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China’s campaign against the Buddhist Fulan Gong sect raises questions about the relationship between atheism, freedom and the separation of church and state.

Congress shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
or of abridging the freedom of speech, or
of the press; or of the right of the people
peaceably to assemble, and to petition
the government for a redress of grievances.

--The First Amendment

China National Flag The old chestnut of “official atheism” is back, thanks to the Chinese government’s crackdown of the Falun Gong religious sect. This week, officials outlawed the Buddhist-based movement, warning that any citizen supporting the group “will be pursued for criminal liability” and exiled to the country’s thriving network of labor and re-education camps. 28,000 worship sites, temples and meeting halls where Falun Gong worshippers assemble have been closed, and as noted in the Washington Post, “Any attempt to appeal the ban was itself banned.”

Unknown to many western readers of the popular press, China is awash in movements like the Falun Gong. Faith healing, apocalyptic sects and assorted religious groups populate this enormous country which is in the midst of a convulsive economic and social transition into the modern era. China is also threatened with the political balkanization which has redrawn the map of Europe; Muslim groups in the western part of the country are calling for secession. Within China itself, the warnings of Marx and Mao have taken on a peculiar relevancy, as an impoverished peasantry coexists precariously with a rising class of young technocrats, nomenklatura and semi-capitalists tied to the government apparatus.

On April 25, over 10,000 members of the sect -- no reliable figures exist for its membership in China or worldwide, but it could run into the millions -- encircled the headquarters of the Communist Party in Beijing to demand legal status. Some suggests that China’s security services, thought by some Republicans to be so pervasive and skilled as capable of bankrolling a U.S. election, or penetrating our most secure nuclear research facilities, was caught off guard, and as the New York Times observes, “Chinese sources have said the sit-in caused the Beijing government to ‘lost face.’”

Falun Gong is not the only religious movement clamoring for official status inside of a rapidly-changing China. Western missionary groups, dispatched from the country following the 1949 uprising led by Mao, now demand greater access to the mainland in hopes of “planting the church” and proselytizing again in the world’s most populous nation. The Freedom From Religious Persecution Act was passed recently by the Congress and signed by President Clinton; it lists China along with the Sudan, Iran and other countries, as a major offender of “religious rights.”

Already, the crackdown on the Falun Gong is cited as further evidence that religious groups are not welcome in China, even behind the glass-and-concrete wall established by the technocratic reforms of Deng Xiaoping and his successors. Ironically, this comes at a time when, as Robert D. Kaplan notes in his piece in the August, 1999 issue of Atlantic Monthly, “The Chinese have also experienced a dramatic increase in personal freedom.”

“Chinese can travel, buy any books and videos they want, open banks accounts, live together if they are gay or unmarried, and so on.” That assessment may be an exaggeration, but Kaplan cites the position of David M. Lampton of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Burton Levin, a former ambassador to Burma. They posit that the Communist Party, in the process of instituting marketplace reform, “has gone from controlling every facet of daily life in China to controlling the media and the political opposition.” Kaplan adds, “It has been a long time since the Chinese people have experienced such a degree of security or freedom.”

By our standards, it is a paltry freedom, of course. But the new wave of reformers in China remember events incomprehensible to westerns ... the Second World War with its 10 million Chinese casualties, the ruthlessness of the civil conflict, Mao’s manufactured famines and purges and the insanity of the cultural revolution. Deng Xiaoping could recall that his son was forced to jump from an upper-story window by a crowd during the “great leap forward.” It is this fear of chaos, breakdown and upheaval that haunts the Chinese leadership. Notes Kaplan, “Now the most liberalizing regime in Chinese history is the one most attacked by the U.S. media, politicians and intellectuals -- the same groups that in many cases tolerated by Mao’s and Chiang Kai-shek’s abuses...”

It may be worth giving the Chinese at least a hearing in the accusations being leveled against the Falun Gong and its enigmatic leader who now resides in New York City, Li Hongzhi. The state-controlled media paints Li as a dangerous scoundrel, a charlatan who teaches a mind-salad of Buddhist, Taoist and new age doctrines and has a hidden political agenda. The sect is accused of “inciting and creating disturbances, and jeopardizing social stability.” The People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist Party, says that the religion is a “massive threat,” and justifies the suppression on Li’s followers saying, “any responsible government would do the same...”

