On the topic of religion in Vietnam: So you really think we are atheists?

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The crowd squeezing each other to pray for a prosperous new year in Yen Tu Pagoda

Religion in Vietnam on Wikipedia proclaims: “Officially, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an atheist state”.

That statement is perfectly correct and needs no further argument. However, do pay attention to the keyword “officially”, because the actual question is: how about “informally”? Now, this gives room for debate.

Feudal Vietnam was mostly a Buddhist country but Vietnam under Socialism declares no national religion, and most of its population also don’t “officially” follow any particular belief. Normally, when we fill in application forms that asks for religions, we always tick “none”. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean Vietnamese people are all “non-believers” as reported.

Vietnamese society is strongly influenced by the Chinese Taoism, Confucianism and of course Buddhism. We worship our ancestors, believe in life after death, in gods, in human spirits, in evils, in superpower, in oh-so-many-things. We are taught the 5 ethical concepts of “Humaneness” (nhân), “Righteousness” (nghĩa), “Propriety” (lễ), “Knowledge” (trí), “Integrity” (tín) by family and schools at a very early age. We always show filial piety to our parents and respect for elderly people. And most of all, we go to pray at pagodas and temples all the time!

Now let’s talk statistics. The page about Vietnam on Wikipedia reveals some interesting figures:

“According to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam’s report for 1 April 2009, 6.8 million (or 7.9% of the total population) are practicing Buddhists, 5.7 million (6.6%) are Catholics, 1.4 million (1.7%) are adherents of Hòa Hảo, 0.8 million (0.9%) practise Cao Đài, and 0.7 million (0.9%) are Protestants. In total, 15,651,467 Vietnamese (18.2%) are formally registered in a religion (…) According to a 2007 report, 81% of Vietnamese people do not believe in God.”

Personally, I quite skepticize the number 81% given by the “2007 report”. Probably whoever carried out the survey didn’t do it carefully enough. Even the word “God” was not explained clearly. If “God” here was meant to be Christianity’s God then even if we say “no”, would it be a rush to conclude that we are “atheists”? I think if the question were “do you believe in spirits?” 99.9% of Vietnamese would nod because we have been growing up with an altar in the house worshiping our ancestors and gods (not capitalized!). Everything has a god to control it here in Vietnam: god of wealth, god of earth, god of river, god of jungle, god(s) of kitchen, god of etc.(!) Vietnamese people are superstitious, we believe in whatever told and we need no explanation for that. That’s how the culture has brought us up and we are sorry if your “Why?” never gets an appropriate answer.

2 years ago I went to this interesting talk with Australian Vietnamese lecturer Kim Huynh about some bizarre traditions in Vietnam and I still remember this point: the barrier of becoming an authorized follower of any religions in different cultures are extremely diverse. In Western culture, one may say he is Christian but only goes to church once every 2-3 months, while in Vietnam you will meet a lot of non-Buddhists that go to pagoda every week. That’s a fact.

My grandma is a Buddhist. She goes to pagodas every weekend, she has an altar to worship Buddha next to the ancestors’ altar in her house and spends 2-4 hours everyday to pray at home. She was a vegetarian for a long time until my uncles stopped her because they said veggie food didn’t provide her with enough nutrition (!). And in Vietnam, social assumption is that you can only become a Buddhist if you do like my grandma. That is why my mom is not a Buddhist even though she reads lots of books about Buddhism, she worships Buddha, she eats veggie food on the first, the last and the 15th day of every lunar month, but she doesn’t have time to do the 2-4 hours praying every day (yet).

In conclusion, if “atheist” means a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods (as defined in thefreedictionary) then now you can judge it yourself if Vietnam is an atheist country or not.

*Disclaimer: This blog post is my personal opinion only, and is subject to providing you with ZERO assistance in any academic research on religions in Vietnam. Apology.

10 thoughts on “On the topic of religion in Vietnam: So you really think we are atheists?

