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Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Christianity is Fashionable Among China's Intellectuals

Social scientists typically draw a distinction between sects and cults (see note on use of the term, "cult," below). Both exist in a state of "tension" with their sociocultural environment. That is, their beliefs and practices often put them at odds with mainstream society. However, whereas sects have ties with an established religious tradition in that particular society, cults do not. Cults are independent religious movements that can arise either by being imported from another society (e.g., Hinduism in the United States or Christianity in India) or when someone has new religious insights and succeeds in attracting followers (e.g., Mormonism in the United States or Islam in seventh-century Mecca).

A surprising difference between sects and cults is that while sects tend to attract people of lower socioeconomic status, cults tend to attract people of higher socioeconomic status. Why? Because conversion to a new religion generally involves being interested in new culture and new ideas, and people with higher educations are generally more able of disseminating new ideas. It is also why in the United States Zen Buddhism primarily appeals to people with higher levels of education and why the Rajneeshpuram, which was a short-lived commune in central Oregon during the 1980s, attracted people primarily from the upper and middle classes:
Most of the sannyasins that lived at the communal city in Oregon in the '80s were more than thirty years old, and less the 5 percent of them were people of color. Two-thirds reported that they had degrees from four-year colleges. A substantial portion of these sannyasins represented the best and brightest of the baby-boon generation, who had excelled in college and in their late careers (Goldman 2011, p. 309)
Thus, we shouldn't be surprised that in China, intellectuals are attracted to Christianity. As Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang (2014, p. 1) noted:
A number of observers have noticed the very high rate of conversion to Christianity that is taking place among graduate students from China at American universities (Wang and Yang 2006; Yang 1998). Many also have remarked on the very Christian climate that prevails at the leading Chinese universities, where many students as well as many faculty members openly express their faith (Lin-Liu 2005), and a fine study by Fenggang Yang (2005) reported the prevalence of well-educated Chinese among urban Christians in China.
Why? Because in China, Christianity is a cult. It is an independent religious movement; it doesn't have a tie to an established Chinese religion. But that doesn't explain why Christianity rather some other independent religious movement is attracting educated converts. That is the topic Stark and Wang address in a recent article:
No one has adequately explained why Christianity seems to have such great appeal for the most-educated Chinese. In fact, if this is true, the special appeal of Christianity for educated Chinese is quite inconsistent with the still prevailing notion among sociologists that religion functions primarily to compensate the lower classes for their worldly deprivations. 
In this study, we first demonstrate that the most-educated Chinese are more likely than the less-educated to become Christians and to reject Buddhism. We then review previous research showing that new religious movements are nearly always based on elites. We explain this linkage as the result of spiritual deprivation. Turning to the particular situation of educated Chinese, we explore how the rapid influx of technical and economic modernity into a traditional society can create a crisis of cultural incongruity—a conflict between the cultural assumptions of modernity and those of traditional religious culture. This conflict results in spiritual deprivation, which can be relieved by conversion to Christianity and by rejecting Buddhism and other traditional religions.
Alas for the West's cultured despisers of Christianity, many of whom are attracted Eastern religions. If they grew up and lived in China, there's a good chance they'd find Christianity fashionable and be following Jesus instead.

Note: Because the public and media often use the term "cult" with negative connotations, social scientists sometimes use the term, "new religious movement." That, however, is misleading because many new religious movements are only "new" to the society in which they emerge. Thus, I prefer the either the term "cult" or "independent religious movement."


Goldman, Marion S. 2011. "Cultural Capital, Social Networks, and Collective Violence." Pp. 307-23 in Violence and New Religious Movements, edited by James R. Lewis. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lin-Liu, Jen. 2005. “At Chinese Universities, Whispers of Jesus.” Chronicle of Higher Education June 10:40.

Stark, Rodney, and Xiuhua Wang. 2014. "Christian Conversion and Cultural Incongruity in Asia." Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 10 (Article 2).

Wang, Yuting, and Fenggang Yang. 2006. “More Than Evangelical and Ethnic: The Eco-logical Factor in Chinese Conversion to Christianity in the United States.” Sociology of Religion 67: 179–192.

Yang, Fenggang. 1998. “Chinese Conversion to Evangelical Christianity: The Importance of Social and Cultural Contexts.” Sociology of Religion 59: 237–257.

Yang, Fenggang. 2005. “Lost in the Market, Saved at McDonald’s: Conversion to Christianity in Urban China.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44: 423–441.

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