China, an officially atheist country, promotes Buddhism

by Maureen Fiedler

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As crazy as that headline may sound, it's true. Really. I too was amazed at this news when we investigated this story on "Interfaith Voices" for our "God and Government" series, which explores the relationships between religion and state in countries around the world.

Now, we need to be clear. The People's Republic of China remains suspicious of religion, especially religions with foreign ties like Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam. And it has certainly done a great deal to intimidate practitioners of these faiths. In the not-too-distant past, in the days of the Cultural Revolution, it destroyed temples and churches of all kinds. It's also important to realize that Tibetan Buddhism is not favorably regarded by the Chinese government because officials regard its leader, the Dalai Lama, as some kind of threat.

The Buddhism that China has begun favoring -- and even funding at times -- is Chinese Buddhism.

The big question is: Why? Why would an officially atheist government promote any religion, even a religion with long and traditional roots in Chinese society?

Well, according to our in-country reporter, Ruth Morris, Chinese officials are very concerned about the morals and ethics of their people in the wake of unprecedented economic growth, the rise of a middle class interested in material wealth, and a focus on all things material. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of Chinese interest in traditional, ancestral religions. So the government sees a potentially positive role for Chinese Buddhism in curbing excessive materialism and being "in sync" with contemporary trends.

Buddhism is not, of course, a dogmatic religion. It has the advantage of enabling people to focus on values and meditative practices without insisting on a set of beliefs or teachings that might challenge the Chinese government. Thus: a Buddhist renaissance in China.

Listen to this radio piece in its entirety.

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