A Pew Research Center study released Oct. 11 reveals an evolving landscape of adherence to Buddhism among Asian American adults. The research, comparing data from 2012 and 2023, shows that although the number of Asian American adults formally identifying as Buddhist has seen a slight decline, a significant proportion still maintain a strong connection to the culture and l Buddhist heritage.
The study, which followed more than 7 participants over the course of a year, found that Asian Americans are part of the growing population of Americans known as "nones," claiming no affiliation particular religious. For example, in 000, 2012% of Asian Americans said they had no religion, while by 26, this figure increased to 2023%.
Researchers caution readers against overinterpreting the results of surveys like this because they are often based on Judeo-Christian frameworks of what counts as religion and religious practice.
In interviews after the 2012 study, Sharon Suh, a scholar of Buddhism and chair of the department of theology and religious studies at Seattle University, noted: "It's one of those classic questions between apples and oranges: how do you ask questions about God in a tradition? who does not have a God-Creator? Asian-American Buddhists practice their religion in very different ways – which doesn't always depend on how often one prays. (The Washington Post)
In 2012, 14% of Asian American adults claimed Buddhism as their religion. However, this year, that figure has fallen to 11 percent. 21% of respondents in the 2023 study said they feel closely connected to Buddhism for reasons such as ancestry or culture, although they do not formally identify as Buddhist. This represents a total of one-third of Asian Americans expressing some level of connection to Buddhism.
A closer look at the data reveals notable differences between specific subgroups of Asian Americans. For example, individuals of Southeast Asian descent, including Vietnamese Americans and those with heritage in other Southeast Asian countries, show a stronger tendency to identify as Buddhists. A significant 37 percent of Vietnamese Americans and 38 percent of those with roots in non-Vietnamese and non-Filipino Southeast Asian countries adopt Buddhism as their religion.
In contrast, among groups of East Asian descent such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans, a majority who feel connected to Buddhism do not formally identify as Buddhist. Instead, they describe their connection as a feeling of “closeness” to Buddhism, regardless of their religious identification. However, respondents from Southeast Asia do not follow this trend. (Pew Research Center)
For example, while 62% of Vietnamese and Japanese Americans express some level of connection to Buddhism, only 19% of Japanese Americans formally identify as Buddhist. A notable 30 percent of Japanese Americans do not align with any religion but feel an affinity with Buddhism for cultural or ancestral reasons. An additional twelve percent identify with a religion other than Buddhism but have a cultural connection to Buddhism.
The study also examined the role of religion in the lives of Asian American Buddhists. About 31 percent of those who identify as Buddhist consider religion very important in their lives, and another 40 percent indicate it is somewhat important. Interestingly, monthly attendance at religious services is less common (17%) among Buddhists than using home altars, shrines, or religious symbols for worship (63%).
This distinction is even more pronounced among Buddhists who place great importance on their religious practice. About 32 percent of this group attend religious services at least once a month, while 86 percent incorporate a shrine, altar or religious symbol into their worship at home. In contrast, among all Asian Americans who place a high value on religion in their lives, there is a smaller gap between the percentage who attend religious services at least once a month (65%) and those who use altars or sanctuaries in their homes for worship (55%).
Asian American Buddhists stand out in a variety of ways. They report a lower percentage of friends sharing their religion than Asian Americans overall (21 percent versus 30 percent). Additionally, they are the oldest demographic within major religious groups, with 50 percent aged 50 or older. Interestingly, 20% of Asian American Buddhists were born in the United States, a figure slightly lower than that of the Asian American population, where 32% were born in the United States.
This study provides valuable insights into the changing landscape of Buddhism within the Asian American community, emphasizing the importance of cultural and ancestral ties to tradition, even as formal religious identification undergoes changes.
Find out more
Buddhism among Asian Americans (Pew Research Center)
Survey: One-third of Asian Americans say religion is very important in their lives (Religion News Service)
A new report examines the beliefs of Asian Americans (The Washington Post)
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