Revenge of the roader: Chinese atheists are reactionary

One of the major problems in most societies, subject to "great sorts" of various kinds, is the fact that people observe correlations of attitudes & beliefs, and infer from those necessary relations. For example, if one of the first things that someone finds out about me is that I am an atheist, there is a general presupposition that I am a Left-Liberal. It is true that there is a robust relationship between atheism and liberalism in the United States, the problem I have, as an admittedly illiberal atheist, are those who believe that atheism entails liberalism. In a specific instance I have encountered secular proponents of abortion rights and gay marriage who simply find it hard to conceive that someone would have reasoned objections to these policy positions which were not fundamentally rooted in religion. A cursory examination of the treatment of homosexuals in Cuban or the old East Germany would show religion is not necessary for intolerance of homosexual behavior.

But instead of focusing on such details of history, I think it is important to note there are societies which are both far more secular than the United States, and more socially conservative: those of East Asia. Instead of asserting this, let's look at the World Values Survey. I use both the WVS 2005-2008 & Four-wave Aggregate of the Values Studies, explaining the duplicates for nations in the tables below. Additionally, I would caution some care in overemphasizing any specific row because of some small sample sizes, in particular the number of convinced American atheists in the Four-wave Aggregate of the Values Studies (n = 17).

Below are attitudes to a host of social and political issues in several East Asian countries and the United States. I also later broke these out by religious criteria.



























































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































Family Very ImportantReligion Very ImportantActive Member of ReligionAbortion Never Justifiable
USA94.647.437.925.5
Japan92.76.54.414.8
Korea92.321.217.531.6
China78.56.72.568
Hong Kong55.85.3
36.8
China60.72.7
56
Taiwan7812.8
46.3
Japan92.77.3
14.6
Korea89.623.3
36.9
Singapore91.835.9
41.1
USA95.457.1
29.7






Homosexuality Never JustifiableWould Give Money For Environment – Strong AgreeNever Justifiable For Man To Beat WifeReligious Person – Yes
USA32.58.28572.1
Japan24.5874.924.2
Korea47.612.974.630.1
China78.119.375.221.8
Hong Kong39.14
27.3
China92.313.9
14.7
Taiwan65.4


Japan29.810.6
26.5
Korea52.713.1
30.9
Singapore555.7

USA31.616.6
82.5






Believe in God -YesGod Very Important In LifeProstitution Never JustifiableEuthanasia Never Justifiable
USA
57.843.222.3
Japan
5.866.57.8
Korea
1351.322.7
China
4.783.854.6
Hong Kong
6.343.419.6
China



Taiwan



Japan52.6


Korea



Singapore87.1


USA95.6








Divorce Never JustifiableScientific Advances Will HarmIncome Differences Necessary IncentivesCompetition Is Good
USA5.8
8.521.3
Japan4.6
6.28.2
Korea20.5
10.110.4
China56.6
1324.6
Hong Kong22.1
1.813.3
China57.2219.938.3
Taiwan



Japan5.57.35.711.5
Korea212.818.515.1
Singapore30.812.39.921.2
USA7.516.37.228.9






Economic Growth Increase Everyone's Wealth
Hard Work Brings Better Life
USA7.9
18.8
Japan5.9
8
Korea6
17.5
China23
26.4
Hong Kong



China



Taiwan



Japan



Korea



Singapore



USA



 




Abortion Never Justifiable



ReligiousNot ReligiousAtheist
USA30.313.78
Japan21.312.311.9
Korea46.323.326.9
China70.166.370.1
Hong Kong41.935.726.2
China57.156.250
Taiwan



Japan22.712.99.3
Korea48.629.334
Singapore



USA33.8134.7






Homosexuality Never Justifiable



ReligiousNot ReligiousAtheist
USA37.618.919.8
Japan31.223.518.7
Korea62.842.240
China77.278.577.7
Hong Kong44.537.731.3
China91.190.696.9
Taiwan