Falun Gong symbol But even the once gray-lady of journalism, the New York Times, admits that Li makes astounding -- and disturbing -- claims. In an interview, the Times noted that “Li was more muted than in his writings about supernatural powers like X-ray vision, an ability to fly and the radically lengthened lives that may be achieved through proper harnessing of cosmic forces.” Falun Gong takes its name from “the law wheel” which is said to be rotating in the human abdomen, “drawing in good powers and expelling bad forced,” a sort of cosmic air filter. “Advanced students gain supernatural powers,” Li’s writings claim.

None of this is any more absurd that what a number of traditional religions or new age-style philosophies happen to preach. Shoko Asahara, founder of the apocalyptic Aum movement linked to the Sarin gas attacks in Japan four years ago, made similar claims, and informed followers that he could levitate, read their thoughts and, oh yes, those who drink his urine (for a price) would gain a smidgen of his enlightened self. Aum penetrated key sectors of Japanese society and accumulated over a billion dollars in property, all while claiming to be a benign movement for spiritual enlightenment.

The argument is once again being made that China is a society which embraces a policy of “official atheism.” Indeed, at times, the government effort against Falun Gong sounds atheistic; the Peoples’ Liberation Army, for instance, promises that it has begun a campaign within the ranks to root out followers of Li, and “to struggle against idealism, feudal superstition, and pseudoscientific ideas.” That same phrase, “official atheism,” has been used to describe Cuba and, until the Gorbachev era and beyond, the former Soviet Union.

The precise meaning of “official atheism” is never given, other than the suggestion that as “atheist,” these nations were/are hostile to religious belief and expression. Marx, as part of his theoretical infrastructure, defined religion as an opiate for the masses of people. There is often a vast gulf between theory and practice, though, and those “official atheist” societies have not always been unaccommodating when it comes to religious belief and practice. The bottom line for these nation states, though, has always been the question of power; and power, not atheism, defines the parameters of the struggle now taking place in China.

In a nutshell, the current regime there does not wish to share power with the Fulan Gong or any other movement. The Times correctly observed that the Communist Party “is unwilling to tolerate any competing allegiance,” and it was similarly hostile several years ago when students poured into Tiananmen Square demanding greater freedom and democracy. The Communist Party leadership knows full well the powerful role religious movements -- like their own -- have played in the history of China. From 1851 to 1863, civil war erupted during the Taiping Rebellion led by the charismatic Hong Xiuquan, who promised the creation of a “heavenly kingdom” on earth, and claimed that he was the son of Jesus Christ. The so-called Boxer Rebellion was an outburst against foreign interventionism; it was orchestrated by the Fists of Righteous Harmony, who blended a martial philosophy with eastern mysticism. Today, regional warlords in China use their own “shake-and-bake” mystical philosophies to recruit and motivate followers. To the autocrats in Beijing, combined with the stresses and dislocations of explosive economic transformation, all of this is a dark omen, and a threat to their rule.

Banning, suppressing or censoring religious propaganda and movements does little or no good. It often turns those movements into symbols of liberation; the Catholic Church emerged in much of eastern Europe as the emblem of defiance to centralized Communist Party rule.
We should likewise note that despite the western press label of “official atheism,” Beijing is willing to do business with certain religious groups. It allows one of America’s premier religious right televangelists, Pat Robertson, to pour forth a steady diet of “no news, no sex, no violence” television programming throughout China’s countryside. Robertson is a co-investor, along with the Riady family of Indonesia, in China Entertainment Broadcast Ltd. The Communist Party is also reaching its inevitable historical rapprochement with the Vatican as well. The Chinese government, like governments throughout history, will do business with the churches when it is advantageous to do so, and the churches either support or fit in with the plans of the state. Similarly, religious movements rarely speak out against those despotic or totalitarian states that provide them with special status and authority.

