Two years ago, I traveled with some foreign journalists. One of them asked whether I had any religious belief. "I am an atheist," I said. His facial expression revealed that my reply had reinforced a preconceived opinion of his. He then asked, "It is said there is no religious freedom in China. What do you think?"
Truth is, I do not have a quick answer.
Most recently, China has been under attack on the issue of religious freedom. Many have argued that since the Communist Party of China is atheist, China must reject all forms of religion.
That statement is misleading. The fact is that like the United States, China has been very successful in secularization—the separation of religion from politics, economy, and education—an important sign of modern society. The U.S. First Amendment bans the government from establishing religion, and various U.S. administrations have proclaimed that they do not sponsor a religion, nor do they pressure anyone to practice a particular faith, or any faith at all. China's Constitution says that citizens "enjoy freedom of religious belief." It prohibits discrimination based on religion and forbids institutions or individuals from compelling citizens to believe in—or not believe in—any particular faith.
However, since the manifestation of religion is omnipresent in many societies, critics wonder why religious architecture and figures do not have the same level of presence or exposure in China. Does the Chinese Government secretly restrict people's religious freedom?
The contrast could be attributed to the differences of cultural tradition and national conditions of countries.
It is widely acknowledged that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. At the beginning of the 21st century, roughly 78 percent of the U.S. adult population were Christians. Now it is about 70 percent, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2015. The number of Americans who profess to have no religious belief has risen dramatically, accounting for 22.8 percent of the population.
The situation is different in China. Of the mainstream religions in China, Taoism is an indigenous religion, with a history of over 2,000 years. Buddhism has been preached in China for nearly 2,000 years. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have individually and collectively influenced the Chinese people and the society.
Many Chinese go to temples to pray and worship the Buddhas and believe in fengshui, traditional geomancy principles now followed in other parts of the world as well. They believe that to bring harmony and happiness, they must be surrounded by good qi, or energy. So they follow fengshui rules to build their houses and arrange furniture accordingly. But they do not see themselves as being religious.
There are still numerous folk religions in China that have transformed into folk activities. Most of the participants in these activities would say they are not religious at all. For example, the God of Wealth is worshipped by many businesspeople. It doesn't mean they are followers of a religion called wealth but are simply hoping for good luck to make a fortune.
Chinese Christians and Muslims profess distinct religious beliefs. According to an official white paper in 2018 on China's policies and practices on protecting freedom of religious belief, there were about 200 million citizens with religious beliefs, 380,000 members of the clergy and 144,000 religious sites. The religious included over 38 million Christians as well as 20 million Muslims.
The religious population of China actually equals that of the U.S. Therefore the conclusion that the Chinese Government restricts people's religious beliefs is ill-founded.
Most Chinese see themselves as atheists. In 2018, they accounted for 86 percent of the population, according to the China Family Panel Studies survey under the aegis of Peking University. If they were forced or taught to have a religious belief, that would go against the principle of religious freedom.
Returning to the question the foreign journalist asked in the beginning of this article, I should have replied, "In China, 200 million people have religious beliefs, but I am not one of them."
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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