It’s an interesting question, and, as the saying goes, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘Atheist’ is.”
Earlier this month Pew released the results of survey that tried to determine people’s beliefs about the relationship between believing in God and morality. According to their results, 75% of respondents in China said that it is “not necessary to believe in God to be moral,” and 14% said that it is “necessary to believe in God to be moral.”
In a state controlled by the Communist Party, and in which Atheism is officially taught in the schools, this result may not seem surprising.
However, Ian Johnson, writing in the New York Review of Books, takes a closer look at these results and makes some very interesting and helpful observations. First of all, he observes that these results seem at odd with the growing interest in religion among Chinese people:
“Pew doesn’t explain its findings, but they struck me as extremely odd. If there’s one trend in China that is hard to miss, it’s the growing desire among many Chinese to find some sort of moral foundation in their lives, whether by reengaging with age-old Chinese ethical traditions, or by taking part in organized religions. In view of this widely-documented situation, how can so few Chinese believe in the link between morality and a supreme being or force?”
He notes that the 20th century did see a decline in religious belief in China (particularly in the early years of the PRC), but then wonders if that decline still exists:
“Have sixty-five years of Communist rule wiped out religion, or reduced it to such a minor role that the Chinese have done a complete about-face? This is easier to rebut; any casual visitor to China can’t help but be struck by how many new churches, temples, and mosques are being built.”
Johnson then goes on to suggest that the problem lies in the terminology for God that was used in the survey:
“According to Pew’s English-language report, the actual survey asked people to say which of the following statements came closest to their own opinion: “It is not necessary to believe in God to in order to be moral and have good values” or “It is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.” I was immediately struck by the use of the word “God” in the survey statements, capitalized as it is in the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim tradition. Was the question referring solely to the god of these faiths? But I couldn’t imagine that Pew would ask such a narrow question—after all, the study doesn’t describe itself as asking whether belief in an Abrahamic being is necessary to morality, but rather asking whether belief in any supreme being is.”
He wrote to Pew and Horizon (the company in China that did the actual survey) and discovered that he was correct; they had used the Chinese term for the God depicted in the Bible, as opposed to a more generic term for a divine being that most Chinese would be familiar with. He explains:
“I don’t know how the question was translated for other countries (especially Japan or India), but in Chinese, the question used a term for “God” that is applicable in modern China almost only to Protestant Christianity: shangdi (上帝).
In Chinese, the questions were: “不信仰上帝，也能有良好的道德和价值” and “为了有良好的道德和价值观，信仰上帝是必要的.” I would translate these questions back into English as “Even without believing in (the Protestant) God, one can still have good virtues or values” and “In order to have good virtues and values, one must believe in (the Protestant) God.”
Shangdi has a pre-Christian meaning—referring to a supreme deity—but it was appropriated by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century and since then has come to be synonymous with the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions, especially Protestant Christianity. (Catholics eventually changed their nomenclature for God to “tianzhu”; see the Rites Controversy of the early eighteenth century, the dispute among Catholics about how far to incorporate indigenous traditions into Catholic practice.)”
He then explains why the use of the term Shangdi yielded results that are probably not in line with what people in China really believe:
“This is correct in the sense that shangdi is an accurate translation of “God” in the Protestant tradition, but it excludes the religious experience of the vast majority of Chinese, who do believe in higher spiritual forces—and very often link belief in such forces to morality. An alternative way of phrasing this question is found in the 2007 book Religious Experience in Contemporary China by Yao Xinzhong and Paul Badham. It is based on a study of 3,196 people, who completed a twenty-four-page survey. The authors found that 77 percent believed in moral causality—there is a long folk tradition of Baoying (报应) which holds that you reap what you sow, that consequences for moral failure are a form or divine retribution—and 44 percent agree that, “life and death depends on the will of heaven.”
How did Yao and Badham end up with results so different from the Pew survey’s? The crucial difference was that they were framed in a much broader way. One term the authors used was “heaven,” or tian (天), which literally means “sky” or “heaven” but also the idea of a supreme deity or force. It also included fo (佛) or “Buddha.” This is why their findings directly contradicted the Pew poll, which uses an Abrahamic paradigm to survey cultures with completely different religious traditions.”
In other words, if you are trying to determine beliefs about a divine being among the Chinese people, it is important to use the correct term.
Are most Chinese Atheists? Perhaps, but maybe it’s best to say “Atheism with Chinese characteristics.” I remember teaching on a university campus in China and being surprised that most of my students admitted to being afraid of ghosts. As one of them suggested to me, “we are Atheists during the day, but when the lights go out it’s a different story.”