The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
The following post was originally published on AAPI Voices on May 22, 2014 by Jerry Z. Park and Joshua Tom.
Are Asian Americans in a state of religious confusion? And are Asian American Protestants fleeing their religion?
Consider the example of Lisa, a 20-year old second-generation Vietnamese American from Houston: “I really don’t think I have a religious preference,” she says “I believe that someone is up there, and I’m pretty much screwed up in the head,” she continued with a laugh. “You know ‘cuz I went to Catholic school until I was in 8th grade, and when my parents got divorced I went to [Buddhist] temple for like about 5 or 6 years. So I got the aspects of both religions, and I think that both of them have good aspects, and both of them have bad aspects. And I do what [my parents] ask me to do, but in my own mind I really don’t have like a set religion y’know?”
Lisa’s story isn’t often told in the writings on Asian American religion, academic or otherwise. This gap is particularly apparent when we try to understand religion among those who are the children of immigrants, sometimes called the second-generation. A quick glance at prior studies gives the impression that there is great vitality in religious affiliation and participation.
Indeed one lone conflicting voice, journalist Helen Lee, back in the 1990s made huge waves when she proposed that a “silent exodus” of second-generation Asian American Protestants was taking place. As she noted, churches developed by immigrant Protestant Christians were not filling to capacity by their children and their friends. As these young men and women matured, their parents expected new congregations with English-friendly worship services alongside the main immigrant churches. Indeed in my various visits with Protestant churches lead by second-generation Asian American Protestants over the past 15 years, the Sunday morning congregation never seemed to number more than a couple of hundred and usually averaged between 25 and 75.
Where were the second-generation Protestants? For that matter how was the Asian American second-generation who were not Protestants, like Lisa Tran, doing with regard to their faith?
The need for quantifiable data on religion among Asian Americans is ever more pressing as this population grows more rapidly than the rest of the nation. One of the most rigorous attempts at surveying Asian Americans comes from the Pew 2012 Asian American Survey (hereafter Pew Survey). Through this survey of over 3,500 Asian Americans (with more than 800 from the second-generation), we are able to identify some important patterns that provide context to the numerous smaller-scale studies on religion among the Asian American second-generation that otherwise suggested great intergenerational vitality.
With respect to the silent exodus of the second-generation, we can look at the data from two vantage points, the percentage of those who retained their faith from childhood, and the percentage of current affiliates who grew up with that faith. The first number tells us whether religious individuals have remained committed to their faith tradition, while the second tells us whether today’s believers are made up of long-term followers or new converts. These figures can grant us insight into the negotiation of cultural identities by second-generation Asian Americans, especially as these identities change over time.
For the second-generation Protestants, these two figures are surprisingly similar. The data shows us that 66 percent of those who grew up Protestant were still Protestant at the time they were surveyed. Similarly, about two-thirds of today’s second-generation Asian American Protestant Christians grew up as Protestant. Either way we look at the data, there does not appear to be a mass exodus, if nearly two-thirds who started their faith journey as Protestants are still Protestant.
Importantly, the Pew survey data also let us see these patterns for Protestants in comparison to other religious groups (see below). As the Pew survey indicates, 88 percent of today’s second-generation Asian American Catholics started out as Catholic, a fairly high rate compared to the Protestants. Based on a small sample of only 20 second-generation Asian American Muslims, nearly all grew up Muslim.
Similarly more than 96 percent of today’s second-generation Asian American Hindus were raised Hindu and 81 percent of today’s second-generation Asian American Buddhists were raised Buddhist. In this light, it appears that the supply of second-generation Asian American “cradle Protestants” accounts for a smaller fraction of Protestants than the cradle believers of other faiths. So there does appear to be a disproportionate exodus of Protestants.