Japan37.528.526.5
Korea64.947.347.1
Singapore



USA34.917.914.4






Euthanasia Never Justifiable



ReligiousNot ReligiousAtheist
USA26.910.610.8
Japan12.865.6
Korea32.920.215.9
China57.952.157.5
Hong Kong24.517.618.8
China45.753.748.6
Taiwan



Japan16.48.54.6
Korea37.317.919.1
Singapore



USA26.8100






Prostitution Never Justifiable



ReligiousNot ReligiousAtheist
USA48.831.58.7
Japan73.666.653.9
Korea63.548.542.8
China83.283.884.1
Hong Kong49.141.736.9
China95.689.797.1
Taiwan



Japan71.56451.3
Korea68.954.953.2
Singapore



USA51.630.514.4






Competition is Good



ReligiousNot ReligiousAtheist
USA21.521.912.5
Japan10.3712.8
Korea



China26.324.323.2
Hong Kong



China23.536.949.1
Taiwan



Japan17.18.514.3
Korea17.312.616
Singapore



USA29.328.133.6






Men Have More Right To A Job Than Women



ReligiousNot ReligiousAtheist
USA7.84.12.1
Japan39.425.318.3
Korea35.938.333.9
China41.932.738.5
Hong Kong24.620.518.5
China44.448.635.5
Taiwan4843.233.4
Japan38.929.829
Korea
36.634.9
Singapore



USA









Men Make Better Political Leaders



ReligiousNot ReligiousAtheist
USA4.74.30
Japan7.35.27.4
Korea15.511.27.4
China9.59.811.2
Hong Kong2.43.36.1
China7.16.28.2
Taiwan7.872.7
Japan6.65.35.8
Korea1714.315.2
Singapore



USA4.83.28.2






Incomes Should Be Made More Equal



ReligiousNot ReligiousAtheist
USA5.46.510.1
Japan6.84.17.2
Korea2.93.47.5
China13.313.710.4
Hong Kong12.26.724.2
China10.310.314.2
Taiwan4.13.86.2
Japan8.76.26.6
Korea76.46.6
Singapore



USA915.322.3






Economic Growth Increase Everyone's Wealth



ReligiousNot ReligiousAtheist
USA9.352.2
Japan10.34.82.6
Korea5.65.47.3
China26.721.623.1
Hong Kong



China



Taiwan18.614.812.5
Japan



Korea



Singapore



USA



I think you can see several general trends:

1) The United States is the most religious of these nations

2) It is arguably the most Left-Liberal as well

3) There is definitely some trend toward Left-Liberalism being associated with irreligiosity in East Asian nations, but far less so than in the United States

Let's just compare the proportions for atheists vs. those who are religious in each row and sort them by value. By this, I mean that if the proportion for a particular question for the religious = 40%, and atheists = 40%, then the ratio = 1. On the other hand, if the religious = 40% and atheists = 10%, the ratio is 0.25. So a value around 1 indicates little difference between those who are religious and those who are convinced atheists, while a value deviated far from 1 indicates great differences between the two sets.

USA 0.14
USA 0.18
USA 0.24
Japan 0.25
USA 0.26
USA 0.27
USA 0.28
Japan 0.28
Taiwan 0.35
USA 0.4
Japan 0.41
USA 0.41
Japan 0.44
Japan 0.46
Korea 0.48
Korea 0.48
Korea 0.51
USA 0.53
Japan 0.56
Korea 0.58
USA 0.58
Japan 0.6
Hong Kong 0.63
Korea 0.64
Taiwan 0.67
Korea 0.67
Taiwan 0.7
Korea 0.7
Hong Kong 0.7
Japan 0.71
Japan 0.72
Korea 0.73
Japan 0.73
Japan 0.75
Hong Kong 0.75
Hong Kong 0.75
Japan 0.76
Hong Kong 0.77
Korea 0.77
China 0.78
China 0.8
Japan 0.84
China 0.87
China 0.88
Japan 0.88
China 0.88
Korea 0.89
China 0.92
Korea 0.92
Korea 0.94
Korea 0.94
China 0.99
China 1
China 1.01
China 1.01
Japan 1.01
China 1.02
Japan 1.06
China 1.06
China 1.06
USA 1.15
China 1.15
China 1.18
Japan 1.24
Korea 1.3
China 1.38
Taiwan 1.51
USA 1.71
USA 1.87
Hong Kong 1.98
China 2.09
USA 2.48
Hong Kong 2.54
Korea 2.59

