what is freedom of religion for?

A Taiji quan peformance

A Taiji quan performance at a Daoist temple in Sichuan

There is hardly a truth more sacred to the contemporary American imagination than that religion must be free from interference by the state and that the state must be free from interference from religion. Neither of these ideals holds true in China, and this fact is an enormous thorn in the side of Chinese-American relations, especially as regards the Tibet question.

The fact is that religions and the state in China have co-existed in something of a symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. In medieval China, Buddhists seeking to ingratiate themselves in the life of the court proposed rituals to bring about the salvation and prosperity of the empire. Daoist priests also ordained emperors and oversaw court rituals. In return, the Emperor bestowed his patronage on monasteries and temples, granting them land, money and prestige. At the heart of this arrangement was a very simple and natural proposition: you help me and I’ll help you. (More…)

china’s confucian revival

ConfuciusBy James Miller

In a recent article entitled Two Big China Stories You Missed This Year Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a respected professor of Chinese history at UC Irvine, highlighted the rehabilitation of Confucius as one of the most significant trends in contemporary China. As a historian, his main point was, well, historical. To outsiders it may seem perfectly normal that Chinese leaders want to associate themselves with Confucius, China’s most famous philosopher. But this would be to ignore the fact that for most of the 20th century, Confucius was distinctly out of favour among the CCP leadership. According to Communist revolutionaries, Confucianism was a patriarchal feudal ideology that could have no place in the “new China.” How staggering it was, therefore, to see Confucius at the heart of the mega-spectacle of the Beijing Olympics. 

Wasserstrom writes:

This revival reached new heights during the torch run, when the flame’s arrival in Qufu, the sage’s hometown, was celebrated lavishly. It was then taken to an even higher crescendo during the Opening Ceremony, when Confucius was quoted as Hu [Jintao] and other leaders looked on with approval. Then 3,000 actors took the stage at the Bird’s Nest, dressed up to represent a massive contingent of the sage’s disciplines.

The question here is whether this revival of interest in Confucius actually means anything, or whether it is window dressing on the part of China’s elite.


i’m dreaming of a green christmas

By James Miller

Christmas, as we all know, is the grand festival of the religion of consumerism. We pay homage to our saviour Santa Claus in the vast cathedral of the shopping mall. There we make a sizeable donation to the faltering economy and, just because it’s Christmas, cheerfully pay the GST to our non-existent government. We stagger home laden under the weight of a vast array of glittering gifts. We then dress them in the finest of wrappings and reverently lay them at the foot of the sacred tree. Over a sacrificial meal of turkey and pinot noir our family bonds are strengthened, relationships renewed, and we settle into a blissful oblivion before the television set.


closing the religion deficit

By James Miller

An editorial in Friday’s Dallas Morning News argued that Hillary Clinton, the incoming U.S. Secretary of State, should move to “close our diplomats’ religion deficit.” The argument was that in order to succeed in international relations, it’s vital for the state department to understand the role religion plays in shaping the politics and culture of the world. This, in fact, was the theme of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s book The Mighty and The Almighty: Reflections on God, Man and World Affairs.

Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero

In modern culture, religion is understood as something that belongs to the private realm, not the public realm. The consequence of this is that people involved in world affairs such as politicians and journalists are trained to deliberately ignore the role played by religion in shaping people’s values and attitudes. Religion, it is argued, plays a diminishing role in the world and is therefore best forgotten. World affairs are to be explained by economics, politics and culture, in that order. This results in a “religion deficit” or a lack of basic “religious literacy,” as the title of Stephen Prothero’s recent book put it. 

The fact is, however, that we do not live in a modern world where democracy and science reign supreme. We live is a pluralistic, postmodern world, which lacks a single coherent narrative. We live in a fragmented world dominated by secular post-Christianity, Islam, East Asian values, and conflicts between globalizing traditions and indigenous traditions.


is china’s one child policy environmentally ethical?

"carry out family planning"

"carry out family planning"

By James Miller

I’ve been following Andrew Revkin’s dot Earth blog at the New York Times. The tag-line of the blog is “Nine Billion People. One Planet” and is premised on the demographic likelihood that by 2050 the world’s population will have increased from six to nine billion, effectively adding another two Chinas to what we have already. 

At the same time, the populations of China, Brazil and India are developing their economies at a relatively rapid rate which means that those populations will be commanding a larger ecological footprint than they are doing already. China’s 2001 ecological footprint was 1.5 global hectares per person. Canada’s was 6.4. Assuming that China’s economic development will bring about an expansion of its ecological footprint, the results could be catastrophic to say the least. (More…)