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Asian Americans show wide diversity of faith: Study

July 25, 2012 10:13 IST

The Pew center report on Asian American religions finds Hindu Americans are majority of Indian Americans; they vote predominantly Democratic; majority celebrate Christmas; only 19 per cent say they attend worship services at least once a week; are way ahead of Jewish Americans in both education and family income. Aziz Haniffa reports.

Close on the heels of its seminal report on the Rise of Asian Americans last month, the highly-respected Pew Research Center last week brought out yet another comprehensive report -- this time a survey of the religions of Asian Americans -- titled Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths, which found that Hindu Americans constitute 51 per cent of the Indian American population, but only 19 per cent said they attend worship services at least once a week.

While 51 per cent of Indian Americans were Hindu, according to the report, 18 per cent were Christian( Protestant 11 per cent, Catholic, 5 per cent), 10 per cent were Muslim, 10 per cent, unaffiliated, and Sikhs constituted 5 per cent and Jains, 2 per cent.

The survey also found that the majority of Hindu Americans celebrate Christmas as they do Diwali, tend to vote largely Democratic, are streets ahead of other Asian American groups in terms of education and family income and of all the largest Asian American religious groups, Hindus have the highest retention rate, with "fully 81 per cent of Asian Americans who were raised Hindu, remain Hindu today; 12 per cent have become unaffiliated, and the rest have switched to other faiths(or did not give a current religion)."

It said, "By far the lowest intermarriage rate is among Hindus. Nine-in-10 married Hindus (94 per cent) have a spouse who is also Hindu," which was greater than about "eight-in-10 Catholics (81 per cent) are married to fellow Catholics or Protestants, respectively. Seven-in-10 Buddhists are married to fellow Buddhists (70 per cent) and 61 per cent of those with no religious affiliation have a spouse who is also unaffiliated."

The survey said Asian American Hindus also maintain some distinctive religious beliefs and practices, and noted that "Yoga has a long tradition in Hinduism, and nearly three-quarters of US Asian Hindus see it not just as an exercise but as a spiritual practice (73 per cent)."

It said, "More than half of Asian American Hindus say they believe in reincarnation and moksha, defined in the survey as 'the ultimate state transcending pain and desire in which individual consciousness ends (59 per cent each)."

"About half also believe in astrology (53 per cent), defined in the survey as the belief 'that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives."

The survey said that, "Fewer believe in spiritual energy in physical things (46 per cent) on in ancestral spirits (34 per cent)."

It said, "In addition, Hindus tend to practice their religion in different ways than do Christians," and noted that "although just 19 per cent of Asian American Hindus say they attend worship services at least once a week, nearly eight-in-10 (78 per cent) have a shrine in their home."

Meanwhile, it noted, "The celebration of Diwali, is nearly universal among Indian American Hindus(95 per cent)."

"Overall, Asian American Hindus say they pray less often than do members of the general public. About half of US Hindus surveyed (48 per cent) report praying every day. Among US adults in the general public, 56 per cent report praying daily."

The report said that nearly all Asian American Hindus surveyed traced their heritage to India (93 per cent), but "the per centage of Asian American Hindus who say that religion is very important in their lives (32 per cent) is considerably lower than the per centage of Hindus in India who say this."

It reported this figure to be 69 per cent in India, according to a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project.

When it comes to political party identification, the survey said that more Asian American voters identify with or lean to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, and that among all Asian American registered voters, the Democratic Party holds a 20 per cent-point advantage (52 per cent to 32 per cent) -- a much wider margin than in the general public (49 per cent to 45 per cent).

Asian American Hindus led in terms of Democratic Party identification or tilt with seven-in 10 voters (72 per cent) either considering themselves a Democrat or saying they lean Democratic.

It said that in terms of political ideology, Asian Americans also tend to be more liberal than the general public, and that among all US Asians, 31 per cent describe their political views as liberal and 24 per cent as conservative. In the US public, the balance is reversed -- 24 per cent say they are liberal, 34 per cent conservative.


