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In Their Own Words: Cultural Connections to Religion Among Asian Americans

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Pew Research Center recently conducted a survey on religion among Asian Americans, the largest nationally representative survey of its kind to date. In addition, to look more deeply into how Asian Americans think about religion, we arranged 20 structured, small group conversations (focus groups) and five in-depth one-on-one interviews with slightly more than 100 Asian Americans in total.

The participants represented a variety of Asian ethnic origins. Also, each participant had at least some connection to Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Confucianism, Daoism (also called Taoism) or Shintoism.

In the conversations, many told us explicitly that they are part of these faith traditions when we asked them about their religious affiliation.

However, most respondents also described these traditions as being inseparable from the culture of their origin countries, their families or their communities. Ultimately, whether they identify with a religion or do not, participants tended to say they had at least some connection to a faith tradition as part of their culture.

For example, one religiously unaffiliated participant used the term cultural religion to describe her relationship with Confucianism and Daoism, explaining, “I call it ‘cultural religion’ because … I feel like I’m not part of an organized religion, so this is how I nebulously describe how I celebrate my culture in kind of a religious way.” 

Click on the boxes below to read about some of the ways participants with ties to different faith traditions explain the complex relationship of religion and culture in their lives.





and Daoism



The ways that focus group participants talked about “cultural Christianity” was often tied to the prevalence of Christianity in the United States. Some Asian Americans said that it is impossible to avoid Christian culture in the U.S., and that engaging with Christian culture is a requirement for social acceptance.

Cross-wearing doesn’t necessarily make [Asian Americans seem] more American … but I do think it has some impact … Never in this life [are we] going to see an atheist president or a Buddhist president. To a large part of America, being Christian is very important to being accepted.

U.S.-born religiously unaffiliated woman of Chinese origin

I was born in the U.S. and have grown up here, and we’re always exposed to Christian traditions, like … Christmas. So yeah, I would definitely say [I’m] Christian in that sense. 

U.S.-born Hindu man of Indian origin

Some Asian Americans said their cultural connections to Christianity mainly involved enjoying certain holidays and festivals and coming together with family.

I would say [I follow] Christianity in a way because for me, we celebrate Christmas, but not the way a Christian would celebrate Christmas. More of a way to kind of get together with family … so it’s … we don’t follow the religious part of it, but we follow the cultural aspect of it

Immigrant Hindu man of Indian origin

Growing up in Japan for a little bit, the Japanese … they romanticize Western culture a lot. And especially during Christmas, there’s a lot of Christmas decorations around downtown Tokyo, so … like all Japanese, we embrace [Christian] culture, but religiously, the Japanese are more like Buddhists.

U.S.-born Christian man of Filipino and Japanese origin

Many said they have cultural connections to numerous religions, typically those of their friends and loved ones.  

I have a partner whose family is … culturally Christian. They will do Christmas, they will do all those events, and I will participate in them, and I love doing that. Similarly, I have friends … who are Jews, and I went to Passovers with them. It was more like a cultural aspect. Religion is not the common denominator there. In fact, that cultural aspect, it’s like another get-together, or it’s just, similarly, they will come to Eid dinner, if I host.

Immigrant Muslim woman of Pakistani origin

Some linked their Christian connection to family background in their country of origin. They said they could be cultural Christians even if they don’t go to church or accept formalized religious beliefs and routines.

I suppose I’m one of those culturally Catholic people, and so … Catholicism kind of ties me to my childhood and my family … It doesn’t dictate my everyday life.

Immigrant Catholic man of Vietnamese origin


In the focus groups, many Buddhists, as well as non-Buddhists who consider themselves close to Buddhism, commonly described Buddhism as a “way of life” or a “lifestyle.” They contrasted this to the concept of organized religion, which they described as something that tends to be more formal and dogmatic.

I think religion seems a bit different from being a Buddhist. Religion seems like you have to follow a certain practice … but for Buddhists, [Buddhism] seems more like a guideline. Like sometimes you go through circumstances, and you need some guidance.

U.S.-born Buddhist woman of Chinese origin

If [you asked me,] ‘How important is Buddhism to your life?’ then I would say it’s very important, because it feels like a way of life. But when you say ‘religion’ then it feels differently … I kind of don’t see it as religion. I see it more as a lifestyle and beliefs.

Immigrant Buddhist woman of Chinese origin

Some emphasized holidays, family events or other social gatherings (rather than visits to Buddhist temples) as the ways they most often experience Buddhism in the U.S.

It’s part of our culture to celebrate a lot of Buddhist holidays … So growing up, I asked my parents, ‘Hey, why are we … burning fake money on certain days? Why are we gathering as family on certain days?’ And some people did it just for the culture and gathering around celebrating the ancestors. So it’s not necessarily you have to be Buddhist. It’s very much our culture of worshiping our ancestor[s].

