This finding by sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund at Rice University and Jerry Park at Baylor University will be presented today at the centennial annual meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) in Philadelphia.
"Researchers find that families are the primary determiner of individual religious beliefs," said Ecklund, a postdoctoral fellow in Rice's Department of Sociology. "But America's changing demographics may challenge what we know about the place of families in religious transmission. Studying Asian-Americans is ideal for broadening our understanding of family and religious socialization among second-generation immigrant groups because Asian-Americans are one of the fastest-growing new immigrant populations and the most religiously diverse group of new Americans."
Using data based on interviews that Park conducted with 79 college-aged Asian-Americans from different religious traditions and ethnic backgrounds, Ecklund and Park analyzed the explanations given for how choices were made about religion. The interviews were conducted during 2000-2001 at four public universities, one in each census region with the largest percentage of undergraduate Asian-Americans in that area: University of Houston, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of California at Irvine and The State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Sixty-five of the respondents (82 percent) mentioned their family as the important force that shaped their own religiosity. Just over a third of the interviewees specifically mentioned their mothers as having an influence on their choice, and the mothers were typically seen as a strong, positive bearer of tradition and religious guide. Fathers played an important role in reinforcing the religious choice. Forty-three percent of those who cited the influence of family mentioned members of their extended family, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, as being influential in determining their religious tradition.
Ecklund noted that as a result of chain migration, where immigrants come to the U.S. and eventually bring other members of their family and settle near each other, extended families might be more important sources of social support and have a more central impact on religiosity for second-generation immigrants than for other groups of Americans.
"It is not clear, however, whether the place of extended families in religious socialization will continue among the second and third generations," Ecklund said. As children of immigrants find jobs and become independent, most leave ethnic enclaves, losing their close proximity to extended families.
The interviewees' religion also impacted how much influence family tradition had on their faith selection.
"We found that Asian-American Protestants viewed personal faith as primarily determined by family faith," Ecklund said. "This was particularly surprising in light of the fact that most of our Asian-American Protestant respondents were evangelical in their beliefs." Evangelicalism is a religion that stresses the decision to be Christian as a personal choice.
"We expected that Protestant evangelical Asian-Americans would emphasize individual choice in religious adherence," Ecklund said. "Instead, we found they more often emphasized the family tradition and continuity of religious faith and practice.
"In contrast, Catholics and, to a greater extent, Asian-Americans who were members of non-Christian religions faced more of a tension between their own agency in deciding which religious tradition to follow and having their religion determined by family tradition," Ecklund said.
Nearly one-half of the respondents from a minority world religion, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, said they needed to explore their religious beliefs or make a very intentional choice about their religious tradition. "It was very important to these Asian-American respondents that they embrace their faith on an individual level," Ecklund said. Some of these respondents said their families encouraged them to question and personally negotiate their choice of religion.
"Ironically, especially in an American Protestant culture that emphasizes choice, it may be those who are not from a Protestant religious tradition who must develop a discourse that most accounts for their individual choices in determining which religious tradition to follow," Ecklund said.
She hopes the research that she and Park are presenting will suggest directions for future studies of the role family plays in religiosity for new ethnic groups and new religious traditions, such as observing how the experiences of other groups of Asian-Americans compare to those of the young, highly educated interviewees in Park's study.
"By studying a new population, both in terms of religion and race, this research is a useful expansion to studies of family and religious transmission that have focused primarily on white Christians," Ecklund said.
Ecklund and Park's presentation at the ASA meeting will take place during the session on contemporary issues in race and family. The ASA is a nonprofit professional association with nearly 14,000 members, including sociologists who are faculty members at colleges and universities, researchers, practitioners and students.