Religions dwindling in East Asia, but spirituality persists

Religions Diminish in East Asia, But Spirituality Persists

Spirituality in East Asia: a complex reality beyond appearances

Although many claim to have no belief, they practice a form of ancestor worship, burning incense and leaving offerings at temples, according to a recently released Pew Research Center report on Japan, South Korea , Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam. The study highlights the difficulties of investigation given the local notion of religion, often associated only with hierarchical organizations. The rate of religious change is higher in this region than anywhere else in the world.

A Superficial Look at Religion in East Asia

At first glance, it might seem that religion has no place in the lives of East Asians. Adults are rarely seen praying and many say they do not consider it important, so much so that rates of disaffiliation (people leaving the religion) are among the highest in the world.

Deep Analysis Reveals Enduring Spirituality

However, in-depth analysis shows that the majority of the population today still practices traditional rites, especially regarding ancestors, and maintains a strong sense of spirituality, according to the last report from the Pew Research Center, which surveyed more than 10 adults in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam.

The notion of religion in question

The report notes that the very term religion is an important point in the research; "common translations of 'religion' (such as zongjiao in Chinese, shūkyō in Japanese and joggyo in Korean) are often understood to refer to organized, hierarchical forms of religion, such as Christianity or new religious movements – and not to traditional forms of Asian spirituality,” the report says.

Spiritual practices despite no declared religion

Many adults – from 27% in Taiwan to 61% in Hong Kong – say they have “no religion”. But about half leave offerings or burn incense for their ancestors; at least four in ten believe in God or other higher entities; and more than a quarter believe in spirits inhabiting the physical world, such as mountains, rivers and trees.

“In short, when we measure religion in these societies by what people believe et font, rather than because they say they have a religion, the region is more religiously vibrant than it initially appears. »

Buddhism: ethics and culture rather than religion

In this sense, Buddhism, which has historical roots in several Asian countries, has been defined by members of different faiths not so much as "a religion that one chooses to follow", but rather as "a set of ethical lessons to guide actions” and “a culture of which we are part”.

Country specific examples

In Japan, 42% of the population does not identify with any religion, but those who identify as Buddhist are 46% while 70% say they have brought offerings to temples in the last year.

In Hong Kong, 30% pray to Guanyin, the Buddhist deity of compassion, but only 14% identify as Buddhist and 20% as Christian.

In Vietnam, the only Southeast Asian country surveyed, 48% of respondents say they have no religion, compared to 38% for Buddhists and 10% for Christians, but 86% have performed ancestral rites during the Last 12 months. Among people not affiliated with a belief, the percentage rises to 92%.

The importance of ancestors and religious conversion rates

In general, ancestors are important throughout the region, whose support is felt by many people in their lives.

The report also confirms the famous Japanese saying that people are born Shinto, marry Christians and die Buddhists.

The rate of switching from one religion to another varies from 17% in Vietnam and 53% in South Korea and Hong Kong to 32% in Japan and 42% in Taiwan.

These are the highest percentages recorded so far by the Pew Research Center in various countries around the world.

Personal connections with other philosophies

Many people also report feeling a personal connection to the “lifestyle” of another faith or philosophy; for example, 34% of South Korean Christians say they feel connected to the Buddhist lifestyle, while only 26% of Buddhists feel the same about Christianity.

In general, however, regardless of initial religion, whether Buddhism, Christianity, or Taoism (especially in Taiwan), there has been a sharp increase in disaffiliation in all countries examined except Vietnam. , where the figure is only 4% and the share of people declaring themselves Buddhists has increased.

Perception of the importance of religion and spiritual beliefs

It is therefore not surprising that the percentage of people who believe that religion is very important in their life is very low: 11% in Hong Kong, 6% in Japan, 16% in South Korea, 11% in Taiwan and 26% in Vietnam. However, those who believe in karma are 87% in Taiwan, 75% in Vietnam and 76% in Hong Kong.

In Vietnam, 42% of respondents said they had been visited by an ancestor in a dream, compared to 40% in South Korea and 36% in Japan and Taiwan.

In South Korea, 59% practice or have practiced meditation but only 21% pray daily.


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