Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Morality In China

On Belief

Chinese Christians at a Christmas Eve services at the Xuanwumen Catholic Church, Beijing,
December 24, 2012.
Photo Credit: How Hwee Young; epa Corbis
Source: NYRB

An article ("Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong"), by Ian Johnson, in the New York Review of Books examines the latest poll results, conducted by the  Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, on faith and morality, chiefly whether belief in God is a requirement for human morality. Johnson focuses his attention on China, and says that a poorly worded question explains why the numbers don't add up to previous research findings. In many ways, he argues that religious belief, chiefly in the form of a supreme deity, is increasing in China.

Johnson writes:
Earlier this month, I came across a fascinating opinion survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. The report asked people in forty countries whether belief in God is necessary for morality. Mostly, the results aren’t surprising. In advanced democracies, such as those in Western Europe, people say by at least a two-to-one margin that morality is not linked to belief in God—presumably, they think non-believers in God can be moral. In the developing world, the opposite is the case, with citizens of Muslim and poorer Catholic countries overwhelmingly saying the two are linked. And as might be expected, the United States is an outlier among developed countries, with a majority (53 percent) asserting the necessity of belief in God to anchor morality.
But then there is China, which at 14 percent has the lowest percentage affirming the need for belief in God of any country surveyed—even lower than in the secular democracies of Western Europe. It’s especially striking when compared to other Asian countries, such as Japan, where 42 percent of the population links morality to belief in God, and South Korea, where more than half the population asserts such a link. In fact, according to the Pew data, a full 75 percent of Chinese people say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.
Pew doesn’t explain its findings, but they struck me as extremely odd. If there’s one trend in China that is hard to miss, it’s the growing desire among many Chinese to find some sort of moral foundation in their lives, whether by reengaging with age-old Chinese ethical traditions, or by taking part in organized religions. In view of this widely-documented situation, how can so few Chinese believe in the link between morality and a supreme being or force?
It is true that it is popular among some Western commentators to discount the importance of religion in both Imperial and Communist China. As late as the 1960s, informed people argued that religion wasn’t important in Chinese society. This reflected the fact that the West’s initial encounters with China had been through its elite, who, in the later imperial era, and especially in the Republican and Communist periods, denied the importance of religion in Chinese society and history. The argument was that China didn’t have real religions, only superstitious folk practices that didn’t rise to the level of the world’s great global belief systems. Most Chinese were not religious and morality was instilled primarily through Confucianism, which was incorrectly presented as a secular tradition.
But these assumptions have long been discredited by scholars. A landmark was the 1961 publication of Religion in Chinese Society by the University of Pittsburgh academic C.K. Yang. As Yang put it, religion in traditional China was “diffused” in society. There were hierarchically organized religious organizations (especially in Buddhism and parts of Daoism) but mostly, Chinese religious practice was part of daily life and organized by lay people. This didn’t make Chinese people unreligious; it was just that religiosity in China was different from that in other countries, especially civilizations dominated by the Abrahamic faiths. In fact, religiosity was so much a part of Chinese society that China has been described by the Sinologist John Lagerwey as a religious state—from the emperor to the peasant. The idea that morality and belief in higher forces could be separated—the premise of the Pew poll—would have struck people of traditional China as inconceivable.
So, why the differences in interpretation? As always, it's important to look at the question and see how it is understood in the nation to which it is being addressed. Cultural meanings are important.

Johnson writes:
So I wrote to Pew and also called Horizonkey, the Chinese company that carried out the survey. It turned out that the question had in fact been formulated in precisely that very narrow way. I don’t know how the question was translated for other countries (especially Japan or India), but in Chinese, the question used a term for “God” that is applicable in modern China almost only to Protestant Christianity: shangdi (上帝).
In Chinese, the questions were: “不信仰上帝,也能有良好的道德和价值” and “为了有良好的道德和价值观,信仰上帝是必要的.” I would translate these questions back into English as “Even without believing in (the Protestant) God, one can still have good virtues or values” and “In order to have good virtues and values, one must believe in (the Protestant) God.”
Such is a valid explanation, and even with a question that could have been written better, it still suggests that at 14 percent, close to 200 million Chinese believe in a Christian-like God as basis for morality. The figure could be higher for a better worded question that bases morality on some deity figure that is apart from the Abrahamic faiths.

As for the reasons for such a high number of "believers," in a supreme deity, it might have everything to do with individuals searching for meaning in a nation that is rife with corruption, as a way to put some order into their lives. It would be interesting to know how the results added up between those in the cities and the countryside, between those highly educated and not, between those with scientific education and those with not.

Equally worth considering is this: Could there also be a correlation between capitalism and Christianity, namely, has the introduction of economic capitalism led to an increase in individuals claiming the Christian faith? That those hundreds of millions who have been left behind are now looking to religion as a compensatory or an ameliorating balm?

You can read more at [NYRB]

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