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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

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.

May 22, 2014

Written by Jerry Z. Park

Keeping (and Losing) Faith, the Asian American Way

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.

Pew Survey Graph 1

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.

religion2

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.

religion3

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.


September 10, 2009

Written by C.N.

Posts from Years Past: September

You might be interested to read the following posts from September of years past:

  • 2008: What Exactly is a Hate Crime?
    How a recent racial attack against an Indian American symbolizes the injustices people of color have experienced through the years.
  • 2007: Using Religion to Unite Racial Groups
    In times of economic insecurity, demographic change, and political conflict, common religious beliefs might be the social glue that bonds groups from different backgrounds together.
  • 2006: Indian Americans: Model Immigrants?
    The socioeconomic success of many Indian Americans in recent decades is due to their individual and collective hard work and existing advantages that they brought with them as immigrants.
  • 2005: “Anti-Asian” Laws Passed by APA Politicians
    Looking at the racial, ethnic, and political complexities of laws and regulations proposed by Asian American politicians that seem to disproportionately hurt other Asian Americans.

June 30, 2008

Written by C.N.

The Social Construction of ‘Facts’

In the realm of racial/ethnic relations, sociologists consistently observe that certain beliefs — let’s even call them stereotypes — can take on a life of their own and attain a level of “legitimacy” that defies logic and rational thinking.

In the context of the presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain, one persistent belief/stereotype is that Obama is a Muslim, when in fact he is a Christian. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a Muslim of course, but certain extremists are using this stereotype against Obama and suggesting that if elected, he will somehow turn the country into a fundamentalist Islamic state.

To shine some light into the nuts and bolts of how such outlandish perceptions can become so widespread, two authors have written an op-ed piece in the New York Times that illustrates the social and biological workings of this process:

The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way. . . For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. . . .

Even if they do not understand the neuroscience behind source amnesia, campaign strategists can exploit it to spread misinformation. They know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked.

In other words, when it comes to controlling information and what is perceived to be “true” or not, the link between biology and society becomes a very powerful tool for both sides to exploit and manipulate. This is in line with Joseph Goebbels’ (Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda) famous quote, “If you tell people a lie often enough, eventually they will start to believe it.”

With that in mind, we should also recognize that these days and through such media as the internet and various blogs, social networking sites, and other forms of mass communication, such misinformation can be spread quite easily and effectively.

In the past, liberals have not been quite as skilled in these respects. With this in mind, I hope this time we’ve learned our lesson and can better respond in asserting facts over stereotypes.


September 27, 2007

Written by C.N.

Using Religion to Unite Racial Groups

In my previous post entitled “The Downside of Diversity,” I wrote about a new study by a Harvard professor which concluded that in areas with high levels of racial/ethnic diversity, residents are more likely to feel alienated and distrustful of each other.

In that context however, as the New York Times reports, in many churches around the country, an influx of new immigrants has led to increased racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their churches. More importantly and in contrast to the findings of the above-mentioned, it has actually strengthened the social bonds between church members:

The Clarkston International Bible Church, which sits along an active freight rail line down the road from the former Ku Klux Klan bastion of Stone Mountain, is now home to parishioners from more than 15 countries. . . The church’s Sunday potluck lunch features African stews and Asian vegetable dishes alongside hot dogs, sweet tea and homemade cherry pie.

The transformation of what was long known as the Clarkston Baptist Church speaks to a broader change among other American churches. Many evangelical Christians who have long believed in spreading their religion in faraway lands have found that immigrants offer an opportunity for church work within one’s own community. And many immigrants and refugees are drawn by the warm welcome they get from the parishioners, which can stand in stark contrast to the more competitive and alienating nature of workaday America.

Indeed, evangelical churches have begun to stand out as rare centers of ethnic mixing in a country that researchers say has become more culturally fragmented, in part because of immigration.

The article describes that the transition to a multi-ethnic and multicultural church was not an easy one. As their town was experiencing these profound demographic changes, many old-time White residents were appalled and moved elsewhere, rather than live next to more immigrants and people of color.

Nonetheless, other long-time residents turned to the Bible to get guidance on how to deal with these social changes and found the answer in Jesus’s example of praying for unity among his followers. As a result, the church first rented out its facilities to Filipino, Vietnamese, and African groups for their own services. Eventually, the church invited these separate congregations to join them to form an expanded and inclusive congregation.

Further, the article notes that all groups involved had to change a little: ” Merging congregations has meant compromise for everyone. The immigrants who join the main congregation have to give up worshiping in their native languages. Older Southern Baptist parishioners have given up traditional hymns and organ music.”

This story about the evolution of the Clarkston International Bible Church is a great example of sociology in so many ways. The first lesson is that globalization and demographic change are practical realities of American society. With that in mind, “traditionalists” can try to keep running away and moving from town to town if they like, but eventually they will have to deal with these changes one way or another.

Alternatively, as illustrated by William Perrin’s example in the article, they can summon up the courage to consciously adapt to these changes and learn to even embrace these changes because it is these kinds of challenges that make us stronger and more united as a community and as a society.

A third “lesson” we might learn from this story is the positive power of religion to facilitate social unity and solidarity. Many Americans and particularly many academics, are rather skeptical and even hostile towards organized religion. In many cases, they see religion as a divisive force that only serves to perpetuate “us versus them” mentalities.

In many cases, these critics of religion certainly have a point and there are plenty of examples to support their perspective. Nonetheless, as this article illustrates, not all aspects of organized religion are divisive and in fact, as shown by the Clarkston example, religion can serve as a powerful and effective focal point that can bring together people from diverse backgrounds.

All combined, the final sociological lesson to be learned is that rather than leading to more alienation and distrust, racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, with the help of some kind of “social glue” like religion, can indeed offer us the opportunity to socially evolve and to become better American citizens.