Saturday, March 05, 2011

How Many Christians are there in China?

Since Mao Zedong died in 1976 and the Cultural Revolution ended, no country on Earth has changed more dramatically and significantly than China. When I first visited Canton in 1984, crowds would gather around us every time we stopped to buy oranges in the street. We stayed in a dorm for 6 yuan a head -- less than a dollar in today's money. The streets were full of bicycles, which marked Canton as a prosperous city.

Over the past twenty years, China has followed the upward economic growth curve pioneered by Japan, then Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore before it.

Christianity has spread in China at a rapid pace as well. There has been much debate over how many Christians there are in China. The official figure is some 20 million, but popular rumors, often ascribed to some government official, often put the number at over 100 million. (Even the figure of 200 million is thrown around.) Loren Cunningham, founder of Youth With a Mission, has cited 110 million: when I challenged that figure, he said he obtained it from David Barrett, editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, whose numbers are often cited as authoritative. Two years ago, The Economist bandied about a figure of 130 million.

My own view, based on travel throughout China in dozens of visits, and two longer-term stays, and study of the data, has been that a figure of 50-70 million, for Protestants and Catholics combined, is probably closer to the mark.

Figures of over 100 million seem to me to fly in the face of reality. Even in cities like Wenzhou, the "Jerusalem of China," one sees about three temples for every church. When I ask people their religion, that seems about the right proportion. Even in Henan Province, thought to be quite a citadel of Christianity, most young people seem to be "hand-me-down" skeptics. And there are vast areas of China -- Sichuan, Guangxi, Hunan, some parts of Yunnan -- where Christians remain fairly rare. (Though that may be changing.)

Last year, Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion completed an exhaustive survey of religious belief in China. Sponsored by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and guided by Carson Mencken (who kindly sent me a copy of the report), Byron Johnson, and Rodney Stark. The study involved more than 7,000 respondents.

At first glance, the results yield a surprisingly low number of Christians, and a surprisingly high percentage of unbelievers. Only 2.7% of respondents described themselves as Protestant or Catholic. 17% called themselves Buddhists, and 77% claimed to have no religious beliefs. (Only 1% claimed other religions -- Daoism, Confucianism, and Islam included.)

The number of Christians appeared low to the researchers, too, so they commissioned a second survey to test the response rates of people whose religious identify they knew. They found that two thirds of Christians refused to answer the survey, while only one third of non-Christians refused.

Adjusting the data according to this bias, it appears that there are about 70+ million Christians in China today. (This includes Protestants and Catholics, also nominal believers and cultists. It may also be based on adult response, then include children in the total -- I'll have to see how they extrapolated. If so, this procedure would probably be less valid in China than in countries where children of believers generally go to church, and the true number might be a bit lower.)

I haven't had a chance to study the numbers in detail, yet, but I guess the number of Muslims here also seems too low. "Taoist" and "Confucianist" are vague terms -- often people who call themselves "Buddhist" have been as much influenced by these, or folk religions, as formal Buddhism. Most likely the number of committed and informed believers in Buddhism, in any recognizable sense, is a small percentage of the supposed 17%, while many included in that number would more accurately be described as followers of folk religion.

The survey showed that women were 2.3 times more likely to call themselves Christians than men. That seems a bit high to me, though there certainly has been a remarkable "people movement" among elderly ladies! Probably men (and young people) more often refuse to respond, since religious faith would be more of a stigma for men.

All in all, the survey confirmed what those who have been involved with China for a long time recognize: communism has had a real and lasting effect on how Chinese see the world. The country is still something of a spiritual desert. Compared to those in the West, who often convert away from Christianity and have conceived a great distaste for it, many of China's "agnostics" are conventional in their second-hand skepticism, and in many cases seem open to changing their minds. Most regions of China with few Christians (aside from Guangdong), also seem to have few "Buddhists," apparently because of the latent winter-like effect of Maoism on all spiritual shoots. It seems, though, that the winter may soon be over, and the desert about to bloom.
(photos: (1) a large rural church near Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, one of many; (2) a believer in the same area, some 20 years ago, telling me how the Gospel had spread through miracles from village to village; (3) John 3:16 in stylized Chinese, on the wall of a church in Wuhan, Hubei; (4) White Horse Temple, founded outside the capital of China near modern Luoyang, in 68 AD, the oldest official Buddhist temple in China, though the present buildings are more recent.)


Nick said...

David. Do you have any information on Christians in Japan?

David B Marshall said...

Nick: There seem to be about a million, somewhat less than 1%. I don't remember all the prefectures, but as I recall, Christians are concentrated in the Tokyo area, even per capita, with far fewer in more rural parts of Japan. One exception is Nagasaki, which was once largely Catholic -- Catholic churches there are still large, many and seem pretty full. (My wife goes to a Protestant church there that, with about 125 people, is almost a megachurch by Japanese standards! Most have more like 20 or 30 members. And some of those are foreigners. Apparently Rick Warren served as a missionary in that church, way back when.)

