Red China, secular Americans share nonreligious goals, not methods

Red China, secular Americans share nonreligious goals, not methods March 1, 2019

China appears terrified of religion.

china kindergarten christianity atheism
Young American children perform at a Lutheran Sunday school, 2015. (Grace Lutheran Church, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

Those of us Americans who are nonreligious likely view China’s wariness as a reasonable response to supernatural nonsense that has the power to politically enflame and destabilize society, as it does in our own country.

And whereas, like the mainland Chinese government, I personally favor removing any semblance of religion from public schools, starting in kindergarten, even pre-K, the way the Chinese do it is far too draconian for a mostly Christian democratic republic.

China bans religion in kindergartens

According to a February 14 news report in Breitbart, the Education Bureau of the Chinese district of Lishan has begun a campaign to eliminate any vestige of religious belief in its kindergartens. Schoolchildren are being required to sign statements promising to steer clear of religious activities.

Breitbart reports that pupils as well as their teachers are now required to “sign a commitment statement promising they won’t browse religious websites or participate in religious forums.” The statement includes this specific declaration:

“I will adhere to the correct political direction, advocate science, promote atheism, and oppose theism.”

Three of the four mandates are laudable, but not “adhere to correct political direction,” which refers to absolute political control by the resurgent Communist Party, which, in effect, replaces the church in a theocracy.

Hiring teachers of faith prohibited

In the new campaign, schools are also forbidden from hiring new teachers who hold religious beliefs, and increased supervision of teaching staff is mandated, including “comprehensive inspections of teachers’ preparation lessons in order to root out any and all religious content,” Breitbart reports.

On Feb. 1, 2018, the Chinese government issued a new set of regulations prohibiting children and young people from being taught religion or taking an active part in Christian worship.

Although the aim is rational — to protect ideologically vulnerable children from religious indoctrination in an officially atheist country — such heavy-handed autocracy would be anathema to Americans in their largely Christian land.

In a dual-party democracy such as the United States, political control resides in the populace as a whole, with citizens through the popular vote enforcing their will and controlling who represents them, which is then reflected in the government “of the people.” Government authority in America then is not absolute but contingent on popular will.

In one-party authoritarian regimes, such as China’s, the party wields virtually absolute power and decides its own will. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012, a hallmark of the ruling Party’s will has increasingly been the enforced separation of children from religious influence. The goal is to enforce and enhance the nation’s official atheism.

Religious freedom?

China does have a national constitution, and although that document ostensibly enshrines religious freedom, it is only nominally observed in practice. The government’s outward behavior reveals that it views all religion as irrational, politically suspect and potentially dangerous, requiring strict, close control by authorities. As such, Beijing has a notorious history of disrespecting and persecuting religion.

The U.S. Department of State’s annual International Religious Freedom report in 1999 ranked China among the top 50 worst persecutors of Christians (North Korea and Afghanistan the two worst, and China ranks 27th, according to a Forbes magazine news report). The regime has also brutally persecuted other religious minorities, particularly Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs in the restive regions they inhabit.

But what caught my attention this week was the Chinese government’s targeted excising of religion from everything involving kindergartens, because it relates to something happening in my own U.S. state of South Dakota regarding not kindergarten, but pre-kindergarten education. A South Dakota legislative committee this month defeated, 9-2, a proposal to study how pre-K programs are presently conducted in the state and to consider ways to make them more widely and equitably available to children.

Why should such a study be viewed with such trepidation? The answer is partly political and partly religious. Republicans, who control the down-voting committee, fear that the study might lead ultimately to publicly funded preschool in South Dakota, which they view as the thin edge of the wedge of encroaching “socialism.” See my recent post on this, “Neanderthal lawmakers, evangelicals starving preschool initiatives,” here.

Wedge’s narrow edge?

In a nutshell, opponents of the preschool study are worried that public preschools, as other public schools in America, would forbid religious instruction and only teach secular subjects as the Constitution and U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires. Currently, most toddlers don’t attend preschools, which either aren’t available in their areas or their parents can’t afford them (except for private religious preschools), and these kids are “taught” at home and in church Bible preschools.

As childhood experts have long emphasized, and parents (and church leaders) are surely aware, the most important and impactful learning period of a young child’s life are the ages 1-4, up to just before kindergarten. This is the time frame when religious indoctrination at home and church is most powerfully effective.

China certainly knows this, and why the Communist Part at least partly is so keen to block religion’s effect on kindergarten-age children, if not those younger. But the party’s practical challenge is far less pronounced in a country where adult religious believers comprise a low single-digit percentage of the populace, compared to the U.S., where the vast majority of citizens are religiously faithful.

Same aim, different strategy

Yet, still, whereas the relevant goal of the Chinese government and American atheists is the same — to protect very young children from the negative effects of superstitions — in the U.S. its execution must be a function of democratic consensus and process, not autocratic power politics.

The majority of Americans believe that public education should be secular in nature from pre-K through high school, scrubbed clean of sectarian religious ideology. Presently it mostly is, but American Christian evangelicals inexorably keep trying to insinuate religious ideology into schools and classrooms through after- and before-school religious clubs (which the Supreme Court has inexplicably allowed), injecting pseudo-science ideologies such as “Young Earth creation science” into real-science classes, and plastering schools’ public areas with signs such as “In God We Trust.”

The question is, how can the U.S. protect gullible children from religious ideology in a country where freedom of religion, unlike in China, is viewed by most as sacrosanct?

The answer is: with democratic legislation endorsed by a consensus of the people and in compliance with the Constitution.

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