Is New Atheism Soft on Repression?

I was struck recently by an article in Christianity Today chronicling the recent crackdown of house churches in China. In particular they detail the treatment of the Shouwang church in Beijing at a public square at Zhongguancun, dubbed “China’s Silicon Valley“.   

The church of some 1000 congregants is worshipping outdoors because of government pressure against property owners renting to the church. It is one more episode in an ongoing attempt by the Chinese government to control and eradicate attempts to freely worship in China.

A couple of things about these events strike me. The first is that it is notable that the Christian church endures and is growing in an officially atheistic state. New Atheists have often expressed the desire to completely rid the world of religious belief, but in places where such things are actually attempted it would seem to fail miserably. Also notable I think is how the desire to worship, to express one’s faith is the spear tip of all commonly recognized freedoms – the freedom to speak, write, associate, etc. Once eradicated (if New Atheists have their way) one wonders what motivation is left to advance these freedoms at all – the religion-less world these atheists imagine is not a foundation for freedom and prosperity, but more likely the final repression of human conscience.

 Indeed one wonders on what grounds the New Atheists would protest the current repression going on in China. Given that they see religion as both ‘delusional’ and ‘dangerous’ and the eradication of religion as a benefit to society as a whole, it would seem their views of religion aligns completely with those of the Chinese government, with perhaps the exception of the methodology. And yet the methodology is only problematic if one sees religious belief and worship as worth preserving – after all, who would protest if Beijing were cracking down on child molesters?

 Though the West’s reaction has been anemic, we still at least have a segment of our population for whom religious liberty remains a critical concern. One cannot help but think that if the New Atheist view of religious belief were more widespread that the totalitarian actions of the Chinese government would be met with complete indifference, if not outright enthusiasm.

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27 Responses to Is New Atheism Soft on Repression?

  1. And yet the methodology is only problematic if one sees religious belief and worship as worth preserving – after all, who would protest if Beijing were cracking down on child molesters?

    Well, that’s an astoundingly stupid statement. Since the means and the end are different, one can approve of the ends while still opposing the means. I can disapprove of child molestation while still rejecting ineffective or unjust measures against it, such as executing anyone suspected of thinking about child molestation.

    And, since I don’t know the details of the actual situation you describe, I don’t know whether I approve or disapprove of the Chinese government’s actions in this case. I don’t know that I much care that a bunch of delusional people want to hang out outdoors and all be delusional together.

  2. jackhudson says:

    Well, that’s an astoundingly stupid statement. Since the means and the end are different, one can approve of the ends while still opposing the means. I can disapprove of child molestation while still rejecting ineffective or unjust measures against it, such as executing anyone suspected of thinking about child molestation.

    Actually the statement itself is means agnostic. A crackdown can mean anything from the police ‘cracking down’ on speeders by issuing more tickets to the Syrian government cracking down on protestors by spraying crowds with bullets. What is at question is whether worship needs to be officially discouraged – and it would seem on this count the Chinese government and New Atheists are in agreement even if they differ on the means to do so.

    And, since I don’t know the details of the actual situation you describe, I don’t know whether I approve or disapprove of the Chinese government’s actions in this case. I don’t know that I much care that a bunch of delusional people want to hang out outdoors and all be delusional together.

    The details are in the article. But the fact that you don’t care about the situation would seem to support the thesis that New Atheists are soft on repression.

  3. Actually the statement itself is means agnostic.

    Yes, and being means-agnostic is stupid.

    What is at question is whether worship needs to be officially discouraged…

    Indeed. I do not believe that officially discouraging worship is necessarily repressive, or at least not necessarily inappropriately or inhumanely repressive.

    I think is how the desire to worship, to express one’s faith is the spear tip of all commonly recognized freedoms…

    This is the heart of the argument, which I didn’t address before. In the West, freedom of speech and freedom religion are closely linked, but the linkage itself I suspect is socially constructed; I don’t know that there’s a deep philosophical linkage. I could be wrong, though.

    However, official government active discouragement of religion is a non-starter in the United States or any Western society. I’m an American, I can’t solve all the world’s problems, and I have limited interest in and limited influence on Chinese government policy. The Chinese government is fundamentally the business and problem of the Chinese people: they, not I, have to live with the consequences.

