Humanism and Atheism in China

Paul Kurtz

Perhaps the most significant global developments of the past two decades have been the rise of China (and Asia), the relative decline of Europe and Russia, and the weakening of America’s power and influence in the world. These realities were vividly demonstrated during the Eleventh World Congress of Centers for Inquiry in Beijing, China, hosted by the new Center for Inquiry/Beijing in October 2007. This Congress was cosponsored by a wide range of Chinese institutions, including the Chinese Association for Science and Technology (CAST), the Chinese Research Institute for the Popularization of Science (CRISP), and various universities and institutes.

I was accompanied to the Congress by David Koepsell and Barry Karr, respectively executive directors of the Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, both based at the Center for Inquiry/Transnational in Amherst, New York; and Kendrick Frazier, the editor of the Skeptical Inquirer. Our delegation included an additional fifteen scientists, many of them Laureates of the International Academy of Humanism, such as Murray Gell-Mann (Nobel Laureate), Daniel Dennett (philosopher), Jean-Claude Pecker (French astronomer), Lionel Tiger (anthropologist), and Sir Harold Kroto (Nobel Laureate). Some five hundred Chinese scientists, officials, and students took part in the Congress, and more than seventy papers were read. The theme of the Congress was “Scientific Inquiry and a Harmonious Society.” The quest for “harmony,” though derived from Confucius, is an important part of Chinese policy today. We convened in the huge, newly refurbished Beijing Friendship Hotel in a conference auditorium in which Chairman Mao had himself spoken in 1950.

This Congress was the culmination of some twenty years of interchange that the Center for Inquiry and its affiliated organizations have carried forward with representatives of CAST and CRISP, both nongovernmental organizations. Over the years, several dozen Chinese officials and students have participated in the Summer Institute of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, and we have welcomed Chinese colleagues to our World Congresses. We have also sent four delegations to China—the first in 1988, when six skeptics toured the country evaluating paranormal claims. These contacts with China have continued.

What I found so astonishing in my most recent visit to China in October 2007 was the incredible economic and social progress that China has made. We visited four cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, and Guilan) and were able to compare China as it was twenty years ago to China today. The cities have been modernized at a rapid rate, transformed by a building boom of breathtaking proportions.

The dazzling new National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, containing an opera house, concert hall, and theater with the most up-to-date acoustics, is touted as the largest in the world. And the more than 2,000 new skyscrapers in Shanghai compete with Manhattan for sheer audacity.

The World Congress enabled us to talk at length with many people—professors and students, party officials and ordinary folk—about the prospects and problems confronting China.

We have agreed to continue our exchanges in the future and to expand them, for we found them mutually productive.

Of special interest, no doubt, to readers of Free Inquiry is the fact that China is officially an atheist country. Over the years we have met key officials of the Chinese Atheist Society, founded in 1979. Though it was dormant for many years, it has been revived. This society publishes an academic journal, Science and Atheism, which has a circulation of about four thousand specialists and has republished many articles from Free Inquiry. China has a long history of disparaging religion and its practitioners, not just under communism but reaching into the ancient Confucian past. As for the Communist Party, it adopted Marxist atheism, viewing religious beliefs and practices as outdated, a form of prescientific superstition. Even today it regards religious monks and gurus as charlatans who bilk a gullible public. Theism has never been a major force in Chinese history; so atheism in the Western sense does not strictly apply. Nonetheless, our Chinese hosts made clear that they reject all gods, the supernatural, and the notion of heaven.

The Chinese Communist government has not suppressed religion (as did the Soviets), provided it remain confined to its own domain. China has never suffered religious warfare as has been experienced in the West. Buddhism and Taoism have many humanistic strains; monotheism or belief in eternal salvation have never been characteristic of Chinese religion. The Chinese are a pragmatic people, and the precepts of Confucianism were based on prudence as tested in practice. It is true that Mao expelled foreign missionaries when he came to power, considering them seditious, and during the Cultural Revolution the Red Guards destroyed many temples and religious artifacts. But the widespread reforms of Deng Xiaoping adopted in 1979 expressed a more tolerant attitude toward religion, so long as it confines itself to private matters and does not seek political power. In addition, many forms of folk religion are apparently practiced in rural areas as in olden days, including ancestor worship. Meanwhile, one can see Buddhist and Taoist monks performing rituals and chants at historic temples; but these are like relics of an ancient past in the bustle of present-day Chinese urban life.

Some tolerance has been extended to Christian bodies. Roman Catholics and Protestant churches are recognized, as is Islam. Western media have made much about a religious revival in China. We did not see much evidence of this on our brief trip, though we did visit a historic Islamic mosque in Xi’an that was open to tourists, and we visited an exotic Muslim business quarter where merchants displayed endless wares.

We met the former editor and founder of Science and Atheism, Dr. Du Jiwen, and we conversed extensively with editors and researchers of the Chinese Society for Atheism. Dr. Du delivered an address at the Congress, saying that he believed in religious freedom, and this meant the right to believe or not believe. Religious believers, he assured everyone, have the right to practice their beliefs. There even has been talk of a rapprochement of sorts between the Vatican and Beijing. The Communist government had been appointing China’s Catholic bishops, a privilege the Vatican reserves to itself, but the government stance seems to be softening at present. Even so, the Chinese have not forgotten the fact that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western missionaries tried to covert the populace, which they identify with colonial exploitation. Meanwhile, the government has announced that visiting teams to the 2008 Olympic Games in China will be given every encouragement to practice their faiths and hold the religious services they prefer. China’s government is attempting to display a positive attitude toward religious freedom before the world.