I've seen much higher figures, which may measure something else, like the percentage of people who have had some relationship to the church some time in their lives, or something. One percent would be rather optimistic.

B.R. said...

It's interesting to note that even despite the damage Mao caused, the innocent peole he had killed, and his psychotic war against China's culture, there are still countless Chinese people who see him as a great leader. It's funny how Mao claimed to be a materialist, yet tried to make himself a into god(and succeeded in some ways).

Nick said...

Thanks David. My wife has a passion for the people of Japan as she loves their culture (Particularly anime) and wants to go there someday. I've talked about us going there after I get my Master's to celebrate.

Any recommended resources would be greatly appreciated if you know of any.

David B Marshall said...

BR: Yes, unfortunately it seems to be human nature to look up to successful "founding fathers," no matter what rotten human beings they are. My (ongoing) survey is finding that the rulers Chinese most respect are a mix of the genuinely humane and wise (Kang Xi, Sun Yat-sen, Tai Zong) and ruthless tyrants like Qin Shihuang and Chairman Mao.

David B Marshall said...

Nick: If you haven't seen it, the DVD God's Fingerprints in Japan is pretty nifty. (There's also a second version out, that I haven't seen, yet.) If you give me your address, I'll mail you a free copy.

You might also like my True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. Some of the issues it covers also have to do with Japan; anyway, it's amazing stuff.

B.R. said...


I think Eye Witness books published a travel guide to Japan a while back, with information on customs, history, locations, entertainment, and more. Try your local library. And buy a katana while you're over there; maybe a Muramasa blade. ;)

Anonymous said...

I found your blog after reading am alledged take-down of one of your books on this cite called az atheist and was expecting to find a response from you here but found nothing. Does the author's arguments hold water? Have you seen his complaints about your book?

Nick said...

David. I sent you my addy on Facebook.

David B Marshall said...

Anon: Thanks for the question.

Ken (aka Arizona Atheist, aka Gifted Writer, etc) has been posting attacks on me on a variety of sites around the internet. After much prodding, I once read six or seven pages of one of his interminable "reviews" of The Truth Behind the New Atheism. There was, frankly, little in it that even seemed to address what was in my book . . . it meandered forever. Maybe later in the review he finally gets to the point, but I lost patience.

You can find my responses to Victor Stenger, Richard Carrier, John Loftus, Robert Price, Hector Avalos, and other serious or at least semi-serious writers on the Internet, in some cases on this site or at christthetao. Other critics I ignore, like Tim Beazley, who probably accounts for half a dozen of the "reviews" on the Amazon site for the New Atheism book. I'm inclined to ignore Ken. If you've read the book, though, and think any of Ken's criticisms strike home, I'd be happy to respond to the ones you think most telling. If you haven't read the book, I'd suggest you do that first -- my guess is most of Ken's criticisms will dissolve for most fair-minded and intelligent readers upon reading the book.

David B Marshall said...

Nick: I sent you the DVD a day or two ago. Hope you enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the quick response!

In his critique of the first chapter he argues that you’ve taken Justin Martyr out of context.

>>>>Marshall also quotes a few early christian apologists as to their views on faith. On page 21 Marshall writes, “Justin Martyr wrote, 'Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honor and love what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions.' Origen...argued that there was good evidence (in archeology, history, miracles, and prophecy) that the Christian faith was, in fact, reasonable."

It's odd, but Marshall doesn't even provide a direct quote for Origen so how can we truly know what Marshall is saying about about him is accurate? However, I do have a direct quote and it presents a much different view than Marshall claims. Origen said, "We admit that we teach those men to believe without reasons." [2]

As for Justin Martyr, Marshall neglected to quote the following from the twenty-third chapter of his First Apology:

"And that this may now become evident to you— (firstly ) that whatever we assert in conformity with what has been taught us by Christ, and by the prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all the writers who have existed; that we claim to be acknowledged, not because we say the same things as these writers said, but because we say true things: and (secondly) that Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race: and (thirdly) that before He became a man among men, some, influenced by the demons before mentioned, related beforehand, through the instrumentality of the poets, those circumstances as having really happened, which, having fictitiously devised, they narrated, in the same manner as they have caused to be fabricated the scandalous reports against us of infamous and impious actions, of which there is neither witness nor proof – we shall bring forward the following proof." [3]

But what "proof" is he referring to? Nothing but the bible. Throughout his Apology the only "proof" he cites is scripture. Justin Martyr's argument summed up is not one of inquiry and evidence, but one of blind faith that the scriptures are true, and that's what he used as "evidence", when he never checked the reliability of such writings to begin with. According to Richard Carrier:

"You can read Justin's two apologies back to front and never once find any other methodological principle or source of his faith [other than the scriptures]." [emphasis in original] [4]

It seems it’s Marshall who has taken these early apologists out of context.<<<<

Anonymous said...