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  5. jackhudson says:

    Yes, and being means-agnostic is stupid.

    And what means would be acceptable to officially discourage people from worshipping?

    Indeed. I do not believe that officially discouraging worship is necessarily repressive, or at least not necessarily inappropriately or inhumanely repressive.

    Well then you would be in agreement with my thesis that the New Atheists would be soft on the repression of those practicing their religious beliefs.

    This is the heart of the argument, which I didn’t address before. In the West, freedom of speech and freedom religion are closely linked, but the linkage itself I suspect is socially constructed; I don’t know that there’s a deep philosophical linkage. I could be wrong, though.

    Certainly in the US they are historically linked and linked in terms of our political philosophy.

    However, official government active discouragement of religion is a non-starter in the United States or any Western society.

    You don’t know that it is a ‘non-starter’ in Western society – all that it would take would be for Western societies to adopt the view that religious belief if dangerous and delusional, which is the primary claim of the New Atheists, who after all are Western thinkers and writers.

    I’m an American, I can’t solve all the world’s problems, and I have limited interest in and limited influence on Chinese government policy. The Chinese government is fundamentally the business and problem of the Chinese people: they, not I, have to live with the consequences.

    Actually the US government has at times, with some success, worked on behalf of freeing writers and artists in China and other countries where they were being actively detained or repressed. These are actions consistent with the principles we claim our country represents.

  6. And what means would be acceptable to officially discourage people from worshipping?

    Dunno. I’m an American; that sort of thing is totally off the table here. What means are acceptable to the Chinese people? I dunno: I’m not a Chinese citizen.

    Well then you would be in agreement with my thesis that the New Atheists would be soft on the repression of those practicing their religious beliefs.

    What do you mean by “soft on repression”? If giving people tickets for speeding counts as repression, then yes, I’m soft on it. So what?

    You don’t know that it is a ‘non-starter’ in Western society – all that it would take would be for Western societies to adopt the view that religious belief if dangerous and delusional, which is the primary claim of the New Atheists, who after all are Western thinkers and writers.

    Good grief. No, that’s not all it would take. Did you sleep through High School civics? In the United States, it would also take a Constitutional Amendment. And although we already consider Nazism to be dangerous and delusional, our government is not officially repressing Nazis.

    And if religious belief really were sufficiently dangerous and delusional as to warrant restrictions on free speech — i.e. in the same class as libel, slander, conspiracy, “fighting words” and incitement — well then, it would warrant restriction and official repression.

  7. Actually the US government has at times, with some success, worked on behalf of freeing writers and artists in China and other countries where they were being actively detained or repressed.

    Rah. Good for the State Dept. That’s why I pay my taxes.

  8. jackhudson says:

    Dunno. I’m an American; that sort of thing is totally off the table here. What means are acceptable to the Chinese people? I dunno: I’m not a Chinese citizen.

    So what determines acceptable behavior by governments should be whether or not it’s our own government?

    What do you mean by “soft on repression”? If giving people tickets for speeding counts as repression, then yes, I’m soft on it. So what?

    In this case it means denying people a place to meet together and dragging them off to jail.

    Good grief. No, that’s not all it would take. Did you sleep through High School civics? In the United States, it would also take a Constitutional Amendment. And although we already consider Nazism to be dangerous and delusional, our government is not officially repressing Nazis.

    Well as the Constitution increasingly is seen as a living document which can be altered according to the views of the times in which it is read, I am not certain an amendment would be required.

    And if religious belief really were sufficiently dangerous and delusional as to warrant restrictions on free speech — i.e. in the same class as libel, slander, conspiracy, “fighting words” and incitement — well then, it would warrant restriction and official repression.

    “To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and origin of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private.”

    Christopher Hitchens recently to the American Atheists

    A force which is invariably a source for dictatorship for which one would have to devote one’s life to combat would seem much worse than libel or slander.

