12/20/2011—Secularists need to take a look at Ian Johnson’s review of several books describing religious rebirth in China in the December 22, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books. (China Gets Religion!) The review makes two surprising points: first, that traditional religion had been almost eradicated in China after the 1911 and Communist revolutions and that this had led to “a nation without an accepted code of moral obligations” that has had serious and negative effects on personal and social relations. Second, that the religious revival has had the effect of promoting challenges to the authoritarian regime—for example, Christians dominate the weiquan, the human rights lawyers who take on politically charged cases.
Ian Johnson writes about religion and culture and he is certainly basically sympathetic to religion, although not always so. But he is primarily a reporter and I doubt that his observations are mere fantasy.
The two basic points—that lack of religion harmed Chinese society and that the resurgence of religion is politically liberating—challenges American critiques of religion. The member of the Center for Inquiry, where I will be speaking next month, would assume that the absence of religion in a society would be liberating and politically progressive. Certainly, they would not accept such a formulation for our own society.
Maybe we need a new, more nuanced, account of religion.