July 19, 2012

Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths

Foreword

This is the second report on a comprehensive survey of Asian Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center in the first three months of 2012. To obtain a nationally representative sample of 3,511 Asian-American adults, more than 65,000 Americans were interviewed on cell phones and landlines in English and seven Asian languages.

The first report on the survey’s findings, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” described some of the distinctive social and demographic characteristics of this largely foreign-born (74%) population. It also highlighted important differences among Asian Americans, focusing on the six largest subgroups by country of origin—Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese Americans. Together, these subgroups comprise at least 83% of all Asian Americans.1

This report, “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths,” examines the same fast-growing population but uses religious affiliation, rather than country of origin, as the primary frame of analysis. It focuses on four main religious groups—Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and the religiously unaffiliated—that together account for 92% of all Asian adults living in the United States. Muslims comprise an additional 4% of U.S. Asians, but their numbers in the survey are too small to allow for separate analysis.2 (Key findings on Asian-American Muslims from the Pew Research Center’s 2011 survey of Muslim Americans are presented in Appendix 1 of this report.)

While there is some overlap between the two reports on Asian Americans, we think that they are largely complementary and that readers will find value in examining the U.S. Asian population both by national origin and by religion. To understand why Korean Americans tend to be more politically conservative than other Asian Americans, for example, it may be helpful to recognize the high proportion of evangelical Protestants (40%) within the Korean-American community. Conversely, to understand why Hindus have some of the highest education and income levels of all religious groups in America, it may be useful to know that the vast majority of Asian-American Hindus trace their roots to India and that many Indians come to the U.S. through a selective immigration process that awards H-1B visas to scientists, engineers and other highly skilled workers. And so on—the pages of this report are full of examples of the importance of religion and national origin in the lives of Asian Americans.

In many cases, the survey’s overall findings on Asian Americans mask striking differences among Asian Americans of various faiths. To provide context, this report frequently offers three levels of comparisons: (1) between U.S. Asians, as a whole, and the U.S. general public; (2) among the larger Asian-American religious groups, including Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus and the unaffiliated; and (3) between an Asian-American religious group and a similar group (or groups) in the general public, such as Asian-American evangelical Protestants and white evangelical Protestants, or Asian-American Catholics, white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics. This allows readers to see, for example, not only whether Asian-American Christians are similar to or different from Asian-American Buddhists on a particular question but also how Asian-American Christians compare with Christians in the general public.

The diversity of religious affiliations among Asian Americans, however, poses some challenges that readers should bear in mind as they evaluate the survey results. Questions such as “How important is religion in your life?” are intended to allow for comparisons among people of different faiths. But vast gulfs in theology and practice mean that respondents sometimes may bring very different understandings to bear on a question. Asked how often they pray, for example, a Christian may think about prayers offered to a personal God, while a Hindu or Buddhist may think about the ritual recitation of mantras. Some of the survey questions reflect concepts that are prevalent in the West—belief in heaven and hell as places of eternal reward or punishment, for example. But other parts of the survey were designed specifically to measure the beliefs and practices of Buddhists, Hindus and adherents of other Asian religions, including questions about reincarnation, ancestral spirits, yoga as a spiritual practice, meditation, having a shrine or temple in the home and celebrating the Lunar New Year.

The survey was undertaken jointly by two projects of the Pew Research Center: the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. The first report was primarily the work of the project on Social & Demographic Trends. The present report was written primarily by the staff of the Pew Forum. Senior Researcher Cary Funk, Ph.D., was a lead researcher on the survey and deftly coordinated the production of both reports. Janelle Wong, director of the Asian American Studies Program and a faculty member in the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland, served as a special external adviser and was an invaluable source of knowledge through all stages of the survey. We are also grateful to the staff of the survey research firm Abt SRBI, particularly Dean Williams, who managed the data collection, and Courtney Kennedy, who oversaw key elements of the survey design and weighting.

In addition, the Pew Research Center was fortunate to be able to call on an exceptional panel of academic advisers with expertise on many segments of the Asian-American community: Wendy Cadge, Hien Duc Do, Diana Eck, Yen Le Espiritu, Joaquin Jay Gonzalez III, Jane Naomi Iwamura, Khyati Joshi, Rebecca Y. Kim, Pyong Gap Min, Jerry Z. Park, Sharon A. Suh, Fenggang Yang and Min Zhou. Their brief bios can be found in Appendix 5 of this report.

Although the survey was guided by the counsel of our advisers, contractors and consultants, the Pew Research Center is solely responsible for the interpretation and reporting of the data.

Luis Lugo, Director

Alan Cooperman, Associate Director for Research


Footnotes:

1 Americans who trace their origins to many other Asian countries—including Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, Pakistan and Thailand—also are represented in the survey. However, the sample does not contain enough individuals from every country of origin to analyze all subgroups separately. (return to text)

2 Members of many other religious groups—including Asian-American Baha’is, Confucians, Jains, Jews, Shintoists, Sikhs, Taoists and Unitarians, to name just a few—also completed the survey and are included in the overall results, but their numbers in the survey are too small to allow for separate analysis. (return to text)

Photo Credits from left to right: © Radius Images/Corbis, © Image Source/Corbis, Istockphoto and © 2010 Getty Images