July 19, 2012

Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths

Chapter 2: Religious Switching and Intermarriage

Roughly a third of Asian Americans (32%) now belong to a religious tradition different from the one in which they were raised. By comparison, the Pew Forum’s 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” found that 28% of all U.S. adults belong to a religion that is different from their childhood faith.30
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Japanese, Chinese and Korean Americans are somewhat more likely to have switched religions than the other country-of-origin groups. Among Japanese Americans, 46% currently belong to a religion different from the one in which they were raised. A similar number of Chinese (43%) and Korean Americans (42%) have switched religions. By comparison, fewer Filipino (26%), Vietnamese (22%) and Indian Americans (16%) have switched faiths.

Religious switching is more common among native-born Asian Americans than among foreign-born Asian Americans. Among those born in the U.S., 40% presently have a religion different from the one in which they were raised. Among foreign-born Asian Americans, this figure stands at 30%.

Net Gains and Losses from Religious Switching

Overall, Buddhism had the greatest net loss due to changes in religious affiliation within the Asian-American community. One-in-ten Asian Americans (10%) were raised Buddhist and have left the faith, while 2% of Asian Americans have become Buddhist after being raised in a different faith (or no faith), resulting in a net loss of eight percentage points due to religious switching.

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Mirroring a pattern seen in the general public, there are substantial gains due to religious switching among Asian Americans who say they are not affiliated with any particular religion. Less than a fifth of Asian Americans (18%) say they were raised without a particular faith, but today about a quarter (26%) say they are religiously unaffiliated, a net gain of eight percentage points.

There has also been a net gain among Protestants. Less than a fifth of Asian Americans (17%) say they were raised Protestant, but 22% now describe themselves as Protestant, a net gain of five percentage points.

Catholicism (with a net loss of three percentage points) and Hinduism (with a net loss of two percentage points) have stayed roughly the same size.

Among Asian Americans who are religiously unaffiliated today, 42% were religiously unaffiliated as children. The rest say they were raised in some faith (including 3% who did not specify their particular childhood religion). Roughly a quarter of those who are now unaffiliated were raised Buddhist, 14% were raised Protestant, and 10% were raised Catholic. And while about half of today’s Asian-American Protestants (53%) were raised in the Protestant faith, nearly as many (47%) say they were raised in a different faith, including 18% who say they were religiously unaffiliated as children.

By contrast, Buddhists— a group that has seen net losses because of religious switching—are composed largely of people who were raised in the faith. Fully 85% of Asian-American Buddhists were raised as Buddhists. A similar pattern is seen among the groups that have been largely stable, Catholics and Hindus.

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Retention Rates Among Religious Groups

Among Asian Americans, Hindus have the highest retention rate—the proportion of people who were raised in the faith and continue to be affiliated with it. Eight-in-ten Asian Americans  who were raised Hindu still describe themselves as Hindu today (81%); about one-in-eight of those who were raised Hindu now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated (12%), while the remainder belong to other religious groups or did not give a current religion.

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Roughly seven-in-ten Asian Americans who were raised Catholic (72%) or Protestant (71%) still practice their childhood religion. Those who have left Catholicism are divided roughly evenly between those who say they are now Protestant (13%) and those who say they are now religiously unaffiliated (11%). Among those who were raised Protestant, 21% now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, while smaller numbers say they belong to other faiths.

Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated have the lowest retention rates among Asian Americans. Among those who were raised Buddhist, 54% currently describe their religion as Buddhism. Roughly a quarter of those who were raised Buddhist (27%) now say they are religiously unaffiliated, while 11% are Protestant.

Among Asian Americans who were religiously unaffiliated as children, 60% are unaffiliated today, while 40% are now affiliated with a religion or did not specify a current religion. Nearly a quarter are Protestant (23%), while 6% are Buddhist, 5% are Catholic, and 1% are Hindu.

Religiously Mixed Marriages

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Three-quarters of married Asian Americans (76%) have a spouse of the same religion, while 23% have a spouse of a different faith. By comparison, the Pew Forum’s 2007 “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” found that roughly one-quarter of married people in the general public have a spouse with a different faith. 31

Married Asian Americans who are Hindu are most likely to be married to someone from their own faith; fully 94% of married Hindus are married to other Hindus. Roughly eight-in-ten married Protestants and Catholics in the Asian-American community have a spouse with the same religion (81% for both groups).

Smaller but still substantial numbers of married Asian-American Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated have a spouse of the same religion. Seven-in-ten married Buddhists are married to other Buddhists, while 10% are married to someone who is religiously unaffiliated, 8% are married to Catholics, and 7% are married to Protestants. Among married Asian Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, six-in-ten (61%) are married to someone who also is unaffiliated, while 12% are married to a Catholic, 10% are married to a Protestant, and 10% are married to a Buddhist.

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Comfort Level with Marriage across Religious Lines

About a third of Asian Americans (34%) say they would be “very comfortable” if their child married someone with different religious beliefs; 32% say they would be “somewhat comfortable,” and 29% say they would be “not too” or “not at all” comfortable.

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Religious groups vary widely in their views about a child marrying someone with different beliefs. Those with no religious affiliation are most comfortable with a child of theirs marrying someone who holds different religious beliefs (48% very comfortable). Among Asian-American Buddhists, 37% say they are very comfortable with a child marrying outside of their faith, as are 34% of Hindus, 31% of Catholics and 28% of mainline Protestants. Evangelical Protestants are the least likely of these religious groups to be comfortable with such a marriage; just 13% say they would be very comfortable with their child marrying someone who holds different religious beliefs.

In addition, native-born Asian Americans are more likely than those who are foreign born to be very comfortable with marriage across religious lines.

Asian Americans are less accepting of religious intermarriage than they are of interracial or interethnic marriage. About half of Asian Americans say they would be “very comfortable” if their child married someone from another country of origin, including those with no Asian background. Asian-American Protestants, Catholics and the unaffiliated are especially likely to express more comfort with interracial marriage than they do with interfaith marriage.

A direct comparison with the general public is not available on these questions. 32

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Footnotes:

30 The figures for switching are not directly comparable between the two surveys because they used slightly different approaches to categorizing religious affiliation. (return to text)

31 The figures for interfaith marriage are not directly comparable between the two surveys because they used slightly different approaches to categorizing religious affiliation. (return to text)

32 For more information on intermarriage, including a discussion of similar, but not directly comparable, questions on interracial and interethnic marriage among the general public, see Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends project. 2011. “The Rise of Asian Americans.” Washington, D.C.: June. (return to text)

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