Immigrant Buddhist woman of Vietnamese origin

To me, religion [is] a practice. You do it routinely, and it matters every month, every week, every year kind of thing. But then with being Buddhist, I see it more [about relating to] events. For example, every year you go to Lunar New Year or … somebody dies, somebody is born … that cycle has more to do with my identity with being Buddhist because I’m present for those moments.

U.S.-born Buddhist woman of Vietnamese origin

Many participants, especially those from Japan, explained that Buddhism is so closely tied to longstanding practices of their culture that it would be impossible to separate out the religious parts from the cultural ones.

[I identify as] Buddhist … Well, because I’m Japanese … that’s something [that is] a big part of me, I think. I don’t practice. I don’t read anything. I don’t have a shrine, obviously. But yeah. Just being a Japanese person makes me say that.

Immigrant religiously unaffiliated man of Japanese origin

I think [Buddhism is] integrated in some ways into the culture. And so it would be hard, I think, to pick apart the different values and behaviors that have been influenced by Buddhist religion from the Japanese culture, to completely separate them.

U.S.-born religiously unaffiliated woman of Japanese origin

Ultimately, almost all participants with Buddhist connections said they think Buddhism is closely tied to the culture of their origin countries, and that it can be difficult to easily distinguish Buddhist religious habits from Buddhist cultural practices.

I was thinking about how to delineate between what is culture and what is religion because I was thinking about how … basically everyone in my family has an altar … I was thinking about how my mom is pretty Buddhist. She goes to temple and she prays and does all that. But some of my other family, like aunts and uncles, generally are not as Buddhist. They don’t go to temple every week. They don’t pray and stuff, but they still have their altar. I was thinking, is [having an altar at home] a Buddhist thing or is it a cultural thing? At some point I started to not know anymore.

U.S.-born Buddhist man of Vietnamese origin


In the focus groups, many Hindus, as well as non-Hindus who consider themselves close to Hinduism, described Hinduism as both a religion and as a way of life. They did not claim that either of these represents a truer form of Hinduism; people should be able to practice Hinduism as they see fit, they said.

I also think being Hindu is a way of life, not just [a] religion.

U.S.-born Hindu woman of Indian origin

Hinduism is a way of life. It’s not just a religion. So … who is anyone to say who is a Hindu and who is not when we ourselves don’t always do everything that Hinduism religion says to a T, right?

Immigrant Hindu woman of Indian origin

Even though Hinduism is a religion, it’s also a way of life and culture … So you don’t necessarily have to follow the religion word for word. You can still follow the traditions and the cultural aspects.

Immigrant Hindu man of Indian origin

Several participants also emphasized the difficulty of knowing and practicing Hindu teachings exactly as they originated thousands of years ago. They said at least some cultural influences are part of Hinduism regardless of how it’s practiced in the 21st century.

There is no such proper or fixed definition of Hinduism. So we can’t just say, ‘If you are following these five things, these 10 things, you are Hindu.’ So as a Hindu, I have learned being open, being a learner, being curious is more what I believe in.

Immigrant Hindu man of Indian origin

Hinduism is to me a very ancient tradition and religion and way of life and has many layers to it. I don’t think I or most people would fully be able to unpack everything there is in it.

Immigrant Hindu man of Indian origin

Some participants said Hinduism does not have clear beliefs and practices, and for this reason they said Hinduism stood in contrast to Western religions such as Christianity.

I don’t think Hinduism or identifying yourself as a Hindu necessarily has to do with the religion, too, right? I think that’s one of the beauties of Hinduism, is that it’s not really in conversation with the Western religions. And I think whether you practice it, whether you do this or that or you don’t do puja or you do, it’s kind of your identity and you’re born into it.

U.S.-born Hindu man of Indian origin

At the same time, some expressed concern about particular types of Hindu culture they have encountered, particularly mainstream “appropriation” of its themes by Western cultures. They considered this to be quite different from the kinds of “cultural Hinduism” practiced in their own families and communities.

I go to so many places [in the U.S.] that are like, ‘expand consciousness,’ ‘conscious living,’ and I see our Hindu ideas. I’m okay with it … They’re beautiful ideas. But … [another focus group participant] brought up ‘appropriation.’ I think what I see happening is … we will have spiritual gatherings and ideas being passed on, but I don’t know that they will come from people that were raised as Hindu.

U.S.-born Hindu woman of Indian origin


While participants tended to emphasize two particular beliefs – that there is one God and that Muhammad is God’s Messenger – as central to Islam, they said that some who don’t ascribe to these beliefs still take part in practices such as going to a mosque or celebrating Islamic festivals.

As Muslims, the basic belief is there’s just one God. And when [a person] denies that, I’m not gonna say he’s not a Muslim … but … to him, it’s not a religion … it’s more of a culture than a religion for him.

