Pragmatic Religiousity

The folks over at CNNgo recently had a chat with Petter Hessler about his new book "China Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory." As readers of this blog know, I'm a big Hessler fan, and recently had the pleasure of reading this book (my comments and observations can be found here, here, and here).  In this interview, one particular exchange caught my eye:

CNNGo: In "Country Driving," villager
Cao Chunmei turns to religion as a way to deal with the stresses of the
country’s rapid development. Do you think Chinese will increasingly turn to


I think we’ve already seen more and more Chinese taking an
interest in religion. It’s going to continue, often for the same reason that Cao
Chunmei turned to Buddhism — because she was overwhelmed by the incredible pace
of change and the relentless materialism of this age. She wanted some deeper
meaning in her life. I think that a lot of people in China feel this way,
especially middle and upper class people who have already satisfied many of
their fundamental material needs. 

Still, it’s very different from religion in America
or Europe. People in America see the statistics for numbers of Christians in
China, and they envision a potentially deeply religious nation. The Chinese
relationship with religion is pragmatic and fluid; people often change their
faith very quickly. And I don’t see them following religion to a degree where
it’s clearly not in their self-interest. Also, religion in China is very weak
institutionally. It doesn’t matter so much whether a person says he or she
believes in something; what matters is whether that person can become attached
to a serious religious institution that has some impact on the community

I got a glimpse of this "pragmatic religiousity" a few years ago when some Chinese friends invited me to join them for a day in the mountains west of Beijing visiting Buddhist and Daoist temples.  It was a nice weekend and I always enjoy an excuse to head to the hills, so off we went.  Our 'temple-hopping' party included me (the only foreigner) and six Chinese in our little two-car caravan, one of which was a little yellow sports car, but that's beside the point.

What is not beside the point is that all of these friends were thirty-something members of the Communist Party and five of them had fairly lofty positions (for their age) in either the central government or the city government.  When pressed, all would profess atheism.

So as we went from temple to temple (some of which dated back 800 or 1000 years), I became increasingly intrigued by the fact that at each alter in each temple they would buy incense to burn and stand in front of the idols doing something that looked like praying. They asked me to join them, but I politely declined.

Eventually my bewilderment got the best of me and I had to ask them what was going on.

"Wait a minute," I said.  "You're all members of the Chinese Communist Party, right?"

They all nodded their heads.

"But here you are burning incense and praying.  Do you really believe this?"

Practically in unison they responded "No!  We're doing this just in case."

Pragmatic religiousity; right there; on full display.