Thoralf KLEIN

Atheism has had an enormous effect on the religious policy of the Chinese state ever since Western ideologies reached China around 1900. Since 1949 the officially atheistic Chinese Communist Party has sought to control rather than eliminate religion.

Because religion has been woven into the fabric of Chinese social life since ancient times, the rise to power of modern political forces, especially the avowedly atheistic Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949, was likely to have a profound effect on the state and society. Would the Communist Party state pursue a policy of reckless suppression of religious life, or would it tolerate religion, at least temporarily? Except during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the religious policy of the CCP has been guided by practical considerations rather than by its atheist ideology.

A Modern Concept of Atheism

Atheism here means a concept that rejects any form of religious belief. This definition does not include certain strands of Confucianism and Buddhism that are sometimes labeled as “atheist” on the grounds that they are not based on the concept of a personal deity. In fact, there is no reason to assume that they are incompatible with other forms of religion, and by and large in earlier times they did not interfere with sacrifices and other forms of worship. As far as religious policy was concerned, the imperial authorities tried hard to suppress “heterodox” teachings and practices that were regarded as a threat to the state; at the same time they sought to promote as well as control “orthodox” forms of worship.

Atheism as herein defined is a modern concept based on a strictly secular worldview. It entered China around 1900, along with a number of other ideologies imported from the West. Foremost among these were social Darwinism, nationalism, and socialism/communism. They were based on a specific notion of human progress and pursued a secular goal (a vigorous nation-state or a classless society) that served as a substitute for religious attitudes. Transmission of these ideas was intimately linked to the emergence of a modern Chinese intelligentsia. Young urban intellectuals who were attracted by the new ideological currents became hostile to any form of Chinese religion, including folk religion, Daoism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and, although it is not a religion in the strict sense of the term, Confucianism, which came under fire for its association with the official cult of the state. Because these intellectuals formed the backbone of revolutionary movements and of the emerging political parties, atheism played an important role in the political transformation of China.

Atheism during the Republican Period

Chinese atheism was first and foremost directed against religion’s most “superstitious” form: folk, or popular, religion, which also includes certain elements of Buddhism and Daoism. The republican revolution of 1911–1912 witnessed the first large-scale campaign against popular religion, in which many temples and shrines were destroyed. Although the provisional constitution of newly founded Republican China (1912–1949) guaranteed religious freedom, attempts to weaken the institutions associated with popular religion (temples, religious associations, etc.) continued until about 1915.

The May Fourth Movement (1915–1923), a pro-Western intellectual movement, gave rise to the next wave of antireligious activity. In addition to the general critique of religion (which was guided by a belief in modern science), two targets were singled out: Confucianism, regarded as the main cause of China’s conservatism and stagnation, and Christianity, by then regarded as an ally of Western imperialism.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang [GMD]), which established a national government in 1925, to some extent succeeded the antireligious movements of the 1920s but was not clearly atheistic. The GMD did claim the supremacy of its ideology, the “Three Principles of the People,” over all forms of religion. However, some of its leading members (including Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and their families) were Christians, and in the 1930s attempts were made to revive Confucian doctrines. This ambiguity notwithstanding, GMD governments at various levels campaigned against “superstition,” although with limited success.

Atheism during the People’s Republic of China

The CCP took the Marxist view that religion is the opiate of the masses but that it will ultimately disappear in the transition to a classless society. However, the party dealt with religion within the framework of its united-front policy, a strategy designed to incorporate noncommunist social forces into the process of revolution and state building. Within this framework the party could form alliances with religious people despite its disapproval of religious doctrines.

