Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ideology or Not?

In response to my Friday post "Why Does China Have a Morality Crisis?" a blogger named Demin says in "What do we need? A new ideology?":

But what I know is that, you can take hold of an ideology, but you can't take hold of people's inner conscience. I would say, conscience is the last area of a living soul. It is always free. All we need to do is to choose: honestly accept this freedom, or pretend that we can control it.

He obviously does not think people in China need any ideology whatsoever. He is not alone. Some comments below my Friday post reflected a similar sentiment. Wuming, for example, commented:

I am not sure the lack of a dominant ideology is a bad thing at all. The last 30 years of China is a repudiation of the revolutionary ideologies of the first 30 years of the communist rule. I think we Chinese are quite allergic to at this kind of political ideologies.

Well said. I must say Wuming's comment resonates with me on the personal level. I had been a sincere believer in communism during my childhood and youth – not much different than the way an American child from a devout Christian family becomes a sincere church goer. But my re-education in the countryside after high school changed all that. For a number of years after I abandoned communism, I felt a sort of spiritual barrenness, as if my soul no longer had a settling place. On the other hand the breach of a deep belief was like the most effective vaccination – nothing could make me a believer again. And after a while I got used to my incorrigible soul.

But, away from the personal, what about at the society level? Does a society need an ideology or not?

Recently, after my book was published, I found it interesting many interviewers took notice on the following passage, a question asked by a character in one of my stories:

"Which is better: to have a false belief and be content, or to break the false belief and be empty?"

And readers too. People asked me about this passage on various occasions. Evidently, this character's question touched on a common concern. Yet I don't think as the author I have a sure answer to it.

A novel I read years ago, The White Mandarin by Dan Sherman, made interesting observations on what had led to the defeat of the Chinese Nationalists (or KMT) by the Communists in 1949. Among other things, one reason identified was that the Communists provided Chinese intellectuals an ideology that was lacking in the Nationalist's appeal. I think this is a pertinent point. The experience of my parents and their friends who joined the eastern Sichuan underground CCP in the 1940s and risked their lives for the communist revolution is proof of that.

On a related note, a few years ago in an on-line writing forum I posted a question, or a hypothesis: what if no one believed a religion? What would the world be like then? Some American writers took offense and accused me of wanting to suppress religions. But, I asked again, what if no one wanted to believe in a religion? Then a writer pointed me to a book of academic research – the title of it now escapes me – which I did find and read. Based on biologic research, the book concluded that the need for a religion exists in human genes, which effectively destroyed the basis of my hypothesis.

Perhaps people like Wuming, Demin and I don't need a belief or religion to live well. But we are probably a small minority; many others do. Without a dominant and "legal" (I find this word very ironical here but nonetheless necessary) ideology or religion to hold a society's spirit, many will either get lost or seek refuge in a foolish cult like FLG.

More thoughts from you wise people?


wuming said...


The choice of rejecting religion is no surprise for people like us. We were educated under the communist ideology and experienced its failure deeply and personally. Then we were trained in natural sciences which form the core of our (materialistic?) world view. Finally we observed the effects of Christianity as outsiders and found it surprisingly like the cult of Mao during the Cultural Revolution. What choice do we have but to become non-ideological atheists?

As for the social spirituality, our views tend to be anthropological. From this view, as pertaining to China, my best hope is on those Chinese who believe in a little of everything, but not the whole of any religion or ideology. But this does not look like a stable state, does it?

Other Lisa said...

I was not raised in any religious tradition and to be honest, I am grateful for that. I've come on my own to a sort of vague spirituality but I feel this is as close to a "belief" or an answer that I can get. I also don't think it's at all necessary to be a believer in a religious ideology to have a firm moral foundation. "Do unto others" is pretty damn simple and doesn't require a belief in an external God or ideology.

wuming said...

I just realized that I sounded presumptuous in my previous post. I used too many "we" and "us", please regard them as "I" and "me" wherever fit.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Wuming, it sounds like you and I indeed have a lot in common, so the "we" part works for me. :-) But IMO your wish that everyone believes in a little of everything is not going to happen. Nor would it help social stability.

