What Asian American Religion Tells Us About Religious Incongruity

What Asian American Religion Tells Us About Religious Incongruity November 18, 2011

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.

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  • Neil

    Thanks for another very interesting post. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to speculate about why, as you put it, “anywhere between 30 and 60 percent [of Asian Americans] that have no religious preference attend church at least a few times a year.”

    I can immediately think of five possible reasons. (I assume that “no religious preference” includes those who define their religion “as nothing in particular” or something roughly equivalent.) This isn’t meant to be comprehensive at all:

    1. Social consequences – Those without religious preference will still attend church services in solidarity with more religious family members, perhaps also to give a religious upbringing to their children, or, more vaguely, as you suggest, “to make social connections with other ethnic immigrants.”

    2. “Weak” belief – Those without religious preference clearly do not believe in the religious doctrines of a denomination but will occasionally attend church services to remain connected with a larger history, tradition, or the beliefs of their ancestors, perhaps even experiencing a “religious” sense of the sublime while doing so.

    3. “Repurposed” belief – Those without religious preference believe in some of the doctrines of a denomination – perhaps the efficacy of prayer or the sacraments, but have combined these beliefs with others, and judged themselves, rightly or wrongly, to have crossed the boundaries of orthodoxy. This could be the result of a self-conscious process of syncretism. Or it might be the result of a particular denomination’s resistance against what Peter Phan has called “being religious interreligiously” and the religious pluralism that confronts some Asian-Americans, like Phan’s own Vietnamese-American family.

    4. “Disaffiliated” Christians – Those without religious preference might be Christian believers who do not identify a religious preference to distance themselves from political or cultural positions that are publicly identifiable as “Christian.” Of course, this is the Hout-Fischer argument previously discussed on the blog in which, in their words, “religious dissenters have distanced themselves from the churches, not from God.”

    5. “Self-marginalized” Christians – Those without religious preference might be Christian believers who do not believe that they meet some sort of criteria for being identifiably “Christian.” While this could have to do with particular thorny moral doctrines, it is alternately conceivable that some traditions emphasize deep spiritual experiences to the point where those who have not experienced them can only identify as fellow travelers.


    • Jerry Park

      Neil, these are great points and I apologize that I missed this in the mountain of other comments from other posts!
      Your first hypothesis is what some social scientists describe as social desireability – people sometimes do things in order to feel integrated into a group norm. Attending church could be one of these if one’s preferred social group attends church on a regular basis.
      The second one resembles nominal adherence to tradition: some people attend church because it’s what they remember doing when they were growing up so it seems like the right thing to do.
      the third one sounds like what some are calling religious individualism: religious people will sometimes amalgamate a religion of their own by taking bits and parts from other faiths. So perhaps occasional attendance at a church is one such bit or part. Perhaps they do so to gather new knowledge on how to create their own preferred faith
      the last two deal with distaste for labels or a perhaps perceived social stigma surrounding a label. any number of these reasons that you listed could explain part of this wide swath of Asian Americans who have no religion and yet attend a church. It would be great to identify any of these characteristics in a study of motivations but this would be a challenging endeavor for sure.