The heavily promoted book by Professor Li Shen compares a supposed early Chinese atheism, bourgeois atheism, and Marxist atheism as taught by the CCP.
By Peng Huiling
Philosopher Mozi, who described Confucianism as atheistic. Credits.
In a previous article in this magazine, I examined the “scientific evidence” that God does not exist offered by Professor Li Shen in his book “The Principles of Scientific Atheism,” which continues to be heavily promoted in China as a major tool to revive atheist propaganda.
In this article, I will shortly summarize Professor Li’s concept of atheism. He defines atheism as “a theory explaining the non-existence of gods.” This definition is important and it is against it that we can assess Li’s other claims. Coherently with the tradition of the CCP atheist propaganda, atheism is defined as a theory rather than just a practical attitude.
Li then tells us that atheism has been invented in China. He is surely not the first CCP ideologist to advance this claim. Actually, it has been promoted by Xi Jinping himself. This propaganda insists that, unlike Europe, China has always been secular and there was no religion until it was imported from abroad.
Professor Li does not go so far, yet he maintains that Confucianism is both the oldest belief system of China, in fact born well before Confucius systematized it, and an early form of atheism. It is to be remembered that Li is at the same time the vice-chairperson of the Chinese Atheism Society and an academic committee member of the International Confucian Federation. Clearly, he regards being an atheist and a Confucian as fully compatible.
He quotes the statement of philosopher Mozi (470–391 BCE) that Confucians taught that “ there are no ghosts and no gods.” We should remember that Mozi was an enemy of the Confucians and he was accusing them of denying the existence of the spirits of the dead and of the gods, in which the emperors of his time believed, as part of a campaign aimed at exciting the authorities against Confucianism. Accordingly, he is a biased and suspicious source.
Nonetheless, Li finds Mozi’s statement believable, and evidence that Confucians taught what was at that time the “most progressive atheism” available in the world. Li admits that “Confucianism was not completely free from the question of Dao and Heaven,” but these were synonyms with the “laws of the nature.” Even when Confucian writings mentioned a “Supreme God” this was a metaphor for the nature and did not refer to a being separated from the world.
Netizens who have widely criticized Li’s book online have objected that his is an old interpretation of Confucianism, and that even CCP-associated scholars have recognized that Confucianism includes religious teachings and rituals and does not offer a theory of atheism.
As a Marxist, Li denies that there are “laws of nature,” yet he regards what he considers as the early Chinese atheism as more advanced and progressive than the atheism of some Greek philosophers. He also believes that Christianity, in its own way, had a dialectic role in the progress of atheism, because it destroyed the belief in a variety of gods associated with natural phenomena and replaced it with faith in just one “true God.”
Only in the 17th and much more in the 18th century an atheism more advanced that the Confucian version appeared in Europe, with some British philosophers and then with the French Enlightenment. This was a “scientific atheism,” Li says; however, in his opinion, there is a misunderstanding on the term “scientific.” This atheism was “scientific” in the sense that it was based on the progress of natural sciences. But from another point of view it was not “scientific” because it never managed to elaborate a scientific theory of atheism.
For this, one had to wait for Marx. Only Marxist atheism, Li proclaims, “not only had a solid knowledge base of natural science, but also provided the correct position and scientific method on how to deconstruct the concept of the gods.” Because of problems in other areas of the world, the only country where Marxist scientific atheism is systematically taught is now China.
In a way, Li believes, atheism came back home. It started in China with the Confucians and returned to China, which now leads the world in Marxist studies and propaganda.
That China is a world leader in campaigns promoting atheism is true. However, the CCP itself admits that they are not very successful.