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Nonbelievers' beliefs about religion in China.

Nonbelievers are individuals who lack any beliefs in a religion ( Findings in studies have shown that the number of nonbelievers has significantly increased globally with the progress of modernization (Schjoedt, Stodkilde-Jorgensen, Geertz, & Roepstorff, 2009; Waytz, Gray, Epley, & Wegner, 2010; Zuckerman, 2008). In China in recent years, the younger generation of nonbelievers has paid increasing attention to religion (Han, 2003; Hua, 2009; Tan, 2001), despite the fact that it is in China that the world's highest concentration of nonbelievers is found (WIN-Gallup International, 2012). This raises the question of what beliefs about religion Chinese nonbelievers hold.

Little research has been focused on nonbelievers' beliefs about religion (Geertz & Markusson, 2010; Johnson, 2012), and this lack applies especially to Chinese nonbelievers. It was the lack of information that motivated my research in regard to three key points. First, beliefs about religion refer to what people know about religion, regardless of whether or not they are believers or nonbelievers. Nonbelievers, as well as believers, hold generalized beliefs about religion or views about how the spiritual world functions. Nonetheless, "lacking belief in religion" is commonly equated with "lacking belief about religion," which has obscured researchers' views of the nonbelievers' beliefs about religion. In many cases, researchers have excluded religious nonbelievers from participation in a study or have not sampled them in sufficient numbers to produce conclusions about this growing subgroup (Pargament, Koenig, Tarakeshwar, & Hahn, 2004). In order to gather accurate information regarding nonbelievers, I believe that it is essential for researchers to stop neglecting nonbelievers' beliefs about religion. What people "know" commonly guides how they act (Furnham, 1988), therefore determining Chinese nonbelievers' beliefs about religion is important and helpful with regard to predicting their decisions and behaviors when encountering religious situations.

Second, it is well known that there are differences between nonbelievers and believers in their beliefs about the existence of a Supreme Being and an afterlife (Owen, Hayward, Koenig, Steffen, & Payne, 2011; Singelis, Hubbard, Her, & An, 2003). In addition, there is a common misunderstanding that nonbelievers are the opposite of believers, thus resulting in a widespread negative bias, and even discrimination, against nonbelievers (Edgell, Gerteis, & Hartmann, 2006). When scholars have conducted scientific research on the subject of religion, nonbelievers have also often been used as the control group. However, the differences between believers and nonbelievers do not, of themselves, represent the nonbelievers' beliefs about religion in its entirety. In their generalized beliefs about religion some specific points of individual difference may exist among nonbelievers that would prove helpful in uncovering a more comprehensive picture regarding nonbelievers and their beliefs.

Researchers have provided some different viewpoints on nonbelievers' beliefs about religion, which have inspired my research. Nonbelievers have been identified with some specific positive consequences of religion, such as the moral framework (Moore, 2005) and psychological benefits (Koenig & Larson, 2001). Some nonbelievers reported being spiritual but not religious (Fuller, 2001), and some have reported that they struggled to find meaning in life (O'Connell & Skevington, 2010; Wilkinson & Coleman, 2010). In addition, some nonbelievers have even stated that they held beliefs in religion to a certain extent. "Believing without belonging" is a phrase that has been used to describe the disconnection of religious beliefs and affiliation (Davie, 1990), and this position has been well evidenced in Europe and North America (Davie, 2006; Glendinning & Bruce, 2006). Some nonbelievers have identified themselves as simply unsure religiously (Exline, Park, Smith, & Carey, 2011) or uncertain about life after death (James & Wells, 2002). Other nonbelievers have not completely rejected religion. For example, in one study the overwhelming majority of religious tourists and worshippers in China were found to be nonbelievers (Cao, 2003).

Third, beliefs about religion fluctuate according to social-cultural context and historical period (Gervais & Norenzayan, 2012), so that research about nonbelievers' beliefs about religion in a specific social-cultural context may broaden understanding of the nature of religious belief. In modern China, in the complex mix of social transformation (a specific historical period), predominant atheism, and traditional culture with strong religious leanings, studies on Chinese nonbelievers' beliefs about religion will provide valuable insights that will contribute toward better understanding of the psychology and behavior of nonbelievers.

My purpose in this study was to explore Chinese nonbelievers' beliefs about religion. As a significant vulnerability has been identified in religiosity between the ages of 18 and 30 years (Argue, Johnson, & White, 1999), in my study I focused on the younger generation of Chinese nonbelievers. As research on nonbelievers is scarce (Johnson, 2012), I adopted a broader perspective on nonbelievers and included all individuals who self-reported as not believing in any particular religion, in order to obtain a more comprehensive picture of nonbelievers.


