Surveying Religion in Asian America

Surveying Religion in Asian America November 4, 2011

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?

In order to figure out prevalence, the ideal is to do a census, a count of every single person in a population. This is logistically very difficult and very costly when trying to contact 15 million people, the estimated Asian American population according to the latest Census. So the other alternative is to try a survey. A very good survey will boast “stratified random sampling” – a fancy way of saying the most accurate portrait of a population is to collect survey samples based on the local population proportion. If there’s a lot of Asian Americans in one region, more Asian Americans are surveyed. Very very few surveys can do this for the general population- less than a handful of surveys can do this for Asian Americans.

But wait there’s more. Even if you can get a random stratified sample of Asian Americans, most surveys in the US are conducted in English, and not in the preferred languages of many Asian immigrants. Why does this matter? Because two-thirds of the Asian American population is foreign-born-and many of them are not fluent enough to answer a survey over the phone on questions like religion.

So in answer to my question about the prevalence of Christianity among Asian Americans, I can offer three possible figures from three surveys each one of which has important flaws that are worth noting. The Pilot National Asian American Survey (2001) says that 46% of Asian Americans in that survey are Christian (26% Protestant, 20% Catholic). This survey was translated into 6 major languages plus English, but it was only conducted in 5 major cities in the mainland plus Hawaii. The Pew Landscape Survey (2008) says that 46% of Asian Americans are Christian (27% Protestant, 19% Catholic). This was random and stratified but only conducted in English. The most recently released National Asian American Survey (2008) gives us the best estimate and says that 45% percent of Asian Americans are Christian (22% Protestant, 23% Catholic). This one was translated as well and includes both random sampling and some stratification based on regions with at least 500 Asian Americans.

The big point: Christianity is not the dominant religion for Asian Americans.

But my original question was based on my college experience – so do you think Asian Americans who attend college are more Christian than other Asian Americans?

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  • Julie J. Park

    Hm that’s interesting to think about, if certain ethnic subgroups or more affluent portions of ethnic subgroups are more likely to attend college (and attend certain types of colleges), which would result in the AA college going population being “more Christian” than the general population. Then again, we don’t necessarily know if the membership of these highly visible AA campus fellowships are representative of the overall AA college going population–but they just happen to be pretty visible. Wonder how we could study this…

    • Jerry Park

      Great points Julie. I hope to dig a little deeper in an upcoming blog that continues to unpack how we can know what to make of the Asian American religion scene.

  • Tony Lin

    Hi Jerry,
    For the record, Asian American studies is not my field (I study Latinos) so my comment will be riddled with assumptions. I hope you and the experts who read your blog can help me think through this.
    So Christianity is clearly not the dominant religion in Asian Americans. But is Christianity actually declining amongst Asian Americans? Based on the American Religious Identification Survey (and I know they don’t have the ideal sample of Asian Americans) it seems like Christianity is in decline. In 1990, 65% of AA claimed to be Christians (including both Catholics and Protestants). In 2001 the percentage had dropped to 43% and in 2008 it was down to 38%. Taking the margin of error into account, their 2008 data is not that far from the National Asian American Survey numbers.
    The decline of Christianity in Asian Americans rings true theoretically. The 2nd and 3rd generation are less likely to retain the faith of their immigrant parents. I know that Catholicism declines among Latinos in the 3rd generation by as much as 10%. Since many of the post-1965 Asian immigrants were already Christians when they came to the US, and their church growth was driven mainly by the social needs of recent immigrants, it would make sense that their 2nd and 3rd gen children should leave the faith. What do you think?
    Regarding Asian American college students being more Christian, that is no longer the case in at UVA. The ethnic clubs (Chinese Student Association, Vietnamese SA, Korean SA, etc.) are all significantly larger than their Christian counterparts.

    • Jerry Park

      Great points Tony and I intend to address some of this in upcoming blogs. I checked out the ARIS data and it too is like the Pew Landscape Survey in that it was administered only in English so it misses the many who are not fluent in English. But the other issue you raise is whether we’re seeing disaffiliation altogether. I don’t know if we can disaggregate the figures based on immigration status, but that would tell us something different about whether we’re seeing a generational dropout or are new immigrants reporting Christian affiliation (or any religion for that matter) more and more?
      You raise another point which I will try and unpack later. Our theories hold that there is a pro-Christian migration to the US. According to the New Immigrant Survey 2003, the only two Asian ethnic groups that claimed Protestant or Catholic affiliation in the majority was Korean and Filipino (in that order).
      Thanks for the update on the Asian American undergrad scene at UVA – how times have changed!

      • Tony Lin

        I was told yesterday that UVA’s CCF has about 20 students and the CSF has about 200…

  • andrea

    It’s interesting, but I think you’d have to also look at the time at which the individual and his family came to this country. For some of the early immigrants, the churches provided a social community (if there was not a “civic association”). For others, the fact that the immigrants might have attended religously supported schools in their home countries (thereby providing them with the education needed to come to this country) may play a role.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with this archieve: I haven’t listened to any of the audio, but have read through the ones that were transcribed. Of the ones I read, the interviewees participated in some religous activity, but mostly on a social, not spiritual level. I found that while they were interesting and applied to some of the people I know, they don’t apply to the wave of immigrants who came in the 50s and 60s and even early 70s for educational purposes. Then the wave shifted in the 70s and 80s to a different population. And an even more diverse on in the late 80s and 90.

    Food for thought!

    • Jerry Park

      Andrea, thanks for your comments! That is a fascinating archive, thanks for linking me to it, I’ll need to listen in on those stories in the near future.

      You’re right there should be some significant variation based on the year or decade of immigration. Some of this information is available or can be derived so we can figure that out. One of the challenges there would be to have a large enough sample in order to test year of immigration. People arrive under all sorts of auspices and their relationship to religion, Christianity, religious organizations are all affected by that.

      Yes, many immigrants attend a church with other immigrants of the same background simply for the social aspects since there may not be an alternative. That said, the kinds of surveys that tend to skip people who say “no religion” make an assumption that those folks are not attending church. Among Asian American immigrants, we have problems with that assumption given what you just wrote. So what we know about Asian American religion is far from perfect.

      You’re also right on the next point. Participating in a religious organization prior to immigration might also explain current participation too. I believe there are only 1 or 2 surveys that can show this, and I’ll check on them soon.

      • andrea

        I was also wondering to what extent, if any, churches played in assisting with the assimilation of the new immigrant.

        Or, do many Asian college students have the “positive peer pressure” from attending church which led them to go to college? Did their parents consider hanging out in church groups to be a “safe” place for their children, thereby encouraging it?

        • Jerry Park

          Great question again Andrea. Yes a lot of times church involvement has important social functions for immigrants, and one of these is to provide a socialization space for their children. Immigrants probably don’t connect that a church is an environment that improves their children’s educational outcomes, but there’s a ton of research that shows this to be the case. So part of the question is whether *any* religious organization would lead to better educational outcomes or is it specifically Christian religious organizations.