In the second chapter he says that you are wrong about Richard Sternberg and his persecution. He references a website that talks about emails contradicting Richard Sternberg’s accusations.

He also complains about your views on Intelligent Design.

>>>>I also cannot believe Marshall said that intelligent design can help to "keep evolutionary theory honest." How in the hell can it possibly keep the science of evolution "honest" when the people who advocate it use dishonest tactics in trying to get intelligent design to be accepted? The scientists that are misquoted [15] and taken out of context are a staple of creationist arguments; the often inaccurate and sometimes outright dishonest attempts at distorting scientific facts [16] are all very good reasons why intelligent design and its advocates should in no way be said to help the scientific community remain "honest." If anything that's an outright lie in itself.<<<<

The review is so long it would be impossible for me to mention everything I saw and I've already taken up two comments but these are a few things that jumped out at me that seem like decent challenges to a few of your arguments.

David B Marshall said...

Anon: Are you Ken? If you are, that's fine -- I don't have time for a long debate, but I'll answer these questions, anyway. (I haven't even taken the time to read all Dr. H's challenges yet on other threads yet, still less reply -- and he's a friend!) But I'd prefer to know who I'm talking with.

I'm not taking Justin out of context. The issue is whether or not Justin thinks faith should be blind, believing without good reason, in other words, not whether his reasons are in fact good. So even if all his arguments stink, his position that faith should be premised on reason would undermine Dawkins' claim that Christian faith means "believing without reason, or in the teeth of reason." The quote I give shows that Justin does not think that, and so would arguments from Scripture.

It's also not true that Justin relies only on Scripture. Carrier is just wrong, as he is about many things, being something of a blowhard.

This is clear in the very next chapter to the one I cited -- chapter three of the 1st Apology, on the very first page of the book:

"But lest anyone think that this is an unreasonable and reckless utterance, we demand that the charges against Christians be investigated, and that, if these be substantiated, they be punished as they deserve . . . But if no one can convict us of anything, true reason forbids you, for the sake of a wicked rumour, to wrong blameless men . . . "

Justin is asking for a careful legal review of the evidence, which will show the charges against Christians are baseless. That is not an appeal to Scripture; Carrier is wrong. While an appeal to Scripture might be reasonable for Justin, given his premises, in fact that is not the context in which the quotation I gave is made.

The thing about Justin blaming demons for preempting the Gospel is a popular canard among Internet atheists. I sent an article partly on this canard to a magazine a week or so ago. Probably they won't print it, because naturally they don't want to get into a debate with people like Freke and Gandy (who seem to have popularized this.) If the article isn't printed, I'll probably post it here, eventually.

One of my main points in that article is that the Internet kills brain cells, by encouraging people to "read" people like Justin Martyr and Clement second-hand, rather than for themselves. You'll get hoodwinked that way every time, especially if you read someone like AA, who I don't think reads them for HIMSELF either, or Carrier, who is too much of a bigot to represent the facts fairly. So instead of answering your question about Clement, let me just suggest that you read the original -- which is well worth reading, as is Justin -- and make up your own mind.

Nick said...

I seriously doubt AA has ever read the ECF. It's normally just quote mining.

David B Marshall said...

On ID, I don't see anything there that needs a response -- it all seems subjective, ad hominem (and therefore boring) and tangential to my point.

Anonymous said...

Thank you again for the fast response. AA sure doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Regarding my identity I’m surprised by the question but to answer it no I am not him.

David B Marshall said...

Anon: Sorry, I didn't mean to sound suspicious. But Ken, and one other of my most persistent Internet critics, has a habit of changing names a lot, so I thought I'd ask.

Thanks for dropping by, and giving me the chance to answer a couple of Ken's claims.

Nick said...

David. For proof that the internet kills brain cells, you need say one word only:


I'll let you know when my wife and I get the DVD.

Nick said...

Thanks David. We got it. We'll be going through it sometime soon.

Tom said...

Hello David, I've heard about your debate with Robert Price on the Infidel Guy radio show but haven't been able to locate it. Do you have a copy by any chance or know where it can be downloaded for free? Thank you and God Bless!


David B Marshall said...

Hi, Tom. I don't know, really. I had a cold that day, sputtered out at the end a little, and haven't dared listen to the debate since. I think I have seen it around, but I couldn't tell you how to find it. I'd be happy to do it again, though.