One of the last great efforts at state-sponsored atheism is a failure.
And not just any kind of failure. China has enforced its anti-religion policy through decades of repression, coercion and persecution, but the lack of success is spectacular, according to a major new study.
No more than 15 percent of adults in the world's most populous country are "real atheists." 85 percent of the Chinese either hold some religious beliefs or practice some kind of religion, according to the Chinese Spiritual Life Survey.
Members of the Chinese Communist Party and Youth League are required to be atheists, yet 17 percent of them self-identified with a religion and 65 percent indicated they had engaged in religious practices in the last year, reported sociologist Fenggang Yang of Purdue University, a lead researcher in the project.
The notion of China as a secular nation with little or no religion is "silly," said sociologist Rodney Stark of Baylor University, another principal investigator.
"It's a pretty religious bunch of folks if you follow what they're doing," he said.
Buddhist, Christian Growth
In a nation with few sources of independent data on religion, the spiritual life survey represents one of the best pictures to date of the Chinese religious landscape. The 2007 survey involved a random national sample of 7,021 people ages 16 and older in 56 locales throughout mainland China.
The results find a middle ground between the official government figure of 100 million religious believers and extreme projections of growth that estimate the number of Christians has become as high as 130 million.
Among the findings:
• Buddhism is the largest religion in China, with about 18 percent, or 185 million people, self-identifying as Buddhists. Another 31 percent of respondents reported having at least one Buddhist belief or participating in at least one Buddhist practice. More than 12 percent of Chinese Communist Party members self-identified as Buddhists.
• About 3.2 percent of the population, or 33 million adults, self-identified as Christians. Again, however, an additional 40 million people said they believed in the existence of Jesus Christ or participated in Christian activities.
• Among popular religious practices, the results indicate up to 754 million people practice ancestor worship, including attending and maintaining ancestral temples, venerating ancestor tablets at home or visiting graves to honor ancestral spirits. About 145 million people observed fengshui restrictions or consulted a fengshui master in the past year.
The actual numbers may be even higher. Religious affiliation still can have consequences in China, from loss of jobs to prison, so researchers note that participants may be reluctant even in an anonymous survey to identify with religion. That is a particular concern with faiths such as Christianity that have been special objects of attack by authorities.
Using one model testing that theory, researchers found a closer ballpark estimate of Chinese Christians may be in "the low 60 millions," Stark said.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell
So far, the Chinese government has not made a major effort to push back against the religious growth, observers said.
The official atheism policy remains unchanged. From kindergarten to college, the Chinese people are subjected to "atheistic indoctrination" in both curricular and extracurricular activities, Yang said. And there are still prominent instances of repression. Believers, particularly those from banned religions, can find themselves under house arrest or in labor camps.
Yet signs of religious growth are evident from college campuses to city streets. Some "house churches" have 3,000 to 4,000 members.
"For the most part, it's kind of a little bit like, don't ask, don't tell," Stark said.
Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue, said many government officials "are in a state of denial. They still insist there are only about 100 million religious believers."
Other officials, he said, are not sure what to do. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, following 13 years of brutal measures taken to eliminate religion, some officials came to a realization "religion can't be stopped," Yang said.
Also mediating against further restrictions on religion is a lack of public support. There are few social pressures against faith, Yang said. In the spiritual life survey, less than a quarter of respondents agreed with the statement that "Christianity is a Western religion, hence it is not suitable for Chinese people."
In addition, political and economic changes allowing greater freedom also have created "sufficient social space" for the practice of religion, Yang said.
The Chinese government appears to have few options left to halt the growth of religion.
"This is a trend that is hard to stop," Yang said. "In fact, it is almost impossible to stop."