At the same time, the exodus does not seem to be towards other religious traditions. The figure above shows the adult religious affiliation of second-generation respondents to the Pew Survey by the religion that they were raised in. The blue bars can be thought of as the ‘retention rate’ for these groups, or the degree to which they avoid losing adherents to other groups However, most of those who change religious affiliation seem to be heading towards a category that sociologists of religion call “nones” or the nonaffiliated.
While this category comprises those who do not identify with a particular religious tradition, religious “nones” encompass a variety of religious orientations including atheists, agnostics and the ‘spiritual but not religious’. A religious “none” may still pray or engage in other identifiably religious activities, or they may be wholly irreligious in identity and behavior.
While there is some variation among religious groups in the likelihood of the second generation becoming religiously nonaffiliated as adults, it is a decidedly popular destination. The green columns in the figure above show the likelihood of second-generation Asian Americans identifying as a religious “none” by the religion they were raised in. Among second-generation Asian Americans, 25% of Protestant-raised and 18% of Catholic-raised currently identify as religiously nonaffiliated.
Buddhist-raised respondents were even more likely to identify as a “none” at the time of the survey, with 34% now claiming no religious affiliation. Small sample size does not permit us to generalize on the proportions for other religious groups, but the data do suggest significant proportions become unaffiliated during adulthood.
These proportions, coupled with the data showing the retention rates for religious groups, account for the majority of religious mobility among second-generation Asian Americans. Stated differently, next to staying in one’s religion, the second most preferred religious destination for second-gen Asian Americans is to have no religion at all. As we saw earlier, these religiously mobile individuals comprise half of all second-gen Asian American “nones”. One might say that the silent exodus is not just a Protestant phenomenon for second-gen Asian Americans; it applies to followers from many faiths.
The big question still to be answered is why: Why is nonaffiliation so appealing to a large minority of “cradle believers” in the second-generation? If part of the answer is conformity to the mainstream, we have some indication of a cultural turning point in American society. Whereas being Protestant, Catholic or Jewish was once thought of as an indication of assimilation into American society for the immigrants and their children, perhaps lack of affiliation today marks a new way that today’s immigrants identify with America.
This possibility coincides with the contemporary rise of the religiously nonaffiliated among Americans in general; while such identification hovered around 10% at the turn of the millennium the proportion has grown to 20% in a single decade. This movement toward irreligion may run even deeper than identity; about 18% second generation Asian-Americans say they don’t believe in God or a universal spirit, compared to only 6% of the general public. By these measures first-generation Asian Americans have always been less religious than their contemporaries, so irreligion may be a fundamentally easier shift for the second generation.
Additionally, the Pew survey data suggest that higher educational attainment among second-generation Asian Americans is associated with disaffiliation among former Protestants and Catholics; this is consistent with our knowledge of the religious ‘nones’ generally, and may help explain the religious switching of Asian Americans specifically. Higher educational attainment can indicate a variety of things that contribute to irreligion; for example, particular religious doctrines may become less tenable with exposure to scientific explanations of reality, or individuals may become less sure of their religious convictions upon repeated interactions with people of different worldviews. Perhaps educational attainment serves to create cultural distance from one’s immigrant parents which may include disaffiliation.
The religious story of the second-generation is far from settled. Right now, they constitute only about one-third of all Asian Americans, and they are relatively young compared to the immigrant generation. Perhaps we will see a return to religious affiliation as more of them marry, and raise children. Time will tell if the second-generation of Asian Americans will replicate the pattern of earlier white European immigrants, or if we are indeed facing a changing religious future.
A lot of people are stressed out right now and understandably so. Our federal government is deadlocked over the debt ceiling issue, the economy is still stagnant, people are mourning the recent murders in Norway, and just yesterday, a Muslim American soldier was arrested for an alleged murder plotting at Fort Hood.
What can we do to deal with all this stress? One thing that people can try is meditating. People throughout Asia have been doing so for thousands of years and little by little, others around the world have found this technique and have enjoyed its benefits.
