China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2008/Sep

Chinese communists can teach western atheists

Many people are scared to death of religion. What can militant atheists throughout the world learn from China’s religious policy?

A generation ago, religion seemed to be dwindling away. One book described how faith was becoming more and more a private choice, with less and less influence in the public arena. The Secular City begins by describing an airport terminal, where people of every nation and race are treated with equal courtesy.

There is a chapel in the corner of the terminal, a quiet room with a few artificial flowers, but no symbols to link it to any particular faith. Some people go there to pray or meditate, but the airport would function just as efficiently without a chapel.

The author saw the airport chapel as a metaphor for faith in the modern world. Even as late as 10 September 2001, religion seemed to have no impact on air travel.

Wanting nothing to do with God

Today, western nations pay attention to religion and a vocal minority of citizens has become openly hostile to any and all faiths. Books like The God Delusion and God Is Not Great sell well. The titles summarise the authors’ position that the sooner every religion disappears, the better for the whole human race.

They promote not freedom of religion, but freedom from religion, saying that it has outlived its usefulness. Whatever good it did for people in the old days, religion just causes division and conflict now. They point to many unpleasant stories in the news and diagnose religion as the underlying problem.

Some critics even go so far as to say, “A good believer helps people not because of faith but in spite of it,” and “religious people who do good simply provide cover for evil-doing believers.”

If we meet such a hardliner, what can we say in reply?

Maybe it would be best to walk away early, resisting the temptation to deliver a parting shot, “I’ll pray for you!” Turning the argument around might start a fist fight: “You are a good person, not because you are an atheist, but in spite of the fact that you are an atheist. However, by making the world a better place, you are simply providing cover and respectability for those atheists who have blood on their hands.”

Learn from the Communist Party

Maybe the only reply with any hope for dialogue would be to ask, “That’s interesting (pause). And how does the Chinese Communist Party view this?”

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 led to the founding of the world’s first communist state. The early USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was passionately antireligious and huge numbers of believers were martyred.

But during the life-and-death struggle of World War II, Moscow faced a bigger threat than people praying in secret. A small number of churches were allowed to reopen to rally more citizens to the motherland. Whatever Marxist-Leninist theory said, political practice had taught a hard lesson: believers and atheists share some values, so they have some common ground for cooperation. Besides, trying to eradicate religion had proven to be a costly and futile effort.

In China, the United Front devised a slogan “seek the common, keep the differences” (求同存異), meaning, “Let’s find out what we have in common and set aside our differences.” This policy was useful in the 1950s in establishing the Patriotic Associations for different religions, but limited tolerance steadily weakened during the late 1950s and early 1960s. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), any pretence of religion coexisting with socialism disappeared. That was one of many disasters of a lost decade.

A generation ago, there was no room for any religion in China, nor a single functioning church, temple or mosque anywhere. To be precise, there was a Catholic Church in Beijing open for the diplomatic community, but locals knew better than to try to enter, even for a quick prayer. Today, people on the street are wearing crosses as fashion statements. What changed?

From haste to patience

Chairman Mao had been in a hurry. In 1963, he wrote a poem with the lines, “Ten thousand years are too long. Seize the day! Seize the hour! …Our force is irresistible, away with all pests!” Haste made waste, wasted idealism and especially wasted lives.

On 31 March 1982, Document 19, The Basic Viewpoint and Policy on the Religious Question during Our Country’s Socialist Period, admitted that it was useless to have persecuted religion. “Religion cannot be abolished by administrative decree.” The party must tolerate it for however long it takes to naturally disappear. Socialism is the stage prior to communism.

By the 1980s, the time perspective had shifted and there was talk of China being “in the preliminary stage of socialism.” The assumption is that the human race in general, and China in particular, will endure for thousands and thousands of years, so slow, steady progress is much better than rushing and stumbling.

The sense of historical inevitability remains. The party still sees itself on the winning side of history. Science is all-powerful and will solve technological and ecological challenges, while the party will control the social and political surprises. Yet this will take longer than anyone in 1949 imagined. Western atheists in contrast, sound worried, outnumbered, and more afraid of being defeated. Fear makes militancy worse.

As an aside, Christians have hope because God is in charge. We are “saved in hope” and Spe Salvi is the title of the Pope’s latest encyclical. Yet we do not expect the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth. The Second Coming will exceed human effort and imagination.

Back in China, for an unspecified long period to come, the party plans to continue to educate the masses and keep an eye on believers, supervising them and guiding them to participate in China’s modernisation. “Educate them politically,” Deng Xiaoping said, “and unite them to support socialism, to love their country and consciously adapt themselves to the demands of a socialist society.” The Red Guards had taken Mao literally and treated believers like enemies to be swept away as quickly as possible. So Document 19 was a huge improvement.

Learning from practice

Some antireligious critics in the west are philosophers; others are scientists. None of them are government administrators. They have never had political control over a mid-sized city, thank God, let alone over a large country. To use an expression from the days before television, they are “armchair strategists,” meaning someone who sits comfortably at home, reads a newspaper to follow a battle and voices a strong opinion about where their country’s army should attack.

The Chinese equivalent is “on paper talk soldier” (紙上談兵), meaning someone who writes about combat without ever having drawn a sword or marched through mud. Western atheists never get their hands dirty translating theory into public policy.

By contrast, the Chinese Communist Party is the largest institution in the world, with 73 million members. It has cadres in every village and in every city alley. Policy and feedback travel down and up the chain of command to the party centre. Neither internal documents nor public white papers are issued from an ivory tower. The party has learned the hard way from its mistakes.

Catholics certainly do not give blanket endorsement to China’s current religious policy, but we have to admit a day-and-night improvement from a generation ago.

Co-workers, not enemies

At the end of 2007, the Politburo held a special session to study the expanding role of religion. The president, Hu Jintao, said, “We must strive to closely unite religious figures and believers among the masses around the party and government, and struggle together with them to build an all-around moderately prosperous society while quickening the pace toward the modernisation of socialism.” His words imply that religious leaders and their followers are part of the Chinese population, not a foreign element.

To use phrases that were in vogue in an earlier era in the People’s Republic of China, the difference between atheists and believers used to be seen as a “contradiction between ourselves and the enemy” (敵我矛盾), calling for a violent struggle. Now it is largely a “contradiction among the people” (人民内部矛盾), still an area for official supervision, but with room for negotiation and compromise. A Catholic described a vaguely similar transition within his Church as the move “from anathema to dialogue.”

Some group planted bombs on buses in Kunming (昆明) and tossed hand grenades in Xinjiang (新疆) in recent months. No government can turn a blind eye to such attacks. The Vatican condemns targeting civilians anywhere in the world, for any cause.

Yet the current violence will not reverse China’s religious policy. Beijing can distinguish a small group of extremists from the majority of believers who are willing to live and let live. The government will not counterattack with a blanket condemnation. For a harmonious society, the party will continue to be aware of the feelings of theists.

Learn from China’s atheists

Any religion with millions of adherents has a number of hardliners and, to be blunt, a few crazy fanatics. But atheists can also fall into the traps of bigotry and paranoia. If readers of China Bridge cannot interest atheists in reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Letter to the Catholics of China, we can at least urge them to learn from Chinese communists: religion is going to be around for a long time.

For the good of society, it makes sense for atheists to call off their general offensive. Instead they should enlist the cooperation of as many believers as possible. It would require a miracle to force all believers to convert to atheism and atheists don’t believe in miracles. At least the Chinese Communist Party has learned to pursue steady efforts rather than crash programmes to change people’s beliefs.