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East Asians Leave Childhood Religion Most in World, but Remain Spiritual

(UPDATED) Pew survey of more than 10,000 adults in Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam examines Christians’ and Buddhists’ beliefs, practices, and affinity to other traditions.
East Asians Leave Childhood Religion Most in World, but Remain Spiritual
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch Tlapek / Source Images: Unsplash / Pexels

The rate of religious conversion in East Asia is among the highest in the world: Half of adults in Hong Kong and South Korea have left the religion they were brought up in for another religion or no religion.

Among Christians, substantially more adults in those two places left the faith than those who converted to Christianity.

The region also has the highest levels of deconversion. More than a third of adults in Hong Kong and South Korea say they now no longer identify with any religion.

Yet at least 4 in 10 adults in East Asia and Vietnam who are religiously unaffiliated still believe in unseen beings or a god.

And about 80 percent of Taiwanese and Japanese adults say they burned incense to honor their ancestors in the past year.

These are among the findings of “Religion and Spirituality in East Asian Societies,” a massive report released today by Pew Research Center. While few people in the region pray daily or say religion is very important in their lives, many “continue to hold religious or spiritual beliefs and to engage in traditional rituals,” said Pew researchers.

Surveys of 10,390 adults in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—defined here as East Asia—and Vietnam were conducted between June and September last year.

Although Vietnam is located in Southeast Asia, Pew included the nation in this survey due to its adoption of Confucian traditions, its historic ties to China, and its embrace of Mahayana, a branch of Buddhism common across East Asia. (Last September, Pew released an in-depth survey on religion in Southeast Asia, highlighting six nations.)

Researchers acknowledged the complexity of measuring “religion” in the region, as this word often denotes organized, hierarchical forms of worship rather than more “traditional Asian forms of spirituality.” Translators of the surveys, which were conducted in seven languages through phone calls in the East Asian countries and face-to-face interviews in Vietnam, were also asked to choose the most generic possible word for “god” and to avoid terms that referred exclusively to a divine entity from a particular religion.

Pew found that adults with no religious affiliation make up the largest share of the population in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Vietnam. In Japan and Taiwan, Buddhism closely beat out the nones.

Christians make up 32 percent of the population in South Korea, 20 percent in Hong Kong, 10 percent in Vietnam, 7 percent in Taiwan, and 2 percent in Japan. (Because the sample size of Japanese Christians is so small, Pew did not include the attitudes of this group in its findings.)

Pew researchers concluded that, while people say religion is not important in their lives, “when we measure religion in these societies by what people believe and do, rather than whether they say they have a religion, the region is more religiously vibrant than it might initially seem.”

Religion’s fluidity in East Asia was the report’s “most striking characteristic,” said Fenggang Yang, founding director of Purdue University’s Center on Religion and the Global East. Yang was an expert adviser to the Pew report.

“When they must choose a single [religious identity] ... many East Asians report no religious identity, even though they may hold religious beliefs and practices,” Yang said. “The beliefs and practices may be provided by more than one institutionalized religion. This has been the East Asian norm for a long time.”

Christianity in East Asia

In the region, South Korea has the largest share of Christians who identify as born-again or evangelical at 51 percent. Christians over the age of 35 are more likely to identify as such compared to younger believers (54% versus 38%). South Korean women and Christians without a college degree are also more likely to describe themselves as evangelical.

Meanwhile, 44 percent of Vietnamese Christians, 36 percent of Hong Kong Christians, and a mere 8 percent of Taiwanese Christians describe themselves as born-again or evangelicals.

The low percentage of evangelicals in Taiwan may not provide a fully accurate picture as “a lot of Christians in Taiwan … don’t really know the theological or denominational differences” between labels like “evangelical” or “charismatic,” said Shirley Lung, sociology professor at the University of Denver.

Christians are the most likely group to consider religion “very important.” About a third or more of believers across East Asia say this, along with two-thirds of Vietnamese Christians. Meanwhile, less than 20 percent of Buddhists in East Asia say religion is very important.

Most of the Christians surveyed say that they generally go to church, with 80 percent of believers in Vietnam responding they attend weekly, compared to 46 percent of their counterparts in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The newness of Christianity in Vietnam compared to other places in the region may be why church attendance there is high, says Hien Vu, the Institute for Global Engagement’s Vietnam program manager.

Vietnamese Christians “have had strong personal experiences of positivity through their faith, which has helped them build strong faith in Christ and at the same time, strong connections and trust with fellow believers,” she said.

Roughly 9 in 10 Christians surveyed say they pray to Jesus Christ. Compared to followers of other religions and the religiously unaffiliated, Christians are most likely to pray at least once a day: About half of Christians in Vietnam and South Korea and 40 percent of believers in Taiwan and Hong Kong say they do so.