Here in the U.S., meditation has been around for a while but as this news segment from ABC’s NightLine shows, it is increasingly becoming part of mainstream U.S. society:
As this story notes and as research increasingly documents, this example of east-west convergence is not just the latest pop culture trend — it can actually improve your quality of life.
You might be interested to read the following posts from July of years past:
2009: Reflections on a Multiracial Buddhist Retreat One of my most controversial posts — In an otherwise refreshing and renewing multiracial Buddhist family retreat, two incidents with racial overtones highlight unconscious racial dynamics still present in American society.
2008: The New Yorker’s Obama Cover The New Yorker’s controversial cartoon cover of Barack and Michelle Obama as terrorists brings up a range of reactions from conservatives and liberals.
Earlier this month, my family and I attended the annual Family Retreat at the Deer Park Monastery. The monastery was founded by the well-known but sometimes controversial Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and is set in the hills and desert just outside of Escondido, California. Some of our friends in the Los Angeles have attended this retreat for yours and this was the second year that we attended.
Overall, we really enjoyed the retreat and its nature-centered activities and sessions of relaxed meditation and discussions on being mindful in our daily lives, geared towards adults, children, and both together. We also enjoy being able to camp with other families (dorms are also available) and socializing with like-minded friends and newly-made friends. It’s a nice and much more relaxed change of pace from the more traditional and strict Vipassana Meditation Center that we also participate in.
Modern Buddhism seems to be an increasingly popular and multicultural practice among many Americans and around the world, particularly forms related to the less formal Mahayana version (as opposed to the stricter monastic Theravada version). As a reflection of such, this retreat was truly a multicultural and multiracial event — of the 120-150 or so people in attendance (from babies to grandparents), about 40% were Asian/Asian American, 40% were White, and the rest were African American, Latino, and other races/ethnicities.
With this in mind, it was truly gratifying to see everyone interacting with each other in a very mindful, mutually-respectful, and genuinely peaceful way throughout the event, in contrast to some of the sad examples of racial hostility that still exists in other parts of American society. Within this environment, I and my family felt very comfortable and refreshed and certainly, this is one of the main reasons why we plan on attending in future years.
At the same time, there were a couple of incidents that again highlighted for me the nature of racial differences that still pervade American society, even within the confines of a insulated and “conscious” environment like this. Both of these incidents are not significant or upsetting enough for me to stop attending — it’s only because I am a sociologist that I focus on them.
The first involved a group of families visiting from Viet Nam (as distinguished from Vietnamese American), about 20 individuals in all. For the most part, they were indistinguishable from the rest of the attendees and in fact, as a Vietnamese American, I was very pleased to see them participating in the retreat (although I regret that because of my lack of fluency in Vietnamese that I couldn’t really personally communicate with them).
Unfortunately, their “foreignness” became apparent at the end of each day’s events.
Each day’s activities generally concluded around 9pm, after which attendees would prepare to go to sleep, either in their tents in the campground area or in the dorm area. At 9:30pm, the guidelines called for “noble silence” when everyone is expected to stay quiet for the night.
For whatever reason, this group of Vietnamese families did not understand these guidelines or chose to ignore them because each night, almost everyone could hear them staying up and being quite loud in both the dorm and tent areas. This involved not just talking, but often included shouting, yelling, and arguing very loudly and disruptively well into the night.
Needless to say, this made getting a good night’s sleep rather difficult for many of us. The other part of these incidents were that even though many of us talked to the monks about this situation, for whatever reasons, it continued every night until the end of the retreat.
This leads me to wonder whether the monks (who were about 80% Vietnamese American and the rest were White) felt shy in confronting the Vietnamese group, perhaps fearful that they (and perhaps by implication, the rest of us as attendees) were being too harsh or authoritarian towards them as foreigners visiting the U.S. Symbolized by Barack Obama as our President, these days many Americans are more mindful not to come across as judgmental and “superior” towards others around the world.
