Religious Diversity in America

Faculty Feature

Faculty Feature 

Chinese-Americans, Confucian values, and the challenges of “secularization”

by Mark Csikszentmihalyi

Mark Csikszentmihaly is Professor and Eliaser Chair of International Studies Chair, Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley, and a member of the Haas Institute Religious Diversity research cluster. 

T he Bay Area’s Chinese-American student community is diverse, even though in its broad outlines it shares several key features with the broader Chinese-American population, which is predominantly coastal and urban, and more likely to identify as Christian than Buddhist. Discussions of religious identification with Chinese-American students run into particular problems with Confucianism, especially when the conversation turns to Confucianism as a source of religious values. There are several roadblocks that, in my classroom experience, tend to come up in the discussion of Confucianism that do not arise with other traditions. For example, in the absence of church-like institutions, identification with Confucianism is more reliant on issues of cultural identity. Related to this is the view that since Confucian values are generally more relevant to social and interpersonal contexts, they are compatible with personal religious belief in another tradition. Finally, talking about “secularized Confucian values” often presents a conundrum since students are wont to identify core values of filial piety or harmony as “this-worldly” or secular even within a Confucian context.

Moving from the classroom to the realm of social scientific research, these particular aspects of Confucian identity create methodological challenges for conclusions about Chinese-American religious identity, which derive in large part from the confusing history of the category of “Confucian religion.” Two key elements of most of the traditions identified with Confucius across Chinese history are at odds with universal models of religion: the lack of independent institutions, and the non-exclusive dimension of Confucian religious identity. One of the first sociologists to articulate the “relative weakness of institutional religion in Chinese society” was C. K. Yang (Yang, 294). Yang’s discussion of “secularization,” then, entailed a generally disappearance of the diffused religious aspect of social institutions. The exclusive nature of Christian identity in Europe was generally not a feature of the East Asian religious landscape, where people visit institutions affiliated with different traditions on the same day, even while many of them identify as “not religious” (Reader, 200). In this pluralistic context, Confucianism’s relative lack of attention to issues of afterlife led some early European missionaries such as Martin Martini (1614-1661) to describe China as an “atheist” country. Today, similar issues have led some to question whether Confucianism is a religion at all, and indeed there is a marked preference for categorizing it not as a “religion” but as a “philosophy” in China today.

Religious affiliation means something different with respect to Confucianism, and this difference provides conceptual challenges for explanatory systems that assume values must derive from personal religious belief. A recent study of the values of Chinese university students exemplifies this problem. While the survey methodology of “Sources of Meaning in Life Among Chinese University Students” is relatively sophisticated, its conclusions are based on a key assumption that Chinese student values are secularized versions of those found in the “three traditions” of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. 

Interestingly, while six times as many participants responded to a question about belief by identifying as “Communist” as compared to “Confucian,” the surveys revealed a concern with “fulfilling our duties and responsibilities with regard to other people” solely in terms of “moral principles in the Confucian discipline,” (Zhang 1475). In the context of Asian-Americans, identifying whether personal values originate from Confucianism is also not straightforward. The process of “secularization” of Confucian religious values assumes a particular type of religious subject that my students have great difficulty recognizing in their parents’ or their grandparents’ generation. Given the considerations about the particular nature of Confucian traditions above, that is not surprising.

To be sure, other issues, such as a failure to differentiate between different meanings of the word “China,” or “Chinese-American” are also challenges for talking about ChineseAmerican religious identity. Yet Confucianism provides a unique challenge to standard concepts of religious identity, and therefore to models of secularization. Behind this, of course, is the idea that thinking about religious pluralism in America requires not just that we take stock of and appreciate the diversity of religious affiliations, but also that we attend to the different ways that people derive values from traditions and to the fact that modes of religious affiliation themselves may diverge.

Works Cited

Reader, Ian. (2016). “Problematic Conceptions and Critical Developments: The Construction and Relevance of ‘Religion’ and Religious Studies in Japan.” Journal of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religions 3: 198-218.

Hong Zhang, et al. (2016). “Sources of Meaning in Life Among Chinese University Students” Journal of Happiness Studies 17: 1473–1492.

C. K. Yang. (1969). Religion in Chinese Society

American Atheists: Adding a Critical Voice to the Conversation

by Jerome P. Baggett

F ewer than one-half of all religiously affiliated Americans today think of themselves as being “critical,” whereas a full two-thirds of all atheists in the U.S. claim this as a personality trait that describes them quite well.74 Moreover, as I have learned through my interview-based research, atheists are not especially bashful about aiming their critical sensibilities in the direction of religious faith, doctrines and institutions. Then, given that they have so much to say, why do we hear so very little about what your average atheists think about such things? Why are their criticisms of religion, in all their variety and with all their nuances, never really heard within the public square?

