July 19, 2012

Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths

Chapter 5: Religious Practices

Asian-American Christians are about as likely as Christians overall to say they engage in daily prayer and even more likely to report that they attend religious worship services at least once a week. But U.S. Asians as a whole are more likely than the general public to say they seldom or never pray, and they are somewhat more likely to say they seldom or never attend religious services. Buddhist and unaffiliated Asian Americans are particularly likely to say they rarely pray or attend religious services.

More than eight-in-ten Asian Americans celebrate Christmas, and nearly nine-in-ten celebrate Thanksgiving. But many also maintain distinctive religious and cultural practices, such as celebrating the Lunar New Year and keeping a shrine or temple in their home. By contrast, meditation—a practice commonly associated with some, but not all, types of Buddhism—turns out to be a relatively infrequent practice among Asian-American Buddhists. A majority say they seldom or never meditate, while just one-in-seven engages in meditation on a daily basis.

Worship Attendance

Two-thirds of Asian Americans (67%) say they attend religious services at least a few times a year, including 32% who say they attend at least once a week. The remaining third of Asian Americans (33%) say they seldom or never attend religious services. These figures indicate somewhat lower attendance rates than those reported by U.S. adults overall.

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But Asian-American Protestants and Catholics are more likely to attend worship services weekly than Protestants and Catholics in the general public. Among Asian Americans, three-quarters of evangelicals (76%) say they attend religious services at least once a week, as do 60% of Catholics and 42% of mainline Protestants. By comparison, 64% of white evangelicals say they attend services at least once a week, as do 39% of Catholics overall and 25% of white mainline Protestants.

Asian-American Protestants and Catholics born in the U.S. are less likely than Asian immigrant Protestants and Catholics, respectively, to attend services at least weekly.

Far fewer Asian-American Buddhists (12%) and Hindus (19%) say they attend a house of worship weekly. More than a third of Asian-American Buddhists (36%) say they seldom or never attend religious services, while about half (52%) attend monthly or yearly. There are no significant differences in frequency of worship service attendance between Asian-American Buddhists who were born abroad and those born in the U.S. About one-in-seven Asian-American Hindus (14%) say they seldom or never attend religious services, while two-thirds (66%) attend monthly or yearly. (There were not enough Hindus surveyed to allow for separate analysis of the native born and foreign born.) As shown below, however, Asian-American Buddhists and Hindus are more likely than Asian-American Christians to have a shrine or temple in their home.

There are no significant differences between Asian-American men and women in their reported rates of worship service attendance. But older Asian Americans (ages 55 and older) are more likely than their younger counterparts to attend services at least once a week. And foreign-born Asian Americans, as a whole, are a bit more likely than U.S.-born Asians to attend services at least occasionally.

Religious Attendance at Multiple Locations

Nearly four-in-ten Asian Americans (37%) say they sometimes attend religious services at more than one place, aside from when they are traveling or going to special events such as weddings and funerals. About a quarter of U.S. Asians (26%) say they always attend at the same place. Asian Americans are about as likely as the general public overall to attend services at multiple locations.

Asian-American Hindus (54%) and Catholics (50%) are most likely to say they attend religious services at different places. One-third or more of Asian-American Buddhists (39%), mainline Protestants (38%) and evangelical Protestants (36%) say they at least occasionally attend religious services at more than one place.

Asian-American Protestants—both evangelical and mainline—are similar to their respective counterparts in the general public with regard to worship attendance at multiple locations. But Asian-American Catholics are somewhat more likely to attend services at multiple locations (50%) than are Catholics in the general public (40%).

Attendance at multiple locations, however, can have two very different meanings. It can mean that a respondent attends services of more than one faith. Or it can mean that a respondent attends services at more than one house of worship, though always of the same faith—such as at two Catholic parishes or at several different Hindu temples. The survey asked a follow-up question to determine whether respondents who worship at multiple places always go to services of the same faith. About one-in-five Asian Americans (19%) say they at least occasionally go to worship services of a different faith, not counting when they are traveling or attending special events such as funerals and weddings. More than twice as many (44%) say they attend services of only their own faith.39

The survey finds few differences across religious groups on this question. Among Asian Americans, Hindus are the most likely to say they attend worship services of a faith other than their own (30%).

Among U.S. Asians overall, those who attend services monthly or yearly are more likely than those who attend more frequently to go to services of different faiths (33% for monthly/yearly attenders and 23% for weekly attenders).

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Prayer and Meditation

Four-in-ten Asian Americans (40%) say they pray at least once a day outside of religious services. But nearly as many (35%) say they seldom or never pray. Among the general public, by contrast, more than half of all adults say they pray daily (56%), while one-in-five say they seldom or never pray (19%).

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As with other religious beliefs and practices, Asian-American Christians closely resemble Christians in the public overall on their frequency of prayer. For example, more than seven-in-ten Asian-American evangelicals (72%) say they pray at least once a day, compared with 78% of white evangelicals. Asian-American Catholics are slightly more likely than Catholics overall to say they pray daily (61% vs. 55%).

Asian-American Hindus and Buddhists are less likely to engage in daily prayer than Asian-American Christians. Among Asian-American Hindus, about half say they pray at least once a day (48%), as do about three-in-ten Buddhists (29%). The concept of prayer to a God or a universal spirit may be less common among Buddhists in part because Buddhists often see their religion in non-theistic terms, viewing Buddha as a revered pathfinder or teacher rather than as God or a god. Nearly four-in-ten Asian-American Buddhists (38%) say they seldom or never pray—the highest of any Asian-American religious group except for the unaffiliated.

