Gene Expression

Asia, land of the godless & godly

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.”

First, Canada:


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:

i-ed30f22b6e63904248c10d3733dd7382-ukreligion.pngAmong 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.”


  1. #1 Oliver
    January 30, 2010

    Filipinos in the Philippines (not so much in the diaspora) are kind of racist against South Asians and seem to prefer to claim affiliation with East Asia. Yet the Pinoy family and community has a feel closer to that of South Asians. But in terms of religion, I used to feel that Filipinos were obviously *more* religious than South Asians. I wonder if that has more to do with how I conceive of religion, including the influence of hippie-style orientalism I’ve been assaulted with over the years.

    I’d really like to see a good book on East Asia and religion.

  2. #2 miko
    January 30, 2010

    You allude to this, but it has always struck me that Hinduism was more the entire culture than just the religious/supernatural aspect of people’s lives. And was “Hindu” even a cohesive category prior to the colonial period? My impression is that religiously speaking there would be more narrow identities, like Shaivism or Vishnu-fans or whatever. It is perhaps like Judaism, where many atheists consider their Jewish identity to be an important part of their culture. It makes you wonder how portable the concept of “religion” as a distinct cultural compartment is across time and space. Much of Hinduism appears to be a genuine attempt to rationalize and explain the world, as opposed to religions like Christianity, which is explicitly moral philosophy and a rejection of the rational for faith.

    Also, Malays and Islam in Singapore. To the broader Malay community, if you are non-Muslim your are by definition not Malay. Malay is a slippery ethnicity, but for a long time has been defined by 1) Muslim 2) Recognized as a Malay by the Malay community 3) Self-identified as Malay. Point being almost anyone who identifies as Malay will also identify as Muslim in a survey. In Singapore, “Malay” refers to broad range of SE Asian ethnicities, but, for example, Muslims of Sumatran ancestry might be considered Malays but Christians would not. They’d be “Miscellaneous.” Religious/ethnic identity in Singapore is both hilarious and fascinating. And as a side note, the increase in Christianity is of the worst cheap evangelical mega-mall variety imaginable. It’s basic appeal to Chinese seems to be that it’s “luckier” than Buddhism.

  3. #3 razib
    January 30, 2010

    . And was “Hindu” even a cohesive category prior to the colonial period? My impression is that religiously speaking there would be more narrow identities, like Shaivism or Vishnu-fans or whatever.

    i think the relatively compartmentalized idea of a “hindu” is attributable to british ethnographers and administrators. but it also seems obvious that the identity had already started crystallizing during the period of muslim hegemony. e.g., the empire of vijayanagara and later the marathas both leveraged the idea that they were marching under the banner of the indigenous religion traditions of india (though to simplify their polities as religiously grounded in a fundamental sense is also probably false, since muslims fought in their armies, and hindus fought in the armies of their muslim enemies). the muslims, like the british, had need to categorize the local religious traditions because of the concept of the dhimmi, as well as for the purpose of identifying muslims in the population whose orthodoxy had to be policied (that is, if a community was hindu it would perhaps suffer persecution and tax as non-muslims, but if a community was muslim it would come under scrutiny as to its islamic orthodox, depending on the orientation of the potentate and authorities).

    also, remember that india produced the first world religion, buddhism. though buddhism was not widely popular in china until around 200, there are already mentions of buddha (as a god) around the time of christ in china, and this is probably underestimates the time of introduction. i don’t know enough about the history to talk much about how buddhism and what became hinduism (and jainism) interacted in south asia before islam, but the idea of confessional communities was already there. the clash with the abrahamic tradition though seems to have scaled it up and made the divisions more firm.

    It makes you wonder how portable the concept of “religion” as a distinct cultural compartment is across time and space. Much of Hinduism appears to be a genuine attempt to rationalize and explain the world, as opposed to religions like Christianity, which is explicitly moral philosophy and a rejection of the rational for faith.

    i’m not sure you do justice to christianity here, or what became christianity. as for hinduism, “much”? i think religion is actually a very portable concept, on the level of the masses. chinese confused catholic christianity for pure land buddhism when the jesuits first arrived, while vasco da gama assumed that hinduism was catholicism when he initially showed up on kerala. the exoteric nature of the phenomenon exhibits widespread parallelism, as does the psychological states and the general nature of ritual. where does the incommensurable portion come into play? in the more elite philosophical aspect. this is relevant for inter-civilizational dialogue at the level of the elite, religious professionals and the intellectually oriented, but for 99% of humanity switching from catholicism to buddhism to hinduism is stressful because of the disruption of specific habit as well as tribal rupture, not the experience of religious phenomena.

