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As Asian American Christians Decline, Most ‘Nones’ Still Feel Close to Religion

New Pew survey of 7,000 adults explores the beliefs and practices of Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims and their affinity to Confucianism and Daoism.
As Asian American Christians Decline, Most ‘Nones’ Still Feel Close to Religion
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Pexels

Christians comprise the largest faith group (34%) among Asian Americans.

But since 2012, Christianity has declined by 8 percentage points. Meanwhile, the share of religiously unaffiliated people has increased from 26 to 32 percent over the same period.

This is according to a new Pew Research Center survey of religion among Asian American adults who self-identified as Asian, either alone or in combination with other races or ethnicities.

Pew conducted surveys between July 5, 2022, and January 27 this year and also held focus groups and one-on-one interviews with over 100 Asian Americans to uncover what religion means to them. Besides surveying Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu Asian Americans, the research center also explored peoples’ affinity with Confucianism and Daoism.

Pew released its previous report on the state of Asian American religion in 2012. At the time, researchers found that Asian American evangelical Protestants, who surpassed white evangelicals in terms of weekly church attendance (76% versus 64%), were one of the most religious groups in the United States.

The latest Pew data is representative of ethnic Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese views on religion. People who were solely of Middle Eastern (e.g., Lebanese or Saudi) or Central Asian (e.g., Afghan or Uzbek) descent were excluded.

In many of these origin groups, well under half say that Christianity is their religion.

“At the pastoral level, these statistics match the countless stories of our immigrant churches struggling to remain healthy or viable,” said Gabriel J. Catanus, director of Fuller Seminary’s Filipino American Ministry Initiative. “Though we don’t know what the figures will say 10 years from now, this data should make pastors, parents, and leaders pause (and pray).”

Demographic profile

Protestants now make up 16 percent of the Asian American population, down from 22 percent in 2012. The share of evangelical Protestants has also dropped from 13 percent to 10 percent. Catholics have remained relatively stable at 17 percent today and 19 percent in 2012.

Of the six ethnic groups Pew surveyed, Filipino and Korean Americans are most likely to identify as Christian (74% and 59% respectively). Most Filipino Americans are Catholic (57%), while Korean Americans are largely evangelical (34%).

Indian Americans are least likely to say they are Christian. Fifteen percent identify as such, whereas 48 percent identify as Hindu, according to the Pew report. (In India, Christians comprise 2.4 percent of the population of 1.38 billion people.)

Compared to people of other faiths, Asian American evangelical Protestants tend to be older, with a median age of 51. This is among the highest of any Asian American religious group measured in the survey, Pew said.

Most of the religion scholars and leaders CT interviewed said that Christianity’s decline among Asian Americans was not surprising, attributing it to factors such as second- and third-generation Asian Americans leaving the faith or to Western Christianity’s connection to the polarizing nature of American politics.

Christianity’s waning may also be a result of the “browning of the population,” said Russell M. Jeung, San Francisco State University’s professor of Asian American studies.

“According to Pew, Indians and ‘other Asians’ made up about 31 percent of this racial group in 2012 but rose to 39 percent in 2023,” said Jeung. “Since these ethnic groups are less likely to be Christian, the overall numbers of Christians among Asian Americans should also drop.”

Amos Yong, author of The Future of Evangelical Theology: Soundings from the Asian American Diaspora, was less concerned by Christianity’s slump. “Perhaps the Asian American population grew such that 10 percent still is a larger aggregate number today than 13 percent ten years ago; so if this can be confirmed, that at least weathers a bit of the worry,” he said.

If Pew’s latest data is an accurate representation of Asian American Christianity at present, however, “the decline of numbers may indeed be consistent with overall declines, which further press serious questions about the efficacy of evangelical evangelism,” Yong added.

Worship life

Asian American Christians are more likely than Asian Americans overall to say that religion is very important in their lives (54% versus 31%). Pew attributes this disparity to the large proportion (73%) of evangelical Protestants who said so.

Just over half of Asian American believers go to church at least monthly (55%), and three-quarters of evangelicals (74%) report higher attendance rates than that.

When it comes to building community, Asian American Christians can be an insular group. “Asian American Christians are more likely than the general Asian American population to say all or most of their friends have the same religion they do (38% versus 30%),” Pew said.

“Evangelicals (45%) are among the most likely of all religious groups analyzed to say this.”

Hindu believers are a close second, with 40 percent saying that a large majority of their friends have the same religious beliefs. In contrast, Asian American Buddhists are one of the least likely to say so (21%).

The evangelical finding could be explained by religiosity levels, said Jerry Park, Baylor University’s associate professor of sociology. “Evangelical Christians, regardless of race, tend to be more active in their church community. This is the case for white evangelical Christians, and I might expect the same for Asian American evangelicals who often mirror the practices and patterns of their white peers.”

An age breakdown of evangelicals in this category would be helpful, as many of them might be young adults, said Soojin Chung, director of Princeton Theological Seminary’s Overseas Ministries Study Center.

Traditionally white campus ministries have become majority Asian American according to sociologist Rebecca Kim, Chung says. In 2006 (when Kim’s book was published), 80 percent of UC Berkeley’s and UCLA’s evangelical groups comprised Asian Americans, while Yale’s Campus Crusade for Christ was 90 percent Asian American.

The growing ‘nones’

About one-third of Asian Americans (32%) say that they are agnostic, atheist, or “nothing in particular.” In 2012, this figure was 26 percent.

