So as you’ve probably figured out, I am fascinated by Asian Americans and their religions. And wherever possible I try to find the best examples that can shed light on this population because they help us to learn about how we know anything about religion today, and how we need to improve what we know. I mentioned earlier that sociologists are struggling over how to identify Asian Americans and their religious preferences in surveys. And I alluded to the problem that people with “no religion” might in fact be religious .
What makes someone religious? In the minds of many it could simply be belief in God, or it could be praying, reading a sacred text, or attending a religious service on a regular basis. Sociologists describe this as measures of religiosity. We tend to think of religiosity in two forms: beliefs and behavior. Note: you can believe all kinds of things, and practice all kinds of rituals and say that you’re a Christian or that you have no religion. It’s what Brad Wright summarized in a recent argument made by sociologist Mark Chaves: most religious people experience incongruity between what they say they are, what they believe, and what they do. Asian Americans are no exception. To get an idea about how incongruity might look like we can examine the connection between one measure of religiosity, church attendance, and religious affiliation (how someone identifies their religion) among Asian Americans.
Why is this important? If you’re religious (particularly Christian in this example), church attendance is important because it is a characteristic of faithful practice as described in the Bible. For the sociologist it’s important because attending church has a lot of social consequences (we’ll talk about these in more detail in future posts) – people seem to be happier and build social connections for example. This latter point is very important for immigrants, especially for Asian Americans, most of whom are in immigrant households. As I mentioned before, religion is important to many, if not most immigrants due to the costs they endure in uprooting their lives to replant themselves in a new environment where they are less fluent with the language and culture. Many turn to religious communities in particular to make social connections with other ethnic immigrants. In many cases, social services are provided here, individuals get leads to “good doctors” (the ones that might be fluent in their language or work close enough to make an appointment and visit), lawyers, and other professionals. And business entrepreneurs might meet new clientele through a religious immigrant community as well.
The thing about church, whether Asian American or not, is that in most cases, you don’t need to believe everything about what a church organization stands for. In fact, as long as you’re not obnoxious about it, you may not need to believe anything about what a church stands for. If you’re just there to meet people, to get help for a health or legal problem, to make business connections, that’s ok. Indeed lots of churches endorse this; after all, the aim of most churches is to invite anyone to consider God or the sacred – if the starting point was to meet people, then so be it. Right here then, going to church might easily be incongruous with belief. So when it comes to surveying people about their church attendance, it’s really important to ask about it regardless of whether someone has any religious identity or beliefs.
To keep things simple, sociologists are usually most interested in the answers at the extremes. In the case of church attendance, we usually make a distinction between those who attend church “at least once a week or more” and those who don’t attend at all. Here’s what 3 surveys tell us:
The PNAAPS conducted in 2001 asked respondents “how often do you attend religious services?” 54% of Asian American Protestants attend church every week, and 71% of those who have no religious preference do not attend at all. This means that a little more than half of Asian American Protestants attended church at a pretty high rate in 2001, and about 29% of Asian Americans who have no religious preference were attending church at least a few times a year.
The PRLS08 asked: “Aside from weddings and funerals, how often do you attend religious services” and among the English-speaking Asian Americans they found: 68% of evangelical Protestants attended church at least once a week, and 39% of those with no religious affiliation do not attend at all. Again we see that the majority of Protestants (specifically evangelical Protestants) attend church at a very high rate. But now it appears that almost 62% the nonaffiliated were showing up at a church at least on “seldom” occasions not including weddings and funerals.
And the NAAS08 shows us that about 58% of evangelical Protestants attended church at least once a week. But what about the nonaffiliated? We have a problem. The NAAS skips this question if someone previously said that they have no religion. By this logic, the NAAS shows that 100% of those with no religion do not attend a church. The logic of this “skip” based on answering the religious preference question is an assumption of congruity, and it leaves out the folks that have “no religion” but do in fact visit a church more than a few times a year.
Religious congruity would expect that Asian American Christians should attend church a lot, and that Asian Americans with no religion would not attend at all. Three surveys tell us that yes, a lot of Asian American Protestants, especially the English-speaking evangelical variety, are quite religious (if attending church at least once a week counts as “very religious”). But about a third or so are not. These surveys also tell us that anywhere between 30 and 60 percent that have no religious preference attend church at least a few times a year. That’s not congruent.