Immigrant Muslim man of Pakistani origin

A lot of folks I know, especially first generation, being born here, they were born Muslim, they went through the customs and the ritual. They probably don’t know why they were ever doing them … so it’s a cultural thing, so they’ll get together on the holidays, they’ll probably attend weddings and funerals that observe Islamic traditions.

U.S.-born Muslim of Indian origin

I think maybe culturally someone can identify in multiple religions. Like, for example my son. I grew up Muslim but my partner grew up Catholic, and so [my son] he might enjoy or experience both cultures at the same time. But I don’t know if he can identify as both [religions].

Immigrant Muslim woman of Bangladeshi origin

Some said they maintained their Islamic cultural and family ties even though they don’t ascribe to Islamic religious beliefs.

A lot of people define Muslim by two things: if they acknowledge Prophet Muhammad and acknowledge one God … I don’t consider myself a Muslim, because I don’t believe in those two things … I identify as South Asian and Indian, but I guess I don’t identify as Muslim even though I grew up with that culture. I still guess I kind of identify with the culture but I won’t go so far as calling myself … ‘culturally a Muslim.’

U.S.-born religiously unaffiliated woman of Bengali origin

As I grew older, I kind of separated a little bit from [the religion], but still I do value the family values that I was raised with. And so, I take them very seriously for consideration when I’m making decisions about things, if that makes sense. But I don’t actively practice as a Muslim. So it’s kind of an in-between state.

Immigrant Muslim of Bangladeshi origin

Several participants said that the cultures of their origin countries were so infused with Muslim teachings and values that the two cannot be easily distinguished.

[M]any of our [Bangladeshi] cultural practices … are intertwined with Islam.

Immigrant religiously unaffiliated woman of Bangladeshi origin

I’m having trouble separating culture and religion because obviously I do want culture to be passed down to my kids. And … I would want religion to be passed down, but it’s also up to them if they want to believe in it or not.

U.S.-born Muslim woman of Pakistan origin

I think it’s easier in a lot of ways to find Islam and identify as a Muslim growing up in North America because the cultural aspect is separate from the religion itself … I think in a lot of ways it was easier for us to see Islam and learn Islam for what it was than to go back and visit our cousins in Pakistan and see that the way that they learned Islam was just so different because – there was this muddling of our cultural practices and traditions in it.

U.S.-born Muslim woman of Pakistan origin

Some participants said that being raised Muslim marked them as Muslims for life, in other people’s eyes, even if they themselves had gravitated away from Islam over the years.

[Americans] who grew up Christian and are atheist or say they’re nothing in particular, it’s easy for them to be viewed as non-religious or atheist or agnostic and people will accept it. But … being Muslim in a non-Muslim majority country… that identity still is attached to you even if you’re trying to shed it yourself.

U.S.-born Muslim woman of Bangladeshi origin

Confucianism and Daoism

Several Chinese American participants mentioned Confucianism or Daoism – almost always in combination – as religious traditions that blend with their national culture and with other religions like Buddhism.

It’s interesting how, in China, there’s multiple religions some identify with. It’s common in China to identify as Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism overlapping.

U.S.-born Christian man of Chinese origin

I call it cultural religion because I don’t know exactly how to term it. Because I feel like I’m not part of an organized religion, so this is how I nebulously describe how I celebrate my culture in kind of a religious way, as it mixes with Confucianism and Daoism.

U.S.-born religiously unaffiliated woman of Chinese origin

Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism … I consider them as the same because all the religions [are] part of the tradition, and most of the time people don’t really distinguish them as religious anymore …  Most people don’t consider themselves as worshiping their ancestors in their minds … they are just being part of the tradition, like a remembering [of] their close family members.

Immigrant Christian woman of Chinese origin

Others viewed Confucianism and Daoism as philosophies, rather than religions.

I [grew] up in a culture that teaches Confucianism as well as Daoism. Religion, for me, is very much what I identify myself with in the sense of I truly believe in the teaching. Confucianism and Daoism is part of my culture. However, for me, it’s a school of philosophy. I do not identify myself as being a Dao or Confucian.

Immigrant Buddhist woman of Vietnamese origin

I do not define Confucianism as … religious. Maybe semi-religious. Also some kind of school of thought of philosophy or ideology. But I just didn’t regard it as a religion.

Immigrant religiously unaffiliated man of Chinese origin


Some Japanese immigrants raised Shintoism as another example of cultural religion and discussed how Shintoism can overlap with both Buddhism and Japanese culture.

I don’t think you can separate [Buddhism and Shintoism] because it’s just built [into] Japanese culture …  And what we do … our sense of morals is based on, I think, a mixture of Shintoism and Buddhism. I don’t know what came from which. I do have a fear if I’m doing something bad that I know, ‘Wait, am I going to get something bad coming back as karma?’ I do feel that fear. And I think a lot of other people, Japanese people, do.

