All in the American Reincarnated Family

In this post I highlight a couple of books I have been reading (which I highly recommend) to discuss with readers of this blog how to interpret a possible connection between the findings I point out. My review here centers on a chapter from a recently published book called “Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions” by Drs. Jason Shelton (UT-Arlington) and Michael Emerson (Rice), and a chapter from a recently published edited volume “Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion Among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation” edited by Drs. Carolyn Chen (Northwestern) and Russell Jeung, (San Francisco State University). In the former, we’re going to focus on the chapter titled: “Far-Reaching Faith: Evidence of an Inclusive Religious Doctrine” and in the latter we’ll focus particularly on Jeung’s study in the chapter titled: “Second Generation Chinese Americans: The Familism of the Nonreligious.”

As is often the case for me, when I read newer material it sometimes triggers my memories of a previous work I had also recently encountered and reading Shelton and Emerson’s chapter did just that. The book overall is an exploration into the similarities and differences in beliefs and practices between African American and white American Protestant Christians. In many fundamental or creedal beliefs, there’s a lot of similarity among these American Christians. But there are curious divisions that the authors unearthed which I had never considered before. Analyzing data from the Portraits in American Lives Survey, they found that “African American Protestants are almost three and a half times more likely than white Protestants to believe in reincarnation” – this claim is not merely based on a simple comparison of the average responses to the question of reincarnation. Instead, it is based on a rigorous statistical test or model that tries to account for as many possible explanations for the difference in beliefs. As some might say in statistical-talk, this is a robust finding.

This of course brought me back to the recent Pew study of Asian American religions where 34% of Asian Americans reported belief in reincarnation. That doesn’t seem surprising since 64% of Buddhist and 59% of Hindu Asian Americans believe this. However since Protestants and Catholics take up a larger share of Asian America, the overall figure must include some ascent to this belief among Asian American Christians. Indeed, 14% of evangelicals, 18% of the mainline and 32% of Catholic Asian Americans also ascribe to belief in reincarnation. Notably 26% of those who identify as “no religion” among those surveyed also believe in reincarnation. This last figure is important later in this post.

But more than knowing the comparative similarities and differences between various religious Americans be they white, black or Asian, is the interpretation of what this belief means. For those adherents whose belief system generally includes teachings on reincarnation, no further explanation is needed. Instead some interpretation is needed for the way Christians understand this belief. To understand the African American Christian belief in reincarnation, Shelton and Emerson interviewed a number of prominent African American Protestant clergy about what they thought these figures meant. In their review of the interviews, the explanation that the pastors gave was that this belief indicated

“the possibility of interacting with one’s ancestors long after they have passed away” (149). They continue: “blacks’ understanding of reincarnation is an indelible moment of spiritual clarity whereby a person ‘sees an image’ or ‘receives a message’ from a deceased loved one in a way that is so timely and powerful that it only subjectively feels as if that person has ‘come back.’” (149).

So in a way, the term “reincarnation” when asked on a telephone survey possibly brings to mind these spiritual experiences of interacting with ancestors or deceased proximal family.

So how do we explain the Asian American Christian and nonaffiliated findings? The Christian beliefs in reincarnation puzzles me but I wonder if part of the answer is that some Asian American Christians convert from Buddhism or Hinduism to Christianity. For some of them, prior beliefs merge together with contemporary beliefs. Another explanation might deal with having diverse religious family structures. Close ties with aunts, uncles and cousins from non-Christian backgrounds may be a source of religious knowledge which may merge with some Asian American Christians’ beliefs.

The other Asian American group, the nonaffiliated, brought me to Jeung’s study. As I pondered Shelton and Emerson’s chapter, I noted to myself that the way reincarnation is possibly interpreted by African American Christians sounds reminiscent of ancestor veneration among some Asian Americans. Jeung’s study included interviews with young second-generation Chinese Americans and their understanding of the kinds of customs they remember while they were growing up. For those unfamiliar with the term “second-generation,” this is shorthand for “children of immigrants.” Jeung’s interviewees grew up not professing any religion in the way that Americans conventionally understand the term “religion.” This is due to a variety of factors, one of which is that their parents grew up in an environment where religious beliefs were condemned or discouraged by the state. As with many state attempts to regulate religion, individuals and groups continue to practice whatever they did before only less publicly. Thus for second-generation Chinese Americans who grow up with immigrant parents, their understanding of religion is not based on experiences of attending a temple or church in their neighborhood. Rather it consists of practices that are not always articulated or taught to them like a catechism. They see their parents venerate ancestors, and sometimes they participate in the practice of bowing before a small shrine in their home or in visits to family gravesites in their parents’ country of origin. But its original meaning is largely lost on them. Jeung notes however that these practices are recast through the lens of American individualism. For these second-generation Chinese Americans ancestor veneration is an example of a unique self-expression of what Jeung terms as Chinese American familism. As he states,

“When combined with American utilitarian and expressive individualism, this religious repertoire consists of values, symbols, and rituals cohering around the Chinese American family.” (217)

I see an interesting parallel between the way some African American Protestants and second-generation unaffiliated Chinese Americans utilize beliefs and practices around reincarnation and ancestor veneration. They have in common spiritual practices that link them to filial ties of previous generations that have passed on. These spiritual experiences or practices are also fairly infrequent and are sometimes described by terms that draw from other religious traditions    regardless of whether they are familiar with Buddhism or Hinduism. It makes me wonder whether this is a cross-cultural similarity which we had not considered before. Perhaps this is part of an emerging contemporary American religion. Your reflections are welcome.

  • vasaroti

    You seem to be mixing up 3 distinct phenomena:
    1. Belief in a soul that can be reborn in human form.
    2. Belief in the possibility of contact with deceased relatives.
    3. Veneration of deceased relatives, which takes various forms: concern for the well-being of deceased loved ones, praying to ancestors for assistance and material gain, and completely secular appreciation of the role ancestors’ accomplishments play in the life of the living.

  • Jerry Park

    That’s very helpful Vasaroti, thanks. My reading of these chapters suggest that this mixing up of beliefs is somewhat pervasive, but I’ll admit that maybe I am the one who is mixing things up while others have this clear in their minds. Maybe future research can unpack this more carefully now that we have some starting evidence like this to begin the conversation.

  • Ted Seeber

    That’s not reincarnation, that’s the Communion of Saints. Using that definition, more than half of all Christians believe in reincarnation.

  • http://www.ial.goldthread.com Stephen Sakellarios

    I believe that a large portion of the statistics showing belief in reincarnation is due to personal experiences of past-life memory, either directly, or observed in one’s own children. The differences among these various societal groups is due to openness. In other words, some percentage of all groups is having these experiences; but those groups who are culturally more receptive to them, become ideologically convinced, whereas in groups which are not as receptive, more people dismiss them as a “bit of undigested beef,” or in the case of children, just children’s imagination. As openness increases, gradually, the importance of direct experience itself will acknowledged. First, direct experience has to be separated out from mere belief in the polls, because at present, they lump them together and we can’t tell who has been convinced by ideas, vs. who has been convinced because their three-year-old accurately picked out and named an ancestor from a photo album that they had no normal way of knowing (there are such cases on record).


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