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Spirituality, Religion, & Faith

Among the more traditional elements of Asian American culture, religion, spirituality, and faith have always been important to Asian American communities, as they were for many generations before them. But within the diversity of the Asian American community, so too comes diversity in our religious beliefs and practices.


Which Religion is the Most Popular?

One of the first questions to examine is, which religions or faith traditions are the most popular among Asian Americans and among each of the different Asian ethnic groups? Unfortunately, nationally representative and reliable statistics are difficult to find. There are few studies or data that I know if that would answer these questions conclusively, particularly ones that break down religious affiliation among different Asian ethnic groups.

American Religious Identifcation Survey 1990-2008: Asian Americans

  1990 2001 2008
None/AgnosticNone, No religion, Humanistic, Ethical Culture, Agnostic, Atheist, or Secular 16% 22% 27%
Eastern ReligionsBuddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Baha'i, Shintoist, Zoroastrian, or Sikh 8% 22% 21%
CatholicRoman, Greek, or Eastern Rites 27% 20% 17%
Other Christian
13% 11% 10%
11% 6% 6%
9% 4% 3%
3% 2% 2%
Mormon
2% 0% 0%
Muslim 3% 8% 8%
New Religious MovementsScientology, New Age, Eckankar, Spiritualist, Unitarian-Universalist, Deist, Wiccan, Pagan, Druid, Indian Religion, Santeria, or Rastafarian 2% 1% 2%
Jewish 1% 0% 0%
Don't Know/ Declined to Answer 4% 5% 5%

Nonetheless, there are some statistics that give a general picture of religious affiliation within the Asian American community. One of the largest, most up to date, and most comprehensive sources is the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), conducted by researchers at Trinity College (CT). The ARIS was first conducted in 1990, again in 2000, and the most recent wave was completed in 2008. The 2008 study includes data from a large, nationally representative sample of 54,461 U.S. adults in the 48 contiguous states.

The following table is taken from Table 10 of the ARIS 2008 report (630 KB). You can place your cursor over each religion or denomination to see a detailed listing of specific denominations included within each of these categories, or you can visit the ARIS 2008 Appendix as well.

The results show that while no religion can claim a majority of followers in the Asian American community, as of 2008, those who claim no religious affiliation are the largest group. In fact, this group has grown significantly since the first ARIS study in 1990 and its percentage in 2008 (27%) among Asian American is the largest of all the major racial ethnic groups in the study (Whites are second with 16% claiming no religious affiliation). The second-largest religious group among Asian Americans are "Eastern Religions" that include Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Baha'i, Shintoist, Zoroastrian, and Sikh. These Eastern Religions saw a dramatic increase from 1990 to 2001, then leveled off in 2008. Catholics are the third-largest group at 17% in 2008, with their proportions declining notably from 27% in 1990.

Pew Research Institute,
Forum on Religion & Public Life 2008:
Asian Americans

      2008
Christian 45%
  Protestant 27%
    Evangelical 17%
    Mainline 9%
    Historically Black < 0.5%
  Catholic 17%
  Mormon 1%
  Jehovah's Witness < 0.5%
  Orthodox < 0.5%
  Other ChristianSpiritualist, Unity, Unity Church, Christ Church Unity, Other Metaphysical < 0.5%
Eastern & Other Religions 30%
  Hindu 14%
  Buddhist 9%
  Muslim 4%
  Other World Religions 2%
  Other FaithsUnitarian (Universalist), 'Spiritual but not religious,' Eclectic, 'a bit of everything,' own beliefs, Other liberal faith groups, New Age, Wica (Wiccan), Pagan, Other New Age groups, Native American Religions 1%
  Jewish < 0.5%
Unaffiliated 23%
  Secular Unaffiliated 11%
  Religious Unaffiliated 5%
  Agnostic 4%
  Atheist 3%
  Don't Know/Refused 2%

The category of "Christian Generic" (comprising those who identified as Christian, Protestant, Evangelical/ Born Again Christian, Born Again, Fundamentalist, Independent Christian, Missionary Alliance Church, and Non-Denominational Christian) is the fourth-largest group at 10% in 2008. Other Christian and Protestant denominations are listed below that. The results show that in 2008, Muslims represented 8% of the Asian American population (up from 3% in 1990) and "New Religious Movements" (comprising those who identified as Scientology, New Age, Eckankar, Spiritualist, Unitarian-Universalist, Deist, Wiccan, Pagan, Druid, Indian Religion, Santeria, and Rastafarian) claiming 2% in 2008.

These results are largely confirmed by a second comprehensive survey of religious identification taken in 2008, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (1.2 MB), a national survey of over 35,000 respondents conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

In contrast to the ARIS 2008 report, the USLRS methodology sometimes includes the same denomination with separate categories (i.e., Baptists can be both "Evangelical" and "Mainline") -- please check page 12 and Appendix 2 of the USLRS report for the exact categorizations and their detailed explanation of their methodology. The data shown here is for Asian American respondents only and is taken from page 40 of their report.