I bolded China and emphasized the United States because I think it is clear from these data that the USA and China manifest two different tendencies. In the United States the religious and atheists have very different socio-political profiles. The stereotypes that American religious social conservatives hold about atheists are justified, and those that liberal secular individuals hold about religious people have some foundation. On the other hand in China there is minimal difference between those who see themselves as religious and those are atheists; in fact, if you look at the data I'm not so sure that the atheists aren't exactly somewhat more conservative, at least in the Milton Friedman libertarian style (I think this has to do with correlations of age, sex and education, but I won't get into these data).

In any case, I think there's a simple explanation for the difference between the USA & China when it comes to atheist vs. religious attitudes. Again, from the World Values Survey:


Religious Not Religious Atheist
USA 72.1 24.4 3.6
Japan 24.2 62.1 13.7
Korea 30.1 41.3 28.6
China 21.8 60.3 17.9
Taiwan 40.3 42.9 16.8
Hong Kong 27.3 67.4 5.4
China 14.7 59.5 25.8
Japan 26.5 59.7 13.8
Korea 30.9 37.7 31.4
USA 82.5 16 1.4

Notice something? Atheists in the United States are an extremely small fraction any way you slice it. As such, they are probably selection biased toward particular segments & personalities who would be willing to risk nonconformity. In contrast atheists are a much larger proportion of the population in China, where they are approximately equal in numbers to the religious, and both groups are outnumbered by those who are not religious, but would not assert an atheist self-identification.

My point here is rather simple: increased secularism in the United States would almost certainly lead toward a shift to greater Left-Liberalism. But that dynamic will almost certainly exhibit diminishing returns as secularization proceeds and the personality and social profiles of atheists starts to converge upon the general population. The bad news for conservatives is that I think the secularizing tendency in America during the current period is good for liberalism. The good news is that it probably isn't as bad as it could be if you extrapolated on a straight line from the current secular population in terms of political outlook.

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If one of the first things that someone finds out about me is that I am an atheist, there is a general presupposition that I am a Left-Liberal.

Today, in the US, if you oppose torture, that makes you Left-Liberal.

The correlation you note between atheism and left-liberalism is undeniable, but not inevitable. As an active Libertarian, for example, I find a significant percentage of LPers are atheists, and tend not to hesitate mentioning it.

I suspect there are a far larger number of right-libertarian atheists than many suppose, but they remain "closeted" in order to affiliate with the party and people of their choosing. If the GOP/conservative movement ever escaped from the clutches of America's Taliban, I believe the number of right-libertarian/conservative atheists would nearly equal that of the left. (And double the %-age "admitting to atheism.)

That's interesting - do you think that being an atheist has an effect on your political opinions? It might be interesting to know the difference between atheists who used to be religious and those who never were insofar as this can be parsed.

My hunch is that atheism per se is neither necessary nor sufficient to nix affiliative behaviour/clumping of disparate issues, but it may be evidence of an independent mindset in some people. I sometimes feel that atheism is merely about defending commonsense notions of belief (in the minimal sense that when I say I believe X I know what I mean by X and that belief entails reasoning at some level). But I'd like to think it is more preternaturally rational than that.

re: atheism & libertarians. a disproportionate number of libertarians are atheists, but most atheists are disproportionately non-libertarian. that's just the what data says (i'm a libertarian leaning atheist myself).

but it may be evidence of an independent mindset in some people.

yeah. that's my model. in the USA being an atheist is oddball position, and so probably attracts oddballs....

