Vibrant Faith Among Future Chinese Culture Makers: Christians Now Outnumber Communists, especially on Campuses

American visitors to leading Chinese universities are struck by the Christian climate that often prevails (Follow up to Chinese Government Crack Down on Beijing Worship Service Could Be Harbinger of New Wave of Persecution.)

by Rodney Stark, Byron Johnson, and Carson Mencken in First Things. (Used by permission.)

Through much of the twentieth century, it was widely believed among Western intellectuals that the Chinese were immune to religion—an immunity that long preceded the communist rise to power. When, in 1934, Edgar Snow quipped that “in China, opium is the religion of the people,” many academic and media experts smiled in agreement and dismissed the million Chinese claimed as converts by Christian missionaries as nothing but “rice Christians”—cynical souls who had frequented the missions for the benefits they provided. Then, in 1949, Mao Zedong came to power. Religion was outlawed, and it was widely agreed among social scientists that China soon would be a model of the fully secularized, post-religious society.

Rodney Stark, Byron Johnson, Carson Mencken's research has amply demonstrated that there are at least 70 Million Christians in China today

But it wasn’t to be. Instead, belief in a coming post-religious China turned out to be the opium of Western intellectuals. The Chinese Christians of 1949—those ridiculed in the West as rice Christians—were so “insincere” that they endured decades of bloody repression during which their numbers grew.

(A)s official repression has weakened, Christianity has been growing at an astonishing rate in China. Despite many years of dramatic religious persecution, we now have empirical evidence of the resiliency of Christianity in China and the remarkable trajectory of growth it continues to experience.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of disagreement over just how astonishing the growth has been… (Now) At last it is possible to make a relatively accurate estimate of the total number of Christians in China… sixteen and older to 64.3 million. Of course, this total is for 2007. Obviously the total is higher now. It seems entirely credible to estimate that there are about 70 million Chinese Christians in 2011…

Contrary to standard sociological wisdom, some observers have suggested that Christianity is spreading more rapidly among the more privileged Chinese. In fact, the data support that view: When Communist Party and Youth League members are excluded (since they are clustered among those with higher incomes), the higher their income, the more likely Chinese are to be Christians.

'American visitors to leading Chinese universities are struck by the Christian climate that often prevails in contrast even with most American church-supported campuses.' (Photo: Brad Elliott)

Of course, even if Chinese Christians total 70 million, they still make up only slightly more than 5 percent of the population, although they are about as numerous as are members of the Chinese Communist Party. Thus, it may be vital for the safety of the Christian community that Christians are clustered among the more affluent and are not concentrated in rural areas.

Indeed, American visitors to leading Chinese universities are struck by the Christian climate that often prevails in contrast even with most American church-supported campuses…

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Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson are distinguished professors of the social sciences and Carson Mencken is professor of sociology at Baylor University.