July 19, 2012

Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths

Chapter 3: Importance of Religion

Compared with the general public, fewer Asian Americans say religion is very important in their lives, while more say religion is either not too important or not at all important to them. There are, however, big differences among Asian-American religious groups on this measure.

When it comes to views on the importance of religion, one common indicator of religious commitment, Asian-American Christians are slightly less inclined than Christians in the general public to say religion is very important in their lives. Asian-American Buddhists and Hindus, by contrast, are much less inclined than Asian-American Christians to say religion is very important to them.

Like Americans overall, U.S. Asians generally place a lower priority on leading a very religious life than on other life goals, such as being a good parent, having a successful marriage and owning a home. However, about two-thirds of Asian-American Christians say living a very religious life is either “one of the most important things” to them or a very important goal.

Views on the Importance of Religion

Four-in-ten U.S. Asians (39%) say religion is very important in their lives, which is substantially lower than the percentage of the general public that says the same (58%). Conversely, the proportion of Asian Americans who say religion is somewhat important (30%) or not too or not at all important (30%) is substantially higher than the percentage of the general public that expresses these views (24% say it is somewhat important, and 16% say it is not too or not at all important). There is considerable variation in religious commitment among U.S. Asian religious groups, however.

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Asian Americans who are Buddhist or Hindu are much less likely than Asian-American Christians to say religion is very important in their lives. About a third of Asian-American Hindus (32%) and Buddhists (27%) say religion is very important to them, compared with about two-thirds of Asian-American Protestants (64%) and Catholics (also 64%). Among the U.S. public overall, 74% of Protestants and 60% of Catholics say religion is very important to them.

The share of Asian-American evangelical Protestants who say religion is very important in their lives (79%) is roughly the same as the share of white evangelicals in the general public who say this (84%). The same pattern is seen among mainline Protestants. Four-in-ten Asian Americans who are mainline Protestant say religion is very important in their lives (44%), compared with 48% of white mainline Protestants.33

There are more significant differences, however, among the unaffiliated. Of Asian Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion, just 4% say religion is very important to them. Fully three-quarters of unaffiliated U.S. Asians (76%) say religion is not too or not at all important in their lives, and an additional 18% say religion is somewhat important. Among all unaffiliated U.S. adults, by comparison, 14% say religion is very important to them, while 58% say religion is not too or not at all important, and 26% say religion is somewhat important.

As is the case in the general public, Asian-American women are more likely than men to say religion is very important in their lives. Likewise, older U.S. Asians are more likely than younger cohorts to say religion is very important. Additionally, Asian immigrants are more likely than native-born U.S. Asians to say religion is very important to them.

Asian Americans at all levels of educational attainment are less likely to say religion is very important in their lives than people in the general public with similar education levels.

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Religion as “One of the Most Important Things”

In a separate question, survey respondents were asked to rate a handful of possible goals—including living a very religious life—as one of the most important things in life, very important (but falling short of the most important), somewhat important or not important.34

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Being a good parent and having a successful marriage top the list of “the most important things” in Asian Americans’ lives. Other priorities—including leading a very religious life—trail far behind. Indeed, of the seven possible goals the survey asked about, leading a very religious life ranks near the bottom of the list; about the same percentage of Asian Americans consider it to be one of the most important things as say the same about having a lot of free time to relax or do things they want to do.

The share of Asian Americans who say “living a very religious life” is one of the most important things to them is about the same as the share of the general public that holds the same view (22% vs. 20%). But more Asian Americans than members of the public overall say living a very religious life is not important to them; a quarter of Asian Americans (25%) say this, compared with about a fifth of all U.S. adults (19%).35

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There also is a lot of diversity of opinion among Asian-American religious groups on the question of whether leading a very religious life is one of the most important things they want to accomplish.

Asian Americans who are Christian—particularly evangelical Protestants—tend to place a higher level of importance on living a very religious life than do other U.S. Asian religious groups. Fully 54% of the evangelical Protestants surveyed say it is among the most important things to them. Hindus and Buddhists, by contrast, are much less likely to consider “living a very religious life” among their top goals. About a fifth or less of U.S. Asian Buddhists (19%) and Hindus (17%) say that leading a very religious life is one of their most important priorities. Among Asian Americans who are not affiliated with any particular religion, just 3% say living a very religious life is one of the most important things.

Asian-American Protestants—particularly evangelicals—are more likely than Protestants in the general public to place a high value on living a very religious life. Asian-American Catholics are also more likely than Catholics in the general public to say that a very religious life is one of their most important goals.


Footnotes:

33 This report compares Asian-American Protestants, Catholics and those who are religiously unaffiliated with similar subgroups in the public overall. In these cases, the overall public figures include U.S. Asians as well as all other adults with these religious affiliations. But for the two Protestant subgroups—evangelical and mainline Protestants—the comparisons are between Asian Americans and those in the general population who are white and not Asian. White evangelicals and white mainline Protestants are commonly analyzed in Pew Research Center reports because they are particularly important groups for understanding not only religious beliefs and practices but also social and political attitudes in the U.S. (return to text)

34 Survey respondents were asked how important seven items are in their lives—being a good parent, having a successful marriage, owning a home, having a successful career, helping others, having a lot of free time and leading a very religious life. Respondents were asked whether each item is “one of the most important things in your life, or very important but not one of the most important things, or somewhat important, or not important.” For more on these findings, see Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends project. 2011. “The Rise of Asian Americans.” Washington, D.C.: June. (return to text)

35 A similarly worded question was asked of the general public in a 2010 Pew Research Center survey. While these questions are comparable, they are not identical. (For the exact question wording, see the topline in Appendix 4.) The wording difference is minor, but it may have affected the responses. Therefore, differences between Asian Americans and all U.S. adults should be interpreted with caution. (return to text)

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