Richard Madsen notices that, according to a recent Gallup poll, 47% of the Chinese population claims to be atheist – yet other surveys demonstrate that nearly 85% of the country “carry out rituals to honor ancestors, seek out good fortune, ward off evil, celebrate festivals, and accumulate merit for a good afterlife.” So what gives?
An answer is to be found in the social nature of indigenous Chinese religion—it is more about belonging than belief. The collapse of the commune and state industrial work unit systems has made the search for forms of community not controlled by the state more pressing than ever. These alternative forms are typically established through myth and ritual, which meaningfully anchor persons to families and communities. But participants in the myth-telling and ritual performance might understand them in very diverse ways, including skepticism about the truth of the myths that they tell and the efficacy of the rituals in which they engage. However, in order to remain members of the wider community, they practice them despite their doubts. If among the middle classes of the West it is now common for religion to take the form of “belief without belonging,” in China it may just as commonly take the form of belonging without belief.
If we see Chinese religion as a matter of community belonging rather than one of spiritual belief, we might gain a clearer perspective on how and why religion in China has been growing and transforming. Old forms of community are dying and new forms are yet to be born—a liminal situation reflected in the kaleidoscopic interplay of old and new forms of religion.
Relatedly, the Chinese Communist Party may be moving on from its longstanding treatment of religion as purely a threat to stability:
The view that religion represents a positive force in civil society is gaining ground, not only among religious believers, but also within the Communist Party itself, in part thanks to the patient and often courageous work of the epistemic community of Chinese scholars who have studied closely and objectively religious life and its evolutions, and who have focused in particular on the philanthropic activities of religious associations during the Republican period and among overseas Chinese communities.
The government’s facilitation of growing involvement on the part of religious organizations in philanthropy and disaster relief, including health care and poverty alleviation, indicates that the Party has listened to these scholars and understood the significance for society of religious adherents’ beliefs and values, and as a result has changed its approach to religion’s place in contemporary China. The Party increasingly looks at it as a resource not incompatible with progress and capable of contributing to social stability. Local government support for the rebuilding of Buddhist temples and for the expansion of the latter’s charities stand as a good example of this new appreciation. The newfound appraisal of traditional rituals known as popular beliefs represent another instance of this change of perspective in the state’s relationship with religion: dismissed until the 1970s as “feudal superstitions,” they are embraced today as a “national heritage” worthy of support.
The Muslim community in particular is making gains:
As one of China’s five official religions, Islam has gained much vigor in the three decades since the reform. In the process of urbanization, for example, rural Muslim migrants reenergized existing Muslim communities in cities like Guangzhou. New Muslim communities in urban centers have also grown at an unprecedented rate. The growing ties between Chinese Muslims and the heartland of the Islamic world are deemed useful within the framework of “building the religious/cultural stage to sing the economic opera” (文化搭台，经济唱戏). Hui Muslims, as the largest Muslim ethnic minority, have particularly benefited from the tide of religious revival and have played an important role in micro-level business activities in the China-Middle East trade because of their religious affinity and knowledge of Arabic.