The survey said that among Asian American religious groups, "The unaffiliated, Hindus and Buddhists tilt to the liberal side, while Asian American evangelicals tilt conservative (16 per cent liberal vs 45 per cent conservative)."


It however said, "While Asian American Hindus are much more likely to identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party than the Republican Party and voted overwhelmingly for Obama, their views on the size of government are more mixed."

The survey said, "Asked whether they would prefer to have a smaller government providing fewer services or a bigger government providing more services, 46 per cent of Asian American Hindus say they would prefer a bigger government, while 41 per cent says they would prefer a smaller one."

In terms of education and income, this Pew report, as did its earlier one on the Rise of Asian Americans, where it found that in terms of education and income, Indian Americans were way in front of other Asian American groups and the general US public too, in this case, "Hindus are at the top of the socioeconomic ladder -- not only among Asian American religious groups but also among all the largest US religious groups."

"Fully 85 per cent of Asian American Hindu adults are college graduates, and more than half (57 per cent) have some post-graduate education. That is nearly five times the per centage of adults in the general public who have studied at the post-graduate level (12 per cent) and 23 per centage points higher than US Jews, the second-ranking religious group in terms of post-graduate education."

Cary Funk, the senior researcher of the survey, said that Asian American Hindus are way ahead of US Jews in terms of household income too with 48 per cent of them "Reporting a family income of at least $100,000 annually, with the next closest group being the US Jews with 40 per cent of US Jews having an annual family income of at least $100,000, and with only 16 per cent of the general public overall reporting the same."

She said that "one part of the answer has to do with selective immigration -- many Asian immigrants have come to the US through the H-1B visa program and the vast majority of Hindus surveyed -- more than nine-in-10 of Indian descent and Indians as a whole are well educated as one group when compared with other Asian American country-of-origin groups."

Funk said that "it is interesting to see that Indian American Hindus tend to have even more years of education and higher household incomes than other non-Hindu Indian Americans."

The survey found that 51 per cent of Hindu Indian American adults live in households earning at least $100,000 annually, compared to 34 per cent of non-Hindu Indian Americans, and 58 per cent of Hindu Indian Americans have studied at the post-graduate level, compared to 36 per cent of non-Hindu Indian Americans. "To some extent, this may reflect the relatively high socioeconomic status of Hindus in India," it said.

The survey said that although all the largest Asian American religious groups are above the US average in post-graduate education, "the differences among Asian Americans, nevertheless, are striking. The share of Asian American Hindus who have studied as the post-graduate level is 40 percentage points higher than among Asian American Buddhists and Catholics."

"This reflects the great diversity of origins and circumstances among US Asians, including some who have come to the United States as refugees or unskilled workers and others who have come to pursue a higher education or opportunities in the high-tech industry, science, engineering and medicine."

Overall, the survey said that Christians are the largest religious group among US Asian adults (42 per cent), and the unaffiliated are second (26 per cent). Buddhists are third, accounting for about one-in-seven Asian Americans (14 per cent), followed by Hindus (10 per cent) Muslims (4 per cent) and Sikhs (1 per cent). Followers of other religions made up 2 per cent of US Asians."

Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which produced this report, acknowledged some of the limitations, noting that "The diversity of religious affiliations among Asian Americans, poses some challenges that readers should bear in mind as they evaluate the survey results."

He said, questions such as "How important is religion in your life?" are intended to allow for comparisons among people of different faiths. But vast gulfs in theology and practice mean that respondents sometimes may bring very different understandings to bear on a question."

For example, Lugo said, "Asked how often they pray, a Christian may think about prayers offered to a personal God, while a Hindu or Buddhist may think about the ritual recitation of mantras."

He said that, "Some of the survey questions reflect questions that are prevalent in the West -- belief in heaven and hell as places of eternal reward or punishment, for example. But other parts of the survey were designed specifically to measure the beliefs and practices of Buddhists, Hindus and adherents of other Asian religions, including questions about reincarnation, ancestral spirits, yoga as a spiritual practice, meditation, having a shrine or temple in the home and celebrating the Lunar New Year."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC