The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on November 30, 2011
Natural Polytheism in China

Some years ago there was a cartoon in The New Yorker showing Zeus in conversation with two other Olympian divinities. The caption read: “They call it monotheism. I call it downsizing.” Also some years ago, a Japanese philosopher (whose name I forgot) wrote that Western civilization has been dominated by two fallacies: monotheism, the belief that there is only one god; and the principle of the excluded middle, asserting that anything must be either A or non-A. He added that every reasonable person knows that there must be many gods, and that most things are both A and non-A. East Asian cultures, including both Japan and China, suffer from neither alleged fallacy and have traditionally been averse to downsizing. This may be changing, as seen in the spread of Christianity, but there persists a stubborn (let me call it) natural polytheism.

On November 9, 2011, the Religious News Service carried an item from the Huffington Post. It was a story of two thousand Han Chinese attending an academy run by the LarungGar, a very large Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Sichuan province in an area inhabited by many Tibetans. The academy claims that it normally holds about 10,000 students, most of them Tibetans. Possibly Tibetan Buddhist statistics are as unreliable as American Christian ones. But the interesting thing about this story is that a large number of Han Chinese—that is, not Tibetans but ethnic Chinese—are studying at this institution. It would be as if large numbers of Irish Catholics went to Sweden to study Lutheran theology. The Larun Gar, like many other monasteries in Tibet proper and in other areas with many ethnic Tibetans, has had difficulties with the authorities because of suspected sympathies for the Dalai Lama and his campaign for Tibetan cultural autonomy (the Beijing regime has the term “splittism” for this, a translation from the Chinese original which one may regard as a less than needed contribution to the English language). In 2001 this monastery suffered a major assault by government forces.

But there is no reason to assume that these two thousand Han visitors came to express support for the Dalai Lama. They came because they were interested in the Tibetan school of Buddhism (which is very distinctive), and not in any Tibetan political aspirations.

Buddhism was introduced into China by Indian missionaries via the Silk Road, probably in the third century BCE. It has been thoroughly indigenized and (unlike Christianity) has not been regarded as a foreign religion for a long time. It has become an important part of the Chinese cultural scene, which has generally been highly pluralistic—or, if you will, polytheistic—when it comes to religion. For much of history Buddhism has co-existed peacefully with Confucianism, Taoism and folk religion, not only in the state but in the lives of individuals, who saw no problem in making use of some or all of these traditions as this or that need arose. Confucianism in its role as a state ideology was both tolerant and contemptuous with regard to all forms of supernaturalism. The educated Confucian gentleman considered such superstitions below his dignity, but quite permissible if not actually desirable for women and other uneducated people. The Confucian magistrate was mainly concerned with controlling religion, knowing well the danger to the state from movements of charismatic excitement. Two great monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, did disturb the polytheistic harmony by their exclusivist claims. Islam was pretty much contained in the northwest, though in recent years Uighur separatism has created problems that could be limited to the region. Christianity has been much more successful throughout the country, and the authorities have gone back and forth between repression and toleration.

Under Communism there existed hostility against all religions, culminating in the savage onslaughts of the Cultural Revolution. The situation changed with the demise of dogmatic Maoism, with the regime less concerned with spreading “scientific atheism” than with making sure that it is in full control of religious groups—one may say,very much in the Confucian tradition. As to Buddhism, it is, like Islam, mainly a localized problem. The campaign against the “evil cult” of Falun Gong was not triggered by the supposedly superstitious practices of this quasi-Buddhist movement, but by its capacity at one point to bring thousands of adherents to Beijing, without the authorities knowing about it—an ultimate nightmare for both Communist and Confucian government officials.

It is interesting to compare the fate of religion during and after full-fledged Marxist dominance in Russia and China (as was done very competently in a book by Christopher Marsh, Religion and the State in Russia and China, 2011). Both Communist regimes propagated an atheist ideology and persecuted all religious groups, at times with very great brutality. There were differences between the religion policies of the two Communist countries, but it is in the recent period (post-Communist de jure in Russia, de facto in China) that the differences have become very sharp indeed. Since the advent of the Putin administration the Russian Orthodox Church has come very close to being the state religion—as it was before the Bolshevik revolution. No such thing in China. Instead the regime presides, in a mixture of antagonism and toleration, over a robust pluralism, which it seeks to domesticate in the service of a “harmonious society”—a truly Confucian concept. Thus the fate of religion in the two countries is a great example of what economists call “path dependence”—the weight of history over the present. This is an important phenomenon beyond the borders of any one country.

