Why Chinese people don’t need religion

Chinese Americans are the least religious people group in the United States. The Chinese in America aren’t just the least religious among Asian Americans, but also the least religious of any ethnic grouping.

To be more precise, a new forthcoming book, Family Sacrifices, opens with a nuanced paragraph:

Fifty-two percent of Chinese Americans report having no religious affiliation, making them the least religiously-identified ethnic group in the United States. But that statistic obscures a much more complex reality.

Family Sacrifices

The new book, Family Sacrifices: The Worldviews and Ethics of Chinese Americans, will be released in June 2019, with profound insights from authors Russell M. Jeung, Seanan S. Fong, and Helen Jin Kim. (Pre-order on Amazon.com) Here’s the book’s chapters:

  1. Introduction- Chinese American Familism and the Theory of Liyi
  2. The Roots of Chinese American Nonreligiousness and Familism
  3. Transmission: Chinese American Liyi Socialization
  4. Translation- Chinese Popular Religion and Confucianism in the U.S.
  5. The Yi of Family Sacrifice- Chinese Americans’ Highest Values
  6. The Li of Chinese American Familism- Ritualizing Family, Food, and Fun

Meaning, Identity, and Belonging

The book’s description implies that people need meaning, identity, and belonging. And that’s got to come from somewhere.

Family Sacrifices reveals that Chinese Americans employ familism, not religion, as the primary narrative by which they find meaning, identity, and belonging.

A majority of people find these in religion, that is, there are more religious people in the world than not. Non-religious find these in naturalistic science, humanity, or something else. Chinese people find these in family.

What is Chinese familism?

Familism makes family the ultimate priority in life, with roots in Chinese rituals and traditions. This gets lived out in expressions of ritual propriety, righteous relations, and cultivating virtue, to use the terms mentioned in the book’s description.

I think it fair to say that this familism goes beyond the immediate family, and goes to the extended family, the clan, and then the province. For example, my family roots come from Fujian province, and that is much more meaningful than being identified as a generic Chinese person. 我是福建人。

And it also means that Chinese people are more concerned about appropriate behaviors in the context of relationships, not beliefs and concepts like the followers of monotheistic religions that trace their roots to Abraham, namely, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In that sense, the Chinese believe in the concrete and tangible, not the conceptual and invisible.

The Real Focus on the Family

Sustaining Faith Traditions

With many more centuries of Chinese history than American history, the Chinese and Chinese American have far more credibility and lived experiences than an American nonprofit organization that’s named “Focus on the Family.” Organic beats organizational.

One more angle: This description from this book, Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation (by Carolyn Chen and Russell Jeung), about Chapter 10:

… a study of second-generation Chinese Americans and how family is the center of their spirituality and religiosity. It demonstrates the difference between Western definitions of religion as a public institutionalized phenomenon and Asian religious practices that are noninsitutionalized and centered around the family. These Chinese Americans identify as nonreligious, yet, they still make use of religious repertoires of Chinese popular religion. The second generation participates in the so-called “Chinese American familism,” wherein the family is the object of worship, sacrifice, and moral obligation. Chinese Americans interpret their familism as ethnic and family traditions.

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