There is a common meme amongst atheists that the obvious and universal hunger for a religious experience can be explained away by various ordinary and natural factors. For example they often cite religious upbringing; that parents of somehow imposed religious belief on children. Or they cite social concerns, that people involve themselves with religion as a sense of belonging, citing the fact that people tend to adopt the religion of the society in which they were raised. Quite often they follow in Marx’s footsteps and attempt to explain away religion as an opiate which helps people bear the burden of poverty or suffering. Much of this appears persuasive, but what it fails to explain can be summed up in two words: Chinese Christianity.
To understand why this is so, a little history is in order. China has been officially atheistic for over 60 years under communist rule. Not only were they officially and overtly atheistic, but they were strongly antagonistic to Christianity, to the point of killing Christians and arresting and imprisoning leaders. In fact, the persecution of Christianity continues today. Thus there is no societal pressure to adopt Christianity, no family to impress, no schools inculcating children with religious ideas. And China is booming economically thanks to its acceptance of free markets, so there are no economic hardships driving people to seek solace in the arms of a loving God. And yet Christianity grows in China, as the BBC reports:
It is impossible to say how many Christians there are in China today, but no-one denies the numbers are exploding.
The government says 25 million, 18 million Protestants and six million Catholics. Independent estimates all agree this is a vast underestimate. A conservative figure is 60 million. There are already more Chinese at church on a Sunday than in the whole of Europe.
The new converts can be found from peasants in the remote rural villages to the sophisticated young middle class in the booming cities.
Western atheists assure us that the disappearance of Christianity would be a good thing for our society. They argue that in the absence of Christian belief, science would flourish, morality would be sustained by the good will of the people, and that society would seek pragmatic solutions to problems currently hindered by the superstitions to which we cling. And yet China has had just such a society for decades, and has found that the emptiness of materialism is driving many of them toward the meaning and purpose inherent in the teachings of Jesus:
I heard people talking again and again of a “spiritual crisis” in China – a phrase that has even been used by the Premier Wen Jiao Bao. The old have seen the old certainties of Marxism-Leninism transmute into the most visceral capitalist society on earth.
For the young, in the stampede to get rich, trust in institutions, between individuals, between the generations, is breaking down.
As one of China’s most eminent philosophers of religion – Professor He Guanghu, at Renmin University in Beijing put it to me: “The worship of Mammon… has become many people’s life purpose.
“I think it is very natural that many other people will not be satisfied… will seek some meaning for their lives so that when Christianity falls into their lives, they will seize it very tightly.”
The observation by Professor He Guanghu reflects the question that Jesus put to the crowd, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?“
New Atheists assert there is no soul to lose and the world is more than sufficient to satisfy our longing and desires – yet the great experiment that was atheist China assures us that on this count the New Atheists are most certainly wrong.