Why are so many Chinese people atheist? What do they believe in instead of a god?

I found this question on the Quora website at

I am a complete beginner on this subject, but I found so much of this discussion enlightening. As I have no idea whether the web page above will remain as it is, I will give you the general ideas and then use some of the responses in the post to illustrate.

The idea conveyed by some of the responses is that a lot of Chinese traditions, culture and belief come from Confucianism and Taoism, which are closer to philosophy than religion. In general, instead of believing that there is an all powerful creator that rules over our lives, humans are responsible. In Confucianism, instead of things like the 10 commandments, there are values, such as benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and fidelity. Taoists believe in self cultivation and living in harmony. The atheism tradition in China is a lot like humanism.

Jade Wong wrote:
Religion never played an important role in Chinese history,… Confucius said “How can you serve gods before knowing how to serve humans?” and “If life is not understood, how could death be fathomed?” She wrote that instead of religion, they believe in “love, integrity, politeness, hard work, honesty, loyalty, and treating our families well.”

Shao Jiang wrote:
“In the West: long ago, God had caused a great flood in the world. God wanted Noah to build an ark and God stopped the Flood.

In the East: a long time ago, there was a great flood in the world. A man named Daxie led people to work hard and eventually dredged the flood and defeated natural disasters.

Do you see the difference now? Yes, even in mythological stories, we Chinese have always believed in ourselves instead of relying on God to save.”

Zhou Wenda wrote:
“Lets compare the ancient myths:

Genesis: the God said, and happened.

Chinese version: Pan Gu made an axe, then chopped the chaos divided into sky and earth, then died. All body parts turned into everything.”

The Great Flood: the God punished all unrespectful human being, only the chosen was informed and survived, alongside sample of life forms he carried with the Ark.

Chinese version: Never gave a damn on how it comes since the flood was already here. The first disaster relieving chief-official built dams for 9 years, and it didn’t work, so the he got convicted and executed. Yu became successor of father’s duty. He devoted next 13 years dig canals and dredge rivers, drove the flood into ocean. Voila! All clans happily acclaimed him as next king.

A common question from outsider about Chinese atheism is: Don’t they believe anything DIVINE and INVIOLABLE?

In narrow sense, NO. Nothing beyond living human. That was how Chinese comprehend the universe belongs to both human and god, from pre-history age till now.”

Zhang Liyu wrote:
“Unlike Abraham’s religious, Chinese think that control the fate of the universe is not a personal God, but the universe itself.

we have the saying「顺其自然」[shùn qí zì rán] (Taoist Philosophy, means “to let nature take it’s course”)&「人定胜天」[rén dìng shèng tiān] (Confucian Philosophy, means “Man ‘s will, not heaven, decides.”)

For thousands of years, the true faith of Chinese people is only one「敬天法祖」“Reverence for nature, Follow the ancestors”.

Samuel wrote:
“I grew up in an environment which implied “respect [for] ghosts and spirits, but keep them at a distance” and disdained “religious fanaticism above rational reasoning”. “

Reina Stweart wrote:
“The Chinese are not atheists, in fact, the traditional Chinese culture is idealistic.

The Chinese have a different view of mythology than Westerners and are freer in their religious beliefs. In fact, China has always been polytheistic and pantheistic. But the Chinese do not care what religion other people believe in, they are simply not interested and believe that it’s not their business.

But for Chinese people, the most important “God” is their ancestors, who have passed away, but the soul will watch over them from the sky and protect them. Therefore, they always remind themselves of what they can and cannot do, because the souls of their ancestors are watching them all the time. When Chinese people do something wrong, they usually say that they feel ashamed because they let their ancestors down. They believe that, in everything they do, they are responsible for their children and grandchildren.

Generally speaking, most of the Chinese believe in karma…..So most of the Chinese people have a very strong moral sense, and probably part of the reason why China is one of the safest countries in the world is that they believe that no matter what they are doing, God is watching them, whoever that God is, and sometimes they don’t even know who it is…”

Quanicus wrote:
“Chinese people believe in ourselves, instead of a god. “

Toby Wilson wrote:
“This might sound peculiar to you, but when you stop believing in gods, it’s not necessary to get yourself a god substitute, like some kind of theistic nicotine patch. Gods are simply unnecessary.”

Terry Lo wrote:
How can over 1 billion European people not believe in my Chinese ancestors?

You sound like you believe in faith, so you most likely believe in spirits and such. Unlike your god, my Chinese ancestors ACTUALLY existed and there’s more than a little documented proof that goes back centuries to even millenia in some cases, with corroborating documented witnesses, records and texts as opposed to writings taken from the world’s longest game of broken telephone, centuries after the fact by semi-literate goat herders with no matching documentation by one of the single greatest empires in the world, the Roman Empire and their numerous historians and truly extensive records that survives to the present day.

Harry Xie wrote:
“It’s because we are are communist state.

That’s it. We may not have been that religious in a western sense because of the thousands years of secular rule, but that doesn’t mean Chinese have not been spiritual
Many religious people in the west says the Chinese government suppresses religion. That’s silly. The constitution says everyone is free to choose (or not to choose) a religion and that article is pretty well respected in practice. It implies that no religion is allowed to seek any advantage over another. As a result, religious teachings in schools and any public space (where a mandatory presence is required) is deemed illegal based on the ground that they violate the freedom of practising a different religion or not practising one at all (with exceptions in some autonomous areas). “

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