It’s behind the New York Review of Books paywall, alas, but Ian Johnson’s review essay about religion in China makes for exciting reading. Johnson, a veteran foreign correspondent, says that religion remains at the heart of China’s extraordinary social transformation. Who would have foreseen this? It turns out that you can kill the body, but you cannot permanently kill the soul. Excerpts:

One writer, without any apparent irony, said that old people nowadays can’t be trusted because they grew up in the early Communist era, when religion was all but banned, thus depriving them of a moral backbone.

But this cynicism is changing. After three decades of prosperity—the first significant period of stability in 150 years—Chinese have quietly but forcefully initiated a religious revival. Hundreds of thousands of places of worship have reopened or been rebuilt, often from scratch, many of them not registered with the authorities. China now has the world’s largest Bible-printing plant, while thousands of new priests, nuns, and imams of various faiths are being trained every year.

It’s no exaggeration to say that China is in the grip of a religious revival analogous to America’s Great Awakening in the nineteenth century (which also took place during a time of great social upheaval). By some measures, more Chinese (60 to 80 million) now go to church every Sunday than all the congregations of Western Europe put together, while China is now the world’s biggest Buddhist nation. Meanwhile, indigenous belief systems, such as folk religion or redemptive societies like Yiguanddao, are making a comeback.

Johnson says the Christian churches claim to be apolitical, focusing more on morally upright living than in politics. And while this may be true, he says, it’s no coincidence that a huge proportion of Chinese human-rights lawyers are Christians. More:

In my experience, China’s faith-based civil society is often more robust and influential than the few beleaguered environmental or legal NGOs that attract so much Western attention. This is especially the case in the countryside, where folk religion temples—an amalgam of Daoism, Buddhism, and age-old ideas of divine retribution and fate—are run by committees that can rival in influence the local Communist Party. Academics such as Adam Chau and Lily Tsai have spent years documenting these temples, showing how local religious groups provide philanthropic work while promoting government accountability. The McGill professor Kenneth Dean goes so far as to call them a “second tier of government” in some parts of the country.

The government’s problem in countering these trends is its lack of moral authority. It can enforce the appointment of bishops or Tibetan lamas and try to claim the moral high ground by talking about quasi-religious concepts such as a “harmonious society”—the slogan of the outgoing administration. Yet they are avowedly atheist. For believers, this makes the government’s efforts to guide religious life hollow.

Johnson points out how official persecution has all but destroyed much of traditional Chinese Taoism, because many of the rituals had never been written down, but were instead passed down by tradition. An interesting counterpoint to this observation is how the same thing can happen in a free, consumerist society, in which traditions die not because they are suppressed by the state, but because people forget about them of their own free will. Anyway, to read Johnson’s NYRB essay is to realize that when the history of this century is written, for better or for worse, it will likely have been China’s.