Chinese Are Returning to Religion after Decades of Atheism

By Chang Minkun, Central News Agency
May 20, 2006 Updated: May 20, 2006

The Temple of Azure Clouds in Beijing was built during the Yuan Dynasty. As in the temples in Taiwan, there are Buddha statues in the Temple of Azure Clouds. However, there are no Buddhist monks or nuns, nor is anyone burning incense or worshipping. All you see at the temple are tourists coming and going.

Similarly, there are no monks or nuns in Yonghe Palace, another famous Buddhist temple in Beijing. The only difference from the Temple of Azure Clouds is that some people are burning incense. Yonghe Palace still doesn't feel like a genuine temple.

Years of Suppression Caused the Decline of Religion

According to official statistics from the Chinese government, there are currently 200,000 Buddhist monks and nuns in China, of which 120,000 are Tibetan Buddhist disciples. In a population of 1.3 billion Chinese, Buddhist monks and nuns are extremely low in number.

The situation is similar for Christian and Catholic believers. According to official statistics, there are about 10 million Christians and four million Catholics. Even if these statistics are accurate, religious believers are in the minority.

In Beijing, it is rare to see Buddhist monks or nuns, or Christian clerics on the street. It is also rare to meet a religious believer. If you randomly stop a person and ask if he/she believes in God or Buddha, most will answer “No.” One staff member at the Temple of Azure Clouds told the reporter that he didn't believe in Buddha or God. After learning that the reporter was from Taiwan, he said, “The reason that you Taiwanese worship Bodhisattva Avelokitesvara may be because you live on an island and you rely on fishing. We don't have such a need here in mainland China.”

The majority of Chinese nowadays don't believe in God or follow any religious beliefs. The main reason for this phenomenon is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), after establishing rule in China in 1949, advocates atheism. The CCP suppresses all religions. It considers religion to be a tool used by imperialists to invade China or a form of feudalism used to oppress people. During the “Cultural Revolution,” all religions were forced to completely stop their activities in China.

Ms. Yang, 66 years old, joined the Catholic Church in 1998. However, many years ago, when she was in elementary school, she was connected to the Catholic faith. On one occasion, her classmates noticed that she had a picture of Jesus. They immediately asked her, “Why do you believe in this?” They criticized her, called her superstitious, and told her to tear up the picture.

Ms. Yang said that Chinese people are deeply poisoned by communism. Particularly during the Cultural Revolution, the CCP labeled all faiths as superstitions. Anyone labeled “superstitious,” was considered to be against the CCP. Yang also said that it was very difficult for those young people whose parents were CCP members to be religious believers because they probably wouldn't get consent to practice from their parents. She knew one young person who converted to Catholicism. However, when this was discovered by his parents, he was forbidden to go to church and was forced to burn all his religious books.

Liu, a 20-year- old college student was very noticeable among a group of middle-aged and elderly people in a church. He told us that he converted to Catholicism last Christmas. He was the only person who believed in Catholicism in his family. His parents neither supported nor objected to his beliefs. Although a few classmates of his thought that he was weird, most of his classmates understood his need to maintain religious beliefs. Nowadays, people are more open-minded and acknowledge other people's religious practices. Unless his classmates asked about issues regarding Catholicism, Liu did not initiate any discussions about his religion. In China, people still aren't free to truly spread religions publicly. They can only do so in private.

Religion is More Popular in Rural Areas

One Sunday morning I visited the famous Chongwenmen Church in Beijing. The first floor main hall was packed with people. I followed a sign at the entrance that directed me to the basement. The basement was also filled with people who were watching TV monitors and listening to the sermon being given on the main floor.

According to the priest, 1,500 people had attended mass that Sunday. Ms. Guo, a university student, invited by a friend of hers, was at the church for the first time. She said that she had not been in involved with Christianity before. Although she couldn't immediately decide whether or not to become a Christian, she said she felt an inner peace while in the church.

A scholar from Beijing stated that increasing numbers of people were converting to Christianity after China's economic reforms started happening, especially in rural areas. It is said that people in some villages follow what the church leaders tell them to do. Thus, the church leaders are more powerful than the CCP cadres. This scholar further contends that the popularity of Christianity increasing in rural areas faster than in the cities was connected to the huge economic gap between rural and urban dwellers. Farmers are poor and so they tend to seek comfort in religious beliefs. The CCP cannot help the living condition of the farmers. As a result, more and more farmers believe in Christianity.

This phenomenon not only appears in rural areas, but also happens in the communities of unemployed people in cities. For example, many unemployed people have started practicing Falun Gong. This scholar believes that they were attracted to the health benefits of Falun Gong because they could not afford to see a doctor and hoped that practicing Falun Gong would ensure good health.

However, there are many obstacles for the future growth of religions in China. The biggest obstacle is the CCP fear of losing power and losing control of people's minds. In Beijing, the government doesn't allow the building of churches or temples. The churches and temples in Beijing were all built over one hundred years ago.

The CCP fears any social organization. No CCP member dares to believe in a religion. Even though some of them may want to follow a religion, they dare not attend the religious activities. “As far as I know, no colleagues of mine believe in any religion.” This scholar said firmly.

The CCP policy on religions is that the government cannot eliminate nor promote religions through administration. The government should propagandize atheism and insist on the principle of independent religious organizations and activities. Foreign religious organizations or individuals are not allowed to interfere with Chinese religious policies.

The so-called “freedom of religion” in China is restrained in many ways: foreign missionaries are prohibited from traveling to China to preach, and Catholic bishops must be appointed by the Chinese government, not by the Vatican.

A poster outside a Catholic church in Beijing invited the congregation to join a trip to Europe. The trip included a pilgrimage to the Vatican.

A Catholic believer told us that she wanted to visit the Vatican. As a Catholic, she felt that she would regret it if she didn't visit the Vatican at least once in her lifetime. However, she worried, “Since the Chinese government has not established a diplomatic relationship with the Vatican, I am not sure how I would be treated!”

This Catholic believer's thinking shows the influence of the principles of “self-administration, self-support, and self-propagation” propagated by the Chinese Catholic Church Association. The Catholic believers in China feel isolated from the Catholic practices outside of China.

Involvement in a religion is part of many people's lives in free countries. Atheists in those countries are in the minority. However, in China, decades of religious oppression by the CCP has created the reverse situation—religious followers are in the minority.

It is very difficult for people who have religious beliefs to understand how Chinese people handle their spiritual quests. A middle-aged taxi driver said, “I do not believe in anything. I feel that I can only depend on myself. If I meet any difficulty, other than feeling unfortunate, I don't know what else I can do.”

After 20 plus years of economic reform and development, China is only at the stage of “having enough food.” Societal freedoms are still a long way off as China is still under the CCP dictatorship. People outside of China hope that China's political system will be transformed by economic prosperity and China will inevitably move towards democracy. Is this possible? We will have to wait and see.