Asian American Faith and the Problem With “No Religion”

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?

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  • Nicole Pope

    I am not an Asian-American, so I cannot comment from personal experience. I have studied linguistics and classics and currently make my living working with change management, communications, and training. From that perspective, I share your question about how respondents interpreted “no religion.” (Heck, I question what “freedom of religion” really means in the US, in general — I don’t see ancient Aztec or Incan practices catching on.)

    I would be interested to know more about how the demographics compare, as well. Does religion have a role in early immigration — do people who are Christian immigrate earlier than those who are not? Did people who immigrated earlier feel more pressure to “fit in” to the overtly Christian culture where they were living?

    • Jerry Park

      Great question Nicole, and I don’t know that anyone has actually done a study to figure out whether there is an age effect that is linked with religion in immigration. will need to check that out!

  • David L Chen

    The bible commands us to be equally yoked. I find this VERY HARD for Asian Christian Men wanting Asian Christian Women. What I find is that there are many unequally yoked relationships amongst Asian communities. Sometimes the men/women who are Christian are so one-dimensional and are almost tough to relate to. Their bar is so high that almost no one can relate to…and leads many to view them as self-righteous or stuck up. This is very tough for many men and women out there who are looking for “the one”…Asian Christian men seeking Asian Christian women”. Yet this is something I don’t think the Pan-Anglo-American culture can ever understand…

    I listen to Focus on Family, Newlife, and attend an “American” church. However, as Asian Americans…many of us are bi-cultural. There are some things we cannot relate to in the way Mainstream Anglo-Americans do.

    • Jerry Park

      Thanks for posting your thoughts here David. If i follow your thinking, you’re saying that some Asian American Christians seem too religious relative to others and that this is a unique pattern that white Christians in America would find difficult to understand. And in addition this has consequences on dating among Asian Americans. Perhaps some feel that there is a lot of judgmentalism at work. These are important concerns and they might set apart Asian Americans from others.

  • David L Chen

    Many immigrant churches target immigrant families…and loss their kids after the college years, because they can’t relate to the generation that is growing up in the United States. There are serious generation gaps, cultural relational issues, and more…

    • Jerry Park

      Hi David, thanks for checking out my post. Yes that may be a cultural outreach problem you’re identifying. Immigrants reach out to other immigrants, so non-immigrants when they are adults feel left out. On top of that there may even be some cultural problems attached to the outreach. Perhaps younger people are expected to be silent or not having any “needs” so again they’re ignored.

  • David Chen


    Thank you for responding to my message board. I wrote these things because I know many Asian American men who married women from the motherland…as oppose to another Asian American woman here. Also, many of these women were not Christian prior to marriage. OR…I met those who are 1.5 generation (grew up in Asian country until junior high…something like that) who both met in the USA but one was not a christian when they first met. I go to an American “Megachurch” because the church does speak to me and encourage me…but when it comes to marriage and dating…there are no solutions. Lots of the conservative Anglo-American Christian Mainstream chant the Bible saying “equally yoked”,…as a legalistic mantra of some sort.

    Yet…in Moslem Countries such as Iran…I have heard that if the father becomes Christian, the whole family converts. Now…my intent is not chauvenism here…but it does indicate how super important the male role is in marriage and relationship.

    I also met many Asian Americans who try to follow the Anglo-American biblical models and ideals for marriage…and many end up never marrying or potentially never marrying because they get over idealistic…picky, indecisive…and deciding not to have children.

    Yet the problem in Asian culture…is families push hard!!! Please write me…I think may Asian American Christians are ABC = American, Born, and Confused! We are pushed between the mainstream Anglo-American culture…and the traditional Asian Culture from our parents’ generation (whey they were young in Asia…not nowadays). It was also simpler…to propose…now lots of Asian Americans like many Americans feel entitlement…materialistic. There is supposedly a right way to engage, and propose…and those rings are so expensive! I own a condo…and I would rather save to allow me to visit my homeland…sorry I don’t have that $7000 for some ring….

    I am not one of those stereotypical Asian Americans who comes from old money and is a doctor or dentist…or in some medical profession.

    • Jerry Park

      Hi David, you’ve identified a lot of the factors that make dating and marrying so challenging among many Asian American Christians today – you might be a sociologist! Keep in mind that while many Asian Americans are getting married at older ages, the entire generation of Americans are basically doing the same thing. While there may be particular cultural pressures that are unique to Asian Americans, there are also patterns that are a result of modern (and perhaps post-modern) living that affect them (and perhaps might even be stronger in their effects). If I find a study that is helpful I will try to blog about this in more detail.

  • David Chen

    Hi Jerry,

    I think another problem I see is that Asian Americans in fitting in with the Anglo-American mainstream church or mega church feel they must give up a lot about their identity. If they are “bananas” (yellow outside, white inside)…then it really is not an issue…but we cannot truly embrace our bi-cultural heritage less people think of us as “fobs”.

    I can only speak of Taiwanese and Chinese churches…many of them live in their own monastary bubble…you know their world is entirely church, because they are literally not “of the world”. They message they preach too often is prudishness, passivity, and negative pacifism. This turns off so many people.

  • David Chen

    The other problem I have is when Anglo-Church people say they see us as all equal in God’s eyes and one with God’s people. When they say they do not see color or race, does that mean they see us as just like them in everything, ignoring the cultural heritages we come from? Some Anglo-Church people go as far to say that the labels of chinese, korean, taiwanese, english, irish, mexican…are all divisive in God’s kingdom and unimportant. I find that very offensive and annoying…and more annoying religious talk…although meant well…not helpful at all.