The Research Ethics Board at Beijing Youth Politics College approved this study. All participants provided written informed consent.


I collected data from a random sample of 638 Chinese young people studying at universities and graduate schools in Beijing. They came from 16 provinces of China (Beijing, Shanghai, Jilin, Jiangsu, Guangdong, Fujian, Hainan, Jiangxi, Neimeng, Ningxia, Shanxi, Shandong, Sichuan, Guizhou, Xinjiang, and Hubei).

Among them, 60 were believers (average age of 23.47 [+ or -] 3.13 with 25 women in this group) and 578 were nonbelievers (average age of 23.51 [+ or -] 3.30 with 310 women in the group). The proportion of believers (9.4%) and nonbelievers (90.6%) reflects the composition of religion in China today (WIN-Gallup International, 2012).

Among the believers' group, 28% were Christians, 30% were Buddhists, 6% were Taoists, and 36% were Muslims.

In terms of the education level of the believers, 58.3% were undergraduates, 25% were graduates, and 16.7% were postgraduates. Among the believers group, 73.3% were majoring in humanities and social sciences and 26.7% were majoring in natural sciences. Among the nonbelievers' group, 40.1% were undergraduates, 32.3% were graduates, and 27.6% were postgraduates, with 51.6% of the nonbelievers majoring in humanities and social sciences and 48.4% majoring in natural sciences.


Leung et al. (2002) developed a cross-cultural religiosity subscale of the Social Axioms Survey (SAS) in which the focus is on what people know about religion and its functions. A social axiom is a generalized belief that is central to a person's belief system, and its function is to enhance the survival and functioning of the person in his or her social and physical environment (Leung et al., 2002). The functional view helps explain why people do, or do not, choose to stay involved with a religion, with some staying involved even when they do not fully approve of the institution of religion and/or do not believe all of the religious claims or dogma.

Within a social axioms framework, religiosity refers to the view that spiritual forces influence personal life and that religious institutions exert a positive effect on social outcomes (Bond, Leung, Au, Tong, & Chemonges-Nielson, 2004). Religiosity is unrelated to specific religious beliefs and is, rather, based purely on a general belief about religion (Leung, Au, Huang, Kurman, Niit, & Niit, 2007), thus the scale is inclusive for all believers or nonbelievers. Religiosity of social axioms has been evidenced to be a good predictor of some social behaviors such as accommodation and competition in conflict resolution (Bond et al., 2004; Leung et al., 2002).

I used the religiosity subscale of the SAS to determine people's beliefs about religion. The scale consists of eight items (see Table 1), covering the most important personal and social functions of religion along with belief in the existence of a Supreme Being. The personal functions of religion in this scale include psychological benefits, a meaningful life, and reduction of disasters. In the social functions aspect are moral guidelines and education for citizenship (community spirit). Respondents answer on a 5-point Likert scale to rank the degree to which they believe each of the eight items to be true (1 = strongly disbelieve to 5 = strongly believe). The higher the score is, the more the respondent believes in the existence of a Supreme Being and the positive consequences of adherence to religion. The score of 3 is the midpoint and was, therefore, regarded as the cut-off point for disbelief and belief in this study. The internal consistency (Cronbach's coefficient alpha) for the religiosity subscale was .78 (Leung & Bond, 2004). The current reliability coefficient (Cronbach's coefficient alpha) was .71.

All participants self-described as either nonbelievers or believers when asked the following question: "Do you regard yourself as believing in any particular religion currently?" A single item measure of religiosity has commonly been used and has been well validated (Gebauer, Sedikides, & Neberich, 2012; Norenzayan & Hansen, 2006; WIN-Gallup International, 2012).


I distributed the survey to all participants and collected the forms in class. All participants were instructed to supply demographic information about gender, age, and study major. In order to encourage honest responses, it was emphasized that all information would be used only as scientific research and all responses would be completely anonymous; it was explained that there were no right or wrong answers to any of the questions. At the end, I offered a gift of a water bottle, valued at US$3, as a reward to each participant. All of the experimenters were postgraduate students majoring in social psychology, and they were trained in the standardization of testing.


I performed analysis at scale level and item level, respectively. The mean of the eight items was calculated as the religiosity scale score for each participant. Because each item represented one particular aspect of beliefs about religion, the single items were also analyzed to elaborate on the meaning of beliefs about religion. Descriptive statistics include religiosity scale score and each item score.

In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of nonbelievers' beliefs on religion, I compared nonbelievers not only with believers but also with the midpoint (neutral). An independent sample t test was conducted for the comparison of believers' and nonbelievers' religiosity. One sample t test was conducted for the comparison between religiosity of nonbelievers and the midpoint of 3 (neutral). The data were analyzed using an alpha level of .05. All analyses were conducted using SPSS Version 15.0 for Windows.


