Just 1 in 10 Chinese say they’re affiliated with a ‘formal’ religion: Pew survey

Only 1 in 10 Chinese adults said they “formally identify” with a religion, even though many hold religious beliefs or observe religious traditions, a new Pew Research Center study shows.

About 75% of respondents said they had visited the graves of family members at least once in the previous year. Such visits “frequently” involve leaving offerings of food and drink to the deceased and burning paper money at the graves.

And 47% said they engage in the tradition of arranging objects and physical space “to achieve harmony and ensure good luck in life.”

These and other practices are viewed as cultural traditions with “spiritual underpinnings,” Pew said, adding that formal religious identification in China appears to have plateaued over the past decade.

Thirty-three percent said they believe in the Buddha or a “bodhisattva,” an enlightened being. Another 26% said they burn incense “a few times a year or more” to worship various deities, while 18% said they believe in Taoist deities.

But only 10% admitted having a religion, perhaps because the Chinese Communist Party strongly advocates atheism.

Self-reported attendance at religious activities dropped from 11% in 2012 to perhaps 3% in 2021, a result hampered by pandemic-era survey limitations. Identification with a religion dropped from 12% in 2012 to an estimated 7% nine years later. Those figures, Pew said, came from the Chinese General Social Survey conducted by researchers at Renmin University.

Government pressure against religion in China appears in other guises. In recent years, the government under President Xi Jinping has targeted Christian churches unaffiliated with state-sponsored religious organizations.

It’s estimated that more than 1 million Chinese Muslims, primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, have been detained in “specially built internment camps,” Pew reported, citing U.S. government data.

Mr. Xi’s government also has declared groups such as the Falun Gong, the Children of God, the World Elijah Gospel Mission Society and the Unification Church as “xiejiao,” which translates as “evil cults” in English, Pew said.

The new Pew report, “Measuring Religion in China,” surveyed more than a decade’s worth of data, including a 2021 study that researchers admit was hampered by COVID-19 limitations on canvassing.

Pew said it’s difficult to get a precise handle on current religious practices in China in part because “there may be reason to doubt [the] reliability or completeness” of government statistics.

Incomplete coverage in the Chinese General Social Survey’s 2021 canvass might also be a factor. During that year, when numerous areas were under COVID-19 lockdowns, researchers at Renmin University surveyed 19 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, Pew reported. The group noted that CGSS pollsters collected data in all 28 provinces in 2018.

Pew also said Chinese language terminology differentiates religious practices in that country from the rest of the world. In China, such practices go beyond those categorized in the Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism to include other faith systems and folk beliefs such as feng shui.

The group insisted such obstacles shouldn’t sideline efforts to understand religion in China.

“By virtue of its huge population, China is important to any effort to assess global religious trends,” Pew said in the report.

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