Oppressive Atheism: In China, Religion Can Be a Form of Activism

China’s governing party, the Communist Party of China (CPC), recently banned the practice of religion for all of its 88+ million members in an effort to “maintain Party unity.”

Director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs Wang Zuoan wrote, “Party members should not have religious beliefs, which is a red line for all members … Party members should be firm Marxist atheists, obey Party rules, and stick to the Party’s faith … they are not allowed to seek value and belief in religion.”

Most members of the CPC are on the staffs of corporate and government-affiliated agencies, and about 30 percent come from a background in farming. However, the CPC has made an effort in recent years to increase its student membership in light of the steady decline of student participation in the Party. In 2015, only 36.5 percent of the applicants approved by party authorities were students.

Zhu Weiqun, chairman of the Ethnic and Religious Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, stressed the importance of constantly reminding party members, academics specifically, to identify as atheists. “Some people who claim to be scholars support religious beliefs in the Party, which has undermined the Party’s values based on dialectical materialism,” he told the Global Times. Zhu further argued that if the CPC’s values are lost, its unity and ability to regulate religions would be too.

A survey conducted in 2007 found that more than 30 percent of China’s population followed a religion, a number significantly higher than the reported government figure. Liu Zhongyu, who headed the survey team at East China Normal University, said, “After drastic changes in the past half a century, we now see bewildering moral decline, apathy between people, estrangement. All these have driven people to find new spiritual sustenance.” In the past several years, as countries continue to become increasingly globalized, China has seen the rise of religion as a form of activism. Religious environmentalists turn to religion in order to address pressing pollution concerns in China and around the world. “As Taoists, we have to work to influence people in China and overseas to take part in ecological protection,” Yang Shihua, the abbot of a sacred Taoist site in Eastern China, told the New York Times.

But in an article released in the Qiushi Journal (the flagship magazine of the CPC Central Committee), Wang stressed that it’s critical to mold religious teachings to benefit the party and avoid foreign influence. “Religions should be sinicized,” he said. “We should guide religious groups and individuals with socialist core values and excellent traditional Chinese culture and support religious groups to dig into their doctrines to find parts that are beneficial to social harmony and development.” Wang added: “Some foreign forces have used religion to infiltrate China, and extremism and illegal religious activities are spreading in some places, which have threatened national security and social stability.”

While it’s undoubtedly true that religions have been used throughout history as a way for countries to control and wreak havoc on foreign populations we also must consider their use (or lack thereof) in domestic politics. In Bangladesh, which has a majority Muslim population, the government has remained largely inactive while atheist bloggers and gay rights campaigners continue to be attacked. Blasphemy laws are often selectively enforced to persecute religious minorities and serve political agendas in fifty-one countries throughout the world. In regard to the CPC, it appears atheism has simply replaced religion in its dogmatic suppression of personal belief.

As humanists who value secular governance and fight every day to protect church-state separation in the United States, we fail the moment an individual’s freedom of conscience and expression is infringed upon. While the CPC’s preference toward a nontheistic governing body could initially be construed as positive, it crosses the line when it prevents its members from practicing religion privately without threat of punishment. We must recognize the danger and injustice of disallowing individuals to practice their religion when they do so outside of government. We must protect everyone’s freedom to believe or not to believe.