Descriptive statistics and t test for religiosity scale score and item scores are shown in Table 1. With regard to beliefs of these young Chinese students about religion, I divided the results into two parts: a) how nonbelievers differed from believers, and, b) how nonbelievers' score differed from the midpoint (neutral) of religiosity.

How Nonbelievers Differed From Believers with Regard to Beliefs About Religion

At scale level, religiosity among the believers' group was significantly higher than that of the nonbelievers' group.

At item level, there were similarities between the two groups in beliefs about the psychological benefits derived from religion; both nonbelievers and believers were neutral. The most notable difference between the two groups was that the nonbelievers' group disbelieved more in the statement that religion makes people good citizens (Cohen's d = -.53). The nonbelievers' group believed significantly less than the believers did in the existence of a Supreme Being, in the surreal functions of religion to do with the pursuit of good fortune and avoidance of disaster, and in both the spirituality and the moral framework functions of religion; whereas the nonbelievers' group believed significantly more than the believers did that religion makes people escape from reality and that religious beliefs lead to unscientific thinking.

How Nonbelievers' Scores Differed From the Midpoint (Neutral) of Religiosity

There was no statistically significant difference from the midpoint (neutral) in the religiosity scale score of the nonbelievers' group. This indicated that nonbelievers were middle of the road; their beliefs about religion were neutral.

Relative to the midpoint, the nonbelievers' group believed more in both the moral framework and the spirituality of religion, but they believed less in the surreal consequences, such as pursuing good fortune and avoiding disaster. For all other items, there was no statistically significant difference from the midpoint (neutral) for the nonbelievers' group.


Chinese nonbelievers' beliefs about religion generally remain strikingly neutral despite being less strong than those of believers. On one hand, this result is consistent with findings in previous studies on the differences between believers and nonbelievers (Gebauer et al., 2012; James & Wells, 2002; Moore, 2005). On the other hand, in my study the puzzle of the beliefs of nonbelievers in China has been tentatively figured out in that the students who took part in this study adopted a neutral position on religion rather than taking a stance that was the extreme opposite of believers, and the nonbelievers' group even stood closer to the midpoint than the believers did with regard to the moral and spiritual functions of religion.

Religious belief is universally a pluralized construct rather than a dichotomy between belief and disbelief in nature (Chaves, 2010; Davie, 2006; McGuire, 2008; Storm, 2009). Researchers have developed a five-category model that they have termed The Five As in which different aspects of individual religious beliefs are combined and blended as follows: abiders, adapters, assenters, avoiders, and atheists (Pearce, Foster, & Halliday Hardie, 2013). Therefore, being neutral does not necessarily mean that religion has no impact on the younger generation of Chinese; being neutral is just another type of belief about religion among these nonbelievers.

As to why nonbelievers, who represent the majority group in China, take a neutral stand with regard to religion, Norenzayan, Gervais, and Trzesniewski (2012) suggested that beliefs about religion in nature to a certain extent reflect the social-cultural way of the living material life or spiritual life. The coincidence of Chinese religious culture with the development of religion propelled by modernization may provide an explanation as to the influences that lay behind the results obtained in my study.

Chinese religious culture has three typical characteristics. First, nontheistic naturalism and humanism figure more prominently in the history of Chinese religion than in the history of religion in the western world, although this has never been to the exclusion of theistic belief (Adler, 2002; Li, 2006; Lou, 2007; Zhou, 1985). In addition, in contemporary China, Marxism has again reinforced the nontheistic tradition.

Second, philosophy focused on spirituality is popular in Chinese daily life and has been ingrained in Chinese culture from ancient time up to the present day. Chinese people have not involved themselves as much with religion as they have been concerned with philosophy; it is through philosophy that they satisfy their craving for what is beyond the actual world and, thereby, practice self-cultivation (Fung, 1948). This philosophy has mapped a road for Chinese leading to discovery, spiritual development, and the nurturing and enhancing of their spiritual maturity, which provides a similar spiritual function to that of religion. In this study the neutral result implied that spiritual, but not religious, beliefs may exist among these nonbelievers. In western societies, spirituality is not necessarily viewed as being rooted in religion (Miller & Thoresen, 2003) and spiritual people have a loving, forgiving, and nonjudgmental view of the numinous (Hill et al., 2000). This is the same as self-cultivation ("Xiu Shen Yang Xing" is the Chinese phrase meaning to behave properly to cultivate oneself), which is the philosophy that is the basis of the life philosophy (Xiu Xing) of most Chinese people.

