China Power

The Atheists of Beijing

Less people in China believe that faith in God is necessary to be a moral person than any other country.

The Atheists of Beijing
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Less Chinese say it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person than in any other country, according to a new poll.

A new Pew Research Center poll surveys the publics of 40 countries about their beliefs regarding the linkage between God and morality. The researchers conclude that, “In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, clear majorities say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.” They also note, however, that “this view is more common in poorer countries than in wealthier ones.”

Two clear exceptions stand out from the results. First, Americans are much more likely to believe God is necessary for morality than their counterparts in other rich countries. 53 percent of Americans held the view that believing in God is necessary to be a moral person with good values, compared to just 20 percent in Great Britain and 15 percent in France.

Second, Chinese people are much less likely to believe there is a linkage between morality and believing in God than publics in other poorer nations. Just 14 percent of Chinese believe that it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, less than any other country surveyed. The only other countries that come close to this number are Western nations, particularly Western European countries.

Many countries that most would see as comparable to China in many ways—such as the BRICS countries, for example—have much higher percentages of people who believe that God is tied to morality. For example, in Brazil 86 percent of the population believes that faith in God is necessary to be a moral person; 75 percent of South Africans believe the same thing, as do 70 percent of Indians (to be fair, in Russia only 38 percent see faith in God as a requirement for being a moral person).

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Views on God and good values also set China apart from most of the other Asian nations surveyed by Pew. For example, as the researchers noted, “Indonesians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and Malaysians almost unanimously think that belief in God is central to having good values.” Even a majority of South Koreans believed the same, as do 42 percent of Japanese. The closest country in the Asia-Pacific to China was Australia, where only 23 percent of the population believes that faith in God is required to be a moral person.

It seems likely that two factors probably account for the widespread view in China that believing in God is not necessary to be a moral person. First, China doesn’t have a strong tradition of religion or God in its history. Secondly, under the People’s Republic of China, religion has either not been encouraged or, especially during the Mao era, has been actively condemned.

As other countries demonstrate, however, neither of these factors alone would account for the low percentage in China. These factors together probably do, however. Thus, while other countries in the region may also not have a strong religious tradition, many have seen notable percentages of the population adopt foreign religions in recent decades (South Korea, for example). Similarly, while the Soviet Union was also anti-religion (during most of its lifetime at least), Russia had a strong history of religion before the Bolshevik Revolution, which has seen something of revival in the post-Soviet era.