Chapter 2: Religious Roots of Asian Americans

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Asian Americans have a wide diversity of cultures and languages as well as a diverse mix of religious faiths and practices. When looking at the religious context of Asian Americans, those that share the immigrant journey have experienced going from an Asian society where Christianity is a minority religion to a society where Christianity is a majority religion.

For Asian American immigrants that are relocating from Asia to America, religion can be a very helpful resource to absorbing the culture shock and getting acclimated to a new country. For some Asian Americans, this occasion may prompt them to rediscover their family’s religious faith. For other Asians new to America, there’s a new openness to explore Christianity because of the cultural familiarity in an ethnic Asian church.

I confess that I am not an expert on world religions or the religions that are more popular in Asia than America. Plus, in recent years, I have noticed a growth in the academic works related to the sociology of religion. There’s also a whole other line of academic studies for comparative religions. So there are other publications I’d refer you to other experts for a more in-depth analysis about the theological differences and nuances of Asian Americans’ practice of religions.

What I will focus on this chapter is to consider how churches and pastors can be more effective with Christian ministry with Asian American immigrants. My observations, remarks, and suggestions will draw from select data from the great research in the Pew Research Center’s July 2012 report, “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths,” along with my life experiences of working with Asian American churches.

Popular Religions in Asia

Using the previously-introduced framework of 3 major regional groupings of Asians (East Asians, Southeast Asians, and South Asians), here are the commonly acknowledged ideologies, philosophies, and metaphysics that have influenced the faiths, religions, and spiritualities commonly practiced traditionally by a majority of people in Asia.

East Asians and its cultures have been strongly influenced by the syncretic blend of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, together known as the “Three Teachings” in Chinese philosophy. Duly noted that Taoism and Confucianism are more philosophies than religions and some experts say that Buddhism is more of a way of life than a religion. Some religions are more specific to a country: Korea has shamanism, Japan has Shinto, and China has folk religions characterized by veneration of ancestors, spirits, and deities. Wanda M. L. Lee described the influence of “Three Teachings” in An Introduction to Multicultural Counseling (p.104):

“Many Asian cultures are influenced by the philosophies of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Among the values that appear common to many Asian cultures are those of harmony; humility; and respect for family, authority, and tradition.”

Southeast Asians have influences from many major religions, including Buddhism, Animism, Catholicism, Islam, Confucianism, and Hinduism. Specific religions have been strongly influential in certain countries, for instance: Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia, Catholicism in the Philippines, Buddhism in Thailand and Myanmar. Vietnam’s most popular religion is Buddhism with influences of the “Three Teachings” from East Asia.

As for South Asians, a majority practices Hinduism (around 61%) and about 32% practice Islam. Sikhism, Buddhism, and Christianity comprise a small minority that together total less than 10%.

Have I mentioned that I’m not an expert on the sociology of religion? There are people far more educated and knowledgeable about religious studies in Asia and there’s undoubtedly much more history and knowledge about religions in Asia that are only in their corresponding Asian languages.

But what I can share with you is what the data says and reasonable observations we can make. This table shows the religious affiliations of each Asian country in Asia as reported in the CIA World Fact Book —

East Asia

China

Buddhist 18.2%, Christian 5.1%, Muslim 1.8%, folk religion 21.9%, Hindu < .1%, Jewish < .1%, other 0.7% (includes Daoist (Taoist)), unaffiliated 52.2%. Note: officially atheist (2010 est.)

Hong Kong

eclectic mixture of local religions 90%, Christian 10%

Japan

Shintoism 79.2%, Buddhism 66.8%, Christianity 1.5%, other 7.1%. Note: total adherents exceeds 100% because many practice both Shintoism and Buddhism (2012 est.)

Macau

Buddhist 50%, Roman Catholic 15%, none or other 35% (1997 est.)

Mongolia

Buddhist 53%, Muslim 3%, Christian 2.2%, Shamanist 2.9%, other 0.4%, none 38.6% (2010 est.)

North Korea

traditionally Buddhist and Confucianist, some Christian and syncretic Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way)

South Korea

Christian 31.6% (Protestant 24%, Roman Catholic 7.6%), Buddhist 24.2%, other or unknown 0.9%, none 43.3% (2010 survey)

Taiwan

mixture of Buddhist and Taoist 93%, Christian 4.5%, other 2.5%

Southeast Asia

Myanmar (Burma)

Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, Animist 1%, other 2%

Cambodia

Buddhist (official) 96.9%, Muslim 1.9%, Christian 0.4%, other 0.8% (2008 est.)

