July 19, 2012

Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths

Chapter 1: Religious Affiliation

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Christians make up the largest single religious group within the Asian-American community, but the Christian share of U.S. Asians (42%) is far smaller than the Christian share of the U.S. general public (75%). Only two of the six largest country-of-origin groups are majority Christian: Filipino Americans (89% Christian) and Korean Americans (71% Christian). Among other Asian-American groups, fewer than four-in-ten are Christian.

Among Asian Americans as a whole, 22% are Protestant, 19% are Catholic, and 1% belong to other Christian groups, such as Orthodox Christians and Mormons. Most Filipino Americans are Catholic (65%), while most Korean Americans are Protestant (61%).

Asian Americans as a whole are somewhat more likely than the public overall to be unaffiliated with a particular religion. One-in-four Asian Americans (26%) say they are religiously unaffiliated, compared with roughly one-in-five people in the general public (19%).

Religious affiliation varies greatly across the largest subgroups of U.S. Asians. Half of Chinese Americans (52%) describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, including 15% who say they are atheist or agnostic. A fifth or more of Japanese Americans (32%), Korean Americans (23%) and Vietnamese Americans (20%) also say they are unaffiliated with any particular religion. Filipino Americans and Indian Americans are much less likely to say they are religiously unaffiliated (8% and 10%, respectively).

As expected, Buddhists make up a larger portion of Asian Americans than of the U.S. public as a whole. A total of 14% of Asian Americans are Buddhist, compared with about 1% of the general public. Roughly four-in-ten Vietnamese Americans (43%), one-in-four Japanese Americans (25%) and one-in-six Chinese Americans (15%) are Buddhist.

Hindus also make up a larger portion of Asian Americans than of the U.S. public as a whole. One-in-ten Asian Americans are Hindu, compared with less than 1% of the general public in the U.S. Nearly all Asian-American Hindus trace their roots to India, with relatively few from other parts of Asia. There are a number of religious groups in the Indian-American population, however (see below).

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While some Asian-American groups tend to have a preponderance of one religion, others have a more even mix. For example, Filipino Americans and Korean Americans are overwhelmingly Christian (89% and 71%, respectively). Japanese Americans, by comparison, are more evenly split: 38% are Christian, 32% are unaffiliated, 25% are Buddhist, and 4% belong to other religions. Among Vietnamese Americans, 43% are Buddhist, 36% are Christian, 20% are unaffiliated, and less than 1% belong to other religions. While about half of Indian Americans are Hindu (51%), 18% are Christian, 10% are Muslim, 10% are unaffiliated, 5% are Sikh, 2% are Jain, 1% are Buddhist, and the remainder belong to other religions.

Christians

As noted above, Asian-American Christians are almost evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics. Roughly a fifth of all Asian Americans are Protestant (22%), and a slightly smaller percentage is Catholic (19%). In the U.S. public as a whole, about half are Protestant, and 23% are Catholic.

Protestants

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Of the six largest country-of-origin groups, only Korean Americans are majority Protestant (61%). A third of the Japanese Americans surveyed (33%) and about a fifth of Chinese Americans (22%) and Filipino Americans (21%) also describe themselves as Protestant. The Protestant share of the Indian-American and Vietnamese-American communities is much lower (11% and 6%, respectively.)

Looking at all Asian-American Protestants, there is a higher proportion of born-again or evangelical Protestants (58%) than mainline Protestants (42%).20 Among white Protestants in the general public, 51% say they are born-again or evangelical. About two-thirds of black Protestants (65%) in the general public say they are born-again or evangelical.

Korean-American Protestants are more likely than other Asian-American Protestants to say they are evangelical or born-again. Two-thirds of Korean-American Protestants (66%) describe themselves this way. The majority of Chinese-American Protestants (58%) also say they are evangelical. The reverse is true for Japanese-American Protestants, among whom 60% are mainline Protestant and 40% are evangelical.

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Nearly a third of Asian-American Protestants (31%) describe themselves as Pentecostal Christians, charismatic Christians or both. (See Glossary.) A similar share of Protestants in the U.S. general public also identify as Pentecostal and/or charismatic (33%), according to the Pew Forum’s 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.”

About four-in-ten Korean-American Protestants (38%) describe themselves as Pentecostal and/or charismatic. Fewer Chinese-American Protestants identify as Pentecostal and/or charismatic (21%), and 14% of Japanese-American Protestants do so. The survey sample contains too few Protestants in the other U.S. Asian groups to analyze.

Protestant Denominational Families

Among Asian-American Protestants as a whole, the most common denominational families are Presbyterian (19%) and Baptist (18%). Nondenominational Christians make up 14%. Roughly one-in-ten Asian-American Protestants are Methodist (9%), and 7% belong to Pentecostal churches and denominations.21 Other denominational families each account for less than 5% of Asian-American Protestants.

