Thursday, November 25, 2004

Would you buy a religion from this man?

In a New York Times article describing the rise of new sects in comunist China, I was struck with the image of a new continent, previously barren and off limits to life, suddently being opened to new and existing species of plant and animal life to rush in and populate. It is like a laboratory to study an interesting facet of human culture, the formation of religions:

The demise of Communist ideology has left a void, and it is being filled by religion. The country today has more church-going Protestants than Europe, according to several foreign estimates. Buddhism has become popular among the social elite. Beijing college students wait hours for a pew during Christmas services in the Capital's 100 packed churches.

But it is the rural underclass that is most desperate for salvation. The rural economy has grown relatively slowly. Corruption and a collapse in state-sponsored medical care and social services are felt acutely. But government-sanctioned churches operate mainly in cities, where they can be closely monitored, and priests and ministers by law can preach only to those who come to them.

The authorities do not ban religious activity in the countryside. But they have made it so difficult for established churches to operate there that many rural Chinese have turned to underground, often heterodox religious movements.

Charismatic sect leaders denounce state-sanctioned churches. They promise healing in a part of the country where the state has all but abandoned responsibility for public health. They also promise deliverance from the coming apocalypse, and demand money, loyalty and strict secrecy from their members.

Three Grades of Servants, a banned Christian sect that claims several million followers, made inroads in Huaide and other northern towns beginning nearly a decade ago. It lured peasants like Yu Xiaoping, as well as her neighbor, Ms. Kuang, away from state-authorized churches. Its underground network provided spiritual and social services to isolated villages.

But it also attracted competition from Eastern Lightning, its archrival, which sought to convert Ms. Yu, Ms. Kuang and others. The two sects clashed violently. Both became targets of a police crackdown.

Xu Shuangfu, the itinerant founder of Three Grades of Servants, who says he has divine powers, was arrested last summer along with scores of associates. Mr. Xu was suspected of having ordered the execution of religious enemies, police officers said.

Yet such efforts rarely stop the spread of underground churches and sects, which derive legitimacy from government pressure.

As a former Catholic who has crossed the line into disbelief, one of the most difficult aspects of my former faith to defend was the belief that the prophets of ancient Israel, as well as Jesus and the Apostles, solely received the true and untainted Revelation of Gods Word. Had the Hebrew prophets of old stood alone in history as claimants to divine revelation, their message would have much greater power and credibility. Even accepting that Jesus and Paul, who interpreted the events of Jesus's life in the context of the New Covenant, raised the specter of a competing claim to Divine Revelation, forcing a choice of true faiths among the faithful. Had the history of man's claims to Divine Revelation only included the claims of these two traditions, then the Judeo-Christian tradition would stand alone among all of history as a unique set of events that would command serious consideration.

As it is, and can be seen in the proliferation of new revelations pouring fourth in China, Divine Revelations are a spontaneous, frequent, and normal occurence of human culture across all times, geographies and eras of civilizational develpoment. In a February 2002 article in The Atlantic Monthly entitled Oh, Gods!, Toby Lester describes this phenomenon as it has continued to gather force heading into the 21st century :

In 1851 the French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan announced to the world that Islam was "the last religious creation of humanity." He was more than a bit premature. At about the time he was writing, the Bahai faith, Christian Science, Mormonism, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and a major Japanese religious movement known as Tenrikyo were all just coming to life. Falun Gong and Pentecostalism—both of which now have millions and millions of members—had yet to emerge. Whoops.

There are many other examples that one can think of, whether it is the channeling of J Z Knight, or the Raelians, or Scientology. Seen from the perspective of a 21st century observer, how would one determine that the revelations recorded by the early Hebrew and Christian prophets were any more likely to be true than the revelations of these modern day prophets?

It is instructive to note from the example of China that the repression of religious freedom may actually spur the formation of new religions. It is something akin to the desireability of an expensive item. The value gained from an experience, religious or otherwise, often is directly proportional to the price paid. Persecution raises the bar for membership, and those who can clear that bar will enjoy a heightened sense of closeness to the divine. That is why the "easy" mainstream Protestant churches in America are in decline, and the more demanding evangelical churches are not.

For the secularist, who may tend to feel a little paranoid living among people of strong religious faith, and who fears above all things a society dominated by a single faith that will condemn the unbeliever to the periphery of political, social and economic life, there is good news to be gleaned from this. Though he will need to get used to being the odd man out in society by professing no faith in a divinity, he can take heart in knowing that the dominance of a single religion over a large society is a rare, very difficult and very costly state of affairs to maintain. The religious spirit is fruitful, it multiplies, mutates, and cross-breeds constantly. No established faith will ever be safe from heresy, and repression of heresy is like pouring gasoline on a flame. The communist masters of China are finding that out.


Blogger Michael Herdegen said...

Christian Scientists, Mormons, and Seventh-Day Adventists aren't separate religions, they're all Christian sects.

The Raelians ?
Although one might be technically correct in calling them a "religion", they have yet to achieve membership numbers over "cult" status.

Scientology isn't a religion, it's a tax dodge, and that was exactly the intent of the founder, the notedly bad science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.

The Mormons believe that they have the only real living prophet, but they ALSO believe that God isn't telling humans everything, and that every member of the Church is allowed to ask God individually if what the Prophet is revealing is, in fact, the Truth.
Thus, it's not blind obedience.

November 27, 2004 3:34 AM  
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November 10, 2005 2:49 PM  

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