Lisa, it's interesting to hear about your non-religious upbringing. I'm curious though: is your case a rare one in the US? Among people you know, for example your colleagues, are there more religious people (in various degrees) or more atheists?

Rocking Offkey said...

What's important is no religion anymore, religion is kind of a thing of the past. What's important, is a set of values people can agree on, whether in religion, or culture, or somewhere; and some deference to those values and the judgment of it. For Chinese, it used to be "high heaven", Karma, or ancestor's anger, or any combination of those. And I'm not sure it can be called ideology either. Confucius values were the closest thing to ideology in old China.

Other Lisa said...

Xujun, though America is a fairly religious country, the degree of religious belief and adherence to organized religion is overstated. One of the largest groups in the States is "unchurched" - those who may profess a belief in God or some higher power but who do not attend organized church services.

I've known plenty of people who were not raised in a religious tradition or who were raised in one and later rejected it. One of the things that truly frosts me about the current state of political dialog in the US is the constant pandering to Evangelicals, when those of us who are secular in our beliefs are just as large a voting block, if not larger.

Of course, I am a native Californian, and a certain spiritual ecclecticism is pretty common here!

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks for the notes, Rocking and Lisa. There is something in common in the things you have said.

I know that I do not meet many people with thinking that is dominated by religious belief. This is, as Lisa points out, in sharp contrast to much of the public dialog. There seems to be a disconnect here.

I have always assumed that this disconnect is simply the result of the people I know. To some extent this is true. Massachusetts, like California, is hardly a bastion of religious fundamentalism. But perhaps a lot more of the disconnect is simply the result of a lack of vocalism.

Rocking, it is interesting that you think religions have become passé. I have been wondering for some time if this is a trend. Do you know where one can find evidence that shows the decrease in religious population? My own googling did not find much.

Alfonso said...

Not so wise...

I think our brains are wired to believe, be it a religion or ideology. In many respects both are quite similar. A belief framework that orient our lives, explains the world, justify our actions, builds group identity, etc.

I think it provides an advantage to human groups, wouldn't be surprised is is part of our evolutionary path.

I don't think either it would be a good idea to forbid religion/ideology. People need it, maybe a few can live without it, but the majority need something.

The problem is to prevent them to go far...

Alfonso said...

Interesting link about the effects of ideology.


Xujun Eberlein said...

Alfonso, the link doesn't seem to work. Could you please repost it? I'd be very interested in reading it.

Alfonso said...

Just tested and it seems to work.


Anyway here is the long link


bien said...

I like to think that religion, philosophy, science, ethics, atheism, ... are like different branch of a big tree. A society needs a big tree with different branches. The best position would be under the tree and being able to benefit from the shade from all the branches. A tree with only one branch, or a society with only one ideology doesn't seem to be able to provide enough shade, at least for me.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Alfonso, the long link works. Thanks. The research is indeed interesting, though it comes as no surprise to me that ideology trumps facts. Perhaps that's exactly how ideology works.

Bien, your tree branch metaphor is a good one! And I can't agree more that a healthy society needs a whole variety of believes. But do you think there is also a need for a periodically dominant one?

bien said...

I ask the same question to myself also.

Maybe for some people since they like one branch than the rest so much that they would trim other branches to give more nutrients to their favored branch.

Or perhaps, like a living community, there are competitions going on among the branches for sunshine and rain. So some branch would end up becoming the dominant one. When people see the different shading effects, they would gather under different parts of the tree.

Or it taks a combination of Tian Shi, Di Li, and Ren He to make one ideology the dominant one.

I still think a society with a variety of ideologies is better than that with a dominant one. It's like an ecological system with biological diversity is more interesting and more resistant to different threats. Another example comes in my mind now is that during the Spring and Autumn Period in ancient China, there was a boom of different philosophical schools that we still can draw wisdom from. But such an occasion never seem to reappear once Confucianism took the lead.