New report examines beliefs of Asian-Americans

July 19, 2012

The most comprehensive study of religion and Asian-Americans to date finds them less religious than most Americans, but also far more religiously diverse.

Within that diversity, however, researchers discovered a wealth of spirituality.

“Asian-Americans are really a study in contrasts, with religious groups that are running the gamut from highly religious to highly secular,” said Cary Funk, lead researcher on “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths,” released Thursday (June 19) by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Though a plurality of Asian-Americans are Christian, “it’s a striking difference” compared to the U.S. population in general, Funk said.

The 3,551 Asian-Americans surveyed were 42 percent Christian, compared to 75 percent of all Americans.

The next largest group of Asian-Americans identified as unaffiliated (26 percent), followed by Buddhists (14 percent), Hindus (10 percent) and Muslims (4 percent).

And though Asian-Americans make up less than 6 percent of the population, their numbers are growing, “contributing to the increase in Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Abrahamic faiths in the U.S.,” Funk said.

As for their religiosity, measured by standard questions asked by religion researchers, religion seems less central in the lives of Asian-Americans than Americans in general.

Thirty-nine percent of the respondents say that religion is very important in their lives, compared to 58 percent of Americans in general.

And 30 percent of Asians-Americans say religion is not too important or not at all important to them, compared to 16 percent of all Americans.

When it comes to daily prayer, Asian-Americans report doing it less — 40 percent compared to 56 percent of the general public. As for belief in God, 79 percent of Asian-Americans say they do, compared to 92 percent of Americans.

But researchers also cautioned that such measures of religiosity often fail to reveal much about the religious life of Asian-Americans, in that such a line of questioning assumes a Judeo-Christian approach to spirituality.

“This is one of those classic apples to oranges questions: How do you ask about God in a tradition that has no Creator-God?” said Sharon Suh, a Buddhism scholar and chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University.

“Asian-American Buddhists practice their religion in very different ways — it’s not always how frequently one prays,” said Suh, who was an adviser on the study.

So researchers also asked questions that often aren’t part of religious surveys — questions that delve deeper into the practices of non-Christians, said Luis E. Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

For example, though only 27 percent of Asian-American Buddhists reported that religion is very important in their lives, 67 percent of Asian-American Buddhists say they believe in ancestral spirits, and 64 percent say they believe in reincarnation.

And though just 12 percent of Asian-American Buddhists say they attend services weekly, 57 percent say they have a shrine in their home.

“Buddhists often view their religion in non-theistic terms — simply put, many see Buddhism as a path toward spiritual awakening or enlightenment rather than as a path to God,” according to the report.

So it’s not surprising, the researchers conclude, that the proportion of Asian-American Buddhists who profess belief in God or a universal spirit is lower (71 percent) than among the U.S. public overall (92 percent).

Among Asian-American Hindus, the report similarly concludes that belief in multiple gods and other differences from Western religion belie direct comparisons to the religious life of American Christians.

Nearly three-quarters of Asian-American Hindus (73 percent), for example, see yoga as a spiritual practice as well as physical exercise, and 78 percent have a shrine in their homes.

The survey was conducted in the first three months of the year, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

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