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1999 Chinese propaganda poster that reads “Firmly support the decision of the Central Committee to deal with the illegal organization of ‘Falun Gong.'” Via Wikipedia.

Reuters has a fascinating article about the efforts of Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, to weed out superstition in order to achieve and maintain state stability.

Says Wang:

For a ruling party which follows Marxism, we need to help people establish a correct world view and to scientifically deal with birth, ageing, sickness and death, as well as fortune and misfortune, via popularizing scientific knowledge.

This kind of language makes people nervous. While we nonbelievers feel fairly confident that our own worldview is “correct,” we do not see it as the role of the government to bring anyone to our way of thinking. However, those of us who are not strict libertarians might see a role for government in, as Wang says, popularizing scientific knowledge. Certainly, that’s what Neil deGrasse Tyson has been on about, so eloquently, for some time.

China has a history of taking a horrifically hard line on religion (and on any form of dissent, really), replacing religion with devotion to the state (again, something wholly antithetical to the freethought movement). But Wang does not sound like someone who wants to round up folks from their secret underground houses of worship and sending them off to prison camps.

Religion has been around for a very long time, and if we rush to try to push for results and want to immediately ‘liberate’ people from the influence of religion, then it will have the opposite effect and push people in the opposite direction.

His soft language may be more of a reflection of his role in outreach to religious citizens, and it smacks of strategy rather than fellow-feeling. There’s no mistaking the government’s antipathy toward any competing ideologies, even if it’s phrased more nicely. And I’d be wary of the Chinese government wanting to “liberate” me from anything.

But still, here we have a representative of the Chinese government talking about, essentially, skepticism of pseudoscientific claims and religion. I asked Barry Karr, chief of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (and one of my triumvirate of bosses at CFI), what he thought of what Wang was saying. He told me:

Back in 2000 we sponsored a World Skeptics Conference in Australia. As part of the program we had invited a delegation of skeptics from China with whom we had been in contact for a number of years. In a move surprising to us, during the conference the delegation read a statement condemning [Chinese spiritual movement] Falun Gong and supporting the government crackdown on them. This promoted CSI (then CSICOP) Chairman Paul Kurtz to issue a statement to the effect that CSICOP is interested in the scientific evaluation of Qigong [a supernaturalistic “life energy” discipline]. We deplore, however, any effort to defend political repression, and we wished to disassociate ourselves from the statements of the Chinese delegation.

We feel the same way today.

In other words, not impressed.