Irreligion in China

China has the world's greatest irreligious population,[3] and the Chinese government and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is officially atheist.[4] Despite limitations on certain forms of religious expression and assembly,[5] religion is not banned, and religious freedom is nominally protected under the Chinese constitution. Among the general Chinese population, there are a wide variety of religious practices.[6] The Chinese government's attitude to religion is one of skepticism and non-promotion.[6][7][8][9]

Religion in China (CFPS 2014)[1][2][note 1]

  Buddhism (15.87%)
  Other religious organisations, including folk sects and the Taoist Church[note 2] (7.6%)
  Christianity (2.53%)
  Islam[note 3] (0.45%)

According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 47% of Chinese people were convinced atheists, and a further 30% were not religious. In comparison, only 14% considered themselves to be religious.[10] More recently, a 2015 Gallup poll found the number of convinced atheists in China to be 61%, with a further 29% saying that they are not religious compared to just 7% who are religious.[11]

Since 1978, the constitution provides for religious freedom: "No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion" (article 36). The Chinese state officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism.[12]


While in modern history, the Taiping Rebellion, Boxer Rebellion, Communist Revolution, and the Cultural Revolution contributed significantly to the rise of irreligion and distrust of organized religion among the general populace, irreligion in its various forms, especially rationalism, secularism, and antitheism, has had a long history in China dating back millennia. The Zhou Dynasty Classic of Poetry contains several catechistic poems in the Decade of Dang questioning the authority or existence of Shangdi. Later philosophers such as Xun Zi, Fan Zhen, Han Fei, Zhang Zai, Wang Fuzhi also criticized the religious practices prevalent during their times. Buddhism flourished in China during the Southern and Northern Dynasties Period. It was during this period that Fan Zhen wrote Shen Mie Lun (Simplified Chinese 神灭论, Traditional Chinese 神滅論, "On the Annihilation of the Shen") in reaction to Buddhist concepts of body-soul dualism, samsara and karma. He wrote that the soul is merely an effect or function of the body, and that there is no soul without the body (i.e., after the destruction and death of the body).[13] Further, he considered that cause-and-effect relationships claimed to be evidence of karma were merely the result of coincidence and bias. For this, he was exiled by the Emperor.

Confucianism as a state-instituted philosophy has flourished in China since the Han Dynasty, and the opportunities it offered was another fundamental origin of atheism in China. While there were periods in which Taoism and Buddhism may have been officially promoted, the status of Confucianism in Chinese society had rarely been challenged during imperial times. Extensive study of the Confucian Classics was required to pass the Imperial Civil Service Examinations, and this was the major (and often sole) means by which one could achieve prominence in society. Confucianism places particular emphasis on humanistic and this-worldly social relations, rather than on an otherworldly soteriology.[14][15] This produced a cultural tendency that facilitated acceptance of modern forms of irreligion such as humanism, secularism, and atheism.

Zhu Xi, one of the most important Confucian philosophers, encouraged an agnostic tendency within Confucianism, because he believed that the Supreme Ultimate was a rational principle, and he discussed it as an intelligent and ordering will behind the universe (while stating that "Heaven and Earth have no mind of their own" and promoting their only function was to produce things. Whether this can be considered a conscious or intelligent will is clearly up to debate).[16]

China is considered to be a nation with a long history of humanism, secularism, and this-worldly thought since the time of Confucius,[17][19] who stressed shisu (世俗 "being in the world"). Hu Shih stated in the 1920s that "China is a country without religion and the Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstitions."[20]

In the 19th century, after China's defeat in the First Opium War and in successive wars, the country succumbed to increasing domination by foreign imperialist powers. The Boxers (or the Yihetuan) considered Christian missionaries as promoting foreign influence in China and held deep anti-Christian views. Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant missionaries and church members were massacred.

In the 1920s, the Anti-Christian Movement (非基督教运动) was an intellectual and political movement in Republican China.[21] The May Fourth Movement for a New Culture attacked religion of all sorts, including Confucianism and Buddhism as well as Christianity, rejecting all as superstition. The various movements were also inspired by modernizing attitudes deriving from both nationalist and socialist ideologies, as well as feeding on older anti-Christian sentiment that was in large part due to repeated invasions of China by Western countries.[21][22][23]

During the Cultural Revolution, a radical policy of anti-religion and anti-tradition was instituted. In the ensuing decade, the five major religions in China were severely suppressed. Many religious organizations were disbanded, property was confiscated or damaged, monks and nuns were sent home (or killed in violent struggle sessions).[24]