Indonesia

Muslim 87.2%, Christian 7%, Roman Catholic 2.9%, Hindu 1.7%, other 0.9% (includes Buddhist and Confucian), unspecified 0.4% (2010 est.)

Laos

Buddhist 66.8%, Christian 1.5%, other 31%, unspecified 0.7% (2005 est.)

Malaysia

Muslim (official) 61.3%, Buddhist 19.8%, Christian 9.2%, Hindu 6.3%, Confucianism, Taoism, other traditional Chinese religions 1.3%, other 0.4%, none 0.8%, unspecified 1% (2010 est.)

Philippines

Catholic 82.9%, Muslim 5%, Evangelical 2.8%, Iglesia ni Kristo 2.3%, other Christian 4.5%, other 1.8%, unspecified 0.6%, none 0.1% (2000 census)

Singapore

Buddhist 33.9%, Muslim 14.3%, Taoist 11.3%, Catholic 7.1%, Hindu 5.2%, other Christian 11%, other 0.7%, none 16.4% (2010 est.)

Thailand

Buddhist (official) 93.6%, Muslim 4.9%, Christian 1.2%, other 0.2%, none 0.1% (2010 est.)

Vietnam

Buddhist 9.3%, Catholic 6.7%, Hoa Hao 1.5%, Cao Dai 1.1%, Protestant 0.5%, Muslim 0.1%, none 80.8% (1999 census)

South Asia

Afghanistan

Muslim 99.7% (Sunni 84.7 – 89.7%, Shia 10 – 15%), other 0.3% (2009 est.)

Bangladesh

Muslim 89.1%, Hindu 10%, other 0.9% (includes Buddhist, Christian) (2013 est.)

Bhutan

Lamaistic Buddhist 75.3%, Indian- and Nepalese-influenced Hinduism 22.1%, other 2.6% (2005 est.)

India

Hindu 79.8%, Muslim 14.2%, Christian 2.3%, Sikh 1.7%, other and unspecified 2% (2011 est.)

Maldives

Sunni Muslim (official)

Nepal

Hindu 81.3%, Buddhist 9%, Muslim 4.4%, Kirant 3.1%, Christian 1.4%, other 0.5%, unspecifed 0.2% (2011 est.)

Pakistan

Muslim (official) 96.4% (Sunni 85-90%, Shia 10-15%), other (includes Christian and Hindu) 3.6% (2010 est.)

Sri Lanka

Buddhist (official) 70.2%, Hindu 12.6%, Muslim 9.7%, Roman Catholic 6.1%, other Christian 1.3%, other 0.05% (2012 est.)

As shown above, in most Asian countries, Christianity is a minority religion. It is a common perception that when the majority of people in a country profess faith in a particular religion that the country becomes closely associated with the religion. For example, Thailand is known as a Buddhist country.

In a similar way, America is commonly known as a Christian nation (or at least strongly influenced by Judeo-Christian values), though that perception is eroding as American society has become much more pluralistic with immigration from many parts of the world and more progressive in its social values.

Nevertheless, as millions of Asians have immigrated to America, their exposure and receptivity to Christianity is greatly increased because the USA is a majority Christian country. Compare and contrast the religious data in Asia with these in North America:

United States

Protestant 51.3%, Roman Catholic 23.9%, Mormon 1.7%, other Christian 1.6%, Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%, Muslim 0.6%, other or unspecified 2.5%, unaffiliated 12.1%, none 4% (2007 est.)

Canada

Catholic 40.6% (includes Roman Catholic 38.8%, Orthodox 1.6%, other Catholic .2%), Protestant 20.3% (includes United Church 6.1%, Anglican 5%, Baptist 1.9%, Lutheran 1.5%, Pentecostal 1.5%, Presbyterian 1.4%, other Protestant 2.9%), other Christian 6.3%, Muslim 3.2%, Hindu 1.5%, Sikh 1.4%, Buddhist 1.1%, Jewish 1%, other 0.6%, none 23.9% (2011 est.)

Christianity in Asia

To get an overview of the Gospel’s receptivity in Asia, I did some number-crunching and aggregated the populations for the 3 regional groupings along with its percentage of Christians. Looking at these numbers instead of just percentages was eye-opening for me:

East Asians have a total population of 1,602,645,319 with 5.56% Christian, which is 89,088,497.

