Roving thoughts and provocations

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Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong

How Hwee Young/epa/Corbis
Christmas Eve services at the Xuanwumen Catholic Church, Beijing, December 24, 2012

Earlier this month, I came across a fascinating opinion survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. The report asked people in forty countries whether belief in God is necessary for morality. Mostly, the results aren’t surprising. In advanced democracies, such as those in Western Europe, people say by at least a two-to-one margin that morality is not linked to belief in God—presumably, they think non-believers in God can be moral. In the developing world, the opposite is the case, with citizens of Muslim and poorer Catholic countries overwhelmingly saying the two are linked. And as might be expected, the United States is an outlier among developed countries, with a majority (53 percent) asserting the necessity of belief in God to anchor morality.

But then there is China, which at 14 percent has the lowest percentage affirming the need for belief in God of any country surveyed—even lower than in the secular democracies of Western Europe. It’s especially striking when compared to other Asian countries, such as Japan, where 42 percent of the population links morality to belief in God, and South Korea, where more than half the population asserts such a link. In fact, according to the Pew data, a full 75 percent of Chinese people say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.

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?

It is true that it is popular among some Western commentators to discount the importance of religion in both Imperial and Communist China. As late as the 1960s, informed people argued that religion wasn’t important in Chinese society. This reflected the fact that the West’s initial encounters with China had been through its elite, who, in the later imperial era, and especially in the Republican and Communist periods, denied the importance of religion in Chinese society and history. The argument was that China didn’t have real religions, only superstitious folk practices that didn’t rise to the level of the world’s great global belief systems. Most Chinese were not religious and morality was instilled primarily through Confucianism, which was incorrectly presented as a secular tradition.

But these assumptions have long been discredited by scholars. A landmark was the 1961 publication of Religion in Chinese Society by the University of Pittsburgh academic C.K. Yang. As Yang put it, religion in traditional China was “diffused” in society. There were hierarchically organized religious organizations (especially in Buddhism and parts of Daoism) but mostly, Chinese religious practice was part of daily life and organized by lay people. This didn’t make Chinese people unreligious; it was just that religiosity in China was different from that in other countries, especially civilizations dominated by the Abrahamic faiths. In fact, religiosity was so much a part of Chinese society that China has been described by the Sinologist John Lagerwey as a religious state—from the emperor to the peasant. The idea that morality and belief in higher forces could be separated—the premise of the Pew poll—would have struck people of traditional China as inconceivable.

But if this was true in the past, what about now? 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.

How, then, to make sense of the Pew findings? 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.

So I wrote to Pew and also called Horizonkey, the Chinese company that carried out the survey. It turned out that the question had in fact been formulated in precisely that very narrow way. 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.)

I emailed James Bell, director of international survey research at Pew’s offices in Washington, who clarified that the survey was purchased from Horizonkey, which has editorial control of its surveys, including translations. “Based on what we know about Horizonkey’s translation, we think it reasonably conveys the idea of a ‘supreme god/being.’ That would be in line with how we translate ‘God’ into other languages around the globe,” Bell wrote.

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.

None of this means that the Pew poll is without value. It’s just that what it is telling us is something radically different than what has been suggested. If we are to interpret it to mean that morality is linked to Christianity (especially Protestant Christianity), then the response rate, 14 percent, is actually astonishingly high. Even the most optimistic estimates put the number of Chinese Christians at around 100 million, or 7 percent of the population. (The government’s figure is 23 million and more sober independent estimates run in the range of 60 million, or about 4 percent.) Hence the question implies that many non-Christian Chinese believe that morality is linked to a Christian-like God.

Can this be the case? It could be flawed methodology—perhaps the survey was disproportionately based in big Chinese cities, where Christianity is growing fastest. But it could also reflect studies showing that many non-Christian Chinese believe Christians to be especially moral. In her book Christian Values in Communist China, the University of Westminster professor Gerda Wielander—drawing on extensive readings of Chinese texts, websites, and speeches—argues that Chinese widely view Christians as more moral than others, while Christian terms for love, especially ai, are beginning to be accepted as something positive for society.

Thus the Pew poll, rather than showing something completely at odds with decades of evidence and research—that Chinese are irreligious—might actually be confirming one religion’s growing reach in society.


Update, May 29, 2014: After this post was published, Pew said that it was undertaking an internal review of the translation of the word “God” in its Chinese questionnaire. On May 27, it announced that the Chinese results had been excised from the final report. The reason given was that the term for God or a higher power was “mistranslated on the China questionnaire, rendering the results incomparable to the remaining 39 countries.” The Pew statement and the updated report can be viewed on the Pew website.

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