Since the reforms of 1979, the government has liberalized religious policies to a degree, and the religious population has experienced some growth. Nevertheless, the irreligious remain the majority among all age groups in China. Local governments may even support certain local religious institutions and festivals in a bid to promote tourism. However, atheism, characterization of religions as superstition, and promotion of scientific materialism remain core tenets of the ruling CCP.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ CFPS 2014 surveyed a sample of 13,857 families and 31,665 individuals.[2]: 27, note 4  As noted by Katharina Wenzel-Teuber of China Zentrum, German institute for research on religion in China, compared to CFPS 2012, CFPS 2014 asked the Chinese about personal belief in certain conceptions of divinity (i.e. "Buddha", "Tao", "Allah", "God of the Christians/Jesus", "Heavenly Lord of the Catholics") rather than membership in a religious group.[2]: 27  It also included regions, such as those in the west of China, that were excluded in CFPS 2012,[2]: 27, note 3  and unregistered Christians.[2]: 28  For these reasons, she concludes that CFPS 2014 results are more accurate than 2012 ones.
  2. ^ CFPS 2014 found that 5.94% of the population declared that they belonged to "other" religious categories besides the five state-sanctioned religions. An additional 0.85% of the population responded that they were "Taoists". Note that the title of "Taoist", in common Chinese usage, is generally attributed only to the Taoist clergy. CFPS 2014 found that a further 0.81% declared that they belonged to the popular sects, while CFPS 2012 found 2.2%, and CGSS 2006-2010 surveys found an average 3% of the population declaring that they belonged to such religions, while government estimates give higher figures (see the "statistics" section of the present article).
  3. ^ CFPS 2014 surveyed predominantly people of Han ethnicity. This may have resulted in an underestimation of Muslims. CGSS 2006–2010 surveys found an average 2-3% of the population of China declaring to be Muslim.


  1. ^ For China Family Panel Studies 2014 survey results see release #1 (archived) and release #2 (archived). The tables also contain the results of CFPS 2012 (sample 20,035) and Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) results for 2006, 2008 and 2010 (samples ~10.000/11,000). Also see, for comparison, 卢云峰:当代中国宗教状况报告——基于CFPS(2012)调查数据 (CFPS 2012 report), The World Religious Cultures, issue 2014. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 August 2014. Retrieved 7 August 2014.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) p. 13, reporting the results of the CGSS 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011, and their average (fifth column of the first table).
  2. ^ a b c d e Wenzel-Teuber, Katharina. "Statistics on Religions and Churches in the People's Republic of China – Update for the Year 2016" (PDF). Religions & Christianity in Today's China. VII (2): 26–53. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 July 2017.
  3. ^ "Map: These are the world's least religious countries". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  4. ^ Briggs, David (2011-01-22). "Study: Rising Religious Tide in China Overwhelms Atheist Doctrine". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
  5. ^ Such as proselytizing activities, wide-scale distribution of religious materials, and unsanctioned cults and house churches
  6. ^ a b French, Howard (2007-03-03). "Religious surge in once-atheist China surprises leaders". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-11-25.
  7. ^ "A surprising map of where the world's atheists live". Washington Post. Retrieved 2013-11-25.
  8. ^ "Party's secret directives on how to eradicate religion and ensure the victory of atheism". Asian News. Retrieved 2013-11-25.
  9. ^ "China announces "civilizing" atheism drive in Tibet". BBC. 1999-01-12. Retrieved 2013-11-25.
  10. ^ "Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism" (PDF). Gallup. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-08-02. Retrieved 2012-11-28.
  11. ^ "Losing our religion? Two thirds of people still claim to be religious" (PDF). Gallup. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-04-30. Retrieved 2015-04-17.
  12. ^ Rowan Callick. Party Time: Who Runs China and How.
  13. ^ Phil Zuckerman. Atheism and Secularity. ABC-CLIO, 2009. p. 213
  14. ^ Herbert Fingarette, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (New York: Harper, 1972).
  15. ^ Juergensmeyer, Mark (2005). Religion in global civil society. Oxford University Press. p. 70. ISBN 978-0-19-518835-6. ...humanist philosophies such as Confucianism, which do not share a belief in divine law and do not exalt faithfulness to a higher law as a manifestation of divine will
  16. ^ Wing-tsit Chan (1963), A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Zhu Xi, Ch. 11, # 127, pg. 643
  17. ^ Mark Juergensmeyer. Religion in Global Civil Society. Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 70, quote: «[...] humanist philosophies such as Confucianism, which do not share a belief in divine law and do not exalt faithfulness to a higher law as a manifestation of divine will [...]».
  18. ^ Herbert Fingarette. Confucius: The Secular As Sacred. Waveland, 1998. ISBN 1577660102
  19. ^ Some scholars consider Confucianism as humanist and secularist. Rather, Herbert Fingarette has described it as a religion that "sacralises the secular".[18]
  20. ^ Yong Chen, 2012. p. 127
  21. ^ a b The Anti-Christian Movement
  22. ^ Hodous, Lewis The Anti-Christian Movement in China
  23. ^ Cohen, Paul A. The Anti-Christian Tradition in China
  24. ^ Liu, Peng (2005-02-01). "Changing Chinese Attitudes Toward Religion and Culture: A Comparative Perspective" (PDF). Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution: 3. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-04. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)