  9. So what determines acceptable behavior by governments should be whether or not it’s our own government?

    In a lot of cases, yes. There are some cases where behavior is so outrageous that every human should be concerned, but in most cases, I think, people have to make their own society. It cuts both ways: there are some features of our own society, culture and government that are nobody’s business but our own.

    In this case it means denying people a place to meet together and dragging them off to jail.

    I’ve seen no allegations that anyone is being dragged off to jail here. But in general, if you break the laws of a society, you can go to jail.

    Well as the Constitution increasingly is seen as a living document which can be altered according to the views of the times in which it is read, I am not certain an amendment would be required.

    It’s not absolutely impossible. Still, if any Western atheist were to stand up today and call for the active government repression of the free exercise of religion in any Western country, he would be shouted down by his fellow atheists. That’s a “non-starter” in my book.

    A force which is invariably a source for dictatorship for which one would have to devote one’s life to combat would seem much worse than libel or slander.

    I don’t know what you mean here. Are you saying that the repression of religion is invariably a source for dictatorship? If so, I wouldn’t buy that for a quarter.

  10. Mike D says:

    So, if I were to phrase this post in a syllogism, it might read something like this:

    1. Gnu atheists think religion is bad and would like it to go away

    2. The Chinese government is trying to make religion go away by repressing certain religious practitioners

    3. Ergo, gnu atheists support government sanctioned religious repression

    Reminds me of a cartoon I saw once:

    1. Penguins are black and white

    2. Old TV shows are black and white

    3. Ergo, penguins are old TV shows

    Methinks you’re missing a few details, friend.

  11. Nate says:

    It’s a well known fact that penguins are in fact old tv shows.

    But even so Mike, I continue to hear little outrage over religious suppression and nothing but screaming when a minority member makes even the most frivolous claim of discrimination.

    You either believe people are all equal and are entitled to their own beliefs or you do not. I don’t think the majority of atheists would support government suppression of religion, but I think many don’t feel compelled to speak out about it because they do think religion is bad.

    I feel its the same kind of feelings people have towards government “suppression” of salt and trans fats. While most people seem to think its none of the governments business what we choose to eat, a lot of people somewhat support the idea of a world with only (reasonably) healthy food.

    Just as it seems to be with atheists and this religious suppression, many may think its wrong, but few feel its worth saying anything about because the outcome is positive in their opinion.

  12. few feel its worth saying anything about because the outcome is positive in their opinion.

    No, I told why I don’t feel it’s worth saying anything about: because I don’t have standing to talk about the small details of how people on the other side of the world run their society.

  13. jackhudson says:

    No, I told why I don’t feel it’s worth saying anything about: because I don’t have standing to talk about the small details of how people on the other side of the world run their society.

    The problem I find with that claim is that if it is true that “all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights”, then that includes Chinese citizens – if the ‘all’ part is not true, then there is no basis to assert that we have such rights.

    What we do about the Chinese being denied such rights may be a matter of practicality, but if we all share those rights then it is certainly a universal concern.

  14. if it is true that “all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights”, then that includes Chinese citizens – if the ‘all’ part is not true, then there is no basis to assert that we have such rights.

    In one sense, I agree. There are some rights I expect and demand of every culture and society. My demands might be ineffective, but I will demand them nonetheless; an ineffective gesture is better than no gesture at all.

    But just because I extend some rights universally does not mean that I extend all rights universally. If you want me to get exercised about some violation of rights, it’s really up to you to convince me to extend the right universally.

    As I have said before, I do not consider the refusal to rent property to be by itself egregiously bad. I do not consider people going to jail for a short time because they refuse to obey the law by itself to be egregiously bad. Most importantly, I don’t consider the absolute freedom of worship by itself to be a universal right.

    China is not forbidding all religion; they are exercising legal control over the exercise of religion. The Chinese government is repressing people not for practicing their religion, but practicing their religion in violation of the law.

    The Chinese government’s practice is not, contrary to the implication of your post, something I would ever support in the United States, nor, contrary to the implication of your post, is there any notable atheist who would support any such practice in any Western Country. I am a citizen of the United States, and therefore all US national issues are “my business”. But I am not a citizen of China, therefore there are some practices in China I might personally disagree with, but do not object to only because it’s none of my business, regardless of whether I approve or disapprove of the result.