Southeast Asians have a total population of 634,446,116 with 20.54% Christian, which is 130,306,412 Christians.

South Asians have a total population of 1,707,043,483 with 1.84% Christian, which calculates to 31,369,548 Christians.

Did you know there are more Southeast Asians who are Christians than East Asians? (Note that this Christian population includes both Catholics and Protestants.) And the 5 Asian countries with the most Christians are: the Philippines (91.1M), China (69.7M), India (28.8M), Indonesia (25.3M), and South Korea (15.5M).

It’s encouraging to see that faithful followers of Christ have spread the Gospel throughout parts of Asia and the response in some Asian countries that have resulted in millions of Christians. While we don’t have the space here to cover every country’s history of how they were first introduced to the Gospel, I do encourage you to study the history of Christianity for the specific countries that you’re most interested in.

Two countries with the largest proportion of Christians are the Phillipines (90.2%) and South Korea (31.6%). The Philippines is proud to be “the only Christian nation in Asia,” according to this article posted at Asian Society. The article goes on to describe the impact of Catholicism :

The results of 400 years of Catholicism were mixed — ranging from a deep theological understanding by the educated elite to a more superficial understanding by the rural and urban masses. The latter is commonly referred to as Filipino folk Christianity, combining a surface veneer of Christian monotheism and dogma with indigenous animism.

South Korean Christianity is noteworthy for its missionary zeal and its very large churches (5 of the world’s largest churches are in South Korea). This Christian heritage is also carried over by Korean immigrants into the United States that’s resulted in the largest number of Asian American churches being Korean American (more details in the next chapter.).

This excerpt from Rebecca Y. Kim’s “The Spirit Moves West: Korean Missionaries in America” by Rebecca Y. Kim (pp. 25-28) summarized the significance of Christianity for South Koreans:

The impressive growth of Christianity is partly due to Koreans’ response to drastic social transformation… Koreans became identity- and community-seekers, and the Christian faith and community were there to fill the void. … it mattered for the growth of the Korean Protestant church that the Protestant faith came to the Korean people at moments of tremendous crisis and change as a religion of modernity and power sans the heavy baggage of Western colonialism.

… On a per capita basis, South Korea sends out the most missionaries in the world. In 2011, there were approximately 20,000 Korean missionaries working in countries outside South Korea…. A century after the advent of American missionary activity in Korea, South Korea has become a major missionary-sending nation.

The third Asian country to pay attention to is China. The growth of Christianity in China is rapidly accelerating—estimated at 68 million in 2010 and projected to reach 160 million by 2025 and China would become the largest Christian nation in the world, as noted in the Huffington Post article, “China On Track To Become World’s Largest Christian Country By 2025, Experts Say,” citing Professor Fenggang Yang, author of “Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.”

While there’s much more that could be said about Christianity in Asia, the primary emphasis of this book is to highlight the current developments in Asian American Christianity. In the next chapter, we will take a closer look at the religious faiths of Asian Americans and how Asian American Christianity has taken shape as ethnic Asian churches.

UNEDITED & UNCORRECTED DRAFT - PLEASE DO NOT QUOTE

1 thought on “Chapter 2: Religious Roots of Asian Americans

  1. Great data to highlight the religious landscape in Asia.

    Somehow there needs to be a way to make the data, in particular each country’s breakdown more accessible. The further I made it down the list, the more I skimmed and skipped.

    This data is from a fixed point in time. Have there been any significant changes in this data over time that might bring further insights? You mention the growth of Christianity in Korea over the past 100 years and the rapid growth of Christianity in China recently. Other than that how did Catholicism grow and when in the Philippines or Islam in Indonesia? How might these shifts and not just fixed numbers influence faith for Asian Americans?

    The title is “Religious Roots of Asian Americans” and while the first couple of paragraphs hint at this primarily being an immigrant/new immigrant experience, I think that distinction needs to be made more explicitly. Asians all “share the immigration journey,” but could have done so at different times in their families history. Are multi-generation Asian-Americans addressed elsewhere or should their roots be addressed here or at least acknowledged that this chapter is primarily about the experience of earlier generations of their families? Just thinking a 5th generation Christian Asian-American household might not immediately relate to their “religious roots” being anything but Christian. Maybe more of a semantic thing, but thought I’d bring it up because I’m annoying like that:)

    Okay enough of my blabbing! Interesting stuff!

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