Open Letter to China

…we shall plainly see that men must necessarily come to an agreement to live together as securely and well as possible if they are to enjoy as a whole the rights which naturally belong to them as individuals, and their life should be no more conditioned by the force and desire of individuals, but by the power and will of the whole body.

Baruch Spinoza in “Tractatus Theologico Politicus” 1670

Here’s a recommendation that, I suspect, is seldom raised these days, in or out of China.  How about another cultural revolution?  Not necessarily as fervid as the first and certainly not as violent.  But one that might have as great an impact over an even longer period.

My suggestion is this:  I believe the Chinese government should adopt and actively promote a voluntary, non-theistic state religion while, at the same time, retaining its current policy of freedom of religion.  Allow me to elaborate.

I. THE PROBLEM:

The trouble with China is that its population is composed of people.  It’s true, of course, that other countries are burdened by the same liability, but that in no way ameliorates China’s problem.  Rather, the fact that China has more people than any other country simply aggravates it.

The reason that people present difficulties is that they are all direct descendants of aboriginal savages and are, therefore, host to a very mixed bag of traits.  Many of these traits, thankfully, are virtuous.  Growing out of the cooperative familial relationships that existed in prehistorical times, they are conducive to modern, communal life.  Proof of their existence in the Chinese makeup was evident in the altruistic behavior demonstrated by millions of volunteers in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake.

There is, however, a second set of characteristics, stemming from our ancestors’ violent struggles against competitive clans, that are decidedly detrimental to a peaceful, harmonious society.  And the Chinese population, unfortunately, harbors its proportionate share of these undesireable traits as well.  Evidence of these is abundant: unscrupulous mine owners neglect critical safety measures, building contractors take short cuts that later cost lives, local party members accept bribes, factory owners abuse their workers, manufacturers produce hazardous products, judges render prejudicial rulings, hucksters push fraudulent Ponzi schemes, and so on.  Chinese writers have spoken of a “breakdown in values” and a “morality vacuum.”

The state, through its legal and enforcement institutions, does what it can, of course, to counter these aberrant activities, but try as it may, its powers have a finite limit.  No police force can, on its own, adequately control the conduct of every citizen twenty-four hours a day.  There will always be an opportunity for outsize personal gain among those who are willing to ignore social norms and risk apprehension.  It would seem, then, that nothing can be done except to tolerate a degree of social dysfunction and make the best of it.

II. RELIGION AS A PROPOSED SOLUTION:

But what if it were possible to implant in every citizen’s head a watchdog who growled so menacingly whenever they were tempted to do wrong that their intended improprieties were aborted?  Would not that close the gap between enforcement and crime and result in a more harmonious society?

The watchdog I refer to is no more fanciful than the stone lions that guard the entrance to Tiananmen Square.  It is called religion.  Whereas the protection it provides can never be totally effective-even watchdogs nap-it can go a long way in motivating a population to conduct themselves in socially acceptable ways both on account of moral pressure from their peers and the urgings of their individual consciences.  In addition to improving individual behavior, religion can favorably effect group behavior.  People tend to be cooperative and charitable toward their coreligionists.  In sum, there is no better way to dramatically improve the conduct of masses of people than the voluntary, economical means that religious faith empowers.

The case for religion can be strengthened on both historical and biological grounds.  The fact that it has persevered through the ages under every imaginable circumstance argues that it has played an essential role in human evolution.  And this is confirmed by the fact that our brains have been imprinted with an area devoted to spiritual responses.  This area is there for a reason; nature knows what it is doing.

III. OVERCOMING THE DISADVANTAGES OF RELIGON

Alas, for all the benefits religion has brought, its history has been, to put it kindly, an uneven one.  All too often it has been besmirched by interfaith feuding, repression, and fanaticism.  With a few notable, hopefully transient, exceptions, these lamentable failings have been corrected in religion’s modern, more tolerant reincarnations.  There is, however, a fundamental problem with traditional religions that is uncorrectable-that is to say, an irrational belief in the supernatural.  Within devotional halls, this suspension of reason is normally benign, but, when it spills out into the secular world, the consequences can be damaging.  Theological dogma conflicts with scientific reasoning and, even more concernedly, with civil law.  Naïve true believers are dissuaded from acting in their own self-interest by charlatans in clerical robes and/or scoundrels posing as politicians.  In short, Karl Marx had every reason to characterize the religion he knew as an opiate of the people.

