Why are the Chinese atheists?

Sam Crane, at Useless Tree, comments on the recent study that shows that China has a higher percentage of atheists than anyplace else in the world. Sam suggests that part of the reason for this is that atheism is not really the thing to be asking about. There is a long tradition in China, going way back, of believing in things like Confucianism, which is maybe not a religion. He’s right that asking Chinese if they are ‘confirmed atheists’ is probably the wrong question. The original WaPo piece is probably also correct in saying that the Taiping rebellion and the Communists have something to do with it, which is true enough but misses a lot.

Possibly the most important reason that so many Chinese identify as ‘atheists’ is not the history of ‘Confucianism’ throughout the 5000 years of Chinese history, but the complex history of Chinese religion in the 20th century. By far the best introduction to this is Goossaert and Palmer’s The Religious Question in Modern China. It’s a really good book, that contains far more than I could ever put in this blog post, but one of its themes is how the Chinese state, and especially the party-state (KMT or CCP) tried to harness, improve, or eliminate religion as part of creating a new China. One aspect of this was the idea that traditional Chinese forms of religion were an embarrassment in the eyes of foreigners. G and P….

A particularly telling case of such sensitivity is Kang Youwei’s utterance: “Foreigners come in our temples, take photographs of the idols, show these photographs to each other and laugh.” This sentence was later copied verbatim in the introduction to the most important and famous antisuperstition law of the Nationalist government, the 1928 “Standards to determine the temples to be destroyed and those to be maintained.

So if you want to understand the problems that Chinese had in fitting their ideas about religion into a context where the word atheism would make sense, you should read the book. If all you need is a good quote on the importance of impressing foreigners with China’s religious ideas this blog post should do.




  1. I think Taiwan offers more (admittedly anecdotal) evidence that the popularity of atheism in China is due to modern history rather than Confucianism. Many non-religious Taiwanese who are still passive believers in Chinese quasi-Daoist folk religion or Buddhism would not call themselves atheists, and aside from deep-blue KMTers there doesn’t seem to be much shame associated with either Buddhism or folk religion.

  2. The Chinese are certainly not atheists; they may be agnostic and irreligious (by western definitions), but certainly not atheistic. From the way the piece is written here, it appears the author cannot distinguish religion from theism. Indeed in the past the Chinese are accused of being polytheistic, a far cry from being atheistic.

  3. The answer to the question is that of course the Chinese are not atheists. There is a difference between theism and religion. So the question was incorrectly worded and posed in the first place. The Chinese may well be agnostic and irreligious in the western sense, but not atheistic. To gather the correct information, those who ask questions have to formulate the correct question.

  4. Taiwan is an interesting example because from my experience, people in South China tend to have more spirituality in general than people in other regions of the country. This is not unlike the North-South religiosity skew in Europe or North America. Also look at the atheism numbers in Japan, a similar culture. Anglophones may notice that their understanding of Chinese people is a bit shaped by Cantonese and other Southern Chinese influences found in the overseas communities.

    Rather than shame associated with religion, consider the shame that Westerners and people talking Westerners have about atheism and non-religiousness in general. The idea that “Christian” was historically a synonym for “good”, for example. When that shame is not present then what are the true numbers within any community?

    – Just $.02 from an atheist, most people in my experience don’t “passively believe” in Buddhism but then again I’m originally from Hebei.

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