The mystery of the Asian "Nones"

Statistics in Vancouver raise the question: Why do so many Chinese immigrants say they have no religion?
Statistics in Vancouver raise the question: Why do so many Chinese immigrants say they have no religion?

I've been following up on some information about the religious, or rather non-religious, make-up of British Columbia, a topic that came up at a recent conference on spirituality in Cascadia at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. One thing stuck out that is fascinating, and that is the prevalence of the non-religious among Vancouver's huge Asian community.

The Asian population of Vancouver is so large, it really forces a rethink. Metro Vancouver is 40 percent Asian. In contrast, Pacific Rim booster Seattle has an Asian population estimated at just over 14 percent.

As the Vancouver Sun's religion reporter Douglas Todd points out, the large number of Asians contributes to metro Vancouver's high percentage of residents (35 percent) saying they have no religion. Why? Because the largest Asian population in Canada and Vancouver are of Chinese origin, and 60 percent of all Chinese in Canada profess to having no religion. (According to the 2001 Canadian census numbers, that's 600,000 Nones out of 1,000,000 Chinese-Canadians.) The other large None group among Asians are the Japanese, about half of whom say they have no religion.

Many Asian groups have large numbers of religious adherents (Filipino Catholics, or Sikhs, for example). I asked Todd if the Chinese numbers had anything to do with the secular nature of mainland China under communism, or if Asians were culturally reluctant to state a religious preference. He agrees that both of those are factors. He adds that "many ethnic Chinese and Japanese seem to follow a highly informal brand of spirituality, which blends Chinese folk religion with Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and ancestor reverence. Some of it involves asking Chinese gods for good fortune, as well as praying to deceased family members. But most East Asian immigrants don't consider these loose practices to be 'religious.' It's just what they do. It's just part of the culture."

In other words, the definition of religion isn't universal. Certainly many American Nones consider themselves spiritual, though it may be more philosophical or in terms of engaging in practices like meditation, Yoga, even martial arts, or simply having a reverence for nature (call it Muirism). Nor is "None" synonymous with atheism. There are many Nones who say they believe in God.

Digging a little further, I found interesting perspective in an essay, "Religions of the Pacific Rim in the Pacific Northwest" by Lance Laird, a professor of religious studies formerly at Evergreen State College. The essay appeared in the 2004 book, Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest, edited by Patricia O'Connell Killen and Mark Silk (organizers and participants in the PLU conference). Laird writes: "Many immigrants in the last 50 years of the 20th century have come from mainland China, where most have no religious background and where Christian adherents have faced persecution." He quotes Helen Rose Ebaugh and Janet Salzman Chafetz, editors of Religion and the New Immigrants published in 2000:

"In general, the Chinese have long regarded Christianity as an aspect of western imperialism and converts were commonly chastised with the remark, 'One more Christian, one less Chinese....' [A] key issue [for Chinese immigrants] is how to maintain their identity as cultural Chinese while adopting the despised religion of western imperialism; how to 'Sinocize' Christianity."

So today's Nones could be tomorrow's converts if Baptists, evangelicals and others play their cards right. And passionate atheists like Christopher Hitchens will have to keep the champagne corked. Of the hundreds of thousands of non-religious Chinese-Canadians in the census survey, only 365 claimed to be atheists and not one professed to be a "Humanist."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.