Prof: Christians remain a small minority in China today

July 26, 2010

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - More than 85 percent of people in China hold some religious belief or practice some kind of religion, says a Purdue University sociology professor who studies religion in China.

"Religion is thriving in China. The growth of Christianity is impressive, but Buddhist growth is extraordinary, especially with the country's history of official ideology of atheism," said Fenggang Yang, an associate professor of sociology and director of Purdue's Center on Religion and Chinese Society. "Reliable estimates of religious believers are difficult to find, but this recent survey helps capture a picture of religious practices in China today. This information helps better understand the people and culture of the world's largest country."

Yang presented this information Monday (July 26) at the seventh annual conference on the Social Scientific Study of Religion in China, which is at Renmin University of China in Beijing. This information is based on the Chinese Spiritual Life Survey conducted in 2007 by the Horizon Research Consultancy Group. Yang and researchers at the Center on Religion and Chinese Society analyzed the results.

The Chinese government officially allows only five religions: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism, Yang said. These religions and many other traditional and new religious groups are increasing rapidly, he said.

Based on the survey, Yang found that atheists represent 15 percent of the population in China, and Buddhism is the largest religion with 18 percent.

"For decades, the Chinese people have been subjected to atheist indoctrination through the educational system," Yang said. "From kindergarten to college, the curricular and extracurricular activities were designed to advance scientific education, which includes getting rid of beliefs in supernatural beings and forces. Today there are millions of people who participate in groups or attend schools where this is still taught or emphasized. However, we found that real atheists remain a minority in China."

They also found that 3.2 percent of the population self-identifies with Christianity.

"This means that the Chinese Christian adult population is about 33 million, much less than most of the popular speculations, although it is much more than the official estimate of the Chinese government," he said.

Yang has published numerous books and articles on various religions in China and among Chinese-Americans, and he recently received a $2 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to develop a program to support new studies and train those researchers on methods to advance understanding on the role of religion in Chinese society.

The Center on Religion and Chinese Society is housed in Purdue's College of Liberal Arts.

Writer:  Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723,

Source:  Fenggang Yang is in China, but he can be reached at He will be able to schedule phone interviews.

Note to Journalists: A copy of Fenggang Yang's presentation is available by contacting him at