This pattern differs considerably from Protestants in the general population. According to the Pew Forum’s 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” one-third of Protestants in the general public are Baptist (compared with 18% among Asian-American Protestants). Presbyterians, by contrast, make up a much larger share of Asian-American Protestants (19%) than of Protestants in the general public (5%).22

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Denominational families differ somewhat across U.S. Asian groups. A plurality of Korean-American Protestants (43%) are Presbyterian, with the remainder coming from other denominational families, including Baptist (15%) and Methodist (15%).

A quarter of Chinese-American Protestants (25%) are from a nondenominational or independent church, 15% are Baptist, and 10% are Presbyterian. Among Japanese-American Protestants, the most common denominational families are Methodist (17%), Baptist (15%) and Presbyterian (13%). The survey did not include enough interviews with Protestants in the other three country-of-origin groups (Filipino, Indian and Vietnamese Americans) to analyze separately.

Catholics

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The share of Asian Americans who are Catholic (19%) is slightly less than the share who are Protestant (22%). In the U.S. public as a whole, 23% of adults are Catholic, and about half are Protestant. Roughly two-thirds of Filipino Americans (65%) and three-in-ten Vietnamese Americans (30%) are Catholic. (See “Religious Affiliation Among U.S. Asian Groups” table.)

Roughly one-third of Asian-American Catholics (35%) identify as Pentecostal, charismatic or both. This is similar to the number of Catholics in the general public (33%) who describe themselves this way. (See Glossary.)

Buddhists

About one-in-seven Asian Americans (14%) are Buddhist. Buddhism is more common among some U.S. Asian groups. Roughly four-in-ten Vietnamese Americans (43%) and one-in-four Japanese Americans (25%) are Buddhist. Among Chinese Americans, 15% are Buddhist. Buddhists comprise no more than 6% of the other major U.S. Asian groups.

While Asian Americans make up a majority of U.S. Buddhists, roughly a third of American Buddhists are non-Asian; the Pew Forum estimates that 67%-69% of Buddhists in the U.S. are Asian. Since non-Asian Buddhists are not represented in this survey, the findings of the survey should not be interpreted as representing U.S. Buddhists as a whole.23

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Almost half of Asian-American Buddhists (49%) do not specify a particular Buddhist tradition with which they are affiliated, describing themselves as “just a Buddhist.” About one-in-eight Asian-American Buddhists (13%) say they practice Mahayana Buddhism (including Zen and other branches), 8% practice Theravada Buddhism, 5% identify with Vajrayana (or Tibetan) Buddhism, and 2% identify with Vipassana Buddhism. About one-in-ten Asian-American Buddhists (8%) volunteered that they identify with other traditions, including Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (7%).24 (See Glossary.)

Nearly six-in-ten Japanese-American Buddhists say they practice either Jodo Shinshu (30%) or Mahayana Buddhism (28%). By contrast, a majority of Vietnamese-American and Chinese-American Buddhists say they are “just a Buddhist” (60% and 55%, respectively). There were too few Buddhists in the other country-of-origin groups to analyze separately.

Hindus

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Like Buddhists, Hindus represent a very small percentage of all U.S. adults (less than 1% according to the Pew Forum’s 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey”). But unlike Buddhists, the overwhelming majority of Hindus in the U.S. are Asian Americans from one country of origin: India. The Pew Forum estimates that 85%-97% of U.S. Hindus are Asian American.

Looking at all U.S. Asians surveyed, 10% are Hindu. Roughly half of the Indian Americans surveyed (51%) identify their present religion as Hindu, and 59% say they were raised Hindu. In the U.S., none of the other five large country-of-origin groups has a significant number of Hindus. Indeed, more than nine-in-ten Asian-American Hindus surveyed (93%) say they are of Indian descent, though Hindus also live in such other Asian countries as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Bangladesh.

Roughly half of the Asian-American Hindus surveyed (53%) identify themselves as “just a Hindu.” About a fifth (19%) identify with the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism and 10% with Shaivite Hinduism. Smaller percentages identify with Hare Krishna (3%) or the Vedanta philosophy (2%). (See Glossary.)

Muslims and Other Religious Groups

Asian Americans also practice a number of other faiths, such as Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism and others. (See “Religious Affiliation of U.S. Asians” table.) A total of 4% of U.S. Asians are Muslim. Unfortunately, the survey sample contains too few Asian-American Muslims to allow for separate analysis.

The Pew Research Center estimates that 0.8% of the U.S. adult population is Muslim. The Pew Research Center’s 2011 survey of Muslim Americans provides a comprehensive portrait of this religious group, including its religious beliefs and practices as well as social and political attitudes.25 The survey found that Muslims in the U.S. are racially diverse, with 21% describing themselves as Asian.26 In addition, 30% of Muslim Americans describe themselves as white, 23% as black, 6% as Hispanic and 19% as other or mixed race. 27 Appendix 1 provides selected findings for Asian-American Muslims (including comparisons with U.S. Muslims as a whole) from the 2011 survey, which was conducted not only in English but also in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu.

Members of many other religious groups—including Baha’is, Confucians, Jains, Jews, Shintoists, Sikhs, Taoists and Unitarians, to name just a few—participated in the survey of Asian Americans. They are included in the overall results for all Asian Americans, but the survey sample does not include enough individuals from these religious groups to allow for separate analysis of each group.