    Hai Nguyen said:
    February 5, 2014 at 10:48 PM

    I, totally agree with you and recall the very similar family make-up. Base-lined the US criteria (where I grow up), majority of Vietnamese are religious with overwhelming portion of the country is spiritual.

    Chan said:
    March 7, 2014 at 5:08 PM

    I thought there are more Christians than Buddhists in Vietnam. This is interesting.

      Pham Hoang Mien responded:
      March 7, 2014 at 5:16 PM

      Christianity only came to Vietnam since the French colonization, we had been under Chinese control for a thousand years before that

    interopia said:
    March 12, 2014 at 9:24 AM

    great photo

    Julian Blair said:
    May 12, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    Interesting that you didn’t say anything about your personal beliefs with respect to religion. Though this is the first article I’ve read of yours, so you might have addressed it elsewhere.

      Pham Hoang Mien responded:
      May 12, 2014 at 8:57 PM

      Thanks for the comment, but I thought I did? “Vietnamese people are superstitious, we believe in whatever told and we need no explanation for that.” – I am exactly one of the “we” 😉 I believe in God, in gods, in Buddhas, in life after death, in human spirits, in basically all the super natural power. Does this answer your question?

    etherealpandapocky said:
    June 26, 2014 at 3:03 AM

    I was born in a strict Catholic family, so they didn’t have any altar for indigenous spirits. I went to Sunday Church school, and subsequently won all the award there. Nevertheless, since I was 5~6, I know full well that I will never believe in all that crap. I “prayed” at pagodas and shrine for good test score. But scientifically speaking, it’s a form of self-soothing and calming myself down. I still studied like hell for my grades. In this day and age, it’s great if a country is more atheist than not. We would be considered more liberal and openminded, just look at the Slavic/Nordic countries. High atheist and their government is great(at least in comparison to our in VN now). Believ is the weirdest thing. If someone kill their child and said it was God-willing, we’d call them nuts and lock them up. But if you look in the Christian Bible, it’s perfectly fine, even great! Since it shows your devotion to god. If a man tell us he flew to outer space on a winged horse, he’s high as a kite. But in the Islamic Quoran, Muhammad did just that. Boil it down. It doesn’t really matter in what you believe in, as long as you can function. But nevertheless, if the only thing that is keeping you from being a bad person is the expectation in the so called afterlife reward, then you’re just a shitty piece of fuck of a human altogether.

    Caroline Brown said:
    May 27, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    “. Even the word “God” was not explained clearly. ” I Agree, I have been to Vietnam and I know people there tend to belief whatever they are told. That alone is a sign of trust, the trust themselves enough to belief without knowing why.The Vietnamese Beliefs in the good nature of man, the belief in spirits that protect them and that the pray to. So I agree the word God wasn’t explained properly, God as a word means a supernatural being believed to protect and guide believers. So That fact that the are not all christian or they don’t all belief in the same God as most doesn’t make them atheist. They belief in their own god.

    Vanny said:
    April 18, 2016 at 6:05 PM

    I’m sure there are many more religious people in Vietnam. I personally don’t care as belief in fairy tales in 2016 is silly.

    Thịnh Nguyễn said:
    September 12, 2016 at 11:47 AM

    I’m working on a thesis on religion in SouthEast Asia and so the atheism in Vietnam has been my main interest. One thing I have to note that religion in Vietnam is far less important to the life of people and the government than it is in other places. Buddhism in Vietnam is often blended with folk-religions or traditional confucianism/taoism. Additionally, the practice of Buddhism in Vietnam is very basics, the majority of people who have a Buddhist altar in their house are actually not religious.

    Perhaps a good way to look at Buddhism in Vietnam is to make comparison with neighbor countries such as Cambodia and Thailand, where Buddhism plays an important role in daily life, government, and culture. By the same token, see how influenced Islam is to Indoneisia/Brunei, or Catholicism is to Philippines.

    One thing that I agree with you is that using the word “atheism” is not at all accurate. I suggest “non-religiousness” maybe a clumsy yet a better word.

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