Scholarly interest in studying the role of religion in the environment has received substantial attention for the past half-century. Since historian Lynn White
) argued that Judeo-Christianity with a domination ethic over nature had caused the ecological crisis, the consequences of the interactions between religions and the environment have been debated quite extensively in the literature (Berry 2013
). With different perspectives and technical details as well as the multidimensional nature of environmental attitudes and actions, researchers have stimulated divergent results. Some researchers have provided empirical support for White’s argument (Dunlap and Van Liere 1984
; Eckberg and Blocker 1989
; Sherkat and Ellison 2007
), while others held evidence with contrasting results (Boyd 1999
; Shibley and Wiggins 1997
). Disparate effects were detected and given varied measures and data sets. For example, Greeley
) found that a willingness for environmental spending was negatively correlated with biblical literalism, but positively with being Catholic. Similarly, Hayes and Marangudakis
) employed a cross-country survey and suggested significant inter-denominational and intra-denominational differences within the Christian tradition in environmental attitudes. Clements et al.
) rejected the “greening of Christianity” view by discovering lower levels of environmental concern among Christians, and found that religiosity related positively only to pro-environmental behaviors rather than pro-environmental attitudes or beliefs. A recent typical case is the role of Evangelical Christianity in shaping climate change denial in the US context. National survey data has shown more skepticism toward climate change as well as the potential influence on policy makers associated with Evangelical Protestants (Ecklund et al. 2017
In China, numerous studies on religion and the environment can also be discovered. Research has focused on ecological visions of specific religions, e.g., Confucianism or Neo-Confucianism (Tucker and Berthrong 1998
; Tu 2001
), Buddhism (Cooper and James 2005
), Daoism (Girardot et al. 2001
; Miller 2017
), and have found their promising contributions to environmental attitudes. Religions are treated as a source of human values, and thus have a remarkable impact in the standards or criteria of behavioral decisions, especially regarding the environment (Stark and Finke 2000
; Roccas 2005
). Unlike the controversy in the Western world, in summary, explorations on the traditional wisdom of Chinese religions have mostly obtained affirmative views in academia, and consensus achieved that an eco-friendly worldview is the mainstream in China’s religions (Jenkins 2002
; Snyder 2006
; Ching 1993
). Despite plentiful discussion on the role of faith in the environment, empirical evidence still lacks. Though some case studies (Johnson 2017
; Woodhouse et al. 2015
; Liu et al. 2002
), and research on religions and business environmental ethics (Du et al. 2014
; Cui et al. 2015
; Xing and Starik 2017
) are emerging, a systematic statistical test on the actual effects of religious beliefs on environmental behaviors has rarely been launched at the individual level. We believe the interplay of religion and environment in China particularly deserves a thorough empirical investigation. The basic logic in connections between religion and the environment is that a religion spreads shared values through its principles, e.g., environmental awareness, and then its believers adapt their environmental behaviors accordingly. The current literature has fully covered the characteristics and potentials (mostly positive) of religions, however, the influences of religious affiliations on each believer or community’s actions may not have been taken into account. To fill the missing link, a statistical analysis based on large-scale surveys is necessary.
Empirical research in the context of China is not a simple duplication using another data source. China has the largest irreligious population in the world. The country is governed by the Communist Party of China (CPC), an atheist institution. The CPC is the world’s second largest political party, with nearly 90 million members by the end of 2016, that are prohibited from religious beliefs (People’s Daily 2016
). Non-CPC members also receive ideology education from an early age as primary and middle school students, joining the CPC’s affiliate organizations, the Young Pioneers and the Communist Youth League (Xie et al. 2017
). As a result, though religious freedom is protected by the Constitution, China is the least religious country. Only 14% are religious (as counted by WIN-Gallup International
)), and the proportion is lower in domestic statistics, e.g., 10% by the Chinese Family Panel Studies (CFPS 2012
). In contrast, the global average level of religious people is 59% (WIN-Gallup International 2012
), and only Christians cover three-quarters of the population in North America and Europe (Pew Research Center 2012
). Therefore, the special development situation for religions in China has already provided an unusual study target.
Interestingly, religions are officially encouraged as an effective approach to promoting a pro-environmental society. The “ecological civilization” concept, initiated at the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2007, has been widely spread nationwide and worldwide (Pan 2016
). The new development paradigm not only integrates the transition to a greener economic growth, but also people’s awareness and behaviors towards sustainability. To expand the publicity, education, and practices in the realization of ecological civilization, the function of religion has been greatly valued. A typical example is from Yue Pan, the senior deputy minister of China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection from 2003 to 2016, who suggested that traditional Chinese religions serve as a powerful way to tackle China’s environmental problems (Pan 2010
). The State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) of China proposed the concept of an “ecological temple” that should play a positive role in ecological protection and education (SARA 2014
). On the other hand, the religious community has responded actively. For instance, the Chinese Taoist Association
) published an Eight-Year (2010–2017) Planning for Environmental Protection (Chinese Taoist Association 2009
) that included a cooperation framework with government environmental protection institutions as well as some international organizations including the Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
The coexistence of an atheist educational system and religious participation in environmental protection in China has created a unique and fascinating analysis object in this research field. This study may contribute to the literature, therefore, not only with a new empirical evidence, but also with a special practical case. As for the research question in this article on how religious beliefs affect environmental behaviors in China, enlightened by the mainstream viewpoints from theoretical perspectives, as well as the active commitment by the political community, it is preliminarily hypothesized that religious beliefs have a positive influence on environmental behaviors.
As the least religious country governed by the world’s largest atheist political party, empirical research on the influences from religions still lack in many fields, especially regarding environmental issues. This article intends to fill the lacuna by examining the interrelationships between sets of religious affiliations and two types of environmental behaviors. Our empirical findings showed a contradictory result that most religious beliefs had negative effects on private environmental behaviors, but had positive effects on public environmental behaviors. The distinction is unsurprising considering two facts: religious believers in China have the sociodemographic characteristics of less educated, more rural residents, and fewer CPC members; and the development of environmentalism in China’s public sphere is still at a very early stage. The interpretation based on those evidences would lead to two conclusions. First, the personal characteristics of religious believers have constrained their environmental practices, though major religions themselves support pro-environmental traditions and values. Second, religions could undertake the role of an environmentalist guide, drawing on their faith to organize believers and influence irreligious communities. In addition, aside from traditional Chinese religions, other affiliations such as Christianity and Catholicism are also inspired to vigorously engage in public pro-environmental actions, which somewhat differs with divergent results from prior research in Western academia.
The findings from our investigation are quite encouraging and promising. The complementarity of informal religious cultures and formal governmental enforcement appears to have become a new mechanism to enhance pro-environmental behaviors in China. As criticized by scholars and the general public, China’s environment deterioration over the past decades may be related to the lack of faith. Meanwhile, formal institutions such as laws and regulations have failed to achieve the desired outcomes. The ongoing pursuit of ecological civilization requires a fundamental civilizational change and deep-rooted ethics is crucial. Fortunately, religions are building the bridge between the environmental atmosphere on the macro-dimension and the environmental behaviors of the individual on the micro-dimension. Therefore, the revealed close religion–politics interaction on environmental issues could provide certain policy choices in the process of ecological civilization construction in China. An essential policy recommendation is to protect and foster positive religious activities that contain traditional pro-environmental beliefs. Meanwhile, it is necessary to offer public assistance to those religious believers of lower social and economic status to stimulate their spontaneous environmental behaviors.