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The Mosaic Of Asian-American Worship


And now onto other matters of faith. You might remember a study we told you about recently that showed that Asian-Americans are the fastest growing minority group in the country. Well, now the Pew Research Center - which produced that report - has a new one looking at the religious preferences of Asian-Americans. The study shows that half of Asian-Americans identify as either Hindu, Buddhist or not belonging to any religious group at all.

That's a sharp contrast to the overwhelming Christian identity claim by a majority of U.S. citizens. We wanted to talk more about this, so we're joined by Cary Funk. She was the lead researcher on this new report, and she's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios. Cary Funk, thanks for joining us.

CARY FUNK: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So let's just start by looking at this from a wide angle. How do the religious beliefs of Asian-Americans fit in with some of the major religions of the United States, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam?

FUNK: Sure. I mean, I think one of the things that you're seeing from this study is that when it comes to religion, Asian-Americans really are a study in contrasts with religious groups that are running the gamut from highly committed to highly secular. And what you just mentioned, I think, is really particularly striking in terms of comparing the religious composition of Asian-Americans with the U.S. general public, that just really...

MARTIN: Kind of jumps out?

FUNK: Yeah, it just jumps out at you. You know, 42 percent of Asian-Americans are Christian, which is our largest religious group in the U.S. But that compares with three-quarters of the U.S. general public that's Christian. So what that means is that a majority of Asian-Americans are either belonging to some other faith or have no religious affiliation.

MARTIN: You know, at first glance, it might seem as though Asian-Americans, as a group, are less religious than the general public in the U.S. in the sense that they pray less often and don't go to services as often. But they don't necessarily see it that way. The people who answered these questions don't necessarily see it that way. Could you talk about that?

FUNK: Sure. Well, I mean, the story is more complicated than that, partly because of the different religious composition of Asian-Americans compared with the general public. So, for example, Asian-American Buddhists are about 14 percent of U.S. Asians. Hindus are another 10 percent of U.S. Asians. And both of these groups are less likely to say religion is very important in their lives compared with other Asian-American religious groups.

Of course, they also are very different religions, and they tend to practice their faith in different ways. A good example of that has to do with what we colloquially call church attendance or worship service attendance. Both Buddhists and Hindus are less likely to say they attend worship services at least weekly. On the other hand, a majority of both groups - and eight in 10 of Asian-American Hindus - have a shrine or temple in their home.

MARTIN: So church attendance or service attendance doesn't necessarily capture the way religious faith is experienced by these groups.

FUNK: That's right. That's right. And one of the strengths of the survey is that some of the questions on the survey are the kinds of things that can make apples-to-apples comparisons across religious groups, and others are more specific to the different faiths.

MARTIN: You know, one other interesting point is that Asian-Americans who practice the Hindu faith are at the top of the socioeconomic ladder in this country. That's in contrast to all other major religions found in the U.S. Why do you think that is?

FUNK: So just to put that a little in context, Asian-American Hindus are among the best-educated and have higher incomes than other religious groups. Why is that? I mean, part of that difference in socioeconomic status is at least partly due to selective immigration.

You know, many Asian immigrants are coming to the U.S. through the H1-B visa program. The vast majority of Hindus surveyed, I think more than nine in 10 trace their roots to India. And Indians, as a whole, are a well-educated, affluent group relative even to other Asian-American-country-of-origin groups, right.

But it's also interesting to see that Indian-American Hindus tend to have higher education, higher incomes relative to other non-Hindu Indian-Americans.

MARTIN: You know, a lot of the people you surveyed were immigrants, but what about second-generation Asian-Americans? Are they likely to stay within their parents' religion? I mean, some of the previous Pew studies that have gotten a lot of attention have showed just how religiously fluid the entire country is, that, you know, many people might be born into one religious tradition, but as adults practice another one, or leave one Christian denomination for another Christian denomination.

And I wondered if the same kind of fluidity was going on, or flexibility - if you want to call it that - is going on among second-generation Asian-Americans.

FUNK: Right. And there seems to be some of that. So in terms of religious switching, which is evidence that, you know, when your childhood religion is different than your current religion, there had to have been some kind of switching going on in the middle. And we know from other Pew forum studies that often there can be multiple times of switching.

And one thing we see there is I think about three in 10 - a little over - of that proportion of Asian-Americans have switched at some point in their lives. And native-born, U.S.-born Asian-Americans are more likely to have switched than foreign-born. So that's some evidence that second generation are a little different than immigrants.

MARTIN: Cary Funk was the lead researcher of a new Pew study that looks at the religious diversity among Asian-Americans, and she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Cary Funk, thank you so much for joining us.

FUNK: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.