One group that troubles the authorities is the Falun Gong. This movement sprung up in China in 1992 and has apparently spread worldwide. First introduced by Li Hongzhii as “a method of mind-body cultivation,” it is, in part, a form of relaxation that is sometimes called internal Qigong. This is naturalistic and can be evaluated empirically. Another form is known as external Qigong, the claimed capacity to transmit energy from a master who claims extraordinary powers. This is considered metaphysical and paranormal. The government considers the Falun Gong a cult and a threat to the state. Hence, it was banned in 1999 over protests that members’ rights were violated. Some estimates maintain that Falun Gong claims 70 to 100 million devotees in China; that is no doubt an exaggeration. The government still considers Falun Gong a pseudoreligious and superstitious cult that undermines its encouragement of science.

In our many meetings with the Chinese, we have attempted to introduce the principles of secular humanism. Like atheism, secular humanism is surely nonreligious, but it emphasizes humanistic values. Related to humanism, of course, is its commitment to democracy and human rights and the need for the open society, freedom of conscience, and civil liberties. The ethical aspect of secular humanism emphasizes the cultivation of virtue and personal happiness; considerable interest was expressed in this at the Congress.

A principal concern of the Congress was how to raise public appreciation for the scientific method and its naturalistic cosmic perspective. The Chinese are expending a large percentage of the national budget on science and technology, and so they are keenly interested in raising the level of scientific literacy. Support for research is high on their development agenda. (Incidentally, Dr. Ren Fujun, director of CFI/Beijing, expressed interest in a new graduate program that the Center for Inquiry is offering in cooperation with the State University of New York at Buffalo titled “Science and the Public,” which is available online.)

China is governed by the Chinese Communist Party, which holds the preponderance of power, controls the military and police, and dominates the media—indeed, all public sources of information. Yet, China is a mixed economy, and the state has encouraged the emergence of a new class of wealthy entrepreneurs who enjoyed the latitude to set up factories and engage in real estate and stock market speculation. In addition, they have allowed people to open private shops across the country. Thus capitalism is a dominant strand in Chinese life. Today, China is the fourth-largest economy in the world; it expects in less than a decade to become number two, after the United States. Its dynamism is a result of its free-market economy, which was encouraged by Premier Deng Xiaoping, liberating China from the Marxist-Leninist ideology with its central planning.

China’s GNP keeps expanding, but with this has come problems of environmental degradation, depletion of natural resources, and pollution of air and water supplies. China’s leaders are deeply worried about global warming. Another problem for China is population growth. China has added 250 million people since the year 1980, and it will add 300 million in the next twenty-five years. This is despite the country’s one-child policy and other strict efforts to limit births. Population growth has nonetheless continued, driven by the decline of the death rate—longevity has increased from thirty-five years to seventy-two years in the past four decades. Credit the development of public sanitation, improved health care, and an increase in the food supply—the Chinese are very proud of their discovery of a new strain of hybrid rice by Professor Ylan Longfing, which has enabled them to increase food production significantly.

A disquieting development in China today is the disparity in incomes between a still-impoverished peasantry and a new class of very wealthy millionaires and billionaires. Perhaps 150 to 200 million Chinese living in urban centers are involved in manufacturing and construction and have seen their incomes rise, but the leaders recognize that this prosperity needs to be extended to the countryside. This disparity in income is similar to what has been happening in the United States, though much of China is still backward, and per capita income is comparatively low.

The Chinese participants in the World Congress talked much about the need to go “green.” Development, they agreed, must be sustainable. They also recognize the need to increase supplies of consumer goods and services in the poorer parts of the country. Their goal is to enable all Chinese to lead “a reasonably comfortable life” by 2020—a very ambitious one indeed.

They also say that their hope is to develop a more democratic society in which the universal humanistic values of “freedom, dignity, equality, and justice” will prevail. Whether this goal is achieved remains to be seen. But we were encouraged by their great economic progress and hope that it will be complimented by political progress in human rights as well.

In conclusion, I should point out that the relationship between the Center for Inquiry and its Chinese counterpart has been cordial. It is based on a nongovernmental interchange between scientists and educators. One hopes that the ideological controversies of the past have passed, and that the world community is receptive to a new level of amity and civility. The Chinese have opened their society to the world for trade and commerce—and to new ideas. We are pleased that the Center for Inquiry in Beijing has had an auspicious inauguration and that there is strong interest in opening still other Centers in other cities, such as Shanghai. With great anticipation we look forward to the results of future cooperation.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


Perhaps the most significant global developments of the past two decades have been the rise of China (and Asia), the relative decline of Europe and Russia, and the weakening of America’s power and influence in the world. These realities were vividly demonstrated during the Eleventh World Congress of Centers for Inquiry in Beijing, China, hosted …

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