Exhaustive study of Asian-Americans and religion finds diversity of faith

Published: Friday, July 20 2012 2:29 p.m. MDT

Pahole Sookkasikon was crowned "Mr. Hyphen" in contest designed to redefine the image of Asian-American men.

Ben Margot, AP

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The religious diversity of America's growing Asian population has made a significant mark on the U.S. religious landscape, a new study finds, but defining just how religious they are can be misleading.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its comprehensive survey of Asian-Americans and religion Thursday and stories and columns gradually appeared analyzing the data in "Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faith".

The survey of 3,511 adults found Asian-Americans span the spectrum of religion and are the main reason for the growth of non-Abrahamic faiths in the United States, particularly Buddhism and Hinduism.

"At the same time, most Asian-Americans belong to the country’s two largest religious groups: Christians (42 percent) and people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (26 percent)," the study said.

The survey sample was large enough to examine six subgroups (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Filipino and Vietnamese) of the largely immigrant population, uncovering another layer of religious diversity.

"Indeed, when it comes to religion, the Asian-American community is a study in contrasts, encompassing groups that run the gamut from highly religious to highly secular," the study stated.

But religion appears less important to Asian-Americans (39 percent) than to Americans (58 percent) in general, according to the survey, and fewer believe in God or prayer — measures that would define a religious person in Judeo-Christian terms.

But Religion News Service reported that researchers caution that such measures of religiosity often fail to reveal much about the religious life of Asian-Americans.

“This is one of those classic apples to oranges questions: How do you ask about God in a tradition that has no Creator-God?” Sharon Suh, a Buddhism scholar and chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University, told the RNS.

“Asian-American Buddhists practice their religion in very different ways — it’s not always how frequently one prays,” said Suh, who was an adviser on the study.

Khyati Y. Joshi, another Pew adviser, writes in the Huffington Post that the Pew finding that just one-fifth (19 percent) of Asian-American Hindus say they attend a house of worship regularly can be a misunderstood measure of how non-Christians live and practice their faiths.

"For example, consider the large majority of Hindus who have an in-home puja, where devotional activities can be carried out without being 'affiliated' with a mandir (Hindu temple) or attending group worship," she writes. "Researchers who measure religious engagement in Christian normative terms will inevitably under-estimate the religiosity of Hindus: Hinduism doesn't have a weekly Sabbath like the Abrahamic faiths, and Hindus are as likely to worship at home or visit a temple to do darshan (the act of seeing and being seen by God), which they may not identify as attending a 'service.'"

The Pew study does point these differences out. For example, it explains that since Buddhists often view their religion as a path toward spiritual awakening or enlightenment rather than as a path to God, "it is not surprising that the proportion of Asian-American Buddhists who say they believe in God or a universal spirit is lower (71 percent) than among Asian-Americans who are not Buddhist (80 percent) and among the U.S. public overall (92 percent)."

USA Today noted these findings in the Pew survey:

• National origin makes a difference. Korean-Americans may be politically conservative because 40 percent are evangelical Protestants. They come from a nation that holds many of the world's largest Protestant churches. Hindu-Americans may be among the nation's wealthiest and most educated because about half of them come from India, the nation favored for special U.S. visas for scientists, engineers and other skilled workers.

• Like most Americans who mix traditions, the Asian-American survey finds 76 percent of Buddhists and 73 percent of Hindus also celebrate Christmas. But exactly how they mark it — as a secular celebration or as the birth of Jesus, the Christian savior — was not asked in the survey.

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