WASHINGTON, D.C. (July 19, 2012) — As their numbers rise, Asian Americans have been largely responsible for the growth of non-Abrahamic faiths in the U.S., particularly Buddhism and Hinduism.
Counted together, Buddhists and Hindus now account for about the same share of the U.S. public as Jews (roughly 2 percent). At the same time, most Asian Americans belong to the country’s two largest religious groups: Christians and people who say they have no particular religious affiliation.
According to a comprehensive, nationwide survey of Asian Americans conducted by the Pew Research Center, Christians are the largest religious group among U.S. Asian adults (42 percent), and the unaffiliated are second (26 percent). Buddhists are third, accounting for about one-in-seven Asian Americans (14 percent), followed by Hindus (10 percent), Muslims (4 percent) and Sikhs (1 percent). Followers of other religions make up 2 percent of U.S. Asians.
Not only do Asian Americans, as a whole, present a mosaic of many faiths, but each of the six largest subgroups of this largely immigrant population also displays a different religious complexion. A majority of Filipinos in the U.S. are Catholic, while a majority of Korean Americans are Protestant.
About half of Indian Americans are Hindu, while about half of Chinese Americans are unaffiliated. A plurality of Vietnamese Americans are Buddhist, while Japanese Americans are a mix of Christians, Buddhists and the unaffiliated.
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. For example, Asian Americans who are unaffiliated tend to express even lower levels of religious commitment than unaffiliated Americans in the general public; 76 percent say religion is not too important or not at all important in their lives, compared with 58 percent among unaffiliated U.S. adults as a whole.
By contrast, Asian-American evangelical Protestants rank among the most religious groups in the U.S., surpassing white evangelicals in weekly church attendance (76 percent vs. 64 percent). The overall findings, therefore, mask wide variations within the very diverse Asian-American population.
These are among the key findings of a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life and Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project. “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths” is the second report based on a nationally representative survey of Asian Americans, which was conducted by the Pew Research Center between Jan. 3 and March 27, 2012. The first report on the survey’s findings, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” was released in June.
This report examines the same fast-growing population but uses religious affiliation, rather than country of origin, as the primary frame of analysis. The survey is based on telephone interviews, offered in English and seven Asian languages, with 3,511 Asian-American adults (18 years of age and older) living in the United States. The survey was conducted in all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.
Additional key findings include:
• Asian Americans as a whole are less likely than Americans overall to believe in God and to pray on a daily basis. But these measures may not be very good indicators of religion’s role in a mostly non-Christian population that includes Buddhists and others from non-theistic traditions.
Most Asian-American Buddhists and Hindus, for instance, maintain traditional religious beliefs and practices. Two-thirds of Buddhists surveyed believe in ancestral spirits (67 percent), while three-quarters of Hindus keep a shrine in their home (78 percent), and 95 percent of all Indian-American Hindus say they celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
• While Asian Americans contribute to the diversity of religion in the U.S., the survey finds evidence that they are also adapting to the U.S. religious landscape. For example, roughly three-quarters of both Asian-American Buddhists (76 percent) and Asian-American Hindus (73 percent) celebrate Christmas.
Three-in-ten (30 percent) of the Hindus and 21 percent of the Buddhists surveyed say they sometimes attend services of different religions (not counting special events such as weddings and funerals). And while about half (54 percent) of Asian Americans who were raised Buddhist remain Buddhist today, substantial numbers have converted to Christianity (17 percent) or become unaffiliated with any particular faith (27 percent).
• 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).
In addition, the vast majority of Buddhists (75 percent) and Hindus (90 percent) say there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. By contrast, Asian-American Protestants — particularly evangelical Protestants — are more inclined to believe their religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.
Indeed, Asian-American evangelicals are more likely than white evangelical Protestants in the U.S. to take this position. Nearly three-quarters of Asian-American evangelicals (72 percent) say their religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, while white evangelical Protestants are about evenly split, with 49 percent saying their religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life and 47 percent saying many religions can lead to eternal life.
• The religious affiliation of the six largest subgroups of Asian Americans generally reflects the religious composition of each group’s country of origin. In some cases, however, the percentage of Christians among Asian-American subgroups is much higher than in their ancestral lands.
For example, 31 percent of the Chinese Americans surveyed are Christian; the vast majority, though not all, of this group come from mainland China, where Christians generally are estimated to constitute about 5 percent of the total population. Similarly, 18 percent of Indian Americans identify as Christian, though only about 3 percent of India’s total population is estimated to be Christian.
The higher percentages of Christians are a result of the disproportionate number of Christians who choose to migrate to the United States and may also reflect religious switching by immigrants.
The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life conducts surveys, demographic analyses and other social science research on important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world. As part of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy organization, the Pew Forum does not take positions on policy debates or any of the issues it covers.