The debate over religion in the West is dominated by Christians, on the one side, and atheists or secularists, on the other, with some input from New Agers. Atheist values are often conflated with those of secular humanism, the dominent atheist "religion" in the democratic world. Secularists also often glibly take a triumphalist posture: "Christianity is dying," they say, pointing to slight downward trends in church-going or faith in God in America, and a larger slides in Europe. (Seldom, however, recalling how often Christianity has ebbed and flowed in the West before.)
What is often forgotten is that most atheists over the past century have not been secular humanists, but Marxists and communists. This may even have been true in Western countries, in some of which (such as Italy and France) communist parties polled 20 or 30% of the electorate during the 1970s.
Today, about two thirds of the people in China deny holding any religious beliefs. This means that MOST "unbelievers" in the world probably live in China, including most atheists.
Over three weeks in October through December, I surveyed about 124 Mainland Chinese intellectuals. (Most in Mainland China, but including 19 near the University of Washington in Seattle.) I learned many interesting things. What I would like to share in this post is what I learned about the precarious position of atheism in modern China.
More than 70 respondents were college students at a major university in northern China. About a dozen other college students answered my survey in other cities. Most of the other respondents had graduated from college, in some cases with MA or Phd degrees. Some were themselves college teachers, including in an Institute of Marxist Studies.
I was curious to see what undergraduates and graduates would say, first about Marxism, then about atheism. Here are some results:
* 23 out of 81 undergraduates who answered the survey as a whole defined their faith as "Marxism." The most popular alternatives were (collectively) "unsure" (15), "other" (9), and "agnosticism" (6), for 30 total votes, various forms of Buddhism (8), Confucianism (8), Lao-Zhuang thought (5), Daoist religion (4), Christian (3), and Islam (1 -- a Uighur from the Northwest). So about 42% of those who defined their faith, chose Marxism.
* Asked what they thought about God, the most common answer was that He does not exist (47), followed by the Pantheistic belief that He is in all things (12), "Other" (12; in practice this often means something like "God is a belief in the heart," monolatry (4), monotheism (4), and polytheism (3). So of those who gave a clear answer, about 67% opted for atheism.
* Among older intellectuals who had already graduated from college, only 7 self-identified as Marxists. The Agnostic (6)/ Unsure (9) / Other (1) block in this case more than doubled the number of Marxists (16), followed by Confucianists (6), Buddhists (5), Christians (5), Lao-Zhuang thinkers (3), Daoist religion (2), and 1 Muslim. So only about 24% of graduates who identified with a belief system, chose Marxism.
*The drop-off was even stronger when it comes to atheism. 11 chose an atheist answer, 6 "don't know," 7 theism (including 3 non-Christians), 6 polytheism, 6 pantheism, and 2 monolatry. Again discounting the uncommitted, 31% opted for atheism.
So the percent of intellectuals who denied that God exists, seemed to be more than cut in half, after graduation.
This is admittedly a small poll, and skewed geographically and by other variables. For one thing, I found that Christian students at the university where I conducted this survey were being suppressed. We cannot automatically assume a larger survey of Chinese intellectuals would follow these figures too closely.
From prior experience surveying Chinese intellectuals, however, I believe this at least roughly reflects the general trend.
One of the Christian graduates, from Mao Zedong's home county, told me she had only become a Christian after graduation. This seems to be a fairly common pattern, evidently not just to Christianity, but to greater openness towards religious beliefs.
Should Christians in America panic because some of our young people lose their faith when they go to college? Does this spell doom for the Christian faith, as many skeptics fervently hope?
Should atheists in China likewise panic at the flight from atheism after graduation?
Here I return to my core conviction about the future: God alone knows what will happen next. Perhaps in both countries, a secularist college education will seem at first to "catch," but will ultimately prove ephemeral, as graduates move out into the "real world" and seek to make their ways in it.