Asian Americans who are religiously unaffiliated—often referred to as “nones”—are more likely than the general Asian American population to be below the age of 50 (73% versus 62%), to have been born in America (38% versus 32%), and to be Democrats or Democratic leaners (71% versus 62%), according to Pew.

The rise of the nones is concerning because “so much of our communities’ cultural practices are passed down in and through the various faith traditions—much of which are redeemed in Christ (think of Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus about the unknown god),” said Raymond Chang, president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative.

Out of all the ethnic groups, Chinese (56%) and Japanese Americans (47%) were most likely to say they are religiously unaffiliated. Yet they are also the most likely to feel close to a particular faith for reasons other than religion (47% and 58% respectively).

Closeness to a religion

Overall, 2 in 5 Asian Americans feel close to a religious tradition for reasons that are not religious. For example, while 34 percent identify as Christian, 18 percent feel close to the faith because of their family background or the culture they grew up in.

Asian Americans likely perceive the word religion differently compared to Americans, said Pew.

“In the U.S., being Christian is often perceived as an exclusive religious identity with a clear set of associated beliefs (such as a creed) and normative practices (such as attending religious services),” Pew observed.

In contrast, many Asian Americans who do not identify with a specific religion may still consider themselves connected with “the religious or philosophical traditions that are common in their country of ancestry” or feel close to multiple faiths, Pew said.

These findings bear some similarity to Pew’s report on the state of religion in China, where many Chinese adults hold multiple, albeit contradictory, beliefs in various gods and deities and engage in a variety of religious practices.

Feeling close to Christianity is “an unavoidable result of living in the United States,” said some survey respondents. For instance, giving gifts at Christmas “was always part of our culture, even though we don’t believe in it,” said one Indian American respondent who is not Christian but considers herself close to Christianity.

Among the nones, one-quarter of Chinese Americans say they do not feel close to any religious or philosophical tradition. This is “the highest share among the large Asian origin groups to reject any kind of connection to religion,” Pew noted.

But a modest proportion of Asian American nones feel close to Buddhism (35%) and Christianity (34%).

“Many unaffiliated Asian Americans might be quite amenable to Buddhism and Christianity than we previously thought,” said Park. “Rather than assume that those with no religion are completely apathetic to it, perhaps religious leaders have more opportunity to reach these individuals than they realize.”

While 81 percent of Korean Americans said they feel connected to Christianity, unaffiliated Korean Americans have increased from 23 to 34 percent, and Korean American evangelicals have decreased from 40 to 34 percent, observed Helen Jin Kim, Candler School of Theology’s associate professor of American religious history.

“We need a deeper dive into these numbers, but I am confident they, in part, reflect a broader story about the politics of American Christianity.”

Culture matters

Compared to the other religions surveyed, fewer than 1 percent of Asian Americans say that their present religion is Daoism or Confucianism. But some interviewees questioned whether these were to be considered forms of faith and regarded them as schools of philosophy instead.

Confucianism and Daoism have “an emphasis on filial piety, or respecting one’s elders and honoring one’s ancestors,” while only the latter includes “a pantheon of gods and deities along with dedicated clergy,” researchers noted.

Chinese Americans (24%), Korean Americans (22%), and Vietnamese Americans (13%) expressed a connection to Confucianism.

Half of those who said they are close to Daoism identify with either Christianity or Buddhism as well, Pew found.

Hien Vu, the Institute for Global Engagement’s Vietnam program manager, was surprised that the new survey did not reflect the declining share of Confucianism and Daoism compared to the 2012 survey.

Vu noticed the occurrence of a “great generational shift” among Vietnamese and Chinese Americans in her community, where these beliefs are practiced mostly among the first generation and younger generations do not “have the same level of attachment to traditional Asian philosophical and religious beliefs as their parents or grandparents,” she said.

Cultural assimilation may be another factor for this decline as Asian Americans adopt different worldviews that are more aligned with mainstream American culture, said Vu.

Reimagining the future

Despite Pew’s evaluation of Christianity as a religion in decline, the Asian American Christian leaders and scholars CT interviewed expressed hopeful sentiments for what the Asian American church will look like in the years to come.

“The bad news? People are walking away from the Christian faith in droves—Asian Americans included,” said Chang. “The good news? We aren’t alone, and the church is due for an overhaul that takes us back to the ways of Jesus.” Chang also serves as the executive director of TENx10, which is working with over 100 organizations, including denominations, parachurch ministries, and Christianity Today to help faith “matter more” to the next generation.

Catanus is “not yet convinced of a wholesale rejection of Jesus or Christian traditions” because 90 percent of Filipino Americans remain close to Christianity even if fewer (74%) identify as Christian. The number of people identifying as Filipino American has grown by nearly 10 percent in the last four to five years, he added.

“As my friend Dr. Jerry Park at Baylor University has observed, the Filipino American community is actually more than twice the size of the Korean American community and more likely to identify as Christian,” he said.

“So the Pew report tells an important story, but not the whole story.”

The large-scale migration of people out of Asia and into foreign lands such as North America—due to certain factors like the growing persecution of Christians in India and political developments in Hong Kong—will “continue to reshape the Asianization of American Christianity,” said Sam George, director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center’s Global Diaspora Institute.

“The migratory displacements are a theologizing and missionizing experience because immigrants bring their inherited religious beliefs and practices to the new land … [and] compare and contrast their faith with others.”

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]

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