Among Asian Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion, 6% say they pray daily, 11% say they pray on a weekly or monthly basis, and fully eight-in-ten say they seldom or never pray (81%). These rates of prayer are substantially lower than those seen among the religiously unaffiliated in the general public, among whom 22% say they pray every day and 20% say they pray weekly or monthly.

As with the U.S. general public, Asian-American women pray more frequently than do Asian-American men (46% of women say they pray at least daily, compared with 33% of men). Younger Asian Americans (ages 18-34) tend to pray less frequently than their older counterparts. And Asian immigrants tend to pray more often than U.S.-born Asians.

A third of Asian Americans (34%) say they meditate as a religious or spiritual exercise at least once a week, while an additional 8% meditate a few times a month. More than half (56%) say they seldom or never meditate.

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Interestingly, meditation—a practice commonly associated with some (though not all) types of Buddhism—is relatively uncommon among Asian-American Buddhists. A majority (61%) say they seldom or never meditate, while about three-in-ten (27%) engage in meditation at least weekly, a lower rate than among Asian-American Protestants (46%), Catholics (47%) and Hindus (44%).

A similar, though not directly comparable, question on the Pew Forum’s 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” found that 39% of U.S. adults as a whole say they meditate at least once a week. However, the 2007 survey did not specify meditation as a “religious or spiritual exercise,” and it provided five rather than seven response options.40

Shrines and Temples in the Home

About three-in-ten Asian Americans (29%) maintain a shrine or temple in their home for prayer. This practice is most common among Hindus (78%).

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A majority of Asian-American Buddhists (57%) also say they have a shrine in their home, as do four-in-ten Asian-American Catholics. Maintaining a shrine or temple in the home is far less common among Asian-American evangelicals (5%) and mainline Protestants (7%), as well as among those who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (13%).

Asian immigrants are more likely than U.S.-born Asians to have a shrine or temple at home.

Comparisons with the general public are not available on this question.

Fasting

About three-in-ten Asian Americans overall (29%) say they fast during holy times. A majority of Asian-American Catholics (56%) say they fast during holy times, as do 41% of Hindus. Fasting is less common among other religious groups. Among Asian-American Buddhists, evangelicals, mainline Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated, roughly three-quarters or more say fasting is not a part of the way they practice their religion.

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There are no substantial differences on the question of fasting between U.S. Asian men and women. Asian immigrants are a bit more likely than U.S.-born Asians to fast during holy times. And older Asian Americans (ages 55 and older) are slightly more likely than younger Asian Americans (ages 18 to 34) to fast during holy times.

Comparisons with the general public are not available on this question.

Holiday Celebrations

More than eight-in-ten Asian Americans overall (83%) say they celebrate Christmas. This includes upwards of nine-in-ten Asian-American Christians, along with roughly three-quarters of Buddhists (76%) and Hindus (73%). About eight-in-ten (78%) U.S. Asians who are religiously unaffiliated also say they celebrate Christmas.

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Among all U.S. Asians, nearly nine-in-ten (87%) say they celebrate Thanksgiving. This includes roughly eight-in-ten Buddhists (82%) and about three-quarters of Hindus (76%).

Overwhelming majorities of both native- and foreign-born Asian Americans celebrate both Christmas and Thanksgiving. However, earlier arrivals to the U.S. are more likely than recent Asian immigrants (those arriving since 2000) to celebrate Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Holiday celebrations can, of course, entail religious, secular or a mix of both practices; the survey questions did not ask about the kinds of practices that respondents have in mind with regard to these celebrations.

Many Asian countries—including China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam—use a lunar calendar in addition to the solar calendar commonly used in the United States.

Among religious groups from these four countries of origin, roughly eight-in-ten Buddhists (81%) and Catholics (77%) say they celebrate the Lunar New Year. About half of the Protestants in these country-of-origin groups—including 49% of evangelicals—also celebrate the start of the lunar year.

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Overall, two-thirds of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese Americans (68%) celebrate the Lunar New Year.41 Commemoration of the Lunar New Year is highest among Vietnamese Americans (93%) and Chinese Americans (82%)—who are about as likely to celebrate the Lunar New Year as to celebrate Thanksgiving. Fewer Korean Americans (45%) and Japanese Americans (30%) say they celebrate the Lunar New Year.

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Asian immigrants, especially those who have come to the U.S. since 2000, are more likely than native-born Asians from these countries of origin to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Among Japanese Americans, however, this pattern is reversed; 39% of U.S.-born Japanese Americans say they celebrate the Lunar New Year, compared with 18% of foreign-born Japanese Americans.

Indian Americans were asked whether they celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Seven-in-ten Indian Americans say they celebrate Diwali, including 95% of Indian Hindus and 45% of non-Hindus.


Footnotes:

39 For similar, but not directly comparable, findings among the general public, see Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. 2009. “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths.” Washington, D.C.: December. (return to text)

40 In the Asian-Americans survey, response options were “several times a day, once a day, a few times a week, once a week, a few times a month, seldom, or never.” Response options for the 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” were “at least once a week, once or twice a month, several times a year, seldom, or never.” (return to text)

41 Due to a programming error, this question was not asked of Chinese Americans from Taiwan. (return to text)

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