Newspaper article International New York Times

A Problem of 'Religion' and Polling

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Problem of 'Religion' and Polling

Article excerpt

China's seemingly high number of atheists may have more to do with the politics of language than a rejection of religious belief.

Is China one of the world's most atheist countries?

That's the conclusion of a poll by WIN/Gallup International, released earlier this year, that surveyed more than 50,000 people from 57 countries. In China, 47 percent identified themselves as atheist and 30 percent as nonreligious; 14 percent said they were religious.

That contrasts starkly with the rest of the world. Over all, just 13 percent of those surveyed said they were atheists; 23 percent said they were nonreligious, and 59 percent said they were religious. The only countries whose percentage of declared atheists came anywhere near China's, according to the poll, were Japan, France and the Czech Republic, each with about 30 percent. No other country had more than 15 percent.

Since its release in April, the poll has been widely reported in the global media, attracting attention in The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph and The Huffington Post, as well as blogs predicting a rising atheist tide, primarily because of China's huge number of reported atheists.

But since then, experts have been wondering why the results contradict the situation that many researchers see on the ground. Travelers to China often note the growing number of temples, churches and mosques, while leading academics are almost unanimous in describing a religious rebirth.

Ijaz Gilani, who heads global opinion research for WIN/Gallup, which is based in Switzerland, said he also wondered about the high response rate for atheism in China. At first, he said, he thought it might have to do with China being a post-communist state (or post- Maoist, at any rate). But then he noted that most post-communist states did not report high numbers of atheists.

"This flummoxed me," Mr. Gilani said. "But I began to notice that there was something going on in East Asia." In Japan, 62 percent of respondents said they were either atheists or not religious; in South Korea, the figure was 56 percent, and in Hong Kong it was 70 percent.

Yang Fenggang, who runs the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, believes the answers have to do with the question. …

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