Third, Chinese religions have absorbed and fused so deeply with traditional Chinese philosophy (Lou, 1994; Xu, 2013) that the general Chinese population does not consciously deal with each on its separate merits. This fusion may be the reason that the nonbelievers who took part in my study did not belong to any particular religion but significantly believed in some positive consequences of religion.

Development of religion driven by modernization leads to deity fading (Inglehart & Baker, 2000; McGrath, 2004; Norris & Inglehart, 2004) with spirituality highlighted (Hogan, 2010; Inglehart & Baker, 2000) and this has coincided with both the nontheistic religious tradition and the life philosophy focused on spirituality that are embedded in Chinese culture. This coincidence may increase the sense of identity to religion and may have contributed to the neutral beliefs about religion among Chinese nonbelievers, which may explain why the Chinese nonbelievers in my study paid attention to, and did not reject, religion.

The practical implications of my findings are clear. I have contributed to uncovering the truth about nonbelievers' beliefs, to dispelling the suspicions Chinese people have about nonbelief, and to generating more, and more meaningful, dialogue between believers and nonbelievers.

Thus the data from this study highlight one true aspect of nonbelievers. Further research should be conducted to replicate the current findings and the self-reported single-item measure of a believer or a nonbeliever should be improved to better control for the spirituality of nonbelievers.

In conclusion, individuals in this study who did not belong to any particular religious group in China generally remained neutral about beliefs about religion. Among my participant group, nonbelievers were not the absolute antithesis of believers nor was the nonbelievers' group purely a control group in a scientific research exercise about a believers' group.


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Beijing Youth Politics College and Chinese Academy of Science

Xiaojuan Jing, Department of Education and Management for Adolescents and Children, Beijing Youth Politics College; Graduate School and Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Science.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Xiaojuan Jing, 9 Huajiadi Street, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100102, People's Republic of China. Email:
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics and t Test for Religiosity
Scale Score and Item Score

Variable                                     Nonbelievers   Believers

                                              M      SD     M      SD

1. Religious faith contributes to good       3.00   0.86   3.22   1.35
   mental health.
2. Religion makes people escape from         2.96   0.82   2.55   1.11
   reality. *
3. Religious people are more likely          3.25   0.88   3.52   1.20
   to maintain moral standards.
4. There is a Supreme Being controlling      2.97   1.00   3.42   1.18
   the universe.
5. Religion helps us to pursue good          2.56   0.93   2.93   1.12
   fortune and avoid disaster.
6. Religious beliefs lead to unscientific    3.01   0.87   2.61   1.13
   thinking. *
7. Belief in a religion helps one            3.24   0.94   3.60   1.11
   understand the meaning of life
8. Belief in religion makes people           2.98   0.93   3.52   1.08
   good citizens
Religiosity scale score                      3.00   0.47   3.39   0.66

Variable                                          t test for N-B

                                               t       p    Cohens'

1. Religious faith contributes to good       -1.79    .07    -.19
   mental health.
2. Religion makes people escape from          3.69    .00     .42
   reality. *
3. Religious people are more likely          -2.21    .03    -.26
   to maintain moral standards.
4. There is a Supreme Being controlling      -3.25    .00    -.41
   the universe.
5. Religion helps us to pursue good          -2.87    .00    -.36
   fortune and avoid disaster.
6. Religious beliefs lead to unscientific    -3.28    .00    -.40
   thinking. *
7. Belief in a religion helps one            -2.83    .01    -.35
   understand the meaning of life
8. Belief in religion makes people           -4.27    .00    -.54
   good citizens
Religiosity scale score                      -5.85    .00    -.68

Variable                                          t test for N-M

                                                t       p    Cohens'

1. Religious faith contributes to good         -.10    .92    -.001
   mental health.
2. Religion makes people escape from          -1.16    .25    -.1
   reality. *
3. Religious people are more likely            6.90    .00     .57
   to maintain moral standards.
4. There is a Supreme Being controlling        -.66    .51    -.05
   the universe.
5. Religion helps us to pursue good          -11.49    .00    -.96
   fortune and avoid disaster.
6. Religious beliefs lead to unscientific       .24    .81    -.02
   thinking. *
7. Belief in a religion helps one              6.10    .00     .51
   understand the meaning of life
8. Belief in religion makes people             -.62    .54    -.05
   good citizens
Religiosity scale score                         .25    .81     .02

Note. * reverse-scored item, df = 577, N-B means the comparison
between nonbelievers and believers, N-M means the comparison
between nonbelievers and midpoint.
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Author:Jing, Xiaojuan
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 1, 2014
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