Atheists ban Bob Dylan: the liberated Bohemian mind is a no-no in Red China

It’s not just tightly wound religious fundamentalists who can get worked up over the hippie counterculture: atheists can ban Bob Dylan too.

This was in the Guardian recently:

Aged 68 and almost half a century past the zenith of his angry, protest-song youth, Bob Dylan must almost have forgotten what it was like to be deemed a threat to society. But it seems at least one place still sees him as a dangerous radical.

Dylan’s planned tour of east Asia later this month has been called off after Chinese officials refused permission for him to play in Beijing and Shanghai, his local promoters said. China‘s ministry of culture, which vets planned concerts by overseas artists, appeared wary of Dylan’s past as an icon of the counterculture movement, said Jeffrey Wu, of the Taiwan-based promoters Brokers Brothers Herald.

Hmm. China’s atheist ministry of culture does not see Bob Dylan as, well, consistent with Chinese atheist culture.

That’s interesting, isn’t it?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Atheists ban Bob Dylan: the liberated Bohemian mind is a no-no in Red China

  1. Grad Student says:


    Your first sentence is rather misleading:

    “It’s not just tightly wound religious fundamentalists who can get worked up over the hippie counterculture: atheists can ban Bob Dylan too.”

    It’s a vast oversimplification to think that the atheist component of Chinese government is linked to Orwellian actions like banning Bob Dylan. Such actions are a manifestation of China’s totalitarian philosophy–Marxism/Maoism–that just so happens to be atheist.

    Santi, sometimes it seems like you’re taking cues from the new atheist play book. New atheist rule number one: find an overtly religious society that did/does bad things and blame it on some essential trait that all religions possess.

    Clearly I’m reading between the lines in this post. So, if I’ve misread you here, please forgive me. You have, however, committed the sin described above before:

  2. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    Your critique is more than fair, and I offered the post almost tongue-in-cheek. But my serious purpose was this: isn’t it interesting what happens when we bring sublimated religious (or nonreligious) affiliation to the fore and make it essential and linked to something else (godless liberals, fundamentalist gay haters, Catholic anti-abortionists etc.)?

    In other words, whenever (for example) we discuss sexual uptightness we almost invariably attach a monotheistic and fundamentalist religious disposition to it. But maybe this is correlation, not causation. Maybe, in other words, a lot of people would dislike hippie love and have authoritarian inclinations with or without religion in the world. And so I attached the word atheist to the China-Bob Dylan story precisely to illustrate that maybe, just maybe, the absence of religion in the world might not make for a Bob Dylan-John Lennon hippie utopia: that maybe something else is going on besides the absence of religion or the presence of atheism when people ban Bob Dylan.

    I suppose you’ve heard of the Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer and his studies on the “authoritarian personality.” There is certainly a correlation between fundamentalist religion and authoritarianism in his work, but he thinks authoritarianism is primary: a youthful authoritarian personality in our culture might be drawn to an authoritarian institution like fundamentalist Protestantism even as a youthful authoritarian personality in China might be drawn to an authoritarian (or totalitarian) institution like the Communist Party.

    So, yes. I agree with you. Atheism is not responsible for Bob Dylan’s ban. Maybe the right causal factor is the authoritarian personality identified by Bob Altemeyer. When we sing Lennon’s “Imagine no religion” maybe we should be singing “Imagine no authoritarian personalities” in the world.

    Here’s a bit on Altemeyer’s work:


    • Grad Student says:

      You make good points here. Here’s a few comments that are somewhat related:

      1) Altemeyer’s work sounds reasonable. However, even if we admit the importance of psychology in this debate, all we can address are the ideas that underlie and motivate entities like the Christian right or Communist China.

      2) You make a fascinating point when you say,
      “isn’t it interesting what happens when we bring sublimated religious (or nonreligious) affiliation to the fore and make it essential and linked to something else (godless liberals, fundamentalist gay haters, Catholic anti-abortionists etc.)?”


      3) It’s important to note that there is no symmetry between Orwellian China and the Christian right’s social agenda. On one hand, China bans potentially subversive content for the good of the state, not for overtly atheistic reasons. On the other hand, the Christian right speaks out against gay marriage for explicitly religious reasons.

  3. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    As for the link that you directed me to regarding eugenics, that’s a tricky one. I do still think that eugenics poses special potential problems for atheism because religious traditions seem to have a strong taboo about playing God, and that stalls them on this issue without having to provide good reasons. Set that taboo aside, and now you are in the realm of having to justify not engaging in eugenics on rational grounds. This dropping of taboo for reason works great when it comes to gay rights (drop religion and it’s hard to come up with good secular and rational reasons to resist gay rights). But what secular people gain with gay rights we’ve got to wrestle with concerning eugenics. The Chinese obviously don’t think it’s wrong and are pushing forward with eugenics apace. What secular arguments might we make to stop them—or stop those in our society who want to move forward on eugenics?

    Or maybe we don’t want to stop them. Do we?


    • Grad Student says:

      You’re committing the sin of the new atheists again! You’re reducing religion to some essential trait, this time it’s a “taboo about playing God.” What does that mean and why do you think this essential religious trait will not evolve with time such that, possibly, eugenics will no longer be taboo for religionists in the future?

  4. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    Let me put it this way then: in the contingent history of actually existing atheism and actually existing religion, you are more likely to see eugenic policies promoted in “atheist” China, but not “Catholic” Brazil. One country has no cultural taboo surrounding the practice and one country does. There is nothing logically essential about atheism or religion that requires this distinction, but given this historical moment, atheists who oppose eugenics have a more difficult uphill slog convincing their fellow atheists that they are right than religionists have convincing their fellow religionists that they are right. And religionists have the benefit of taboo, which atheism cannot resort to.

    To provide balance, I would point out that “the sacred” mirrors “the taboo” in that the sacred works against liberal religionists in the Holy Land. If you are a religious person you have a harder time convincing Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians to trade land for peace because the Orthodox regard the land as “sacred”—and as literally given to the Jews by God. By contrast, the argument is easier to make to secular Jews and liberal Christians. The notions of “the taboo” and “the sacred,” when dropped from a discussion, can change arguments—and the probabilities of persuasion in one direction or another—dramatically.


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