Journal Article

Between Secularist Ideology and Desecularizing Reality: The Birth and Growth of Religious Research in Communist China

Fenggang Yang

in Sociology of Religion

Published on behalf of Association for the Sociology of Religion

Volume 65, issue 2, pages 101-119
Published in print January 2004 | ISSN: 1069-4404
Published online January 2004 | e-ISSN: 1759-8818 | DOI:
Between Secularist Ideology and Desecularizing Reality: The Birth and Growth of Religious Research in Communist China

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Under the ride of the Chinese Communist Party, the scholarship of religious research in China has changed from virtual nonexistence in the first thirty years (1949–1979) to flourishing in the reform era (1979-present). Moreover, the predominant view on religion has moved away from militant atheism to a more scientific, objective and consequently more balanced approach to religion. This paper attempts to trace this intellectual history in China and to examine the role of academia in the religious scene. There are three distinct periods in this development: the domination of atheism from 1949 to 1979, the birth of religious research in the 1980s, and the growth of the scholarship in the 1990s, despite political restrictions. Religious research was intended by the government to serve atheist propaganda, but it grew into an independent academic discipline responsive to the desecularizing reality.

[I was] overwhelmed by the total secularization of a society and culture that once placed high value on religious shrines, festivals and symbols. During our visit [to China in 1972] we saw almost no evidence of surviving religious practice. … We saw no functioning Buddhist temples. Some of those we visited had been converted to use as tea houses, hostels or assembly halls; others were maintained as museums. … Some Chinese with whom we talked were curious about religion. They were amazed to learn that educated persons in the West continue to believe and practice religion. For them, they said, the study of scientific materialism had exposed the logical fallacies and absurdities of religion. (MacInnis 1973)

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Subjects: Religion ; Sociology of Religion

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