Sam Crane, at Useless Tree, comments on the recent study that shows that China has a higher percentage of atheists than anyplace else in the world. Sam suggests that part of the reason for this is that atheism is not really the thing to be asking about. There is a long tradition in China, going way back, of believing in things like Confucianism, which is maybe not a religion. He’s right that asking Chinese if they are ‘confirmed atheists’ is probably the wrong question. The original WaPo piece is probably also correct in saying that the Taiping rebellion and the Communists have something to do with it, which is true enough but misses a lot.
Possibly the most important reason that so many Chinese identify as ‘atheists’ is not the history of ‘Confucianism’ throughout the 5000 years of Chinese history, but the complex history of Chinese religion in the 20th century. By far the best introduction to this is Goossaert and Palmer’s The Religious Question in Modern China. It’s a really good book, that contains far more than I could ever put in this blog post, but one of its themes is how the Chinese state, and especially the party-state (KMT or CCP) tried to harness, improve, or eliminate religion as part of creating a new China. One aspect of this was the idea that traditional Chinese forms of religion were an embarrassment in the eyes of foreigners. G and P….
A particularly telling case of such sensitivity is Kang Youwei’s utterance: “Foreigners come in our temples, take photographs of the idols, show these photographs to each other and laugh.” This sentence was later copied verbatim in the introduction to the most important and famous antisuperstition law of the Nationalist government, the 1928 “Standards to determine the temples to be destroyed and those to be maintained.
So if you want to understand the problems that Chinese had in fitting their ideas about religion into a context where the word atheism would make sense, you should read the book. If all you need is a good quote on the importance of impressing foreigners with China’s religious ideas this blog post should do.