Religion: China, once officially atheist, now booming with religion.


Religion: DAVIS, Calif. (RNS) When Ian Johnson first went to China as a student three decades ago, he

Author Ian Johnson. Photo courtesy of Sim Chi Yin

pronounced religion there “dead.”But Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist now based in Berlin and Beijing, has witnessed a transformation, one he documents in “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao,” published in April.

China is experiencing “one of the great religious revivals of our time,” Johnson writes. “Across China, hundreds of temples, mosques and churches open each year, attracting millions of new worshippers. … Faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life.

“This is not,” he continues, “the China we used to know.”

No, it is not. Once officially atheist, China has roared with growth since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. The upheaval of mass migrations from the countryside to the cities has disrupted families and support systems. Many have grown distrustful of the government since the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square. Globalization has brought outside influences — despite tight governmental control — through the internet and popular culture.

The result, Johnson said, is a society adrift, confused and looking for mooring.

In the new China, “churches and religious societies provide a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of being in a group of people who share your values,” Johnson said between bites of carrot cake at an outdoor campus cafe before talking to a group at the University of California, Davis.

“Chinese people perceive society to be so corrupt and so chaotic, without any center of gravity or morality,” he said. “Religious associations are refuges from the radical secular society they find themselves in.”

As one person Johnson interviews in the book says: “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor. But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy. We realize there’s something missing and that’s a spiritual life.”

That has not always been true. At the end of the 19th century, there were 1 million temples in China and religion flavored every aspect of public and private life. Mao destroyed half of the country’s temples. Religion — what was left — went underground.

A 2015 WIN/Gallup poll found China to be the least religious country in the world, with atheists making up 61 percent of the population. Only 7 percent said they were religious.

But, as Johnson writes, Western pollsters often botch their Chinese numbers. Because religion is so highly politicized in China, most Chinese respond “no” when asked if they adhere to one. Instead, when questions focus on religious behaviors — do you attend a church or believe in heaven? — the level of religiosity rises.

A 2005 survey conducted by a Chinese university found that 31 percent of the population — about 300 million people — are religious. Two-thirds of those are Buddhists, Daoists or members of other folk religions, while 40 million people said they are Christian.

In the book, Johnson experiences the ongoing revival firsthand. An Episcopalian, he attends church with Protestants in Chengdu, participates in Daoist ceremonies in Shanxi and travels with Beijing Buddhists to meditate in caves.