A recent Gallup poll found that almost half of China’s people (47 percent) say that they are “convinced atheists”—the highest rate of atheism in the world. However, surveys conducted by Fenggang Yang and others show high levels of religious practice—as much as 85 percent of the population carry out rituals to honor ancestors, seek out good fortune, ward off evil, celebrate festivals, and accumulate merit for a good afterlife. Ethnographers have also documented the construction of many churches and temples, elaborate festivals, rituals for healing, and the cultivation of the mystical forces of qi. How, then, can we reconcile reports of widespread atheism with those of widespread religious practice?

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 danwei (单位, “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.

As C.K. Yang has put it, the main form of religiosity in pre-modern Chinese society was a “diffused religion, with its theology, rituals, and organization intimately merged with the concepts and structure of secular institutions and other aspects of the social order.” The first and foremost religious site was the family, whose identity and continuity were maintained through the worship of ancestors. Individual families were linked to larger communities, first through worship of ancestors of common lineage, and then through worship of the many communal gods that oversaw the collective settlements of multiple lineages.

The transformations of Chinese religion that took place during the twentieth century were caused not so much by the arrival of new ideas such as liberalism, positivism, and “scientific socialism,,” as by changes in the forms of Chinese community brought about by the breakdown of the imperial order and by the war, revolution, industrialization, and urbanization that followed. Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer have brilliantly analyzed this relationship in their book on The Religious Question in Modern China.

The story is not that of a decline of religion but of a reshaping of its forms in concert with societal changes. As China developed new institutions for organizing its economy and managing its government, corresponding religious institutions were developed. Modeled after Western forms of Christian ecclesiastical organization, these consisted of institutionalized forms of Daoism and Buddhism with centralized hierarchies and congregational boundaries that separated religious practices from daily life. Such “disembedded” forms of religion could (at least in theory) be better managed by a rationalized central government, as Goossaert has argued.

But these centralized, hierarchical, and disembedded forms of indigenous Chinese religion did not have a major impact on Chinese culture. The diffuse communal religiosity of local villages persisted. But it was not static. Mobile people uprooted from local communities and connected to the cosmopolitan life of the cities embraced new variations on traditional practices. Many of these new forms took the shape of “redemptive societies,” which brought together millions of people from throughout China (and eventually throughout East Asia) under the inspiration of charismatic leaders who promised paths to salvation in a chaotic world. The beliefs of these societies, such as the yiguandao (一貫道, “unity way”), were typically syncretistic, combining Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and even Christianity. This mishmash of doctrines, however, was not systematic; the doctrine was not central to the practice, and it did not necessarily have to make intellectual sense.  Most important were forms of communication with spiritual forces through rituals of spirit writing and meditation (on this, see again The Religious Question in Modern China), as well as forms of community that gave members mutual encouragement to cultivate moral discipline under daunting circumstances.

Echoing Marx’s notion that the material base determines the cultural superstructure, Mao Zedong, in 1927, wrote that religion was one of the bonds that tied poverty stricken peasants to an exploitative class structure, and that when class oppression had come to an end religion would be “cast aside”: “It is the peasants who made the idols with their own hands, and when the time comes they will cast aside the idols with their own hands; there is no need for anyone else to do it for them prematurely.” But during the reform era, when peasants were liberated from direct subservience to the economic plans of the Party-State, they began instead to remake their old idols and to insert them into newly built temples. Thus they continued, in the shadow of the state, to forge new forms of communal belonging.

In the “socialist market economy” of the “reform era” which began in 1979 under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, older and newer forms of community co-exist in an uneasy mixture. The biggest change now, however, is that these are no longer peasant communities. They are mobile workers, many of whom spend their time in cities doing industrial labor. Yet, under the restrictive household registry system, they usually cannot become permanent urban residents. They thus still have to maintain a connection to their local communities and to their natal families, and this constant mobility and exchange has led to changing patterns of religious practice. With the de-collectivization of agriculture and the dismantling of the commune system, families and local communities need, in order to take care of themselves, to establish new mutually supportive relationships. However, they also want to compete with one another within common frames of reference; families desire to outdo one another, so the rituals practiced during weddings and funerals become more important and steadily more elaborate. It is the same with the rebuilding of local temples. As the Party has lost control of much of local life, the public spaces in front of the local Party headquarters no longer mean as much. Deity temples once provided public spaces for community discussion, commerce, and entertainment and they do so once again. With increasing affluence, communities are now vying with one another to build bigger and better temples.

Participation in an expanded market economy generates more disposable income, which is then used to buy symbols of social status. Some of these purchases are, of course, self-centered—luxury clothes, watches, cars—but much status spending is used to build those cooperative relationships that are so necessary to attaining a degree of stable success in China today. For instance, one set of important relationships is that of one’s extended networks of kin. And common denominator of tasteful symbolism among kinship groups based in the countryside is the expression of the classical virtue of filial piety. One way to build or rebuild such relationships, then, is through the construction or re-construction of a beautiful ancestor temple in one’s home community. Along with the building of temples, there is the solemn construction of new lineage genealogies, the final revision of which is accompanied by chanting Buddhist monks.

Some scholars of contemporary Western Christianity are beginning to see more evidence of the priority of belonging over belief, even in those forms of Judaism and Christianity that might be called “fundamentalist.” One might argue, however, that Chinese culture, and maybe East Asian culture more generally, especially because of their traditional grounding in what Tu Wei-ming calls an “immanent transcendence” grounded in a devotion to “concrete humanity,” are particularly friendly to non-believing religion.

Focused on building moral community within concrete humanity, Chinese religions are better poised to embrace the multiple systems of belief that coexist within the “immanent frame” of a secular age. Theoretical atheism may jostle against the lingering sense that there may be some reality to those ancestral gods after all, but religious practice has as its principal focus the pragmatic requirements of discovering new forms of community in a dynamic modern world.

[In conjunction with this series of essays on the state of religion in China, we have published a companion piece on the history of religion in China, written by The Immanent Frame’s Wei Zhu. Read What is religion in China? A brief history.—eds.]