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?


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