Christians are also more likely to ponder existential questions on the meaning of life or to experience wonder about the universe, compared to Buddhists or the religiously unaffiliated. A majority of South Korean Christians (62%) think about this at least monthly.

South Korean Christians are the only ones in the region to have a wide age gap when it comes to who identifies as Christian: 35 percent of older adults compared to a quarter of younger adults.

In terms of evangelism efforts, most Hong Kong Christians say it is acceptable to proselytize (82%), while most Christians in South Korea oppose it (70%).

The majority of adults in the region did not attend a school with religious affiliations, except for in Hong Kong, where half of the adults went to a school that is associated with a Catholic or other Christian church. This is due to the large number of church-run schools in Hong Kong that proliferated under British rule.

Christians in East Asia are more likely to have attended Christian schools than Buddhists are to have attended schools with Buddhist ties. For instance, 22 percent of Taiwanese Christians attended a school associated with a Christian or Catholic church, compared to 10 percent of Taiwanese Buddhists who attended a school connected to a Buddhist organization.

The Pew report finding that more people in Hong Kong and South Korea identified with Christianity rather than Buddhism may seem counterintuitive to some, Yang said.

“People in the East or West commonly hold the stereotype that East Asia is predominantly Buddhist,” he said. “It is time to abandon it.”

Religious switching

Many people across the region now claim a different religious identity from the one they were raised in. Pew researchers measured the rates of “religious switching” between major world religions, such as between Buddhism and Christianity, not within a tradition (for instance, between Catholicism and Protestantism).

Religious switching has led to a nearly 10 percent drop in the number of Christians in Hong Kong and South Korea. In both places, roughly 1 in 10 adults who were raised in a different religious tradition or who had no prior religious identity now profess faith in Jesus.

Yet, at the same time, a substantially greater number (17 percent in Hong Kong and 19 percent in South Korea) have left their childhood faith of Christianity for another religion or no religion.

These findings indicate that Hong Kong is an “open society” where religious affiliation is not a determining factor for strong social cohesion, said Wai Luen Kwok, associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. As there are many Christian schools in the city, “young students may receive religious education other than that of their families and may switch to another religion.”

Churches ought to find out why people are dissatisfied with the faith and choose to leave it, said Pan Chiu Lai, philosophy of religion professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Some people may be attracted to a “modernized” form of Buddhism flourishing in East Asia that promotes meditation or mindfulness, vegetarianism, and “a Buddhist worldview (without a Creator God) as a more ‘reasonable’ worldview compatible with modern sciences,” he said.

Pew’s findings on the large number of South Koreans who have left Christianity for another religion or no religion corresponds with a survey that Chaeyong Chong conducted recently, which showed that “Protestantism was the most common previous religion among the unaffiliated in South Korea,” according to the professor of social religion at Fuller Theological Seminary.

The number of people who identify as Protestant but do not attend church—known as “Canaan” Christians in South Korea—is also rising, said Chong. Their numbers have nearly tripled in 10 years, from 11 percent in 2012 to 29 percent in 2023.

Overall, Taiwan and Vietnam are the only two places where Christianity has increased because of religious switching. In Taiwan, 15 percent of Christians were raised Buddhists. The percentage of Buddhists have also dropped in Hong Kong and South Korea by 12 and 15 percentage points respectively, and by 10 percentage points in Japan.

Vu, the Vietnam program manager, sees the high rate of religious switching in the region as hopeful because it “indicates a search for something greater than oneself and a quest for meaningful ways of living.”

Rates of religious switching in the world
Image: Pew Research Center

Rates of religious switching in the world

Yet, the biggest winner of religious switching is the no religion group, which grew by 30 percentage points in Hong Kong and South Korea as well as nearly 20 percentage points in Taiwan and Japan. In Vietnam, the group actually saw a net loss: 55 percent of Vietnamese said they were raised without a religion, while 48 percent identify with it now.

Hong Kong and South Korea have the two highest rates of disaffiliation in the world. In Hong Kong, 37 percent of the population left their childhood religion and now no longer identify with any religion, while South Korea comes close behind with 35 percent.

“Koreans are more instrumentally religious, meaning that they use religion to get what they want rather than being interested in religion itself,” Chong said. “Add to this the fact that religious people (pastors and clergy) are often found to be involved in various social problems or to be immoral, and you have a recipe for disappointment in religion.”

In terms of how “sticky” a religious group is, or how good it is at retaining its members, Christians have an exceptionally high rate of retention in Vietnam (95%), while the East Asian countries range from 40 to 60 percent.

Affinity with other religions and traditions

Adults who say they have no religious affiliation make up about half or more of adults in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Vietnam. Japan and Taiwan also have a significant share of religiously unaffiliated respondents, at 42 percent and 27 percent respectively.

This group of people are least likely to say religion is very important in their lives. Yet many feel a personal connection to Buddhism or an Indigenous religion. For example, at least a third of religiously unaffiliated adults in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan say they feel connected to a Buddhist way of life.

