Does Religion Matter? A study of religion, sex ratio, son preference, and abortion attitude in China
The sex ratio at birth in China has been increasingly skewed in favor of males since 1980 when the government implemented the one-child policy to control population growth. Existing studies commonly point to economic factors and their weakening effect on the Confucian tradition of son preference to understand the male-biased sex ratio at birth; however, a perspective that heavily focuses on economic factors is limited. In this dissertation, I argue that bringing in religion – a key factor shaping individual attitudes and decisions related to son preference – can shed important light upon sex ratio at birth patterns in China.
This dissertation is divided into three empirical chapters. The first study explores religious effects on county-level sex ratios at birth using data from the 2000 China Population Census and the 2004 China Economic Census. Findings reveal that greater Daoist presence is associated with more imbalanced sex ratios in the county, while the presence of Islamic and Buddhist places of worship helps mitigate male-biased sex ratios. Study two askes how religious groups vary in their preferences for sons and sex selection decisions using data from the 2010 Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS). Findings suggest that Christians stand out for their weak son preference and refrain from sex selection, while Daoists hold strong son preference and more likely to practice sex selection to have many sons. The last study uses the CGSS data to explore whether religion shapes abortion attitudes among Chinese people. It shows that Islam and Christianity have a strong influence on the disapproval of abortion, and while affiliating with Daoism does not affect one’s approval of abortion, living in a neighborhood with more Daoists significantly reduces one’s approval of abortion.
These studies together demonstrate that religion is an important factor shaping not only individual attitudes and behaviors but also demographic trends in society. This dissertation serves as the first study that investigates the linkage between religion and demographic trends by examining how religion – both individual religious affiliation and religious context in a locality – affects the sex ratio at birth via shaping individual son preferences, sex selection decisions, and abortion attitudes. By highlighting religion – a factor that has been overlooked in demographic studies of China – this study contributes to a more nuanced understanding of imbalanced sex ratios and its determinants.