If we are to use some pat labels, I suppose I would describe myself specifically as a Korean-American atheist. It took a while for me to admit I didn’t believe in a god, and I was a Catholic for a good chunk of my young life, only falling away from the rigidity of those beliefs when I was in high school (unsurprisingly, this was when I started to befriend a large number of Jewish kids of varying degrees of belief). I pretty much took on a title of “agnostic” by the time I was in college, while simultaneously holding some partial beliefs in the possibility of the supernatural and mysticism.
The shedding of my belief in the supernatural was a long and sometimes difficult process. Most of my family is religious and/or superstitious in some sense. I’ve even had some heated arguments at times, and such conflicts can leave a member of a close-knit immigrant family feeling pretty alienated, not just from the family or the community, but from the entirety of one’s roots. Add to that living in a nation, while admirable in its acceptance of diversity to an extent, still has its share of issues of racial privilege.
Now, I obviously can’t speak for all “Asian-Americans” on this matter, considering the wide variety of cultures, languages, physical traits and histories covering a huge area of geographical origins. In fact, there are often conflicts about how we define that hyphenated term. But at least in the readings I’ve done and speaking with various individuals who identify (at least on the Census) as Asian-American, I do find many of us share a few things that many earlier immigrant waves (and current ones) to this country have shared: the importance of heritage, the security of a homogeneous community, the hold of our ancestral traditions, the difference-making colors of our skin, and the comfort of family beyond the nuclear ideal extending to a larger clan.
In light of this, and the fact that the milieu of Asian-Americans immigrating to the United States has increased dramatically in recent years, our presence presents both an opportunity and a hazard for the burgeoning communities and organizations of skeptics and secularists in this country.
According to the Pew Forum’s polling on religiosity among Asian-Americans, the percentages show that our population is somewhat less religious compared to the overall population. While this may be somewhat deceptive in that the numbers of nonbelievers or outright atheists vary depending on the breakdown of the specific countries of origin, this is still an encouraging sign. This presents the opportunity. A greater understanding of and increased effort in producing tailored outreach to already receptive members of these multi-ethnic communities can help improve visibility, thus providing more power for atheists in general. The additional diversity will also help attract even more nonbelievers of all stripes by promoting familiar faces and specified support structures for people who may be leaving behind a rather intense network of support they were already comfortable with.
Asian-American population growth has not gone unnoticed by religious proselytizers, of course. Some Christian colleges have even begun recruiting Chinese students in a manner like that of Ivy League schools. Many language-specific churches have already long existed providing those services and the overall sense of belonging that might entice new arrivals to these shores. This then is the hazard — that gains made for atheist visibility are stalled or reversed because of, somewhat ironically, the free marketplace of ideas. Those who profess to want to deepen the strength of atheists in a country widely known for its religious nature must take note and prioritize outreach, and not just to Asian-Americans of course. The challenge is being welcoming and inclusive to as many marginalized populations as possible, overtly and not just passively (and especially forego hostility).
While atheists have taken some steps over the years to get beyond its image of being largely a white and male clique, there is always room for improvement. And to those who may disagree with improving our sales pitch and expanding the size of the tent, keep in mind, there is actual competition for those “souls”, so to speak.
I’ve felt this absence of outreach keenly enough to start my own Secular Asian Community page and group on Facebook to see if I can find, and help others find, like-minded Asian-Americans and to connect with atheist and skeptical Asians internationally. Hopefully, this might add to the fledgling strength of secularism at large. If this topic interests you, I invite you to take a look.
Secular Asian Community