    How many times do I need to make the same point using simple declarative sentences in the English language?

  15. Also, if you want to object to the Chinese government’s practice, more power to you. I have not said, nor would I say, that the issue is none of your business: if you want to make it your business, good for you. What I object to is that you are drawing conclusions about atheists in general because we do not consider the issue any of our business.

    But do keep in mind that while we might have to protect the right to be stupid and foolish as a consequence of protecting important rights, few atheists believe that the right to be stupid and foolish is by itself an important right.

  16. jackhudson says:

    In one sense, I agree. There are some rights I expect and demand of every culture and society. My demands might be ineffective, but I will demand them nonetheless; an ineffective gesture is better than no gesture at all.

    But just because I extend some rights universally does not mean that I extend all rights universally. If you want me to get exercised about some violation of rights, it’s really up to you to convince me to extend the right universally.

    As I have said before, I do not consider the refusal to rent property to be by itself egregiously bad. I do not consider people going to jail for a short time because they refuse to obey the law by itself to be egregiously bad. Most importantly, I don’t consider the absolute freedom of worship by itself to be a universal right.

    China is not forbidding all religion; they are exercising legal control over the exercise of religion. The Chinese government is repressing people not for practicing their religion, but practicing their religion in violation of the law.

    The Chinese government’s practice is not, contrary to the implication of your post, something I would ever support in the United States, nor, contrary to the implication of your post, is there any notable atheist who would support any such practice in any Western Country. I am a citizen of the United States, and therefore all US national issues are “my business”. But I am not a citizen of China, therefore there are some practices in China I might personally disagree with, but do not object to only because it’s none of my business, regardless of whether I approve or disapprove of the result.

    How many times do I need to make the same point using simple declarative sentences in the English language?

    If you don’t recognize the right as a fundamental human right, on what basis would you claim it is a right Americans should have?

    If it were an officially Christian country that required atheists to attend worship, would it be worth your attention? Do you see the right not to believe as a fundamental right?

    But do keep in mind that while we might have to protect the right to be stupid and foolish as a consequence of protecting important rights, few atheists believe that the right to be stupid and foolish is by itself an important right.

    And I would contend that as much as one sees the practice of religion in and of itself to be stupid and foolish (and according to many NA’s, dangerous) then one would be inclined to be soft in response to the repression of such practices. What you have said thus far seems to support my thesis.

  17. If you don’t recognize the right as a fundamental human right, on what basis would you claim it is a right Americans should have?

    Huh? There are things I want that are not fundamental human rights. Even though they’re not fundamental, universal to all societies, I still want them in my society, which is, if you remember your high school civics class, supposedly a democracy.

    And I would contend that as much as one sees the practice of religion in and of itself to be stupid and foolish (and according to many NA’s, dangerous) then one would be inclined to be soft in response to the repression of such practices.

    Again, your phrase “soft on repression” is quite slanted, on the verge at least of poisoning the well. I already agreed that for suitably broad definitions of “repression” (in the sense that any enforcement of any law by definition represses the lawbreaker) then yes, I am “soft” on repression. I’m definitely not an absolutist on the issue; I don’t think that it’s always wrong to “repress” anyone under any circumstances. So what?

  18. If it were an officially Christian country that required atheists to attend worship, would it be worth your attention? Do you see the right not to believe as a fundamental right?

    Dunno. I’m more personally interested in protecting atheists than I am in protecting Christians. I also think the right not to believe stupid and foolish things is much more important than the right to believe them. But I don’t expect you to share the same opinion, or attach the same importance to the issue. (OTOH, I think that Christians are better off if they protect atheism than if they repress it, but that’s a pragmatic argument, not a principled argument.)

  19. jackhudson says:

    Huh? There are things I want that are not fundamental human rights. Even though they’re not fundamental, universal to all societies, I still want them in my society, which is, if you remember your high school civics class, supposedly a democracy.