Immigrant religiously unaffiliated man of Japanese origin

Even though our family is not Shinto, because of the country, the values are still there. So I don’t identify as Shinto or Buddhist, but it’s part of my identity, my value system.

Immigrant religiously unaffiliated woman of Japanese origin

Shinto is the Japanese original religion, so sometimes … we go to Shinto shrines for different occasions … Especially in Japan, I guess Shinto is kind of like in your daily lifestyle.

Immigrant Buddhist woman of Japanese origiN

My family had the Shinto shrine at home, and my parents or my grandparents [were] always praying every morning, changing the water, changing the rice and flowers every time. And then the way I [was] growing up, it’s Shinto, it’s inside. Shinto is … the way of living, the way of thinking. It’s all over. 

Immigrant Buddhist woman of Japanese origin


Pew Research Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. The Center’s Asian American portfolio was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, with generous support from The Asian American Foundation; Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; the Henry Luce Foundation; the Doris Duke Foundation; The Wallace H. Coulter Foundation; The Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation; The Long Family Foundation; Lu-Hebert Fund; Gee Family Foundation; Joseph Cotchett; the Julian Abdey and Sabrina Moyle Charitable Fund; and Nanci Nishimura.

We would also like to thank the Leaders Forum for its thought leadership and valuable assistance in helping make this survey possible.

The qualitative research on Asian American Muslims, and the strategic communications campaign used to promote the research portfolio, were made possible with generous support from the Doris Duke Foundation.

For more details on how Asian Americans identify with or see themselves as “close to” religions, read the full report, “Religion Among Asian Americans.”

Methodology: Focus groups

Pew Research Center designed this focus group and interview-based study to better understand Asian Americans’ diverse perspectives on the intersection of religious identity and ethnic culture. The analysis presented in this data essay is intended to provide insight into Asian Americans’ cultural connections to religion and is not meant to be an exhaustive representation of experiences on these topics or of specific demographic groups.

About the groups

We conducted 20 focus groups and five one-on-one interviews with more than 100 Asian American adult participants from April 15 to July 19, 2023. Eight in-person focus groups were conducted in Chicago, Illinois. The remaining 12 focus groups and five interviews were conducted remotely. Each person was offered an incentive of $100 to participate. In-person focus groups were approximately two hours long, virtual focus groups were about 90 minutes, and one-on-one interviews were approximately one hour in length. All focus groups were conducted in English.

Focus groups were organized according to participants’ religious identity, level of religious commitment, ethnic origin group and immigration status. There were five Muslim groups, three Buddhist groups, three Hindu groups, two Protestant groups, two Catholic groups and five religiously unaffiliated groups. Four of the one-on-one interviews were with Asian American Muslims, and one was with an Asian American who is religiously unaffiliated. Participants represented nine different Asian origin countries and were selected to maximize gender and age diversity.

Focus groups had an average of six participants, with a minimum requirement of three participants and a maximum of nine.

The focus groups were conducted by Research Support Services Inc. (RSS) for Pew Research Center and were reviewed by Sterling IRB (internal review board) for human subject research. The interviews were conducted by Dr. Eman Abdelhadi, assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago.

Topics covered

The questions asked during the focus groups and interviews were designed to explore participants’ perspectives on religion, as well as their relationships with religion, in various ways. Conversations generally included:

  • Discussion of hypothetical scenarios involving the religious lives of individuals (participants were shown photographs of individuals and were asked to rate, on a scale of one to five, how sure they are that each person is affiliated with a certain religion);
  • Discussion and debate about what is considered “essential” to various religions;
  • The participants’ responses to related questions, such as “Do you consider yourself close to any of the following traditions?” and “Do you identify with any of the following traditions?” as well as discussion about the differences between these questions;
  • Discussion of the role of religion in participants’ Asian origin countries, families and communities; and
  • Discussion about whether the participant believes it is important for future generations to have ties to their religion.

Data analysis

Focus group conversations were video recorded, and one-on-one interviews were audio recorded. All conversations were transcribed and checked for transcription errors. To analyze the focus group and interview transcripts, Center researchers utilized ATLAS.ti, a qualitative data analysis and research software.

Researchers analyzed the transcripts through multiple rounds of coding. Initially, separate codes were applied to different sections that covered participants’ discussion of religious beliefs, practices, knowledge, identification and other experiences, respectively. Researchers then worked together to identify other themes for later rounds of coding such as: participants’ reasons for being religious; details of what they said makes someone religious or not religious; and instances in which they said there were unclear boundaries between religion and the culture of their country of origin. The overlap between religion and culture was a prevailing theme of the conversations and the corresponding codes.

Quotations in the data essay have been lightly edited for grammar, spelling and clarity.