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Guilford College

Publication Date

Spring 2009

Program Name

China: Chinese Culture and Ethnic Minorities


Where do we begin with our understanding of the human composition of God, with humanity’s embracement of the existential? Humanity has rendered faith volatile and constant, a consequence, not flaw, merely of developed sentience. Yet, whether God or evolution has burdened humanity with this responsibility, faith and belief continue their inexplicable and unwearied existence. People, whether atheistic, agnostic, or faith bound, have proven the existence of an utterly human liability for irrationality, or certainly rational subscription. Emile Durkheim wrote of religion as purely existent within shared life, unsusceptible to segregation and compartmental comprehension. Max Weber considered religion as providing prescientific humanity with a sense of order, certainty, and safety in an unstable and measureless world. Both philosophers measured this premodern relic, this faith, as subject in future to the mercy of modernization and scientific thought. Yet, here, both Durkheim and Weber dealt only with those experienced. Where must we begin when religion never existed? How does the emergence of religion in a hitherto secular context elucidate the origin and functional significance of religious faith? Robert A. Segal maintains religious theory as claiming to have discovered only the conditions for the emergence and perpetuation of religion, not those necessary. Theories, according to Segal, merely claim if “certain conditions exist, religion will likely, not always, arise.” If those same conditions persist, the author continues, religion will “likely, not always,” survive. From this platform we may develop a better examination of both the origin and function of Christianity in China today. Yet, where must the religious question begin when the ground was only permitted secular belief? Segal has perhaps provided an adequate framework for a first approach to such an examination. Why, then, was Christianity able to find a foothold in contemporary Chinese society, and for what reason is its presence so rapidly expanding? Why in bred secularism have we found religion? Durkheim and Weber appear to have been not entirely correct. The rapid Marxist industrialization of China was deliberately without religion; the state was then to become the only official god. The state and world were allowed only a composition of material and substance, officially to which there was to exist no superior. The masses were left with and grew within nothing; the human liability for religion, faith, and conviction became unfulfilled and empty. This absence, whether today still viewed or felt as vacant, continues to be strained amongst new generations. Yet, a need for doubt has begun to surface amongst the populations from this inexperienced state; a religious void has arisen. However, if we are to continue to grow in our own understanding of this development, we must assign value to two essential aspects of religion and its human acceptance. The adoption of religion must be understood as a fully human experience, carrying with it emotion, choice, and a bottomless spirit only tentatively regimented to religious doctrine. Gerd Theissen wrote of the spirit as mutation, a seemingly random, unpredictable cultural innovation which may grow to transform history. We must not forget the immeasurable and instable human element of emotional choice. Secondly, considering human agency, we must also grow to understand the acceptance of religion not as an adaptation, but rather an adoption. Religion, itself, adapts to the social conditions present during the time of adoption. Religion possesses no agency. Religious movement happens through conversion, only considered as such if an individual or community has accepted or adopted such practice and mentality into their lives. For this reason, we may no longer understand Christian expansion as geocentric or possessing a religious epicenter of thought. Due to both religious and social volatility, may any religion truly be thought of or lived as a singular, monolithic identity? Holding Christianity as central to an ominous West denies the resulting diversity of religious adoption. It is essential, as much of the current research has done, that we do not represent or conceive of religion as is lived in life, societies, and political conceptions as a singular, common identity.


Anthropology | Religion | Social and Cultural Anthropology


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