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A Look Back at China’s Growing Faith

ICC Note:

About a third (31 percent) of Chinese citizens consider religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, compared to only a tenth (11 percent) who say religion is not at all important, according to a 2006 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project that was referenced in a Pew Forum analysis on Friday.

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Much attention has been paid to China’s human rights violations, including its suppression of religious freedom, ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August. But a look back at the past decade shows how far the strictly secular and formerly atheistic nation has come along in terms of religion.

About a third (31 percent) of Chinese citizens consider religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, compared to only a tenth (11 percent) who say religion is not at all important, according to a 2006 survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project that was referenced in a Pew Forum analysis on Friday.

But when it comes to religious affiliation, only about one-in-five Chinese adults (from 14 to 18 percent) named a particular religion, surveys conducted by Horizon Research Consultancy Group in 2005, 2006 and 2007 showed.

By comparison, more than eight in 10 adults in the United States say they are religiously affiliated, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2007.

Yet although the percentage of religiously affiliated Chinese may be unimpressive, when translated to actual numbers it is quite large – nearly equal to the estimated number of religiously affiliated adults in the United States.

Out of China’s recognized religions – Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism – Buddhism is the largest religious group, according to the Horizon surveys. Between 11 (2005 survey) and 16 percent (2006 survey) of the adult population are Buddhists.

The second largest officially recognized religion in China is Christianity. Less than four percent of the adult population identifies themselves as Christian, but the number is likely higher, the Pew Forum suggests.

Official statistics by the Chinese government shows that Christians increased by 50 percent from 14 million to 21 million in less than 10 years (between 1997 to 2006). During this period, Protestants increased from 10 million to 16 million, or by 60 percent, while Catholics increased from 4 million to 5 million, or by 25 percent.

But it is more difficult to measure the non-registered Christian population.

In general, researchers agree that there are at least as many Chinese Christians associated with organizations unaffiliated with the government – what some call the “house churches” – as there are Christians associated with state-recognized groups.

The World Christian Database estimates that there are about 70 million Chinese associated with more than 300 house church networks among the Han majority. Regarding underground Catholics, the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong – which monitors Catholics that do not belong to the state-approved Catholic body – estimates there are at least 12 million Catholics in China, or 7 million more than acknowledged by the government.