Like any other culture on Earth that has given rise to naturalistic ways of seeing things, Chinese unbelief has had to contend with the strong pull of human psychology toward supernaturalism. But in no other culture has the ongoing influence of nontheistic thought remained so pervasive, even dominant, as in China.

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Grasping China is a tall order. But as we move ever further into a century and world dominated by this unique nation and culture, it’s worth the effort. And part of that effort should be a better understanding of the underpinnings of its worldview.

Few nations have as long and complex a continuous history as what is now China. Records of organized government begin around 5,100 years ago, and evidence of sophisticated material culture another 5,000 years before that. Anatomically modern humans have been present for 80,000 years and Homo erectus for 700,000. This is a deeply-rooted place and people.

Even taking the most conservative definition of culture, we’re looking at 10,000 continuous years in one place, during which it varied from zero to sixteen separate states. It’s not surprising that such deep roots have yielded an extraordinary variety of philosophy and religion—including influential strands of unbelief.

Bringing it into focus

The current religious makeup of China is a matter of some debate. A Gallup poll in 2015 found that 61 percent of the Chinese people are “convinced atheists” and 29 percent as nonreligious. But the University of a Guy Who Heard from a Guy reports that travelers to China in 2011 saw a “growing number of temples, churches and mosques.”

Whether or not religion is showing signs of life in today’s Middle Kingdom, China has always been one of the most receptive cultures on Earth for atheism. Nontheistic ideas have been front and center in Chinese philosophy and national government for at least as long as records have been kept.

Even religion in China often does just fine without gods, including some forms of Buddhism and Taoism, while Confucianism—a secular philosophy focused on reason and natural ethics rather than gods—has easily been the greatest influence on Chinese thought for more than 2,500 years.

Because godlessness has been an accepted part of the Chinese cultural conversation for so long, a clearer picture of atheist ideas emerges from Chinese history than from most other cultures. Best of all, instead of bringing nontheistic ideas down to modern readers solely through the critics, Chinese culture preserved them in their original written form.

A few concepts and thinkers can help bring China into focus as one of the richest sources of nontheistic thought.

Understanding t’ien (heaven…but not quite)

A superficial review of ancient Chinese philosophy might find theistic religion everywhere, largely because of the prominence of a single word: t’ien.

Chinese philosophers spent a great deal of time and thought on the concept of t’ien, which translates loosely as “heaven.” But t’ien has no connection to the traditional Western idea of a place for human souls to commune with a deity after death. Instead, t’ien means “that which causes the world to be as it is.”

Philosophers in China who considered a deity to be the cause of everything used t’ien to denote that deity. Philosophers who saw only natural causes at work, whether or not they fully understood those causes, used the same word to mean comprehensible natural laws. Whatever it is that makes the world as it is, that’s t’ien.

Xun Zi (312–230 BCE) and Mencius (372–289 BCE), two of the most famous nontheistic philosophers in ancient China, disagreed on human nature: Xun Zi felt that humans are basically bad, but improvable by education and discipline, while Mencius felt humans are basically good, but are led astray by the influence of society.

But they did agree that t’ien had nothing to do with a conscious god, seeing it instead as predictable, natural laws at work.

Xun Zi returned to the idea of t’ien over and over in his work, making arguments that sound like something an atheist blogger could have written today:

Pray all you want — heaven can’t hear you. It’s not going to stop the winter because you are cold, and it’s not going to make the Earth smaller because you don’t want to walk so far. You pray for rain and it rains, but your prayer has nothing to do with it. Sometimes you don’t pray for rain and it rains anyway. What do you say then? If you act wisely, good things tend to happen. Act like a fool and bad things tend to happen. Don’t thank or curse heaven — it’s just the natural result of your own actions. If you want to have a better life, educate yourself and think carefully about the consequences of your actions.

A very humanistic approach to life.

His naturalistic treatise “A Discussion of Heaven” was written specifically to address what is and is not meant by t’ien:

Heaven’s ways are constant. It does not prevail because of a sage like Yao; it does not cease to prevail because of a tyrant like Chieh. Respond to it with good government, and good fortune will result; respond to it with disorder, and misfortune will result. If you encourage agriculture and are frugal in expenditures, then Heaven cannot make you poor… But if you neglect agriculture and spend lavishly, then Heaven cannot make you rich.

If you are careless in your provisions and slow to act, then Heaven cannot make you whole. If you turn your back on the Way and act rashly, then Heaven cannot give you good fortune. Your people will starve even when there are no floods or droughts; they will fall ill even before heat or cold come to oppress them; they will suffer harm even when no strange or uncanny happenings occur. The seasons will visit you as they do a well-ordered age, but you will suffer misfortunes a well-ordered age does not know. Yet you must not curse Heaven, for it is merely the natural result of your own actions. 

The greatest influence on Chinese thought

If the chaotic collision of ideas was their preferred intellectual climate, Mencius and Xun Zi picked an especially good era in which to be born, a period called the Hundred Schools of Thought. It was a Golden Age for Chinese philosophy, with countless new and different ideas contending for the hearts and minds of the Chinese.

As with several cultures during the Axial Age, this battlefield of ideas coincided with a fair amount of literal violence—in this case, the military clashes that would eventually turn China from many tiny states into seven big warring states and finally into a unified nation.

People enduring a period of chaos and uncertainty are thirsty for order and compassion and a system of ethics that describes a reasonable path back to civilized behavior. So it’s not surprising that Confucianism, a system of thought that stresses exactly those qualities, emerged as the eventual winner in the war of ideas, forming the backbone of Chinese culture and thinking for more than two millennia.

Confucianism is a secular system of philosophy and ethics, an approach to life that encourages self-improvement and the cultivation of virtue, including altruism and compassionate action to help others achieve a better life. And it does it all without appealing to gods for help.

Confucius is credited with coining the earliest version of the Golden Rule: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others”—one of countless variations of that ethical principle found in cultures around the world.

Whether Confucianism is a philosophy or a civic religion is a source of perpetual and mostly pointless debate. Dealer’s choice. But even if you consider it a religion, it is (like Jainism and some forms of Buddhism) a nontheistic one.

Feeling Laozi about gods

Finally there is the philosopher Laozi, who went out of his way to specifically renounce the idea of gods. “If lightning is the anger of the gods, then the gods are concerned mostly about trees,” he said. “I do not concern myself with gods and spirits, either good or evil, nor do I serve any,” he said. He authored the naturalistic Tao Te Ching and founded Taoism around the same time that Buddhism and Confucianism started — the sixth century BCE.

Laozi’s followers were so impressed with his lifelong insistence that no conception of a deity can be valid that upon his death, they revered him as a manifestation of the deity Daode Tianzun, the Grand Pure One.

Much the same thing happened to Gautama Buddha, who is said to have specifically warned (through the Four Imponderables) that supernatural beliefs, including the idea of gods, can create a serious obstacle to achieving nirvana, the total freedom from suffering—and within a few generations was venerated as a god.

So like any other culture on Earth that has given rise to naturalistic ways of seeing things, Chinese unbelief has had to contend with the strong pull of human psychology toward supernaturalism. But in no other culture has the ongoing influence of nontheistic thought remained so pervasive, even dominant, as in China.

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...

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