One reason is the widespread habit of conflating atheists in general with the particular subset of best-selling atheist authors – the so-called New Atheists – who evince disconcertedly little nuance when addressing religion. The source of religious commitment, they tell readers, is merely mass “delusion” (Richard Dawkins) or a kind of primordial and still lingering “spell” cast upon a not-yet-awoken populace (Daniel Dennett). Furthermore, they continue ominously, religion’s inevitable end is that it ultimately “poisons everything” (Christopher Hitchens) and leads inexorably to “a future of ignorance and slaughter” (Sam Harris).75 Not much hair splitting there. Such thinkers represent an influential strand of public atheism and, without question, many of their more keenly targeted criticisms of religious intolerance, hypocrisy, patriarchy, dogmatism and the like are certainly valid. Yet, when their proclivity for overblown polemics is presumed to characterize the critical views of everyday atheists, then their voices can be all-too-easily dismissed as a consequence.

This erroneous presumption is compounded by a second problem: the stereotyping of atheists. If their message is widely found “guilty by association” with the New Atheists’ ham-handed polemics, the messenger fares little better in the eyes of the general public. Its perception of atheists, however, is as dependably unflattering as it is false. For instance, even though they are consistently stigmatized as immoral, there is simply no empirical support for this. Whatever else they might suggest, the interviews I conducted with atheists reveal (as it were) people’s often considerable efforts to carve out intellectually honest and ethically discerning lives for themselves. Something similar can be said for the pervasive notion that atheists live meaningless, superficial lives. The preponderance of my interviewees (83 percent) agree that “my life has a real purpose” and, according to a recent national study, the proportion (roughly one-half) who report feeling a “deep sense of wonder” at least once every month is about the same as it is for their actively religious counterparts.76 So, what about the stereotypical “unhappy” or “angry” atheists? Turns out they are hard to find as well. The approximately 9 in 10 atheists who consider themselves to be either “very” or “pretty” happy almost exactly mirrors what actively religious people report. And, rather than being angry with them, most atheists have close friends, family members and, for about half of those who are married, even spouses who are believers. Little wonder, then, that only about one-third of the people I queried say they “tend to dislike religious people.” So, what about the religiously ignorant atheists? They, too, are more imagined than real. The majority of American atheists were socialized into religious adherence as children; according to the General Social Survey, 43 percent of them attended church services at least once every week at the age of twelve.77 To this day, nearly two-thirds of those I spoke to say they enjoy reading books about religion and, according to a recent Pew study, atheists (along with agnostics) are on average the nation’s most religiously knowledgeable citizens.78

The cautionary note here is that, if what atheists have to say is presumed to lack subtlety and if atheists themselves are habitually thought to be immoral, superficial, unhappy, angry and ignorant, then there is scant incentive to pay attention to their critical views about religion. This situation is only exacerbated by yet another reason why atheists’ perspectives are so often not heard – they just as often go unspoken. Experiences of stigma and the persistence of stereotypes, even easily debunked ones, likely go a long way toward creating a hushing effect among nonbelievers. According to another Pew study, about two-thirds of all atheists in the U.S. say they seldom or never discuss their views on religion with people of faith.79 Most religiously affiliated Americans are not even close to being this tight-lipped.

Fortunately, things loosen up a bit when one takes the time to truly listen. In doing so, we discover that, in much the same way as churchgoers’ “lived religion” departs in many respects from the orthodoxies typically articulated by religious authorities, atheists generally refrain from the New Atheists’ ungainly black-andwhite verities and offer reflections that, as the great G. F. W. Hegel once noted of philosophy, are painted “grey in grey.”80 They apply greyer hues, for example, when they distinguish believers’ religious impulses, which they often respect, from the religious dogmatism they roundly eschew. Same goes for when they distinguish between religious people and institutions, much preferring the former to the latter. And they are even considerably less bothered by others’ belief in God per se than by certain problematic images of God they contend lead to pernicious behaviors of various kinds.

Along with gaining a sense of these (and other) nuances, actually taking the time to listen is also likely to engender a revalorization of atheism itself. Here I mean something more than moving from a stigmatizing, stereotypical perception of atheists to a more accurate one. This, too, is crucial, of course. Yet, beyond even that, I also mean moving from envisioning atheism negatively, in terms of a rejection (abandoning religion) or a negation (not believing) or an absence (without faith) to seeing it as an active and affirmative embrace of convictions and dispositions that are substantial in their own right. As much as the arcs of their lives have taken them from belief, they have also directed the people with whom I spoke toward new, wholly desirable ways of being in the world that deserve to be attended to in an equally new, interpretively generous manner. I can think of no better way to accord atheists their rightful place amid conversations concerning the nation’s religious diversity.

Magazines and Religious Diversity in America, 1741-1860

by Heather A. Haveman

Heather A. Haveman a Professor of Sociology and Business at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Haas Institute Religious Diversity research cluster.

