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?”

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Surveying Religion in Asian America

While attending college, I occasionally participated in a largely Korean evangelical Protestant campus group that spent their Friday or Saturday evenings gathered together in an auditorium (because the group was remarkably large) doing the evangelical thing: singing, listening to a speaker about Christian living, praying and socializing. But sometimes I would also hop around to other groups of Christians that also had Asian Americans. I figured there was something perhaps shared in common among Asian ethnic groups that grew up in the US. Given their fluency in English, I guesstimated that most of the Asian Americans I met were either born in the US or raised here – these are what sociologists describe as the second generation and the 1.5 generation. Besides growing up in the US, it seemed like a lot of us ended up going to college, as if the alternatives were either unimaginable or not allowed. So did we also share Christianity in common?

The question I asked then and examine here is one of prevalence, and the best known way of getting at prevalence is a survey. What is the prevalence of Christianity among Asian Americans who were raised in the US? For those that are not aware, nearly every major Asian nation today remains largely non-Christian. The only exception is the Philippines which is mostly Catholic. Even a country like South Korea which claims to have the largest church in the world, Yoido, as well as the largest Presbyterian church and some of the largest Methodist churches as well – is still largely not Christian . But funny things happen when people immigrate. Scholars agree that there tends to be a “pro-Christian” migration to the United States, that is, Christians tend to migrate to the United States disproportionally to their actual religious composition in their homeland. Second, scholars of immigration say that immigration is a theologizing experience. Simply put, a lot of immigrants turn to God during this experience of uprooting from one’s homeland and migrating to another. Some might turn to Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam to remind themselves of their homeland, but others wind up converting to Christianity. These two factors combined, pro-Christian migration and conversion to Christianity can explain the consensus that nearly three-quarters of Korean Americans are Christian (overwhelmingly Protestant) whereas only about a third of South Korea claims Christian affiliation. But is Christianity highly prevalent in other Asian groups? [Read more...]


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