May 22, 2014
Written by Jerry Z. Park
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.