idea that the government can control it. From the mouth of babes Wang Zuoan (head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs):

We should pay great attention to the eagerness of religious believers[.] Foster the positive contents of religion, expound upon religious doctrines which accord with the development needs of society. Guide religious believers to have correct beliefs and follow correct practices, carry out the religious principles of reconciliation, benevolence, tolerance and moderation.

Um, yeah. You see, the problem is that there are sometimes minor disagreements as to what is a “correct belief.” For example, in the middle of the 19th Century, Hong Xiuquan was convinced he was Jesus’ little brother and persuaded millions of Chinese to follow him on a holy crusade, while others believed he was bugfuck crazy. And then a whole lot of people died.

Sure, the government could promote the “good” parts of the Bible or Quran, for example, and hope that the masses out there don’t get ahold of the parts about God condoning slaughter, rape, misogyny and slavery. That’s exactly how it works in many countries, so I won’t say that it is impossible. Many nations, including China, have stamped out “cults” while tolerating “established” religions, when the only differences between the groups related to numbers of adherents, how long the belief system had been around, and whether the group espoused anything the government didn’t particularly like.

So good luck picking and choosing. But just one word of warning. If you allow millions of folks to get hopped up on Jesus Power, they might just turn around and start demanding that society’s institutions conform to their new sense of what the world should look like. Next thing you know, they’re setting up a theocratic state in Nanjing. And no one wants that. Right?

14 responses on “The Mississippification of China. Not on My Watch.

  1. David Wolf

    As someone who is a religious believer, is not impoverished, and does not think that every moral ethos must have a deity at its center, I agree with your point that government cannot simply pick and choose the “nice” bits of religion and slather it atop the national culture and expect a good outcome.

    At the same time, though, the idea that you can deny thinking, questing human beings in search of a meaningful ethos the access to anything but re-heated Marxist leftovers and wind up with a moral society is equally unrealistic. Nor can you pick and choose: you cannot simply print a billion copies of Peter Singer’s “Practical Ethics” and make China work better, either.

    The search for meaning is a part of the human condition, and more and more Chinese are finding that a full belly, a full closet, two cars, a house, a kid, and a membership in the local cat-fancier’s club just don’t fill the hole. Religion is going to wind up doing it for a lot of them, and the Party is apparently deciding that it gains little by standing in the way.

    1. Stan Post author

      David, I pretty much agree with all your conclusions, and I also suspect that religion will fill that hole too. At the same time, I’ll stick to my original point which was that the problems that are troubling folks do not necessarily require a religious fix.

      As to a meaningful ethos, I frankly think that’s overblown. Millions of Northern Europeans have essentially discarded religion, or most of it at any rate, and I don’t see them bemoaning their lives or running amok in the streets.

      1. Jim Nelson

        My Swedish American parents certainly ditched a life of faith, but the cultural habits passed down from their ancestors of faith kept them on track until they were old when their colors showed poorly. So Sweden lives the benefits of a culture of faith. By the way, northern Europe is best seen a place that is head strong and heart weak. They may not find joy as they have lost life in a world they made that can look a little too much like that of a computer. On average, they stopped feeling as life is dangerous, and so it is better not to feel. My childhood family certainly had that weakness, Their Lutheran background did ground them in moral teaching that was stronger than I am OK and your OK. The life they needed was lost, but my parents paid their taxes as do their children. I see the Chinese government as once again making a wise choice. Also, I would hardly vaunt the Northern Europeans countries as a fountain of success on the happiness scale, They are nice people like my parents, They are great workers, I hope China ends up with more color. They will need a spiritual faith to get there I think, We should not decry their chance to try,

  2. Jim Nelson

    Dear Stan,

    Being a proselytizer of Atheism does not suit someone who says others are proselytizers. You said,
    “(discredited by several studies as well as common sense)” Should we all go find our favorite studies?

    You said believers are poorer than non believers. That could be disputed in the US I think. However, has it occurred to you that people only pray when they are in trouble? As soon as someone gets rich, they forget God. So, yes many troubled people seek God, but is that a sign that God or religion is bad or that people are sinful for seeking God in trouble and forgetting Him when they are well fed.

    Are there two many Mother Theresa’s in the world? Would we have people like this if not for their faith?

    In the 20th Century, the most active proselytizers of anti religious fervor were Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. All of these were known for their hatred of religion, Did their being active proselytizers of anti religious fervor make their countries a better places to live? Did their Anti-religion fervor make them better and kinder people?

    Yes, people claiming to be religious have made a lot of trouble. Hong Xiuquan fought a horrible Qing government that needed to be opposed. The Qing’s killed millions and not him. Why do you need to distort history to make your point? But truthfully Hong Xiuquan was wrong headed in what he believed about the Bible, It is better to know really what it says than know a little and start trouble.

    The Chinese government is against wrong headed terrorist Christian cults like Eastern Lightening, Good idea, Chinese government studies have shown that people of faith in China are more likely to pay taxes, obey laws, care for children and elders and more. Why would you ask them to ignore their studies and accept your empty claims? Why would they want to follow Pol Pot’s anti-religious fervor when it did not lead to any good but rather terrible harm?

