Sikhs are the proud 1% – of Asian Americans

When it comes to religion, the Asian-American community is a study in contrasts, encompassing groups that run the gamut ...

MosaicOfFaiths (44K)
Photo Credits from left to right: © Radius Images/Corbis, © Image Source/Corbis, Istockphoto

The Pew Forum has released the second report based on their survey of Asian Americans. The first report, The Rise of Asian Americans, was an analysis of the survey data based on a variety of demographic metrics. The second report – entitled Asian Americans: a Mosaic of Faiths – looks at the survey data through the religious lens:

When it comes to religion, the Asian-American community is a study in contrasts, encompassing groups that run the gamut from highly religious to highly secular. A new survey report examines the Asian-American population from the angle of religious affiliation, highlighting the beliefs, practices and views of diverse faith groups.

As I did with the first report, the following is a review of this second report to glean what information the report provides about America’s Sikh community.

The first report based on this study population received a mixed response by the Asian American community, particularly because the report emphasized a framing of the Asian Americans as one population, overshadowing the diversity within this category of Americans. However, in Mosaic of Faiths, the discussion about diversity within the Asian American population is much more prominent (indeed, the word “mosaic” appears right in the title). Perhaps the authors of this study incorporated community feedback in their analysis and reporting.

Additionally, one also wonders what the implications are in analyzing a population of Americans whose origin represents over half of the world’s population. To study an entire Asian/Pacific Islander population would of course introduce a wide diversity in cultures, religions and other characteristics among populations that otherwise may not have much in common with each other – and so we shouldn’t be surprised that the Asian American community as a whole is “complex“. Fortunately, alongside such a global analysis of the Asian American population, the report also analyses subgroups within.

Before discussing what information this report provides about Sikh Americans, my last general observation is in regard to some of the language used to express the assimilation of non-Christian groups to “the U.S. religious landscape”.

For example, the Overview section includes the following discussion:

At the same time, the Pew Research Center survey also finds evidence that Asian-American Buddhists and Hindus are adapting to the U.S. religious landscape in ways large and small:

  • Roughly three-quarters of both Asian-American Buddhists (76%) and Asian-American Hindus (73%) celebrate Christmas.
  • Three-in-ten (30%) of the Hindus and 21% of the Buddhists surveyed say they sometimes attend services of different religions (not counting special events such as weddings and funerals).
  • About half (54%) of Asian Americans who were raised Buddhist remain Buddhist today, with substantial numbers having converted to Christianity (17%) or having become unaffiliated with any particular faith (27%).

While Christianity is obviously the dominant faith in the United States in terms of adherents, I am uncomfortable with phrasing that implies that conversion to Christianity or adoption of Christian practices is proof that these groups are “adapting”. Most of this country is Christian, yes, but America is not formally a Christian nation. Cultural adaptation is more relevant that religious adaptation.

Professor Khyati Joshi, at the Huffington Post, provides an in-depth commentary on this issue with the Pew report in the context of Hindu and Buddhist Americans:

These measures apply a lens of Christian normativity — treating biblical practices like weekly organized worship as the model for what constitutes “religious” behavior. As a result, they are inadequate indicators of religion’s role, particularly among Hindus (who comprised 10 percent of the survey population) and Buddhists (14 percent). Applying them can leave us with a skewed understanding of how non-Christians live and practice their faiths.

Practices such as celebrating Christmas (which has roots that predate Christianity), and attending services of other faiths are not necessarily indicative of normalizing to the Christian mainstream. Indeed, many celebrate Christmas in a non-denominational, secular form, just as many would celebrate Holi or Diwali. Also, an attempt to describe a faith’s scriptures as “the word of God” would not be relevant for many religious groups, including Sikhs. Accordingly, to try to learn about a faith group by using only the results of this study and using Christian-based terminology as the normative standard would not likely give a proper understanding.

Notwithstanding the above, Asian Americans: a Mosaic of Faiths does address Sikh Americans, but only on a limited basis due to the small sample size of Sikhs in the survey.

As I mentioned in my review of the first report, the survey data suggests that there are over 170,000 adult Sikh Americans of Asian descent in the United States. This number could be debated and expanded upon, however it is difficult to validate given that Sikhs are not counted as a category in the US Census. This population size would appear to be under-estimated compared to extrapolations from Pew’s previous study of Sikh immigration to the United States.

The reasonableness of the estimate aside, the Mosaic of Faiths study indicates that Sikhs make up 1% of the entire adult Asian American population:

ReligiousAffiliation (67K)

Looking at just within the Indian American subset of Asian Americans, Sikhs make up 5%:

ReligiousAffiliationIndAmericans (56K)

The latter statistic is probably more relevant and is interesting. As Sikhs comprise of about 2% of India’s population, and it would appear that Sikhs of Indian-origin have come to the United States in higher proportion. Secondly, the reported proportion of Sikhs among Indian Americans seems quite low, but given the physical distinctiveness of Sikhs, our numbers relative to the Indian American population simply appear to be higher than actual.

There is not much information specific to Sikhs beyond this. However, to look at the Indian American subset as a whole (which includes Hindus and Buddhists as well as Muslims, Sikhs and Jains), or to look at Hindu/Buddhist American practices to extrapolate Sikh American tendencies would not be a straight-forward exercise.

For example, many Sikhs maintain a place of worship in their home, and among Hindu Americans, this number is 78%. On the other hand, while 41% of Hindu Americans report fasting during holy times, this number would be much lower among Sikh Americans, as within Sikhism, fasting is discouraged as a spiritual practice

As it is difficult to tease out any trends or characteristics specific to Sikh Americans in this report, in this sense, the Mosaic of Faiths report is lacking (much like Pew Forum’s first report on this survey data, The Rise of Asian Americans). There is significant discussion of Hindu and Buddhist Americans, and of the entire subset of Indian Americans - these categories may provide some parallel conclusions for the Sikh American community, but not in all measures.

Accordingly, the search for information and data to better understand the Sikh American community continues.


The Pew Forum’s latest report about Asian Americans, entitled Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths was released last week. (source: Pew Forum)


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