This piece is excerpted and revised from Haveman's book Magazines and the Making of America: Modernization, Community, and Print Culture, 1741- 1860, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Religious diversity has long been the hallmark of America. Before the Revolution, America was home to a wide array of faiths. Although nine of the thirteen British colonies that formed the original core of the United States had established (state-sanctioned and state-supported) churches at the time of the Revolution, a large minority of inhabitants were members of over a dozen “dissenting” denominations. Religious diversity became even greater after the Revolution when state churches were disestablished, making it easier for other faiths to gain adherents. Waves of immigration brought more Catholics, Anabaptists, and Lutherans into the mix. Finally, three series of religious revivals greatly increased the number of distinct faiths, as the leaders of revivalistic religious movements clashed with established religious authorities and seceded from their communities to found dozens of new sects. Religious participation increased as new upstart churches and countermovement’s within existing churches aggressively courted adherents.

Because of the wide variety of denominations in America, religion in this era was replete with disputes about the nature of faith, which took the form of struggles over meaning, authority, and boundaries. The high level of religious rancor prompted Timothy Flint, prominent western minister and author, to charge in 1830, “Nine pulpits in ten in our country are occupied chiefly in the denunciation of other sects” (quoted in Mott 1930: 369).

In this era of religious contention, magazines proved to be powerful platforms for religious partisans. Vicious battles were fought in an ever-increasing number of scholarly theological reviews and newsy magazines for the laity. These debates produced a torrent of talk about faith: news, loud praise and even louder denunciations, emotional exhortations, and eloquent arguments that generated much material for the religious press. Over 90 percent of religious magazines (1,142 of the 1,229 that were published before 1861) proclaimed a doctrinal and/or organizational affiliation with a particular community of faith, a handful were explicitly nondenominational, and the remained focused on attacking a particular sub-community—Catholics, Jews, or Freemasons—but did not proclaim a particular denominational affiliation. Revivalists were particularly likely to use magazines to reinforce their messages, as these leaders of new religious movements sought to reinforce their charismatic authority over recent converts. Indeed, over half of the religious magazines in this era that had an explicit denominational connection were affiliated with revivalist faiths like the Methodists, Baptists, and Disciples of Christ. By 1830, religious periodicals had become “the grand engine of a burgeoning religious culture, the primary means of promotion for, and bond of union within, competing religious groups” (Hatch 1989: 125–26). Although a few religious magazines sought national religious unity, most of these actually favored some religious traditions over others. Most notable among these “not really nondenominational” magazines were those that supported the Congregationalists and Presbyterians’ Plan of Union, which sought to combine their domestic missionary efforts, recognize each other’s ministry and church organization, and allow newly formed congregations to affiliate with either a presbytery or a Congregational association. The ultimate goal was to counter advances by the upstart Baptists and Methodists.

Religious magazines forged bonds among the faithful, thus sustaining the new religious communities that arose from revivals and propelled their expansion. Religious magazines also provided a voice for theological reassessment and the restructuring of ecclesiastical authority, thus hastening the transformation of the established churches that were challenged by revivalists and schismatic movements. The upshot is that magazines helped sustain modern, translocal communities of faith, helping them to craft distinctive identities and compete against other faiths, and to forge bonds among far-flung adherents (see also Goldstein and Haveman 2013).

By publishing magazines, religious communities competed both locally and nationally to recruit and retain adherents. Competitive mobilization through magazines depended on the extent to which rivalries among faiths played out simultaneously in multiple markets. Three related trends—the development of a pluralistic nationwide field of religion, the competition engendered by pluralism, and the rise of internal competition from schismatic groups—had independent effects on the growth of denominational magazine publishing. But my analysis also shows that magazine publishing efforts grew faster when and where both competition and resources were high: the impetus to mobilize in the face of competition drove religious groups to act only when and where they had the capacity to mobilize substantial resources.

Finally, my analysis shows that religion in this era was a critical supporter of social-reform movements, in part through the magazines they published. My analysis extends our thinking about the relationship between religion and reform from a narrow focus on the strength of religious belief to include their content. Specifically, churches with different theological orientations had different relationships to antislavery societies: this-worldly churches supported them, while otherworldly churches undermined them (see also King and Haveman 2008).

Works Cited

Goldstein, Adam, and Heather A. Haveman. 2013. Pulpit and press: Denominational dynamics and the growth of religious magazines in antebellum America. American Sociological Review 78(5): 797–827.

Hatch, Nathan O. 1989. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

King, Marissa D., and Heather A. Haveman. 2008. Antislavery in America: The press, the pulpit, and the rise of antislavery societies. Administrative Science Quarterly 53: 492– 528.

Mott, Frank Luther. 1930. A History of American Magazines, 1741–1850. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • 74. Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, “The Baylor Religion Survey, Wave II” (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University, 2007)
  • 75. The first three fragments come from the titles or subtitles of these authors’ well-known books: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006); Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2006); Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007). The fourth one comes from Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), 223.
  • 76. Joseph O. Baker and Buster G. Smith, American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems (New York: NYU Press, 2015), 92.
  • 77. Ibid., 162
  • 78. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2010).
  • 79. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “Religious Landscape Study” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2015).
  • 80. G. F. W. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (1821; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 13.