    I am not sure what civics class you took, but mine taught me that the very reason we see some rights as inalienable is so they aren’t subject to the whims of a democracy, or monarchy. On the basis you are proposing we could just as easily decide as a majority of Christians that the US was an officially Christian country since our religious liberties wouldn’t be fundamental rights.

    Again, your phrase “soft on repression” is quite slanted, on the verge at least of poisoning the well. I already agreed that for suitably broad definitions of “repression” (in the sense that any enforcement of any law by definition represses the lawbreaker) then yes, I am “soft” on repression. I’m definitely not an absolutist on the issue; I don’t think that it’s always wrong to “repress” anyone under any circumstances. So what?

    Well then at least in your case, it would seem there is evidence that atheists are soft on repression. I don’t mind agreement on this issue.

    Dunno. I’m more personally interested in protecting atheists than I am in protecting Christians. I also think the right not to believe stupid and foolish things is much more important than the right to believe them. But I don’t expect you to share the same opinion, or attach the same importance to the issue. (OTOH, I think that Christians are better off if they protect atheism than if they repress it, but that’s a pragmatic argument, not a principled argument.)

    I have to admit as a Christian I am as interested in protecting an atheist’s right to believe what they will as I am that of other Christians doing so, because I believe if we relegate the human conscience to the whims of the majority then no one’s set of beliefs are safe from repression.

    So if the view you articulated above is generally true of atheists, then I would have to say it seems evident repression is more likely in an overtly atheistic society than it is in an overtly Christian one.

  20. Justin says:

    It’s a close call as to which type of society has historically more repressive – atheistic ones, or Islamic ones.

  21. I am not sure what civics class you took, but mine taught me that the very reason we see some rights as inalienable is so they aren’t subject to the whims of a democracy, or monarchy.

    You are mixing up inalienable rights with universal rights. Religious liberty can be an inalienable right in the United States (which it is) without being a universal right.

    On the basis you are proposing we could just as easily decide as a majority of Christians that the US was an officially Christian country since our religious liberties wouldn’t be fundamental rights.

    “Just as easily” is a misnomer; it would be just as difficult to do one or the other, because of the Constitution. But Constitutional rights are not necessarily universal rights.

    Well then at least in your case, it would seem there is evidence that atheists are soft on repression. I don’t mind agreement on this issue.

    Sure… as long as you agree you yourself are soft on repression: I assume that you believe that, in general, people who break the law should go to jail, which constitutes repression.

    I have to admit as a Christian I am as interested in protecting an atheist’s right to believe what they will as I am that of other Christians doing so, because I believe if we relegate the human conscience to the whims of the majority then no one’s set of beliefs are safe from repression.

    I don’t know… “freedom of conscience” is vague and philosophically problematic. If someone’s conscience were to dictate that they must kill all black people, I wouldn’t be so keen on protecting their freedom. I also don’t know how you put believing in invisible sky fairies that hate women and homosexuals under the rubric of “conscience”.

    We in the US have decided it’s better to protect any damn fool thing that people want to believe, as long as they behave lawfully, as an acceptable expense to protecting more important things. I’m fine with that. But we’re not talking about the US here, we’re talking about China. If they don’t want to make that trade-off, you’ll have to give me a more compelling reason to care. And remember too, we’re not talking about repression of religion, but repression of people who fail to follow the law regarding the practice of their religion. I don’t know what the law entails, and I don’t know why these Christians are failing to follow the law; so far I’ve been given no reason to find out.

  22. It’s a close call as to which type of society has historically more repressive – atheistic ones, or Islamic ones.

    It’s a close call as to who is more historically illiterate, Christians or… hmmm… Maybe it isn’t a close call.

  23. jackhudson says:

    You are mixing up inalienable rights with universal rights. Religious liberty can be an inalienable right in the United States (which it is) without being a universal right.

    Well, no, I am referring to the word ‘inalienable’ as used in the Declaration, as in “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. Obviously when written, the writers were making the claim that these are both an innate and universal rights, thus the qualifier ‘all’ before the subject of the statement ‘men’. And obviously they weren’t claiming this was merely the purview of the US, as the US did not yet exist – in fact the case is reversed here, in that the independence of the colonies was argued because we are endowed with certain rights, we aren’t endowed with such rights because we are an independent nation!

