Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

Polling Chinese about religion is a field where western researchers fast get lost in translation, journalist Ian Johnson argues in The New York Times, looking at a Win/Gallup poll. Last year Johnson forced the Pew Research Centre to retract their conclusions on atheism in China. Why is it so hard to get a poll on religion in China right?

Ian Johnson:

WIN/Gallup asked respondents in every country to characterize themselves as “a religious person,” “not a religious person” or “a convinced atheist,” with a fourth option of “do not know/no response.” In China, the first two options used the term xinyang zongjiao, literally “a person who believes in religion.”

“Xinyang zongjiao is a very formal term,” Professor Yang (Fenggang, who runs the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University) said. “People may not respond the way the researchers intend.”

Robert Weller, a professor of anthropology at Boston University, said xinyang zongjiao was probably understood to refer to formal members of one of China’s five officially recognized religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism. Most Chinese practice an amalgam of Buddhism, Taoism and folk practices that is often described as “traditional belief” (chuantong xinyang) or simply “belief” (xinyang), avoiding the contentious term zongjiao.

Another problem with the poll could be methodology, Dr. Weller said. In China, it was conducted online — a medium that increasingly is not anonymous here. “The ‘convinced atheist’ rate is probably so high because everyone knows it’s the official answer,” Dr. Weller said.

Such possible problems mirror an issue that arose last year when Pew Research Center, in its Global Attitudes Project, found that most Chinese did not consider belief in God to be necessary for morality. The results for China were eventually excised from the final report.

As Mr.((Ijaz) Gilani (who heads global opinion research for WIN/Gallup) notes, though, the WIN/Gallup poll has much value. It breaks down responses by age, education, and income levels. In China, the combined response rate for “convinced atheist” and “not a religious person” is only 56 percent among people age 30 and under, versus 90 percent for those 70 and older. This indicates that younger Chinese are more likely to reject the term “atheist,” which is still promoted by the Communist Party.

“In other parts of the world, the survey is more uniformly understood,” Mr. Gilani said. “In East Asia, the signals are more complex, but it still gives some insight.”

More in the New York Times.

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