  • Gloria

    Fascinating article. But I suggest your conclusion is a bit askew. Instead of “the weight of history over the present,” I suggest “the continuance of tradition into the present.” Why?

    History is a reification of events and is objective, not subjective in nature. In contrast, tradition exists only as it is embodied in successive generations, and tradition is thus necessarily a subjective phenomenon. By “objective” I mean something we look at; by “subjective” I mean something within us or that is us.

  • WigWag

    “The educated Confucian gentleman considered such superstitions below his dignity, but quite permissible if not actually desirable for women and other uneducated people.” (Peter Berger)

    As we’ve come to expect, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking post from Professor Berger.

    The idea that a well educated Confucian gentlemen might think that religion is superstitious mumbo jumbo but useful for controlling the servants and his female relations is just as prevalent in the west as it was in the east.

    Unless, I’m mistaken, the idea of the “noble lie” goes back as far as Plato and his “Republic.”

    More recently, the idea that religion could be useful even if it wasn’t true, characterized the thinking of Leo Strauss and the founding father of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol.

    Obviously neither was Confucian; both were secular Jews who wrestled with atheism. But like the Confucian gentleman in Professor Berger’s post, they were both in love with religion but not because they were personally devout.

  • R.C.

    One can generalize even further (or should it be farther?) about the propensity of the educated gentleman to blasé disbelief in propositions he finds it convenient for his fellow men to hold.

    It is as widespread as the contrast between the urbane “city mouse” and the unsophisticated “country mouse.” In many ways, it is the contrast between the city-dweller in the Manhattan-to-D.C. corridor and the rural or suburban family man who genuinely enjoys his distance from the bustling halls of power and wouldn’t have it any other way. Something about the former environment (noise? distractions? privilege? decadence? constant exposure to dangerously large crowds of humanity?) seems to erode faith. Something about the latter (family focus? the opportunity to see stars and trees and open undeveloped land and to hear silence?) seems, if not to bolster it, then not to erode it.

    In the Republican party, for example, most of the movers and shakers either have “complicated” faith lives or none. But this is the party whom Democrats characterize as clinging to their guns and religion; in the 2000 presidential election, maps were produced labeling the red states “Jesusland.” What is the difference between the GOP leadership and the Tea Partying conservative base? Easy: The former live in New York and in D.C., and the latter live in flyover country.

    National Review Online featured, in recent memory, comments by several regulars about how they think it’s a good thing that Christmas has effectively become a secular holiday: One doesn’t find devout Christians holding that view!

    John Derbyshire commented on this very topic: He’s glad so many red-staters are Christians. He isn’t; he’s an atheist. But he thinks the U.S. would be far worse off if the percentage of atheists in the G.O.P. were to rise precipitously, because he thinks that most folk who are atheist would not, as he does, retain ideological commitments to various ideas which Christians in the U.S. tend to favor.

  • James Lane

    By postulating an absolute distinction between Western civilization and Japanese (and Chinese) culture, the Japanese philosopher (whose name Dr. Berger can’t recall) is himself employing what he considers a Western fallacy—the principle of the excluded middle.

  • stephenswab

    Natural Polytheism???–tradition only
    “harmonious society”—a truly Confucian concept ?—– we could not feel that in China,it like a slogan for the “harmonious society”

    Most of Chinese do NOT have religion,atheism,our religion maybe was wrshipping our ancestor,it’s culture,traditional culture,Not Polytheism,it likes the chinese new year…..


  • Federale

    It is not unusual at all for Chinese to study Bhuddism. In fact, Tibet is the source of Bhuddism for China historically. However, Christianity is rapidly rising in China. Christianity was only put down in Japan with great loss of life. There is no natural polytheism in China or Japan. In Japan Shinto shrines and theology are ignored except at New Year.

    Africans are “natural” polytheists because they are still living in a pre-indusrial society. Industrialization and Westernization have destroyed the legitimacy of polytheism. Even so, Christianity is spreading rapidly in Africa.

    Only India and Muslim countries have been resistant to Christianity based on extreme levels of violence, whether official or unofficial. Hindu nationalists and high caste Hindus see Christianity as a threat as much as radical Muslims do.

    What is unusual is the lack of an spiritual sense in Japan. This is probably related to the social enforcement, public expressions of Christianity are socially punished by shunning and economic attack. No salary man can admit to being a Christian in Japan or be fired outright. It is considered a threat, for no rational reason, to the employer and to Japan.

  • Sherry

    Indeed,it is not unusual for chinese study Buddism, other religious as well,when people ask a chinese what is your religion,the answer is No RELIGION for majority of chinese