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China’s Ambiguous Atheism


In a country that suppresses all forms of religious discussion, “scientific” studies about religion in China are almost impossible to conduct. The internet does, however, permit some measurement of Chinese religious sentiment, though even on the net Chinese citizens may be reluctant to speak openly.

What follows is one recent non-scientific study conducted by a courageous Chinese citizen who also interviewed several local experts on the subject. Her findings seem consistent with available sources on the subject.

China is often called a "country without faith.” The statement is somewhat inaccurate: after the 1949 Revolution, Mao and the Communist Party launched an all-out assault on religious institutions. But faith in God was replaced by faith in the Communist Party. As Professor Huang (Tsinghua University) recently said, during the Communist Revolution, the Chinese placed their future hopes on the Communist regime and even more on Mao’s promise for a better future. To some extent, Communism became an alternative to religion.

However, during the Cultural Revolution, people’s faith in the Party decreased as the economy deteriorated and Party corruption and abuse of power spread. When, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping, the leader of China, opened up the economy and the Chinese’s standard of living improved, money and power became the new “idols” and China was soon to arguably surpass the United States as the world’s economic superpower. Today, in 2014, we might ask: Are the Chinese now a faithless people? Has Mao’s revolution and Deng’s capitalism subsumed the old religious beliefs?

To answer that question, we did a non-scientific online poll in China of 500 Chinese who responded over a one-week period. They were asked to define atheism, and most had a reasonable understanding of its conventional definition. Then, on a scale of 1-5, they were asked to rate their belief in god or supernatural forces, their belief in an afterlife, their belief in evolution, their view on religion’s importance for human morality, as well as the worldview they taught their own children.

Ours is not the first such poll. In one recent poll, more than 300 million Chinese (over 30 percent of the entire population) said they were believers (poll conducted by professors Tong Shijun and Liu Zhongyu of the Shanghai-based East China Normal University). The results of this poll, like ours, must be taken cautiously, because although the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the Chinese Communist party has cracked down on most cults and religious organizations in China, including the Falun Gong, and, in order to contain their spiritual influence over the public, the Party maintains close ties with other major Christian, Catholic, Buddhist and Islamic groups. In an interview, Assistant Professor Nie Chaunan, from Huizhou University, said most Chinese are unwilling to express any opinion about religion. And in fact, another recent survey showed that most of the Han population remained ambivalent about religious issues.

Our recent poll also turned up this same ambivalence. Nearly 80 percent of our participants called themselves neither atheists nor believers. When asked about the strength of their belief in God and their belief in the soul or afterlife, the Chinese average response, on a 1-5 scale, was near-neutral, with average scores of 3.08 and 2.94 respectively.

This result does not just reflect fear of the Party and the sentiment that it’s better to retreat than speak up. Proclaiming oneself an atheist can itself be risky, since traditional Chinese values include a belief in the supernatural. Professor Nie said, “Since the very beginning of Chinese civilization, ancestor worship has played a dominant role and contributes to beliefs in the afterlife and the spiritual.” In fact, since the formal introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century, the Chinese used to worship not one but multiple gods, such as the God of Fortune and the God of the Earth. Each of the 56 Chinese ethnicities also practiced their own distinct superstitious rituals and worshipped gods or the "spirit of the nature." Simply put, because supernatural beliefs are deeply rooted in the Chinese heritage, many Chinese are also afraid to call themselves "atheists." It is also worth mentioning that many Chinese philosophies were also attached to religion. For instance, Confucianism, though commonly regarded as a set of philosophical ideas by the academia, was established as the "state religion" in the Qing Dynasty.

Traditional philosophy is reflected today in Chinese parents’ teachings to their children. From generation to generation, parents preach a variation of “Pascal’s wager”: that it’s better, i.e. less risky, for their children to accept than to deny the existence of supernatural beings and warn them of punishment from “the place above.” As a result, children cultivate a fear of the spirits, and will pray to them, especially before exams. Parents will also visit temples, light incense and even pray for their students’ success. When we asked parents if they teach religion, atheism or both to their children, approximately 77% said “both,” and only 19% said “atheism.”

On the other hand, Chinese religious beliefs should also be understood as at attempt to mitigate the “moral crisis” in China. In 2008, the poisonous chemical in formula milk manufactured by San Lu Corporation caused thousands of infants to have kidney stones, and many died or became mentally retarded. Because of many other business scandals like the San Lu incident -- businessmen gaining profits at the cost of the consumers -- many Chinese have begun to search for a spiritual solution to the moral crisis.

“A deadly combination,” commented Mr. Lei, a former Assistant Secretary to Premier Zhao Ziyang’s Economics Advising Committee, during a phone interview. “Money and power, the two ‘new gods’ of the atheist population in the post-reform era, deeply corrupted people’s moral standards.”

Exacerbating religion’s power is increasing unhappiness, even among China’s wealthier classes. Despite China’s booming growth, the nation ranks comparatively low on all measures of international happiness, and in fact there is some evidence that, since 1990, happiness has decreased in China.

According to Mr. Lei, "Many ‘new rich,’ those who accumulated their wealth after the reform, have failed to live happily. Similarly, corruption and power struggle within the party surrounded many public servants and government officials with a sense of insecurity and helplessness."

All of this is reflected in our poll: 63% of our respondents—representing more affluent, computer-owning, citizens -- said religion could help solve the “moral crisis” in China. Professors Tong and Liu, in their own poll, discovered that the demographics of Chinese believers has started to shift from impoverished rural areas to China’s economically well-developed coastal areas.

On the other hand, Professor Nie Chuanan of Huizhou University, has interpreted this phenomenon differently: "The Communist party has been slapped right on the face by these new believers. I do not advocate for any religion, but this phenomenon showed that nowadays, religion appealed more directly to the mass than the Communist doctrines. People no longer blindly swallow what the Communist Party tries to sell.”

Although a majority may see religion as a cure for China’s social ills, the Chinese, as a whole, have a scientific understanding of the origin of life, especially because the Communist Party has launched a campaign to promote scientific education in schools. We asked, “Do you believe that humans evolved from other species?” and received a 1.87 average response (1-5, with 1=“strongly agree”), a sign of strong approval. And when asked to rate those factors influencing their disbelief in gods, poll respondents ranked science education #3 in importance, behind parents and social influences, and ahead of the media, literature and peer influences.

In the end, it seems that neither atheism nor theism is “preferred” in China, and that Professor Phil Zuckerman’s 2005 estimate still holds true for China today (see “Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge, UK) From his research, Zuckerman estimated that among the Chinese, 8-14% could be considered “atheists,” a figure which, in the light of new research, suggests the Chinese have a "long and winding road to travel if they want to completely annihilate irrational beliefs in spirits and God. Encouraging more open discussions on science and religion might be the first leap forward.


AAI News Team guest writers: 

Mickey Keenan is an atheist Chinese student at UC Berkeley.

Mark Kolsen is Managing Editor of the Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter