In a previous post I shared the current prevalence of Christianity among Asian Americans. Based on three different surveys, each with different drawbacks, less than half of all adult Asian Americans are not Christian. To some of my Korean Christian second-generation friends, this may or may not be surprising. In fact they would raise concern that I am perhaps overstating the figures because the “true” Christian is one who is active in his or her faith. From their perspective there is little difference between someone who affiliates as a Christian but never attends a worship service, or someone who does not mention any religious affiliation at all.
Sociologists of religion distinguish between those who say that they have no religion and those who are not religiously active; the former is described as (lack of) affiliation, and the latter is (lack of) behavior. Let’s start with affiliation and in an upcoming blog we’ll take a look at behavior. So what’s the percentage of Asian Americans who say they have “no religion?”
Returning to the question of prevalence, some people might state that they have no religion but nevertheless pray or participate in a religious community – they might simply not like the trappings of labels. Sociologists sometimes call these individuals, “nones” or “religious nones.” The Pilot National Asian American Politics Survey (PNAAPS) (2001), found that 19% of their sample was not-religiously affiliated. Sociologist C.N. Le provided a few helpful tables based on two surveys that were conducted almost exclusively in English: The American Religious Identification Surveys (ARIS) (1990, 2001, 2008) and the Pew Religious Landscape Survey (PRLS) (2008). He summarizes that the ARIS figures for “none/agnostic” among Asian Americans has actually increased from 16% in 1990 to 27% in 2008 – pretty striking. And the PRLS shows about 23% that were unaffiliated in 2008, about 4% lower than the ARIS report. I put together a table of the relevant figures to make this easier to follow:
I checked the National Asian American Survey 2008 to see whether the figures are about the same as well and as you can see the answer is: “it depends.” The largest group are those who stated they have “no religion,”- but this estimate is the lowest of all three surveys that year. If we add in anyone else who said “atheist/agnostic,” “don’t know,” and “refused” we get a figure that matches the ARIS, around 27%. That’s a pretty wide margin in determining whether there are more or less non-religious Asian Americans.
If it’s reasonable to compare across these surveys, what do we make of these results? One interpretation is that Asian Americans are reporting more non-affiliation over time. Christians, both Catholic and Protestant combined, still take a larger share, but they are losing ground. Another interpretation is immigration change. Despite earlier research that argued that immigrants are more religious and more Christian, maybe the newer waves of Asian immigrants are less and less Christian and less and less affiliated with any religion. Another possibility is that more Asian Americans are bailing out of religion.
A fourth possibility might be misidentification. What does it mean when someone says I have “no religion” when they were not raised in the US? Recall that about two-thirds of Asian Americans are foreign-born. While many Americans simply interpret “no religion” as “I have no religious preference” many Asian Americans, particularly immigrants, might practice the following and say that this is not a religion:
-venerate ancestors at home
-utter a litany they learned from their parents or grandparents
If someone does this on a regular basis, do they really have “no religion” or is it reflective of what some are calling “traditional folk religion?”
What do you think, is the Asian American population really growing more non-affiliated or do we need a better way to understand religious identity today?