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Asian Americans fastest growing ‘nones’ in America

HOST 1: The other challenge that religion faces is more personal. Americans without any organized religion are called ‘nones’ – but not the Catholic kind. They’re called ‘nones’ because they mark ‘none’ when asked which religion they belong to. A Pew Center study shows that Asian Americans are becoming ‘nones’ – faster than any other racial or ethnic group. HOST 2: And, Anjuli Sastry reports that its in the college years that many people abandon their faith.


Hundreds of students are congregating on the steps of Columbia University’s Low Library on a sunny afternoon for a mock South Asian wedding.

AMBI: Fade up Nones_WeddingMusic (keep up for 0:05 then fade down under graf)

This is an annual celebration called Hungama.

AMBI: Fade down Nones_Wedding Music

The event is religious, but many students attending are not. Columbia senior Chaitanya Kanitkar doesn’t partake in religious rituals. But he performs at campus events like these because he’s part of a group of Bhangra dancers. Bhangra is an ancient religious folk dance from India.

Announcer: Next up, make some noise for CU Bhangra.

Fade up: Nones_Bhangra

Kanitkar went to a Hindu school when he was a kid. And he still performs a religious dance. But he isn’t religious.

Kanitkar: Dancing bhangra with the bhangra team is more cultural than religious if anything. (0:05)

Kanitkar is a none. A recent Pew Center study defines nones as people who might engage in activities like prayer or religious dance. But, they don’t do much more than that.

Many Americans who become nones do so when they’re in college. Some of them take the chance to try things their religion prohibits and decide they like it. Kanitkar ate chicken for the first time in his life last summer. Some ultra-orthodox forms of Hinduism ban eating chicken. But Kanitkar liked eating chicken, which was evidence that his feelings about religion were changing.

Kanitkar: I would say at college I became even more spiritual, and less religious. (0:03)

Even though he doesn’t identify as Hindu anymore, Kanitkar goes to weekly prayer service on campus because he wants to be part of a community.

Kanitkar: There’s a Hindu students organization here where I occasionally go to the Friday prayers. And I really enjoy that experience because it reminds of a very collective family gathering like I had back home. (0:12)

Georgia State University Professor Brett Eskai studies why ethnic minorities have become less religious. He says Kanitkar is doing what a lot of Asian Americans do when they get to college.

Esaki: “Many quickly find that religious affiliation distinguishes them. If you can distinguish yourself as an evangelical christian, there are other many other evangelical christians who are Asian or of other backgrounds who would fully accept you as a member of them. So you can find a lot of family and friends through those.” (0:20)

But Esaki says that doesn’t work for everybody.

Esaki: However, if you don’t find yourself binding with these other groups, you find yourself often targeted for your different religious backgrounds. (0:08)

That was the case for NYU freshman Brian Young, who is Chinese-American. About a third of nones like Young are already that way by the time they get to college. Young became a none during his sophomore year of high school, when his parents got divorced. That same year he came out as gay and he stopped referring to himself as a Catholic.

Young took issue with the Catholic Church’s position on gay marriage. Then he started questioning other things about it.

YOUNG: As a result the viewpoint is brushing aside that issue in a way. I really didn’t like that dismissal. So from there I really started hammering in a lot of the social statements the church had made. (0:17)

That caused tension with his mother, who kept asking him why he left the church.

YOUNG: Almost how could you just abandon something that’s been there for so long and that you did have a connection with at some point. (0:07)

When Young got to NYU, he didn’t feel like he had a connection to anything. But a few months into his freshman year, he found his community and some new friends at the global spiritual fellowship on campus.

Georgia State’s Brett Esaki says Young’s need to experience other cultures is what many Asian Americans who become nones do to fit in.

Esaki: What my research has discovered is that spiritual but not religious and “religious nones” actually enable Asian Americans to embed themselves into multiple cultures at the same time. (0:09)

Young might not see himself as a Catholic anymore. But he still goes to church with his mom every Sunday when he is back home.

YOUNG: And I a little begrudgingly go with her whenever I’m home. But sometimes she’ll joke with me like, ‘I prayed for you,’ like I hope you’ll come back. (0:12)

And once Young returns to NYU from summer vacation, his plan is to help other students overcome issues with religion.

Anjuli Sastry, Columbia Radio News.


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