Kelly James Clark debunks atheist myths about early, contemporary Chinese religion


Kelly James Clark, author of A Spiritual Geography of Early Chinese Thought, Gods, Ancestors and Afterlife, delivers his lecture of the same name Monday in the Amphitheater as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series. Clark’s was the first Interfaith Lecture delivered in the Amp instead of the Hall of Philosophy.

In his first visit to Chautauqua, Kelly James Clark wanted to get one key point across: Perhaps China isn’t so different from the United States. 

At 1 p.m. June 29 in the Amphitheater, Clark, the former senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University, held Chautauqua’s first in-person installment of the Interfaith Lecture Series since 2019. His lecture title, “A Spiritual Geography of Early Chinese Thought,” is based on the title of his forthcoming book and was part of Week One’s theme, “21st Century Religion in China: Collaboration, Competition, Confrontation?”

Clark began his lecture by reflecting on his first trip to China, in 1999.

“I went there believing the propaganda the Chinese created for their own people during the Cultural Revolution,” he said. The Cultural Revolution was a violent undoing of capitalism by its then-Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Mao Zedong from 1966 to 1976.

Clark expected to see everyone happy and equal, even having the same clothes and haircuts, based on the propaganda. He was shocked to see that China was actually largely capitalist.

“Beijing, in 1999, was already like New York City on steroids,” he said. 

In addition, Clark expected Chinese people to be non-religious, or atheist, and that they would reject the notion of an afterlife. Clark had previously studied Chinese philosophy, and he said at least 20 other scholars told him China was completely atheist. 

Clark said one sociologist went to the Hall of 500 Gods, a Buddhist temple in China, and was shocked that religions in China believed in not just one god, but sometimes hundreds. 

Clark was equally shocked in his first visit to the country.

Showing a map created by Fenggang Yang, Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture Series speaker, Clark highlighted the vastness of contemporary China’s religious beliefs.

In the west, particularly in Xinjiang province, is China’s Muslim population, totaling somewhere around 70 million people, Clark said. In the east, where the most populous cities are located, is China’s Christian population, totaling over 100 million people. 

“On any given Sunday, there are more Chinese worshiping in China than in all of Europe combined,” Clark said. 

He noted there are about 10 million fewer Chinese Communist Party members than followers of Christianity, which is the fastest-growing religion in China — a concern for the Party, he said. 

Buddhism came to China from India around 200 A.D. Despite Buddhism originating in India, the largest Buddhist population currently resides in China, Clark said. Furthermore, he said that while Buddhism was originally an atheist religion, Chinese versions can include hundreds of gods. 

Clark warned against generalizing any aspect of China, regardless of whether one was speaking about contemporary or early periods, because the nation has a vast geography and language. Although sometimes called dialects, Clark said China really has more than 100 languages.

“It’s not like the North and the South (in the U.S.),” he said. “In some places, you have to rely on written characters.” 

In early China, there were 10 warring states, Clark said, noting that separate states couldn’t be generalized under one umbrella term like “the Chinese.” 

“We like to say ‘the Chinese’ because we like to put them in a little box, and we like to think they are somehow exotic or somehow different from us,” he said. “But, it’s not true. They are a lot like us.”

Clark said the first text he read that opened his eyes to the importance of religion in China was a poem about King Wen, who may have existed around 1100 B.C. and exemplified wisdom and justice — his name is honorific, as “Wen” means culture.

The poem, which Clark read during the lecture, showed Wen as bringing a god-given culture to the land: traits like justice, harmony and peace. It shows Wen shining in heaven, so whoever wrote the poem must have believed in heaven, Clark said. 

“Turns out there’s hundreds of these texts that unequivocally make reference to God and the afterlife,” he said.

China’s political philosophy for 3,000 years, before communism, was based on the Mandate of Heaven, Clark said. God was said to approve new rulers, but if that ruler succumbed to leading unjustly, then God would search for a new leader and strip the former leader of his mandate. The Western version of this practice, he said, is the divine right to rule. 

King Wen lived 700 years before Confucius, but Confucius’ writings make clear references to God, Clark said. 

Confucius wrote about heaven’s virtue and trust in God when he found himself threatened by another king, Huan Tui. Confucius said he had no reason to fear, essentially saying God was in control so he had no reason to worry, according to Clark. 

“We see an increasing sense of morality and dependence on God with Confucius,” Clark said.

Clark also said Confucius wrote about heaven punishing him if he did wrong, noting that heaven could reward the righteous and punish the wicked.

Confucius also believed in a personal God, although the personal relationship was through deceased ancestors, Clark said. Instead of communicating directly with God, one would speak with spirits of their ancestors, who would relay the message to God. 

“It’s not so dissimilar to God in the West,” Clark said.

Clark then described how archaeologists have dug up thousands of old Chinese tombs, which contain maps drawn for spirits. Some of these maps guide the spirit on how to find flying dragons who will carry them to paradise, or heaven. They also depict strange beings who reside down below in an underworld. 

These tombs would sometimes contain letters written by the living, saying this new spirit was a good person and deserved to go to heaven, Clark said. In addition, he said there might be rooms to host food and persuade spirits to go to heaven, along with rooms to meet other spirits. 

The people who built and maintained these tombs in early China were almost exclusively farmers, like everywhere else in the world, Clark said.

“Life in early China was hard,” he said, describing constant floods decimating crops. 

He said early Chinese hated war and wanted to live in peace, and they wished for a better life for their children. 

“They delighted in a good day of work and a fulsome meal and the love of their family,” he said. 

In early China, people believed in living good lives in order to get to heaven but did not necessarily subscribe to any certain religion, Clark said. 

In contemporary China, there are 90 million communists, but Clark said many of them are members only to get good jobs, such as in universities, so it is out of convenience — not conviction. 

A lesson from cognitive science, Clark said, is that human beings are inclined to believe in an afterlife. He said one researcher expected 0% of Chinese students to believe in an afterlife, and it turned out 60% did.

“The point I want to make about China, the Chinese people, is they want to live in peace and harmony,” Clark said. “They want a better life for their children … They want to share moments and meals and jokes with friends. The Chinese people don’t want war, they want peace. They, the Chinese people, are a lot like us.”

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The author Max Zambrano

Max Zambrano is a recent Western Kentucky University graduate in his first season at Chautauqua. At WKU, he served as editor-in-chief of the Talisman magazine and website, majored in political science and minored in journalism writing. Max has traveled to Australia and Morocco, and he hopes to visit all 50 states (28 to go). This summer, he will report on interfaith lectures and sacred song services. Let him know if you want to play backgammon on Bestor Plaza.