Last year, I took part in a service project in Taiwan where my classmates and I had to clean up abandoned traditional Chinese-style houses. One day, we went and explored a nearby abandoned dwelling. It was in a very bad condition, but charming in its own way.
Walking through the building, I was shocked to find what looked like a large shrine adorned with calligraphy, figurines, incense, and all kinds of offerings. Curious, I walked over and picked up an old piece of paper. My Chinese friend, who was behind me, turned pallid and swiftly seized it from my hands and put it back down on the shrine. “What do you think you are doing? That is money for the dead!” I told him that I thought the tradition was interesting, and that we should take the fake money and show it to the rest of the group. He shot back with anger, telling me to leave it undisturbed. “You surely don’t believe this is real, do you?” I responded.
My friend is a native Chinese, and like most other Chinese, has been a staunch atheist his entire life. Therefore, his behaviour greatly surprised me. Later that day, I asked my other Chinese friends, also atheists, about the subject and they all became inexplicably angry about questioning the beliefs behind afterlife money. Even though none of them believed in a God, they all said that I shouldn’t have touched the money for fear of bad consequences. Despite my efforts, I couldn’t change their minds.
These same friends of mine regularly criticise Western monotheism – the belief that there is only one god – pointing out the contradictions and logical gaps in those religions. However, when it came to analysing the beliefs of their own land, this scepticism disappeared.
I find that most Chinese people, in Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as on the mainland, have this mindset: they will say they are non-religious, but then often engage in forms of Chinese spiritualism handed down from generations. Even on the mainland, where state-sponsored atheism was the norm for many years, people still hold on to their traditions although these customs are not backed by evidence – the very definition of faith.
Just to be clear, I have no issue with this. Faith is an important aspect of society, and helps many people grapple with the unknown. However, if one is willing to use traditional Chinese medicine, offer fake money at the temple, and use feng shui, despite the fact that these things, scientifically speaking, are very questionable, one might reconsider whether one is truly an “atheist”. Therefore, I contend that most Chinese are not atheists in the full sense, but simply non-believers in the god(s) of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and so on. Chinese beliefs are a kind of spirituality, and that is why I believe that China is actually more religious than the Chinese might say they are.