Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
In a fascinating new analysis, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life breaks down a comprehensive, nationwide survey of Asian-Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center, providing some much-needed data on Asian-Americans’ religious profile. The report highlights Asian-Americans as a “study in contrasts,” at once a highly religious and highly secular demographic group.
Although Asian-Americans have been largely responsible for the growth of non-Abrahamic religions (especially Buddhism and Hinduism) in the United States, a plurality (42%) of Asian-Americans identify as Christian. One-quarter (26%) of Asian-Americans say they have no particular religious affiliation, while 14% of Asian-Americans identify as Buddhist, and 10% identify as Hindu. Interestingly, Asian-Americans are slightly more likely than Americans overall to identify as religiously unaffiliated (26% vs. 19%).
On several measures of religious engagement, Asian-Americans stand out from Americans as a whole. For example, Asian-Americans are less likely than Americans overall to believe in God or to pray on a daily basis, although as the authors of the analysis note, these measures may be less suitable for Asian-Americans, many of whom belong to non-theistic religious traditions like Buddhism. The report also shows that there is great religious diversity among Asian-Americans, who are among America’s most secular and most devout citizens. For instance, unaffiliated Asian-Americans are much less likely to believe in God than the religious unaffiliated overall (49% vs. 67%). At the same time, Asian-American evangelical Protestants surpass white evangelical Protestants in weekly church attendance (76% vs. 64%).
There is also significant diversity among Asian-Americans in their embrace of religious pluralism. Most Asian-American Buddhists (79%) and Hindus (91%) reject the idea that their religion is the one, true faith. Roughly three-quarters of both Asian-American Buddhists (76%) and Asian-American Hindus (73%) celebrate Christmas. Three-in-ten (30%) of the Hindus and 21% of the Buddhists surveyed say they sometimes attend services of different religions (not counting special events such as weddings and funerals). However, Asian-American evangelical Protestants are even more likely than white evangelical Protestants to say that their religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.
The analysis is well worth reading, and provides a rare look into the complexity of Asian-Americans’ perspectives on religion.