    1. Stan Post author

      Some good points. With respect to poverty, though, there does seem to be a correlation there. I’m not making it up. And if it is true that people “forget” God when they are rich, doesn’t that prove my point? If folks have a good social safety net, maybe they will “forget” God as well. I see no downside there.

      Bringing up Stalin et al as evidence that Atheists or Atheism is amoral is a classic argument. Some of those guys may not belong on the list (Hitler had quite a relationship with the Catholic Church, for example), but I’ll accept the point. I would suggest however that it wasn’t a lack of religion that made Stalinist Russia a bad place, it was the crushing authoritarianism. I tend to separate out those things, but I can see why religious people wish to conflate them. Just as there have been good religious leaders and bad religious leaders throughout history, I think atheists would follow the same pattern.

      I’m not sure what claims I’ve made that are “empty,” and I don’t think I’ve suggested that anyone model their society on Pol Pot. That’s an odd contention to make.

      With respect to proselytizing, I don’t recall writing at length about why religion is obviously false in an attempt to change people’s minds. My position is obvious, and my bias is right out there in front of everyone, but I wouldn’t equate that to proselytization.

  3. Hyam Bolande

    Interesting post.

    Between the lines, there seems to be an assumption is that religion is outside the state’s purview. From a historical perspective, this is untrue; the modern US notion of separation of church and state may be familiar at this point, but it’s actually an anomaly when we look at the last 3,000 years of religions and civilizations rising and falling.

    Expedience to those in power is almost always a driving and shaping force for religion. (One good read on this topic: A World Without Islam, by Graham E. Fuller.) So basically, I see nothing too surprising in the Reuters article that set you off. I agree that it’s naive for the Party to believe it can engineer such a thing without it blowing up in their face. But make no mistake: Secular leaders have been opportunistically putting the gas or brakes on religious movements to suit their objectives for thousands of years.

      1. Jim Nelson

        The game of proselytizing atheism is the alternative, No one and no government has zero world view. We are all believers in something, China can now believe in money or power. Will that lead them to happiness of the rest of the world for that matter? The South Korean government has played that push religion game for about 50 years, and they have not lost control. I am not sure what you fear. Anything done badly could turn out bad, but the Chinese government has shown a wisdom over these 30 years that is hard to second guess,

        Like in America, where schools are impossible to change, China will struggle to rid its schools of overwhelming push on Atheism, (it is strong proselytizing of children for Atheism) They will probably never be able to get to even a neutral standing there, Stan, I think you have little to fear in some small rebalancing in the Chinese government position, based on their research,

  4. Rens

    The argument that atheism means concentration camps in either Poland or Siberia is nonsense. Pogroms in Poland, the Baltic States, White Russia and the Ukraine were happily executed by very religious Christian people who were finally settling the score for poor Jesus. It is analogue to Hitler and Stalin had moustaches and thus people with moustaches will be latent mass murderers and atheist beasts until they gain power and then their real faces will show.

    Mother Theresa pulled in millions and millions of dollars in donations. Most of that money stayed in the Bank of the Vatican and virtually none has been used for good medical services to cure the people in her hospices in India. Many were not terminally ill, they just had no money for antibiotics or surgery. It is a well known fact that many did not have to die so what kind of morality did she bring to the table?

    For China I think not having scientific discovery clouded with religious opposition, being able to work on things like stem cell research for example will be a potential great benefit to the world. No discussions on the controversy . Religion being a tool of suppression would mean having two Gods, the party and the man in the sky. In the political and societal context of China that can only mean conflict in the longer run.

    1. Jim nel

      Hmmm I was not saying that I support the Catholic Church in any way.

      I see that faith drew out something in Mother Theresa that the red guards did not touch in terms of goodness. Religion will not save us but belief in something true and bigger than ourselves has helped millions get better.

      In Germany when Hitler asked churches to throw out Jesus, the vast majority threw out Jesus and sent Jewish people to the gas chambers.

      By faith, confessing church people accepted prison and even death with the Jews and for love of them. Hitler could manipulate religious people but not people of faith.

      However. I do not think Christians are better than non Christians. By faith they become better than the failed people they were. True faith is an asset to any society.

      China is right to support it.

  5. Bob Walsh

    What China wants is all of the practical benefits of a values system, but without all of the cultural and political baggage that can accompany (American) organized religion.

    On the other hand, a Joel Van Osteen would do pretty handsomely here, as would any evangelist preaching the Gospel of Prosperity ™. If he could adapt his message to include the prevailing themes and trends the CCP wants to promulgate, then it would be a sure bet he would be welcomed. Of course being China, he would have local copycat competitors in virtually no time at all.

    As it is here in Nanjing, any South Korean caught evangelizing finds themselves loaded onto the very next thing smoking back to Seoul.

    1. Stan Post author

      Knowing I shouldn’t do it, I just Googled “Gospel of Prosperity” and found a gazillion links to prosperity theology. It’s, as I suspected, a real thing. {sigh}

      That’s the kind of thing that almost makes me wish Jesus could come back from the grave, just so he could confront those folks in person.