A comment below prompted me to slap together a post quickly displaying some data which illustrates just how religious South Asians are compared to East Asians. Anyone with an interest in world history will not be surprised by this assertion. When reading surveys of East Asian history I would occasionally reach a chapter titled “Religion,” and the author would offer a quick explanation and apologia for why the topic was not given pride of place. By contrast, some have argued to a first approximation South Asian history is a history of South Asian religion. (Though I do not focus on that issue in this post, the “Islamic world” is strongly defined by religious identity as well)
But how about the Diaspora communities? Where I have seen data the patterns seem to recapitulate themselves, more or less. Singapore, Canada and the United Kingdom collect data broken down both by religion and ethnicity. The United States has surveys performed by academic institutions, but unlike a national census the sample sizes are modest enough that I would not trust them much when it comes to very small minorities. Finally, I can use the World Values Survey to look at religious attitudes in the “homelands.”
The difference between Chinese and South Asians are rather stark. The Canadian South Asian populations is religiously diverse, about 15% Christian, 30% Sikh, 30% Hindu and 20% Muslim, with a balance of Jains and Buddhists. Only 2% have “No Religion,” as against 16% of white Canadians, and 59% of Chinese Canadians.
Now let’s look at Britain:
Among South Asians from Pakistan and Bangladesh there were so few people who disavowed religion that the sliver doesn’t show up on the graph (one of my cousins is among that small set). The more socioeconomically advanced Indian community does have some individuals who admit to being irreligious, but a very small minority, on the same order as those of black African origin. Again, you see that the Chinese community is very secular, more secular than the white British. This is not atypical, as a strong exclusive identification with one institutionalized religion has not been the norm for the majority of the Chinese population historically. As I have noted before, East Asians societies have actually undergone some confessionalization recently, inverting the narrative of secularization which is dominant in Europe.
Singapore can give us a picture of a non-Western society. Though the Chinese are a majority, there is a large Indian minority (which is of diverse social origins, from the long residentTamil community to more recent immigrants):
In Singapore most Indians adhere to some religion. By contrast, a large minority of Chinese are irreligious. I also want to add that from what I have read Singapore has experienced heavy confessionalization among the Chinese over the past few generations, with competition from Christianity driving a reorganization of Chinese Buddhism so as to make it a more vigorous institution than it had traditionally been. In Taiwan and Singapore Buddhism has gained a great deal of ground by absorbing those who were previously aligned with “Chinese folk religion.”
Finally, let’s compare India with some East Asian nations:
I’ve looked at previous years of the WVS which have Pakistan and Bangladesh, and both are much more religious than India. In any case, the East Asian sample exhibit some variance, but India is clearly far more religious in basal population sentiment. Unlike the People’s Republic of China the Taiwanese population has not gone through a phase of anti-religious indoctrination. It seems that the Diaspora communities reflect their nations of origin (the main issue is that American Koreans are much more Christian than Koreans themselves are, a function of selection bias as well as positive feedback loops in the United States).
As I said above the data comparing Asian American groups in the United States by religion is not satisfactory because of the sample sizes, or lack of cross tabs. But the US Religious Landscape Survey does have data on the attitudes of Hindus toward their religion:
These data seem to imply that American Hindus are relatively moderate in their attitude toward their faith. A good analogy would be with mainline Protestants. Perhaps the American South Asian community is different, I certainly know many irreligious or secular South Asians personally. But, very few express the same level of disengagement with their “natal” religious tradition as I do. I think part of this is because being Hindu has analogies to being born a Jew, the details of one’s religious beliefs and even practice are often less necessarily salient than they are in Islam. Additionally, I also believe that on some level South Asian culture and Hinduism have a deep connection; the rise of an explicit Hindu religious identity which is in any way separate and distinct from being Indian is to a great extent a function the rise of Islam and later Christianity, both of which had strong self-conceptions outside of the native religious traditions.* Unlike Hinduism in South Asia in East Asia Buddhism occupies a niche role in societies, and is of ultimate foreign provenance.**
Also, on a personal note:
Interesting post. So Razib, how does that apply to you? What group do you hang out with and how has that influenced your opinions?
In terms of “who I hang out with,” the fact that I went to the Singularity Summit should say something (my older friends from my younger days mirror the demographics of the Pacific Northwest). But more broadly, the emphasis on supernatural presuppositions at the heart of Islamic and Indian cultural traditions has always made me rather unsympathetic to both. At one point the Western cultural tradition, what was once Christendom, also put supernatural presuppositions front & center, but not so much now. Similarly, though East Asian societies have always had a supernatural aspect, it has never been able to asphyxiate the profoundly humanistic preoccupations of Confucianism.*** I have taken some interest in Indian and Islamic philosophy and religion, as they are relevant to any understanding of human history, but I have rarely found thinkers within these two traditions who “speak to me” in any way equivalent to Marcus Aurelius or Xunzi (I have evinced interest in some Buddhist thinkers, but as I grow older I am coming to the conclusion that this interest in my youth was a function mostly of my deep revulsion for many strands of Abrahamic thought which I perceived to be thoughtless, and the perceived contrast that Buddhism seemed to offer. Today would probably have a hard time disagreeing with the thrust of Han Yu’s polemic). Perhaps if the Carvaka had given rise to a more robust and less marginal tradition within Indian culture I could give a different assessment, but they were marginal, and did go extinct.
* By analogy, Shinto is just a term for the native religious traditions of Japan which were put into relief by the contrast with the intrusion of institutionalized Buddhism.
** For example, in Japan for the broad population Buddhism is a funerary religion (I am not speaking here of the minority who adhere to Nicheren Shoshu). By contrast, in Thailand and Tibet Buddhism is coextensive with Thai and Tibetan culture.
*** I am not saying here that Confucianism is necessarily atheistic, it certainly is not. And Neo-Confucianism drifted toward a very metaphysical direction. Rather, my point is that the material and psychological human-centered aspect of Confucianism stands in contrast to the otherworldliness of Hinduism and the God-belief which must be presupposed in Islamic civilization. Meanwhile, in the West there has emerged a alternative tradition to Christian theism within the last few centuries, perhaps roughly corresponding to what we might broadly term “liberalism.”