The Unaffiliated

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About a quarter of U.S. Asians (26%) say they are atheist, agnostic or have no particular religion. Asian Americans are somewhat more likely than the general public to be unaffiliated with any religion. About a fifth of the general public (19%) has no religious affiliation, a group that has been growing over time, particularly among younger adults.

Half of Chinese Americans (52%) describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated; this includes 15% who say they are atheist or agnostic and 37% who describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” While Chinese Americans come primarily from mainland China—where the ruling Communist Party is officially atheist and there are very high government restrictions on religion—some also come from Taiwan, Hong Kong and other places.28 Roughly equal portions of U.S.-born (55%) and foreign-born (51%) Chinese Americans have no religious affiliation. However, native-born Chinese Americans are more likely than foreign-born Chinese Americans to say they are atheist or agnostic (28% vs. 12%).

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Nearly a third of Japanese Americans (32%) are religiously unaffiliated. Here, too, about equal portions of U.S.-born (31%) and foreign-born (34%) Japanese Americans have no religious affiliation. A fourth of Korean Americans (23%) and a fifth of Vietnamese Americans (20%) are religiously unaffiliated. By comparison, fewer Filipino and Indian Americans have no religious affiliation (8% and 10%, respectively).

Some Asian Americans may follow traditions such as Confucianism or Chinese folk religion yet not necessarily identify with a religious affiliation in the survey. Scholars of Chinese religion describe these folk beliefs and practices as “diffuse” religious traditions, as distinct from the more “systematic” or institutionalized religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam.29

In the U.S. general public, there also are many people who have religious beliefs and practices but do not think of themselves as belonging to an institutionalized religion. Most Americans who say they have “no particular religion,” for example, nonetheless say they believe in God and pray on occasion. The survey provides numerous opportunities for U.S. Asians who do not identify with a particular religious tradition to describe their spiritual beliefs and practices, if any, including questions about meditation, ancestral spirits, yoga, reincarnation, spiritual energy, astrology and shrines in the home. For details on the beliefs and practices of unaffiliated Asian Americans, the “Unaffiliated Asian Americans” section of the Overview, Chapter 4: “Religious Beliefs” and Chapter 5: “Religious Practices.”


Footnotes:

20 Respondents to the Asian-American survey were asked whether they think of themselves as a born-again or evangelical Christian. Responses to this question were used to divide Protestants into “evangelical” and “mainline” Protestant categories. Those who answered “yes” to the question were categorized as evangelical Protestants; those who answered “no” or declined to answer were categorized as mainline Protestants. (return to text)

21 Many Pentecostals belong to independent or nondenominational churches. This may explain why the percentage of Asian-American Protestants who describe themselves as Pentecostals (16%) is higher than the percentage that says they belong to Pentecostal churches (7%). (return to text)

22 Comparisons between Asian-American Protestants and Protestants in the general public should be made with caution because the Pew Forum’s 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” asked an additional question to determine denomination. The additional question allowed respondents to be categorized with more precision than was possible in the Asian-American survey. Additionally, the general public estimates provided in this study differ slightly from previous “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” reports, as the results reported in this study have been repercentaged to more closely match the denomination categories employed in the Asian-American survey. (return to text)

23 For more information on the composition of American Buddhism, see Richard Hughes Seager, “Buddhism in America,” Columbia University Press, 1999; and Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka, editors, “The Faces of Buddhism in America,” University of California Press, 1998. (return to text)

24 Respondents’ self-identification with various forms of Buddhism may differ from how scholars classify types of Buddhism in the U.S. and around the world. For example, Jodo Shinshu is often viewed as a branch of Mahayana Buddhism. See Richard Hughes Seager, “Buddhism in America,” Columbia University Press, 1999; and Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka, editors, “The Faces of Buddhism in America,” University of California Press, 1998. (return to text)

25 See Pew Research Center. 2011. “Muslim Americans: No Sign of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism.” Washington, D.C.: August. That report includes some analysis of foreign-born Muslim Americans from Pakistan and other South Asian countries. (return to text)

26 In all, 22% of U.S. Muslims describe themselves as either single-race Asian (21%) or multiple-race Asian. (return to text)

27 The global distribution of Muslims is very different from the origins of U.S. Muslims. While a minority of U.S. Muslims identify themselves as Asian (by race), more than 60% of the global Muslim population lives in Asia, and the four countries with the largest Muslim populations—Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh—are all in Asia. For more, see Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. 2011. “The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030,” Washington, D.C.: January. (return to text)

28 For more information on restrictions on religion in China and other countries around the world, see Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. 2011. “Rising Restrictions on Religion.” Washington, D.C.: August. (return to text)

29 See Tang, Wenfang. 2010. “Religion and Politics in China: Evidence from Survey Data.” Paper prepared for the 7th Annual Conference of the Social Scientific Study of Religion in China: The Present and Future of Religion in China. Beijing: July. (return to text)

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