Atheism is based on the primacy of Reason and the efficacy of critical thinking. It requires the freedom to question, to explore, to analyze and, yes, even to err. Rationality cannot be drummed into the human mind like the letters of the alphabet or the multiplication table; it is a cultivated skill, even an art. You can raise a generation of youth to prattle lines and memorize slogans about the non-existence of a god, or the role of a religion and the salvational destiny of the Party, but without examining or understanding any of this on a rational level, that generation will ultimately be as vulnerable as any other to the seductions and pitfalls of superstition. Instead of rote slogans, though, people can be taught -- and encouraged to use -- the tools and principles of efficient, consistent thinking. You can lead a horse to water...

Madalyn O’Hair noted that “we are all born atheists,” but are indoctrinated with the various religious creeds and ideologies we sometimes embrace. What particular creed that might be is often an accident, a function of time, place, geography. But unlike all of these different and often competing religions, atheism is not a belief. It is an understanding, an appreciation, a critical mental attitude.

As for “official atheism,” well, atheism cannot be taught as so much pabulum, nor can any philosophy ultimately based on the primacy of reason depend on the barrel of a gun for its acceptance. Banning, suppressing or censoring religious propaganda and movements does little or no good. It often turns those movements into symbols of liberation; the Catholic Church emerged in much of eastern Europe as the emblem of defiance to centralized Communist Party rule. Only later in countries like Poland did people realize that the church, too, was power hungry and a threat to individual rights. In the former Soviet Union where what passed for atheism was taught as an adjunct to the ideologie d’jour, the doctrinaire embrace of Marixsm-Leninism has been replaced by the giddy rush to resurrect the Orthodox Church, and open the rest of Russian society to a stampede of Christian, Muslim, Mormon and new age sects. What passes for our understanding of “official atheism” has little to do with atheism as a rational philosophy based on free, unrestricted inquiry.

If banning and censoring repugnant ideas -- including those advanced by religion -- is both wrong and counterproductive to the spirit of free inquiry, what can atheists do about religious movements of any sort in an open, pluralistic society? As a start, we can insist on a policy of government neutrality, a strict neutrality, toward all religious beliefs, groups and practices whether it is the Roman Catholic Church, or the Falun Gong sect, or any other denomination. We can demand the strict separation of church and state, and an end to any public subsidies for religion. We can insist that religious groups pay their own way, and enjoy no special economic or political privileges.

Atheists can also defend the important principle that religious ideas of any kind are not and should not be immune to questioning and criticism. “Blasphemy” laws existed for hundreds of years in America and Europe; even today, some religious argue that these statutes should be resurrected as a kind of social prophylaxis against “hate crimes,” and that the questioning or mocking of a religion “offends” certain groups. This idea needs to be resisted; demanding that religious belief should be given special legal protections against the practices of free speech elevates religion above other ideas and opinions which people might express.

While Atheists may see the separation of church and state as a beneficial condition which balances the rights of people to believe and express whatever they choose with the those who disagree, it is questionable that all or most religious groups can live with such an arrangement. The Founders thought sufficiently of Jefferson’s notion of a “wall of separation” between the church and the state that this was incorporated into the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. That came in the midst of a political and cultural upheaval in America, where the churches were “disestablished,” thus ending an odious tradition of public funding of churches, and the requirement that one belong to a particular “established” church in order to own property, vote, or exercise other rights. Churches could hardly co-exist with each other; the Great Law of Pennsylvania, enacted in 1682, demanded that all citizens acknowledge “one God,” enforced the Sabbath observance, and prohibited worship by Jews and Catholics. In 1778, the South Carolina constitution decreed, “The Christian Protestant religion shall be deemed, and is hereby constituted and declared to be, the established religion of this State.”

Later, Catholics and Protestants battled in the streets of Baltimore, Philadelphia and other cities over which version of the Bible would be recited in schools. The separation of church and state has had as much to do with keeping various denominations from achieving hegemony over each other as it has in confining and hopefully limiting the impact of organized religion on secular society.

The separation of church and state does not guarantee that all or most Americans will ever be Atheists. Indeed, some believers consider the doctrine of separation to be beneficial to the practice of religion, a guarantor of religious liberty. It does, however, when embraced as a robust legal principle, go a long, long way in guaranteeing all their right to freedom of speech, and to remain free from the doctrinal strictures of sectarian groups. Separation is that first step, perhaps even a precondition in allowing atheists to live our lives and speak our minds.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.