How then to reconcile the promise of religion with its demonstrated drawbacks?  A useful analogy might be that of the dilemma faced by a pharmaceutical company that has developed an experimental drug possessed of wonderful healing powers but, at the same time, produces dangerous side effects.  Rather than simply giving up on the drug, the company would, more likely, pursue further research aimed at ridding it of its unwanted properties.  Similarly, I would argue that religion, rather than being scrapped, could be modified to expunge its irrationalities while retaining its highly beneficial powers to produce a faith that Karl Marx would heartily approve of.

IV. ELEMENTS OF A PROPOSED NEW RELIGION

China has a long and rich history in the development of ethical principles all the way from ancient Confucianism to the pronouncements contained in today’s Scientific Development Concept.  It has, therefore an abundance of ethnic philosophical thought to draw upon in its quest for a suitable state religion.

With all humility, I would, in addition, call attention to an outside reference-that is to say, a religion called the Church of Scientific Guidance (CSG) described in my play, Religious Differences.  The hypothetical faith portrayed therein has as its figurehead, not an ethereal Supreme Being, but instead a very down-to-earth “Mother Nature,” the embodiment of natural law as determined by scientific inquiry.  Devotion to this sacred entity obligates her adherents to be attentive to her one and only commandment-i.e., that they evolve.  And, whereas this demand seems straightforward enough on the surface, it leads to important religious ramifications.

Whereas our primate cousins settled for an every-ape-for-himself social structure, our hominid ancestors developed a clan culture based on cooperation and enforced equality.  Success for the group as a whole, and ultimately for each individual member, depended upon its cohesion and social harmony.  This necessitated cooperation in hunting game, the equitable distribution of food, the sharing of hardships, communal care for the young and invalid, and other demonstrations of unselfish behavior.  By committing themselves to the continuation of human evolution, Mother Nature’s followers thus subscribe to an ethical code that made communal living possible in the first place.  Virtues such as honesty, generosity, altruism, acceptance of strangers, non-violent behavior, familiar bonding, and cooperation with fellow workers all stem from this one imperative.

Obviously, there is nothing novel about this set of standards of human conduct.  However, in the Church of Scientific Guidance it is based, not on some sort of mystical belief or arbitrary diktat, but on actual anthropological evidence.  This affords it the credibility and respect that would, presumably, lead to widespread acceptance.

Aside from its rejection of theology, CSG provides a second major departure from traditional religion.  It is evident that the world is little improved if individuals do the right things while organizations persist in doing the wrong things.  For example, teaching ethical standards to the young accomplishes nothing if their eventual employers force them into shoddy practices.  CSG, therefore, extends its coverage beyond individuals to organizations of all sizes from the smallest marketplace stall to the largest governmental departments.  A consistent moral climate is thereby achieved subjecting the entire culture to one set of seamless rules.

V. RELIGION VERSUS ETHICS

Why move beyond the vigorous, broad-based ethical system that the Communist Party has already proclaimed?  My answer is simply that the Chinese government would then be in position to openly fund a formalized state religion including the construction of houses of worship; support of its clergy (see below); payment of its administrative, educational, and promotional expenses; and so on.

In addition to the tangible opportunities provided by a state religion, there are good spiritual reasons why religion, in itself, offers the stronger alternative than a purely ethical system.  Overcoming the powerful base human instincts mentioned earlier requires not only intellectual arguments but the kind of emotional commitment that only religion can summon.  Religious edicts tend to be simpler and more sharply defined than less well defined ethical concepts and are thus more easily assimilated by the population as a whole.  Finally, religion generates a stronger communal spirit than ethics alone are likely to achieve.

VI. THE ROLE OF CLERGY

Picture the formation of a new, state-sponsored religious organization drawn from the party’s existing cadre.  As of now, as I understand it, local officials have, in general terms, a dual function: that of implementing policies of the central government and administering to the needs of local populations.  Ideally these two aims would never be in conflict but, in reality, given the wide variety of circumstances across China’s landscape, even the most patriotic, honest party member must sometimes find himself conflicted.  Why not, then, acknowledge the dichotomy and formally separate the two functions by assigning a proportion of the local cadre to the role of clergymen who would thereafter devote their career to the church, entirely divorced from the governmental apparatus?

Presumably, the conversion of cadres to padres would entail a selection process designed to fill the church’s ranks with the most reputable, idealistic, and meritorious individuals within the cadre community.  Once part of the new order, a padre would be paid by the church and solely dependent upon the church’s administration for his advancement.