The religious policy of the CCP was therefore guided by practical considerations rather than by a narrow ideological approach. Although the party was clearly atheistic, the state that it monopolized was not. This fact is reflected in constitutional law, which binds the state organs, although not the party. The constitution of 1954 granted citizens “freedom of religious belief” without being specific about what this guarantee exactly meant. The emphasis on belief rather than religious practice gave state and party the opportunity to suppress popular religion. Institutional religions were tolerated but brought under the supervision of the state. For that purpose a number of so-called patriotic religious associations were set up to represent the five officially recognized religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism (the latter two being regarded as separate religions rather than as different branches of the same religion). The Bureau of Religious Affairs, founded in 1954, served as a link between the state and the patriotic religious associations but was also meant to guide and control the latter. In spite of the constitutional guarantees, all religious organizations were under heavy pressure from the authorities. This was especially true of those religions suspected of foreign domination, particularly the two Christian ones, even though all Western missionaries had been expelled from China during the Korean War (1950–1953).

During the Cultural Revolution all religions suffered from persecution and destruction. Leaders and activists were determined to eradicate religion, which was viewed as part of the “Four Olds” (old culture, old thinking, old habits, and old customs) that were to be destroyed. At the same time, constitutional law moved into the direction of state atheism. The constitution of 1975 declared that citizens enjoyed “freedom to believe in religion and freedom not to believe in religion and to propagate atheism.” In other words, atheist propaganda was constitutional, whereas religious propaganda was not.

In the course of the policy of opening up and reform initiated in 1978, the CCP has reassessed its religious policy. Although the party remains convinced that religion will eventually disappear as the result of the transition from socialism to communism and hence forbids its members to have any religious affiliation, it acknowledges that religion will continue to exist for some time. The constitution of 1982, therefore, not only confirms the right to freedom of religious belief but also establishes a framework for religious practice. The state protects “normal” religious activities, but it is unconstitutional to use religion to disrupt public order. Of course, this provision leaves ample room for the authorities to decide which religious activities are “normal” and which are unlawful. The harsh treatment of Protestant “house churches” and the persecution of Falun Gong (a social movement with Daoist and Buddhist overtones) and its adherents, for example, must be viewed as attempts to maintain control over religious affairs and to suppress religious groups regarded as a threat to Communist rule.

A Delicate Balance

Ever since Western secular ideologies found their way to China around 1900, atheism has had an enormous effect on the religious policy of the Chinese state. However, although the political elites who ruled twentieth-century China were frequently influenced by atheism, they rarely tried to implement a thoroughly atheistic policy. They took measures to combat superstition in the form of popular religion but for the most part did not attempt to eliminate religion in general. Rather, they sought to control religious activities by officially recognizing a number of religious organizations. This is true of the most explicitly atheistic political party, the CCP. The Communists have tried to incorporate the major institutionalized religions into the state (the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution being the exception rather than the rule). In the 1980s and 1990s, not only the officially recognized religions but also popular religion experienced an astonishing revival, by and large tolerated by the authorities.

It is true that the Chinese state still has sufficient power to crack down on religious groups accused of threatening public order. If in the future it will tighten or loosen its grip on religion remains to be seen. That it will take steps to actively promote atheism—by force, if necessary—is far from likely.

Further Reading

Ching, Julia. (1990). Probing China’s soul: Religion, politics, and protest in the People’s Republic. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Cohen, M. (1992). Religion in a state setting: China. In M. Cohen (Ed.), Asia: Case studies in the social sciences: A guide for teaching (pp. 17–31). Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Duara, P. (1991). Knowledge and power in the discourse of modernity: The campaigns against popular religion in early twentieth-century China. Journal of Asian Studies, 50(1), 67–83.

He Guanghu. (1998). Religion and hope—A perspective from today’s China. Zeitschrift fuer Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft, 82(4), 245–254.

Luo Zhufeng. (Ed.). (1991). Religion under socialism in China. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Macinnis, D. (Ed.). (1989). Religion in China today: Policy and practice. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Pas, J. F. (Ed.). (1989). The turning of the tide: Religion in China today. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Branch, Royal Asiatic Society/Oxford University Press.

Source: Klein, Thoralf. (2009). Atheism. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 115–117. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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