Hrm... I am coming out of a work-load-imposed silence to comment here...

I think the difference between what the data say and the intuition Americans have for atheists being left-leaning has to do with this:

"In a specific instance I have encountered secular proponents of abortion rights and gay marriage who simply find it hard to conceive that someone would have reasoned objections to these policy positions which were not fundamentally rooted in religion."

I feel that same way (on certain issues). For example, while I can at least conceive of a well-reasoned argument against abortion from a secular standpoint, I can't possibly imagine one against gay marriage... or in favor of prayer in schools.... or against euthanasia... etc. That's not to say I haven't heard people attempt some of them---just to say that they were certainly not well reasoned.

Of course, some issues are more or less independent of whether one is religious: gender roles, inequality, capitalism. I feel like you can make at least plausible arguments on both sides of those issues without religion.

I haven't done any such research, but I've spent quite a bit of time in Taiwan, and seen very little discussion of abortion there. And as for prostitution, together with offshoots like bargirls and massage parlors, it's pretty widespread in China, so I'm surprised at the high level of stated opposition there. I have to take these surveys with a handful of salt.

DMI: I think the most convincing secular argument against those things is the Burkean/Hayekian default argument against anything new - innovations are more likely to break society than to improve it, and once broken society is hard to put back together, so we should conserve what we have and not risk it by introducing new things willy-nilly. I don't think this is a very strong argument. Mainly because it would have (and did) led people to oppose the civil rights movement and other such reform movements which almost everyone now agrees were positive. But it's an argument.

razib: To my mind the main lesson of the Chinese data is that the American left/right spectrum just doesn't apply to China. The Chinese are both keen on competition, keen on the family, and at the same time more environmentalist and more keen on scientific progress than Americans. That's just not a cluster of opinions that exists in the US, so far as I can see. Is it "left" or "right"? I don't think it's either. (Is China a "communist" or a "capitalist" country? Neither - it's China.)

A big factor in the correlation between religiosity and conservative views on issues such as abortion and gay rights comes from the decision of the Republicans to pursue the "Southern Strategy" starting around the time of President Nixon (late 1960s). The GOP targeted both Protestant Christianity and social conservatives, as well as focusing on the Southern states, and the states with more rural populations (Kansas, Utah, Idaho, etc).

Meanwhile the Democrats pursued the Northeast and West Coast (high-density population areas) and more liberal voters. Democrats also courted labor unions, which the GOP generally opposed, so this was a contributing factor as well. This made the Democrats come across as looking more socialist, because they were supporters of worker's rights, and federal programs for the poor and unemployed.

So a lot of what the tables show for the USA is politically driven, which is to say that these are results of specific strategies by each of the major political parties as to which segments of the voters they would try to appeal to, and leave other segments for the opposition to court.

It wasn't always this way. My grandfathers on both my mother's and father's side, for example, both Southerners, regular church-goers, and staunch social conservatives were Democrats, because at that time (1940s, 1950s) the Democrats were the party of the southern white land-owning class. By contrast, Republican strongholds in those days were the Northeastern states.

So the correlation in the USA is not driven so much by any pre-existing relation between religiosity and social conservatism, as it is a result of deliberate strategies pursued by the major political parties in the USA.

Likewise, a complete discussion here needs to mention that China has not always been secular. It had very strong religions (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism) in place until the Communist Revolution under Mao. Under Maoist Communism, two whole generations were raised to be secular. So even in China the trends are more directly connected to politics than any pre-existing correlations.

You see that Taiwan is much more religious than China. This is because Taiwan split from Mao's China, and the Taiwanese government pursued no anti-religion policy as in mainland China.

I think the whole thing kind of underscores what a deeply political animal homo sapiens is.