Marx decried religion as the 'opium of the people'. The current position of the Chinese Communist Party is more ambivalent; indeed, some argue China's leaders see an appeal in the sedative effects of religion. Last week, former British prime minister and renowned Catholic Tony Blair visited China and promoted his worldwide Faith and Globalisation Initiative, conceived in conjunction with Yale University.
Some see religion as a fundamental cause of problems around the globe; Blair has faith in it as a solution. The key characteristic of globalisation is that it is pushing the world and its people together. Religion is expanding in the developing world and faith is running out of buffer space. Allow religions to bump up against each other (and atheism) unchecked and the all-too-apparent danger is of faith being a force for pulling people apart.
However, seek an understanding of what faith means to people in different cultures and a negative becomes a positive. While the 20th century was dominated by battles between political ideologies, Blair argues that the 21st century is in danger - if we stand still - of succumbing to conflicts of a religious or cultural nature. Are we heading towards the End of History and the Last Man - again?
Author Francis Fukuyama marked the end of the cold war as the 'end point of mankind's ideological evolution'. Marxism was given a premature burial in the West and a facelift by China: the chameleonic survival of the Communist Party was unforeseen - as was the rise of religion. Religion had long been buried alive by Mao Zedong, but now religious faith is undergoing something beyond a resurrection. Globally, religious faith is growing, but nowhere on as large a scale as on the mainland. Chinese state media agrees with Western estimates that about one in three Chinese is religious.
The Economist estimated that about 13 million (or one in six) members of the officially atheist Communist Party had a religious belief. The majority of those are Buddhists and almost 2 million are Christians. China is the most religiously diverse one-party state in the world. The persecution of, among others, Muslim Uygurs, Buddhist Tibetans, Falun Gong and unofficial Christian churches, underscores the regime's attempts to control religion.
However, there are signs of a growing governmental appreciation of religion - albeit only where there is not the perception of separatism. Beijing has been sponsoring academic studies into the sociological and economic effects of religion, examining the success of Christian-owned capitalist enterprises in Wenzhou , for example. Religious studies is an expanding subject at universities, cultural exchange programmes are on the rise and, in 2010, Peking University became the seventh university worldwide to join the Blair-Yale initiative.
Many Chinese, including party members, hope the growth of religious faith will combat an apparent malaise in morality, with issues ranging from the battle against rampant corruption to forced abortions in mind. Of course, the authorities are not about to release all the shackles from religion; Christianity is not welcomed by many party loyalists. The authorities will continue to endeavour to control religion - but not sweep it away.
Faith could prove a more palatable outlet for the frustrations of the masses than the rising number of protests. When Reuters asked Li Junru, a senior government adviser, why India could handle being a democracy but China could not, he replied that India had religion. Blair believes Beijing is increasingly recognising 'that religion is a social good both in the sense of providing social cohesion and moral norms in a society troubled'.
Religion becomes all the more attractive if it helps the party control the people. Appreciating the role of faith is of mounting importance to understanding China. In addition, a more positive form of religious pluralism could, perhaps, light the way to political pluralisation.
Paul Letters is a writer and commentator