    And incidentally, universal rights (at least of the sort outlined by the UN) are predicated on the notion that certain rights should be universal because they are inalienable:

    Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, thus,

    Article 18.
    Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

    So we see the continuity here, that what is inalienable is universal.

    “Just as easily” is a misnomer; it would be just as difficult to do one or the other, because of the Constitution. But Constitutional rights are not necessarily universal rights.

    Well no – it is much easier to change something if it considered to be a mere preference of a democratic majority than it is if it is an inherent right.

    Sure… as long as you agree you yourself are soft on repression: I assume that you believe that, in general, people who break the law should go to jail, which constitutes repression.

    Well, no, not all laws are repressive – most exist to protect life, liberty, and property to keep one person from harming another. The Chinese actions in question here explicitly repress the exercise of a liberty.

    I don’t know… “freedom of conscience” is vague and philosophically problematic. If someone’s conscience were to dictate that they must kill all black people, I wouldn’t be so keen on protecting their freedom. I also don’t know how you put believing in invisible sky fairies that hate women and homosexuals under the rubric of “conscience”.

    If the exercise of someone’s conscience or the practice of their religion impairs someone else’s ability to live or exercise their liberty, (as would killing black people) then there is obviously an interest in preventing such actions – however the mere expression of such beliefs is protected because empowering the state to decide what beliefs we can and cannot express endangers everyone’s ability to express their beliefs. But the freedom of conscience is the core of all essential freedoms – speech, press, association, even free inquiry – it’s not merely a vague philosophical concept.

    We in the US have decided it’s better to protect any damn fool thing that people want to believe, as long as they behave lawfully, as an acceptable expense to protecting more important things. I’m fine with that. But we’re not talking about the US here, we’re talking about China. If they don’t want to make that trade-off, you’ll have to give me a more compelling reason to care. And remember too, we’re not talking about repression of religion, but repression of people who fail to follow the law regarding the practice of their religion. I don’t know what the law entails, and I don’t know why these Christians are failing to follow the law; so far I’ve been given no reason to find out.

    One can’t compel a person to care about repression who is indifferent to fundamental human rights to begin with.

  24. Sigh. I’m really tired of restating my position every time you misrepresent it. I am not indifferent to fundamental human rights; I believe, rather, that you have not made a case that what I consider a fundamental human right has been violated in China.

    But you are a Christian, and Christians seem, in general, to lack intellectual honesty and good faith; a trait you are consistently displaying here. And that may be a fundamental reason why I am becoming less and less keen on the free exercise of religion as a fundamental right: it seems to corrode people’s intellectual competence, honesty, and good faith.

  25. jackhudson says:

    Well as I alluded to earlier, considering you seem to pick and choose what you consider to be a ‘fundamental human right’ based on your own interests and metaphysical inclinations you are hardly amenable to a reasonable conversation on the subject. One can’t ‘prove’ that all men are created equal – if that is necessary to

    And everything you’ve said demonstrates that my original assessment was correct – New Atheists, seeing religious belief as inherently deluded and dangerous, would be less inclined than others to oppose the repression of said beliefs.

  26. jackhudson says:

    And a few more thoughts on the subject…

    It doesn’t appear to be possible to ‘prove’ in any empirical sense that humans actually are ‘created equal’ or have any fundamental rights at all. The Declaration called such ideas self-evident. Of course such ideas are only self-evident if one accepts certain truths as axiomatic – such as the notion that all humans have inherent self-worth or that humans were created to exist in a certain fashion. It is not clear New Atheists could see these truths as axiomatic, and so there would be no basis for them to assert and or defend notions of equality or inherent rights in any rigorous or rational way.

    And it’s really not necessary for me to prove to you that religious liberty is a fundamental right in order to assert New Atheists would be soft on defending such liberties – the fact that you don’t seem them as fundamental liberties to begin with is evidence for my contention – the ball is in your court to prove that the New Atheists actually would have a rational basis to defend such liberties. You have provided no such rationale.

  27. […] wrote recently about the persecution Chinese Christian were receiving at the hands of the atheistic Chinese […]

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