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Is Asian Immigration making America less religious?

Asian immigration has been the focus of many, many claims to society ills. They include the usual load of “they taking our jobs” or “damn, they soaking our social services”  etc. But funnily enough, immigrant Asians have now been accused of “y’all ain’t believing enough!”. According to Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation, Asian immigrants are making the United States less religious.

Now I don’t live in the US, but some of the stories we hear down under are about how religiously extreme people can get in the US, and of all the countries in the World, I would never peg the US as being a nation under threat of losing religion (any religion) as a way of life. However, let’s break down what Stephen actually wrote in his article:

When I first started studying Asian religions in the United States in graduate school, I assumed that the story of Asian immigration was a story of the arrival and adaptation of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Asian religions. And so it is.

That sentence right there just smacked me in the face. I’m sorry, just because someone is Asian doesn’t mean they were brought up in or will adapt an “Asian” religion. There are plenty of Asians adapting or being brought in a “non-Asian” religion.

But the broader story is much more complicated and intriguing.

Ok, disclaimer there, continuing on.

Although Vietnam is a Buddhist stronghold, many Vietnamese immigrants are Catholics. And many Korean immigrants are evangelical Christians. So immigration from Asia is transforming Christianity in the United States as well as Buddhism and Hinduism.

I’m lost. Is religious doctrine preached and taught in Asian countries different to the US? Can someone tell me if immigration of believers from Asia are changing the way people perceive Christianity? Or any other religion for that matter?

Some of these groups conform to the assumptions of my graduate school days. For example, about half of Indian Americans self-identify as Hindus, and a plurality of Vietnamese Americans call themselves Buddhists.

But most Korean Americans are Protestants and most Filipino Americans are Catholics. A plurality of Japanese Americans (38%) are Christians but 32% are unaffiliated and 25% are Buddhists.

In fact, a buried story here seems to be how Asian immigration may be fueling the rise of the “nones”: people who are religiously unaffiliated.

Woahhhhh… Firstly, just because people identify with an “Asian” religion doesn’t mean the theory of a “story of the arrival and adaptation of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Asian religions” is true. In fact, most of these people were brought up in their religion and came over keeping the faith. Then, just to push it further, this guys pulls out about how 38% of Japanese Americans are Christians, 32% unaffiliated and 25% are Buddhists and that’s a valid lead to how more Asian immigrants are “religiously unaffiliated?” Is anyone else lost at this stage? I’m really not understanding his point here. Isn’t 63% > 32%?

Of all the Asian Americans surveyed by Pew, 26% are unaffiliated, 22% are Protestant, 19% are Catholic, 14% are Buddhist, 10% are Hindu, 4% are Muslim and 1% are Sikh. And when asked whether religion is very important in their lives, only 39% of Asian Americans say yes, well below the 58% figure for the U.S. public as a whole.

Sociologists of religion have observed that immigrants often become more religious after arriving in the United States. So it could be that Chinese Americans, who are roughly half unaffiliated, will become more Christian or more Buddhist over time.

OK, here we are with some stronger stats. Breaking it down, 26% of the Pew survey are unaffiliated, while…70% (???!!) identify with some sort of religion. Can someone check the numbers for me? I’m not sure my mathematics is very accurate. But then let’s have a look further. Stephen pulls out that only 39% consider religion important in their lives compared to 58% of the US public. So what? Stephen’s point is, religious affiliation, not how important it is or more to the fact, how often people adhere to the actual teachings.

I have to say, this article did not make sense. Perhaps Stephen was trying to say something else, but didn’t want to seem offensive about it. The vibe I feel is that Stephen seems to believe Asians are a completely different group of people who aren’t truly “religious.” In fact, from the way he’s tried to justify his college viewpoint, he doesn’t even seem to consider “Asian” religions as being true religions, and Asians who believe in “Western” religions don’t conform to the correct teachings. Of course, I could be completely wrong but from his ramblings on this article, I’m not sure exactly what he’s trying to say.

But for now it seems that Asian immigration is doing more than making America wealthier, more educated, and more liberal. It may also be making the United States less religious.”

Oops, so he does a point. But it doesn’t match up. The stats show differently to what he’s saying. But look at it this way:

Christian: 41%

Other/Unaffiliated: 55%

See something going on?

My gut feeling: He’s got a bone to pick with Asian immigration because when he means it’s making the US less religious, he means that Asian immigrants either don’t believe in Christianity or even if they do, they’re not serious about it. He thinks that more Asian immigrants pick up religion after coming to the US like as if there’s no real incentive/ability/opportunity to pick up religion in Asia and  that many will pick up an “Asian” religion instead of Christianity. He tries to justify his stereotype of Asian immigrant religious affiliations and frankly, he’s trying to push off ” being Christian” as “being religious.” I don’t have an issue with any religion, but his article seems to be ammo for extreme right-wing, anti-immigration twits who will certainly fire off salvos on top of the “we losing jobs” and “we losing welfare” with “we losing religion.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero William Tsui.

[Image courtesy of here.]

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