Secular Belief, Religious Belonging in China

In: Review of Religion and Chinese Society
Author: Richard Madsen1
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A recent Gallup poll found that almost half of China’s people are atheists. However, surveys conducted by Fenggang Yang and others show that as much as 85 percent of the population periodically engages in religious practices. How can we reconcile reports of widespread atheism with those of widespread religious practice?

An answer is to be found in the social nature of Chinese religion—it is more about belonging than belief. Rituals and sacred myths meaningfully anchor persons to families and communities. The collapse of the commune and danwei systems has made the search for non-state-controlled community forms more pressing than ever. These alternative forms are typically established through myth and ritual. This is true as much for Christian forms of community as for traditional Chinese folk forms. Belonging in China is religious even though, as a result of sixty years of Communist indoctrination, belief is secular. The contradiction between secular belief and religious belonging creates tensions, and in the long run it is unclear how they will be resolved.

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