Again the data show that Christian faiths and denominations claim the highest percentage of followers among Asian Americans, with Eastern Religions and unaffiliated responses also claiming large numbers of respondents. Interesting, once the unique faiths within the "Eastern Religions" category are expanded, we see that Hinduism is the mos popular eastern faith among Asian Americans (due largely to the large size of the Indian American population), with Buddhism second.

Unfortunately, neither the ARIS nor the USLRS studies break the religious affiliation down to specific Asian ethnic groups. For that matter, I have yet to find any research that does. So to try to measure the size of religions within each ethnic group, we can look at the proportions for different religions within that Asian country. Although it's not completely accurate, it's a generally safe assumption that the religious proportions within an Asian country are similar to that within its community in the U.S., since the majority of Asian Americans are foreign-born (source: 2000 CIA World Factbook):
Filipino Catholic wedding © Paul A. Souders/Corbis

  • Bangladesh: Muslim 88.3%, Hindu 10.5%, other 1.2%
  • India: Hindu 80%, Muslim 14%, Christian 2.4%, Sikh 2%, Buddhist 0.7%, Jains 0.5%, other 0.4%
  • Philippines: Roman Catholic 83%, Protestant 9%, Muslim 5%, Buddhist and other 3%
  • Japan: observe both Shinto and Buddhist 84%, other 16% (including Christian 0.7%)
  • South Korea: Christian 49%, Buddhist 47%, Confucianist 3%, Shamanist, Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way), and other 1%

Again, these stats are imperfect because as China and Viet Nam are both officially atheist countries, there are no statistics on the proportions of religions in each country.


How Religion, Spirituality, and Faith Help

Ultimately, as there is so much diversity in the Asian American population in so many ways, so too this applies to our religions and practices of spirituality and faith. But they all share the commonality of helping Asian Americans adjust to life in the U.S. and all the issues that surround what it means to be an Asian American.

As several social scientists point out, these various forms of spirituality and faith help Asian Americans to deal with the upheavals of immigration, adapting to a new country, and other difficult personal and social transformations by providing a safe and comfortable environment in which immigrants can socialize, share information, and assist each other. In this process, religious traditions can help in the process of forming Asian immigrant communities by giving specific Asian ethnic groups another source of solidarity, in addition to their common ethnicity, on which to build relationships and cooperation. In fact, history shows that numerous churches and religious organizations played very important roles in helping immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines, South Asia, and Korea adjust to life in the U.S.

Also, the secular functions of religion are just as, if not even more important in helping Asian Americans in their everyday lives. Specifically, many churches, temples, and other religious organizations provide their members with important and useful services around practical, everyday matters such as translation assistance. Other practical examples include information and assistance on issues relating to education, employment, housing, health care, business and financial advice, legal advice, marriage counseling, and dealing with their Americanized children, etc. As such, many churches are almost like social service agencies in terms of the ways in which they help Asian Americans in practical, day-to-day matters.

Buddhist shrine inside an Asian small business © Bohemian Nomad Picturemakers/Corbis

Other scholars and studies show that churches can also provide social status and prestige for their members. As one example sociologist Pyong Gap Min describes that since many Korean immigrants face underemployment due to their lack of English fluency once they immigrate to the U.S. (especially if they come from educated and professional backgrounds in Korea), they often feel ashamed, embarrassed, or alienated as they adjust to their lower status level in the U.S. Within their church however, many Korean immigrants find a sense of status through official positions inside the church. These can include being assistant ministers, education directors, unordained associate pastors, elders, deacons, and committee chairs, etc.

Finally, as Bankston and Zhou point out in their study of the New Orleans Vietnamese community, religion can play a significant part in affecting a young Asian American's ethnic identity. The Catholic churches in the Vietnamese section of the city helped to keep young Vietnamese Americans integrated within the larger community. Those youngsters who attended church and participated in religious activities more were more likely to do well in school and to stay out of trouble.

Of course, religion, spirituality, and faith is only one part of this adaptation and socialization process and it interacts with many other factors in affecting how an Asian immigrant adjusts to his/her new life in the U.S. Nonetheless, its power is undeniable. For hundreds of generations in the past, it has bonded communities and been the basis for many people's lives. Even with changes in culture, physical location, and social institutions, its effect lives on.


Daily I Ching Reading

The I Ching is an ancient Chinese text that is considered to be one of the "Five Classics" of Confucianism. The main body of the work has traditionally been attributed to Wen Wang, a philosopher and father of the founder of the Chou dynasty, in the 12th century B.C. Much of its text, images, and concepts were taken partly from oracles, mythology, history, and poetry of earlier ages. The I Ching consists of eight trigrams, corresponding to the powers of nature. The trigrams are used to interpret the future with the textual help of supplementary definitions, intuitions, and Confucian commentary. Back then and continuing today, people use the I Ching as a spiritual "guidebook" to give them wisdom about events in their lives. The following is one example of a daily I Ching reading.



Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Religion, Spirituality, and Faith." Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/religion.shtml> ().


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