  4. #4 trajan23
    January 30, 2010

    A great posting Razib. I guess that my Indian friends are extreme outliers. Do you have any data sets charting East Asian supernatural beliefs (belief in astrology, ghosts, clairvoyance, etc.) as opposed to religiosity? A great many non-religious Westerners, after all, while scoffing at the virgin birth, believe in psionics, spirits, etc.
    Your affinity for the rationalistic strain in Chinese thought seems to be fairly common amongst atheists/agnostics. I seem to recall that Bertrand Russell once expressed a similar feeling. For that matter, I’ve also felt a certain attraction towards the Confucian system (Needless to say, I am also on the atheist/agnostic end of the sprectrum).

  5. #5 razib
    January 30, 2010

    trajan, haven’t see that survey data for east asia. though looking into it it is actually not quite as true that the non-religious in the west believe in all sorts of other weird things if they don’t believe in institutional religions (they do, but the belief levels don’t compensate so that they’re at parity).

    re: western attraction to confucianism, it started with leibniz:

    persisted with voltaire.

    but it went into decline in the 19th century as the chinese bureaucreatic elite was perceived to be obscurantist and a major obstacle to the advancement of their nation. to some extent sinophilia on the part of non/anti-christian western thinkers is a matter of projection, and resembles the glorification of muslim tolerance which sometimes occurred among non/anti-christian (and sometimes protestant) thinkers. it was more a talking point than a genuine examination of chinese culture on its own terms.

    in any case, i think one weakness of the human mentality is to look for “lost wisdom” from the past. this is why you have normal people who get attached to cult-gurus who portray themselves as having some superior genius which they can impart. no one who reads my blog posts will be surprised when i admit that i believe that the whiggish enthusiasms of the enlightenment were overblown, and that human nature exhibits some deep continuities. *but*, elevation of confucianism, or buddhism, or any -ism, of the past is i think a combination of comparative advantage (i find the allusive circumlocutions of confucian ‘reasonable’ preferable to expositions on hadith or halacha by far!), and, the hope that someone in the past will have solved the riddle of eudaimonia. some east asians (e.g., in south korea) seem to see in christianity a novel cultural elixir which will important Truth which has been hidden by happenstance of geography and history, in an inversion of the path of western “seekers.”

  6. #6 Spike Gomes
    January 30, 2010

    Belief in the paranormal and psuedo-scientific in Japan is quite high, though I don’t have my books on hand to cite the actual statistics. However going over the Japanese best-seller book lists will be fairly illuminating as to that regard, frex blood-type personality things, which it seems nearly every Japanese person who’s not a scientist buys into.

  7. #7 Zimriel
    February 1, 2010

    Off topic, somewhat, but this is one reason I don’t like to call subcontinentals “Asian”. You may as well call Germans “Asian”.

    India is a cultural province of Iran: the Indic language, Hinduism, Hellenism, Christianity, and Islam all arrived from its northwest.

    “Asia” means China and its cultural provinces.

  8. #8 razib
    February 1, 2010

    India is a cultural province of Iran: the Indic language, Hinduism, Hellenism, Christianity, and Islam all arrived from its northwest.

    the indo-aryan language are almost certainly of central eurasian provenance, not iranian. iran was a very short term way station, so it’s really misleading to say that. additionally, most scholars i’ve read seem assert that the indo-aryan component in hinduism is now the secondary one to the indigenous one.

    this doesn’t take away from your bigger point. though i would add that buddhism is one cultural component which connects south asia with the east and not the west.

  9. #9 MikeN
    February 2, 2010

    I wonder if one reason so many Koreans are Christian is the same reason Poles were so strongly Catholic?

    They had Lutheran Prussia on one side and Orthodox Russia on the other; Korea has Confucian China and Shinto Japan.
    Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that what with Buddhism and Confucianism also being part of Japan’s cultural heritage, but Korea would have faced the more imperialist/superior face of both countries.

    And then Korean Christians additionally have the Communists to rally against as an atheistic culture.

  10. #10 razib
    February 2, 2010

    the traditional narrative is that korean christianity has benefited from

    1) association of xtianity with nationalist struggle against japan

    2) association of korean buddhism with japanese buddhism, and korean buddhism’s relatively disorganized and disreputed state coming into the 20th century

    3) the emergence of the united states as south korea’s patron. south koreans also circumcise their males, in emulation of american practices

    korea is a very confucian society btw. more so than japan.

  11. #11 James Miller
    February 2, 2010

    This is a very interesting blog posting. Thanks so much for compiling the data. The basic problem here (which I have just been teaching in my first year world religions course) is that the term “religion” has only existed in Chinese and Japanese since the late 19th century, and the concept of “being religious” was basically derived from Protestant Christian understandings of what “religion” means. Much of what we teach as Chinese religion, fortune telling or divination for instance, is regarded by current Chinese policy and most Chinese people as “superstition” and wouldn’t even fall into the category of religion. So when comparing “religiosity” it’s very important to be aware that the category itself does not apply very well cross-culturally. This is a standard point that is taught in most world religions courses in universities.