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Religious differences push need for better understanding of Eastern religions

Published: Friday, Aug. 31 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

The survey found that Asian-Americans are less likely than Americans overall to believe in God and to pray on a daily basis. But measures such as belief in God, frequency of prayer or even attendance at worship services aren’t reliable indicators of a religion’s role in a mostly non-Christian population because faith is practiced and lived in a different way.

For example, Buddhists often view their religion in non-theistic terms — a path toward enlightenment rather than a path to God — so, it would be expected that fewer Asian-American Buddhists would say they believe in God or a universal spirit. And in fact, just 71 percent of them do, compared with 92 percent of the overall U.S. public.

Similarly, the Pew report found that ritual recitation of mantras (in both Buddhism and Hinduism) is not viewed as the equivalent of prayer to a personal God in the Christian tradition, which could explain why a smaller number of Asian-American Buddhists and Hindus than Asian-American Christians report that they pray daily.

Attendance at religious services is also higher among U.S. Asian Christians (61 percent) than among U.S. Asian Buddhists (12 percent) and Hindus (19 percent). But many Buddhists (57 percent) and Hindus (78 percent) report that they maintain religious shrines in their homes, the Pew study stated.

While most Asian-American Buddhists and Hindus maintain other traditional religious beliefs and practices — some 95 percent of all Indian-American Hindus say they celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights — many have also incorporated western traditions and holidays. Roughly three-quarters celebrate Christmas and more than a third of Hindus reported attending a religious service other than their own.

Pew researchers said that U.S. Buddhists and Hindus tend to be inclusive in their understanding of faith. Most Asian-American Buddhists (79 percent) and Asian-American Hindus (91 percent), for instance, reject the notion that their religion is the one, true faith and say instead that many religions can lead to eternal life (or, in the case of Buddhists, to enlightenment).

Where religion matters

“It is very important to understand and know the basics and how these different faiths might express their religious commitment,” said Cary Funk, senior researcher for the Asian-American study. “There are many, many religious groups in U.S. society, and the more we understand these differences the better that is.”

To reach that understanding, researchers need to formulate questions that capture the nuances and stark differences between faith traditions. Funk said asking about the salience or experience of one's faith is relevant in all religious traditions.

For John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron and a senior fellow at the Pew Forum, understanding the nuances of various faith traditions and the practices of their adherents is important in determining the impact followers have on society.

“One reason someone doing political polling would want to measure religious commitment is that it turns out to be a very powerful factor in explaining people’s political attitudes and views on social issues,” Green said. “People who have high levels of religious commitment tend to be more engaged with their faith, and we know that type of social engagement can have an enormous impact on people’s attitudes and their behaviors.”

According to the Pew study, most Asian Americans lean Democrat, with the exception of evangelical Protestants. However, more than half those same politically conservative Asian Americans support a bigger federal government offering more social services compared to 20 percent of white evangelicals in the general public.

As American society becomes more religiously diverse, the possibility of having a neighbor, student, patient, military comrade, voter or elected official from a minority faith becomes more likely, and it raises the importance of having at least a familiarity with other faith traditions.

“It’s not that we have to know everything, but certain basic information is certainly useful,” said Green, noting that most calls he receives seeking insight on the religious impact of a certain issue are from the media.

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