Growing up in New York City’s Chinatown, Winnie Wu attended church services regularly with her family. An immigrant from Guangzhou, China, Wu recalled that her grandmother was converted to Christianity by missionaries in China.
Meeting fellow Chinese Americans at the Chinatown church was a way to integrate and assimilate when the family immigrated in 1978.
“When we moved to America, the church was a foundation,” said Wu, 51.
Now as a wife and mother with two tween daughters living in Montclair, New Jersey, Wu no longer goes to church. She is not raising her children with a religious affiliation.
“We found other avenues to connect with the community," Wu said.
More Asian Americans like the Wu family are not identifying with an organized religion, according to a new report from Pew Research Center. Mirroring the decline in organized religion across America, the report showed that 32% of Asian Americans are now not religiously affiliated, up from 26% in 2012.
About 30% of Americans did not identify with a religion, according to a 2021 Pew Research study.
Of the religions, Christianity showed the biggest drop-off among Asian Americans, down from 42% in 2012 to 34% today.
Even with the decline in participating in organized religion, Asian Americans are connected to spirituality. The study revealed that 40% of Asian Americans said they feel close to religious traditions, but do not identify with a religion.
Religion is deeply personal and complex. A connection to a religion sometimes waxes and wanes throughout a person’s lifetime.
When Paul Yoon’s family immigrated to Philadelphia from South Korea, the Korean American Presbyterian Church was very much a part of the family’s routine.
“I would wake up to my mother praying,” recalled Yoon, 49.
Sundays were church days when the family would gather with other Korean American families. For immigrants, the church is very much part of the community, Yoon said.
“It was a place for Koreans to gather and socialize,” Yoon said.
Once Yoon went off to college and started life as a young professional, he stopped going to church. But later in life, he felt the need for a spiritual connection and found his own way back to Christianity in his 30s. In exploring the Bible, he found himself.
“It was an epiphany for me,” said Yoon, who is an attorney in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
There are differences in religious affiliation among Asian Americans depending on their ethnic origin group, according to the Pew study.
Of those non-affiliated, 56% are Chinese Americans and 47% are Japanese Americans. Three-quarters of Filipino Americans identify as Christian and 59% of Korean Americans identify as Christian, with the majority being Protestant.
Of Indian Americans surveyed, 48% are Hindu, 15% are Christian, 8% are Muslim and 8% are Sikh. Vietnamese Americans are most likely to identify as Buddhist at 37%.
Identification with Buddhism is down by 3 percentage points among all Asian Americans surveyed, while Hindu and Muslim religious identities are up, from 10% to 11% and 4% to 6% respectively. The study showed that 29% of Asian Americans surveyed attend religious services at least once a month.
Yoon attends church services regularly at a predominately Korean American church with his wife Judy Gee, and their two sons. While Yoon disconnected with Christianity for some years, he appreciates the religious upbringing that his children are now getting.
“I would like them to have a sense of God and Jesus and a sense of 'Love your neighbor,'” Yoon said.
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