Rising Religious Tide in China Overwhelms Faith in Atheism

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One of the last great efforts at state-sponsored atheism is a failure.

And not just any kind of failure. China has enforced its anti-religion policy through decades of repression, coercion and persecution, but the lack of success is spectacular, according to a major study.

The survey involved a random national sample of 7,021 people ages 16 and older in 56 locales throughout mainland China.

No more than 15 percent of adults in the world’s most populous country are “real atheists;” 85 percent of the Chinese either hold some religious beliefs or practice some kind of religion

The results find a middle ground between the official government figure of 100 million religious believers and extreme projections of growth that estimate the number of Christians has become as high as 130 million.

Among the findings:

  • Buddhism is the largest religion in China, with about 18 percent, or 185 million people self-identifying as Buddhists. Another 31 percent of respondents reported having at least one Buddhist belief or participating in at least one Buddhist practice. More than 12 percent of Chinese Communist Party members self-identified as Buddhists.
  • About 3.2 percent of the population, or 33 million adults, self-identified as Christians. Again, however, an additional 40 million people said they believed in the existence of Jesus Christ or participated in Christian activities.
  • Among popular religious practices, the results indicate up to 754 million people practice ancestor worship, including attending and maintaining ancestral temples, venerating ancestor tablets at home or visiting graves to honor ancestral spirits. About 145 million people observed fengshui restrictions or consulted a fengshui master in the past year.

The actual numbers may be even higher. Religious affiliation still can have consequences in China, from loss of jobs to prison, so researchers note that participants may be reluctant even in an anonymous survey to identify with religion. That is a particular concern with faiths such as Christianity that have been special objects of attack by authorities.