Nonreligious second-generation Chinese Americans: how gender shapes their worldviews.

Author:Kim, Helen Jin


Over the years, I've picked up on all my family members' beliefs, especially those who are really interested in reflection. So I've thought about what does the goddess figure [Guan Yin] mean to my grandmother, and it's her way of soothing her own problems. It's her way of praying.

I feel like maybe I'm more like my grandmother. Maybe I do pray to a goddess figure. Or maybe in a strange way, I find myself personifying nature. I don't necessarily practice a religion, but my belief is that my natural surroundings embody the Holy Spirit, if you will. They are all alive. And I think, personally, I'm affected by that, in a way.

--Karen Lai, second-generation Chinese American

The question of the existence of God cannot be answered conclusively, in the same way that nobody can answer the question of whether there is a tiny purple teapot orbiting Jupiter.

But we can say that the probability or the chance that it does exist is so small that you might as well live as if there was no little teapot orbiting Jupiter. So in the strictest hyper-logical sense I suppose you could say I am agnostic, but I am 100 percent functionally an atheist.

--Scott Lu, second-generation Chinese American

These two quotes typify the different views on religion and spirituality that second-generation Chinese Americans hold, especially the ways that nonreligious men and women think. Karen Lai states that she interacts with spiritual beings, similar to the way her grandmother prayed to Guan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. In her work as a landscape architect, she sees nature as embodying the supernatural. In contrast, Scott Lu calculates the likelihood of God's existence. Given Scott's perceived statistical improbability of God's existence, he functions as if God does not exist. An attorney, he developed his own ethical system using very humanistic, rational arguments. Both Karen Lai and Scott Lu are nonreligious, but the reasons for how and why they claim to have no religion clearly diverge.

Within the United States, the number of people who state that they have no religious affiliation, also known as the religious "nones," has doubled in the past decade to 16 percent of the population. (1) One ethnic group in particular, Chinese Americans, has the highest percentage of nones, with over half (56 percent) claiming no religion. (2) This high rate has been attributed to the fact that many Chinese Americans (1) do not classify their spiritual practices as part of a religion; (2) migrate from a secularized, communist nation; and (3) have selective migration, such that many immigrant households obtain visas through their science and technology backgrounds. (3)

In this study of thirty-one second-generation Chinese Americans who state that they are nonreligious, we inquired about their specific beliefs. Of the women, 44 percent are spiritual but not religious, whereas of the men, only 8 percent are. Like Karen Lai, the women do not hold to one particular religious tradition, but still maintain a spiritual worldview and observe practices to interact with the spiritual world. Further, only 17 percent of the women are firm atheists who state their nonbelief in god(s), while 38 percent of the men claim to be atheists. These men, similar to Scott Lu, are adamant about their nonbelief and usually characterize religion as irrational. What accounts for this stark difference in the beliefs and practices of these women and men?

We theorize that the religious socialization of Chinese Americans is gendered such that women are more likely to adopt the religious beliefs and practices of their mothers, while men are more likely to emulate their fathers. Chinese women, including immigrant women, are more observant than men in holding to Chinese popular religious practices and to those of other religions. They are also more likely to take responsibility for maintaining Chinese traditional practices, such as keeping ethnic customs and celebrating festivals, than the men are. Consequently, their daughters adopt such practices while the sons have less exposure to them. Instead, the sons are more apt to adopt the mind-sets of their fathers, who migrate to the United States as scientists and engineers and adhere to a scientific worldview.

Along with gendered socialization of religion, Chinese Americans have gendered racial experiences. Second-generation Chinese American males, especially those who grow up in suburbs with fewer coethnics, almost uniformly report receiving physical and verbal harassment while growing up. The females also report facing racial discrimination, but more often in the form of being stereotyped. Since males are more harshly ostracized for being different, they are less likely to maintain religious practices that are viewed as superstitious or exotic.

This essay details the experiences of two Chinese Americans who exemplify these differences in gender socialization and racial discrimination. We conclude that although men are more likely to be atheistic, both groups adhere to a hybrid spiritual worldview, which we term Chinese American familism (4)


A new field of study has emerged in the United States regarding the unaffiliated or the religious nones, or those who state "none" when asked about their religious affiliation or preference. Chaeyoon Lim et al. differentiated the religious nones and argued that 30 percent of this group are liminal and not secular. (5) These liminal people fluctuate between secularity and religiosity, and often switch affiliation. They are significantly more religious than the secularly unaffiliated on all religious measures, such as church attendance and belief, but also significantly less religious than those who claim a religion. Likewise, Baker and Smith observe differences in religious behavior and belief between atheists, agnostics, and unchurched believers. Compared to the other two groups, unchurched believers are more likely to pray, believe in a higher power, and say religion is important to them. (6) Consequently, the Pew Forum divided the religious nones into atheists, agnostics, secularly unaffiliated, and religiously unaffiliated.

Controlling for these social demographic features, Baker and Smith found that parental religious affiliation and religious socialization practices affect the religiously unaffiliated. Religious attendance as a child was a key factor, such that those who did not attend a congregation were more...

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