But on the other hand, the Vietnamese group’s behavior may have reinforced the notion of them as loud and crude foreigners and “outsiders” to the rest of the attendees. As such, failing to confront their behavior could have caused more harm than good in terms of helping to bridge social divisions and dispel lingering cultural stereotypes toward non-Whites and/or foreigners.
For me personally, this is a complicated issue that highlights some of the ironies and contradictions involved in being Asian American, as I wrote about earlier in regards to a similar incident in an airport security line — standing up for and defending Asians in racial solidarity, but also being embarrassed and even annoyed by their “foreignness” as an American myself.
In contrast, the second “racial” incident at the retreat does not involve much ambiguity at all.
Specifically, during the retreat, families were assigned to different “service meditation” work groups, helping the monks with different tasks involved with running the retreat, such as cleaning bathrooms, setting up the meditation hall, etc. Our family was assigned to one of three teams who helped to clean up, wash, and dry plates, pots, and utensils after one meal each day.
My family and I actually enjoyed this work as it allowed us to give something back to, or at least directly help in the mundane, behind-the-scenes operation of the retreat — a sense of ownership perhaps. We also felt a sense of community in working as a team within not just our family, but with the other families in our group, each of us doing our part to contribute to the larger purpose and becoming closer to each other in the process.
However, after the last meal (lunch) on the last day of the retreat, there were no teams assigned to clean up afterward and instead, the monks asked for volunteers to stay a little bit to wash dishes, etc. Our family was not in a rush to leave so we joined in the effort.
As it turned out, of the 15 or so people who stayed to help clean up, all but one was a person of color — there was just one White person who helped in the cleanup.
In particular, I took notice of one young White couple who came to the morning activities (apparently on the last day of the retreat, the monastery invites those from the surrounding community to come in and participate in a group walk and lunch). During lunch, this couple actually raised their hands when the monks asked for volunteers to stay and clean up, but for whatever reasons, just walked away and left once they finished their lunch.
I hate to say it, but the actions of this particular couple and the White attendees present at this last lunch seem to be a microcosm of the White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor.
These two incidents go to show that even at an event that shows us the peace, harmony, and mindfulness that exists in American society and among people from all kinds of backgrounds, in many ways, American society is still quite racialized, even if most of us may be completely oblivious to such dynamics.
Throughout the presidential campaign and nowadays, as he prepares to officially become the next President of the United States, many people have remarked that Obama seems to be very calm and even-keel in almost all circumstances. That is, he doesn’t ever seem to get visibly angry, frustrated, or on the other hand, seems rather reserved when everyone else is celebratory and even euphoric.
In other words, we might say that Obama is very Zen-like in that way. As Buddhists like to say, he seems to be very “equanimous” — he shows his emotion and determination to achieve his goals, but is very cool and unflappable in doing so and even once he achieves victory, maintains his calm and placid demeanor.
I bring this up because acclaimed writer Alice Walker (her most famous work was The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize) just wrote an open letter to Barack Obama, in which she reinforces many of these “Buddhist” observations and characteristics that Obama personifies. Here are some excerpts of her letter (emphases in bold are mine):
Dear Brother Obama,
You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. . . . Seeing you deliver the torch so many others before you carried, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, only to be struck down before igniting the flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. . . .
We knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of the spirit of Africa and of the Americas. Knowing this, that you would actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about. . . .
I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. . . .
We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become as white-haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate.
One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is all that so many people in the world really want. . . .
I would further advise you not to take on other people’s enemies. Most damage that others do to us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. . . . It is understood by all that you are commander in chief of the United States and are sworn to protect our beloved country; this we understand, completely.
However, as my mother used to say, quoting a Bible with which I often fought, “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” There must be no more crushing of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of ruling a people’s spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor people, women, children.
A good model of how to “work with the enemy” internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies.
And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world.
As someone who feels connected in many ways to Buddhism, Alice Walker’s words capture many of the same feelings that I have towards Obama and the task ahead of him. And based on his character and his equanimity, I am very confident that he will do just fine.