On March 13, 2014, Asia News, a Roman Catholic periodical, published an interview with Brian Grim, who for many years was Director of Cross-National Data for the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project and is now president of the Business and Religious Freedom Foundation. Grim is one of the most trustworthy religious demographers in the world—ask him how many Buddhists there are in Venezuela and he’ll right away give you the best available numbers. Quite apart from counting religious noses, one of Grim’s professional as well as personal major concerns has been the condition of religious freedom in different parts of the world.
The immediate occasion for the interview was the massacre on March 1 in a crowded railway station in the southern Chinese city of Kunming which killed 29 people and injured over one hundred. Although Kunming is far removed from the northwest province of Xijiang, where there have been previous acts of terror by Uighurs, an ethnic minority of Muslim faith, speaking a Turkic language. The Chinese authorities immediately blamed Uighurs for the massacre, probably with some justification. There has been massive migration of ethnic Chinese into the province, where indigenous Uighurs now constitute less than 50% of the population. Any movements favoring Uighur autonomy have been roughly suppressed.
Grim here wants to make a point in favor of religious freedom, but he would not be a professional nose-counter if he did not use the occasion to emphasize that China is a religiously very pluralistic country. The largest number of Chinese have been listed as adherents of “folk religions”, a rather fluid category spanning Taoist temples and cults venerating very local deities (such as the famous “kitchen gods”). Officially there are 244 million Buddhists (also an iffy category, as many of these also have beliefs and practices from other traditions—the First of the Ten Commandments has never resonated well in China). Again officially, there are supposed to be 68 million Christians and 25 million Muslims. The latter figure, as it mostly overlaps with Uighur ethnicity, may not be too far off the mark. The Christian figure is almost certainly much larger—most of the recent explosion of Christianity, much if not most of it charismatic, has been spontaneous, unregistered if not illegal, and thus very hard to quantify.
Grim’s main point is that religious freedom is an important factor in keeping this heterogeneous society united—and thus providing social conditions for its remarkable economic success:
I’m not making the argument that religious freedom was what launched the country’s economic success, but if draconian restrictions on religion and other things [as during the Cultural Revolution] had no been lifted, the level of success we see today would not have been attained.
To be sure, this is a very strong statement, and historians might have some problems with it. Still, I think that the argument has some plausibility – (“…don’t expect me to work hard, if you smash my kitchen gods…”).
The regime still has some difficulties with religion. Its official dogma still affirms Marxist atheism (though few, even in the Communist party, take it seriously). The regime has some specific religious problems—Buddhism because of Tibet, Islam because of Xinjiang—but the party is quite prepared to concede that religion can be a positive factor for modernization and development—especially Christianity. A few years ago, when I visited the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) in Beijng, I was surprised to hear its then chairman refer to Max Weber. I think that today the regime’s policy toward religion (though erratic and regionally diverse) is not so much Marxist as Confucian. The main political good is peaceful order (Chinese historical memory contains quite a few incidents where religion produced the opposite, as in the Taiping and Boxer rebellions). The underlying goal, often today quoted verbatim, is “the harmonious society”—arguably the core principle of Confucian political philosophy. If the government is careful and discriminating, it can assure that religion serves harmony rather than disorder.
It is of course a very pragmatic (if you will, Machiavellian principle). Officials of the late Roman Empire, or of the British Raj in India, would have been comfortable with it. Of course it has nothing whatever to do with the truth of a religion. Pontius Pilate put it well at the trial of Jesus, when he asked contemptuously, “What is truth?” Brian Grim is a passionate believer in religious freedom. Yet he was making an essentially Confucian argument here. (Perhaps, since the immediate issue was China, perhaps he was actually thinking of a Confucian-minded audience. Actually, in a lecture at Renmin University about the time of my meeting with SARA, I made a similarly “Confucian” argument, not just about religious freedom, but about human rights in general.)
I think that a much more profound argument for religious freedom is in one of the most important documents of the Second Vatican Council, Dignitatis Humanae, which directly linked religious freedom to the inviolate dignity of every human being. Every individual exists in a world full of mystery and wonder, and therefore has the right to confront this reality freely, without coercion.
Can one believe in the most profound reason for a particular course of action, and then publicly give other, much more practical, reasons for such action? Since Max Weber was mentioned, let me refer to his well-known distinction between an ethic of attitude and an ethic of responsibility: the former is guided by principle, the latter by results. The “vocation of politics” should follow the latter, not the former. The purpose of political action is not to “speak truth to power”, but to achieve specific (morally desirable) results. An example that I was in a position to observe closely: After the mid-1980s the great majority of the South African business community (including most of its Afrikaans-speaking sector) decided that the apartheid regime had to go. There were some business people who believed this out of moral conviction (a very honorable case was Harry Oppenheimer, the mining tycoon, who had opposed apartheid from the beginning because he was deeply convinced that it was morally wrong, an unacceptable violation of human dignity). But many business people who jumped on the anti-apartheid train in the late 1980s were not persuaded by, say, the sermons of Bishop Tutu, but rather by the conclusion that, unless stopped, apartheid would bring down the entire economy (including their own businesses). Whatever the motives, the result was a great moral victory.
I don’t think we should apologize for making “Confucian” arguments for religious freedom. Of course it would be preferable if more people acted out of moral conviction than vested interests. But we should not be overly disturbed if the latter brought about morally desirable consequences.