In some respects, the duties of Chinese clergymen would not be very different from those in the west: educating the young, instilling religious concepts, officiating services, marrying couples, administering to the needy, and otherwise advancing the interests of the church.  As part of their duties, the clergy would act as ombudsmen smoothing out the local problems that must inevitably arise between governmental officials and their subjects.

VII.  THE EIGHT ADVANTAGES

One, as discussed earlier, every country has an element prone to violence, corruption, opportunism, influence peddling, bribery, excessive greed, and indifference to life’s ordinary decencies.  Clearly, China is no exception.  A state religion would instill a code of conduct that would materially curtail anti-social behavior.

Two, similarly, a state religion would encourage good behavior including altruism, civic cooperation, respect for government, an appreciation of scientific methodology, and a willingness to contribute to economic and social development.

Three, a state religion would contribute to the average citizen’s overall sense of well being.  People need to believe in something, to have core values, and to have some sort of spiritual foundation on which to build their lives.

Four, as of now, when it comes to religion, the Chinese people have only two alternatives: adopting a traditional religion with its associated superstitious beliefs or rejecting religion altogether.  A state religion would offer a constructive, patriotic alternative.

Five, if, as I would hope, the state religion adopted the Church of Scientific Guidance’s commitment to feedback control mechanisms, then Chinese institutions-both private and governmental-would benefit by taking advantage of this important tool to accomplish their aims.

Six, The government would obviously enjoy an enormous advantage in promoting its own religion over other faiths.  It would thus be in position to relax its counter-productive suppression of disapproved religious practices.  Indeed, I believe that the provision of complete freedom of religion would do more than anything else to dampen the influence of competitive faiths while boosting the popularity of the state religion.

Seven, the newfound confidence engendered by the state religion would also enable the government to widen its freedom of expression.  Censorship has the same effect on forbidden information as drug enforcement has on drugs; it artificially raises its apparent value.  Were the government to allow the free dissemination of public comment, it would find that opinions, coming from diverse sources, normally tend to cancel each other out.  And, in any case, the sheer volume of dissent tends to dilute the impact of any single point of view.  On the positive side, freedom of expression would go a long way toward satisfying the aspirations of the people while raising their opinion of their government.  In short, I believe the government would have more to gain than to lose by reducing censorship.

Eight, the greatest advantage of a state religion lies, in my opinion, in the political area.

No doubt the notion of instituting a clergy would raise a few eyebrows among China’s governmental officials (along with those on any number of bronze busts).  But the prospect need not be as heretical as it first seems.  It is true that complaints with this or that government policy would likely emanate from clergymen in the field and find voice in the centralized church itself.  And thus the government could very well find itself funding a source of opposition to some of its own policies.  But that would not necessarily be a bad thing.  Indeed, I would contend that any criticism that might arise ought to be warmly welcomed.

Imitating nature, the Church of Scientific Guidance obligates its followers to incorporate feedback mechanisms in all their undertakings.  Were the proposed state religion to include this provision, then the Chinese governmental system would be one of the institutions subject to it.  And, if this were the case, the government would be immediately confronted with the problem of acquiring reliable input data, for no feedback mechanism could even get started without having  such dependable information in hand.  The trouble is that political systems cannot generate this kind of information internally from its biased operatives.  Outside sources are required to disclose past mistakes, offer advice, and uncover culpabilities.  And it seems to me that the semi-autonomous church suggested herein would be an ideal conduit of the kind of responsible criticism needed to sustain a healthy and dynamic governmental apparatus.

VIII. CONCLUSION:

Obviously, the question of the adoption of a new state religion has to rest with the people, and I would not hazard a guess as to their decision.  Could those who are now affiliated with a traditional religion be persuaded to exchange their present arbitrary religious “truths” in favor of those that are the product of the scientific method?  Could those who are unaffiliated with any formal religion now willingly adopt a faith that would put restraints upon their conduct they had not experienced before?  The best way to answer these questions would be to “cross the river by feeling the stones”-that is to say, introducing the new religion on some sort of trial basis.

Provided it was made clear from the beginning that the ultimate decision rested in the peoples’ hands, the failure of such a trial would in no way damage the government’s prestige.  On the other hand, should such trial(s) succeed, then a national consensus could be formed around the idea of supplementing China’s unprecedented material progress with a strong spiritual component.  Material progress came about after a bold, new vision of the country’s future was implemented by a competent, pragmatic administration.  The institution of a new state religion would require no less.

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