Across the region, more than half of all adults in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan say they feel connected to at least one tradition besides their own.

In South Korea, a majority of Christians, Buddhists, and the unaffiliated feel connected to the Confucian way of life. Meanwhile in Taiwan, a quarter of Christians and about 40 percent of Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated say they feel connected to the Daoist way of life.

Christians’ affinity to other religious and philosophical traditions in the region is a positive finding as it “may reflect that many of them do not adopt a fundamentalist [or] exclusivist attitude towards other religions,” said Lai.

Belief in the spiritual realm

Across East Asia and Vietnam, respondents are more inclined to say they believe in unseen beings, such as deities or spirits, rather than in a god. They are also most likely to say that mountains, rivers, or trees possess their own spirits, as opposed to believing that spirits exist in human-built landscapes and physical objects.

Education levels have a surprising impact on these beliefs. Respondents with higher levels of education, said Pew researchers, are more likely than those with less education to believe in unseen beings. Eight in ten college-educated Hong Kong adults say this, compared with those with less education (64%).

In South Korea, Christians are most likely to profess belief in unseen beings. Eighty percent of South Korean believers say so, compared to 62 percent of Buddhists and 41 percent who are unaffiliated. In other places like Taiwan and Hong Kong, Buddhists were more likely to say they believe in it than Christians.

Christians are the largest group to believe in the existence of angels and demons. In South Korea, for example, more Christians than Buddhists say that angels or helpful deities exist (69% versus 54%) and that demons or evil deities exist (63% versus 47%).

They are also most likely to say that both heaven and hell exist, although there is a stronger belief in the former.

The proportion of the religiously unaffiliated who say they believe in unseen beings ranges from 39 to 73 percent across the region.

Many in this group also continue to make food and drink offerings to care for their ancestors, with 92 percent of Vietnamese adults saying they have done so in the past year. At the same time, nearly all Vietnamese burn incense to honor their ancestors, along with 80 percent of Japanese and Taiwanese adults.

Religiously unaffiliated Taiwanese adults who engage in these practices may do so as a form of respect, said Lung, the sociology professor. “My guess is that this is something cultural, not necessarily something religious, that individuals have done since they were kids,” she said.

Belief in miracles, karma, fate, rebirth, and nirvana

People with higher educational qualifications in Hong Kong are more likely to profess belief in miracles than those with lower levels of education (65% versus 55%), Pew researchers found.

Hong Kong Christians ranked highest (85%) in saying that miracles exist, as did a substantial majority of Christians in Taiwan, South Korea, and Vietnam.

Belief in karma is also prevalent across the region. While Buddhists are most likely to believe it exists, the majority of Christians in Vietnam (71%), Hong Kong (68%), and Taiwan (64%) agree. Christians in these regions are also likely to say they believe in fate.

A sizable proportion of Christians also ascribe to beliefs in rebirth and nirvana.

Thirty-five percent of Hong Kong Christians believe that humans can be reborn—the Buddhist teaching of samsara—while 42 percent of believers in Hong Kong say they believe in nirvana, the Buddhist concept of liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

Relationship between religion and society

The Pew survey also measured the extent to which respondents agreed that religion is helpful to society in providing meaning and purpose in their lives, and that religion offers guidance to people to “do the right thing and treat other people well.”

Most respondents agreed with these statements, with Vietnam and Taiwan gathering more positive responses than other places. Japanese adults were least likely to agree.

Christians were a somewhat more likely than other groups to affirm these statements. Eighty-nine percent of Hong Kong Christians say religion helps inform and improve ethical behavior, compared to 78 percent of Buddhists and 76 percent of religiously unaffiliated people, Pew said.

In terms of whether religious leaders should be involved in politics, people in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan were least supportive.

In all of the polled places, most respondents felt that religious leaders should not become politicians. Many also did not think they should not talk publicly about which politicians and parties they support.

Observing the remarkable changes in religious identification in the region, Pew researchers asked, “How meaningful is religious affiliation in Asia? Do the religious labels even matter?”

Pew believes they still do: “How people describe their present religious affiliation and their childhood affiliation tends to correspond with their level of religious belief and practice.”

Yang, the Purdue University sociologist, added that he doesn’t think people should “read too much into the finding that the most common religion is ‘no religion’ in East Asia,” he said.

“‘No religion’ has become a growing and concerning phenomenon in the West, but it has been a traditional phenomenon in East Asia because religious identity is not always the most important,” he said. Other new religious trends in the West, such as Sheilaism (which involves mixing elements from multiple religions into one’s spiritual beliefs), have also been common in East Asia for centuries, Yang added.

“Learning about religion in East Asia may help to shed light on current religious change in the West,” he said.

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 한국어 繁體中文, and 日本語. ]

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