......Are They Bad For America?
The 8Asians blog published a post recently discussing an article on CNN's website in which a religion scholar, Stephen Prothero, notes the potential effects of increased Asian immigration on America's religiosity. According to Prothero, because a lower percentage of Asian immigrants report that religion is "very important in their lives", an increase in Asian immigration may thus lead to a less religious America.
The first issue with the article is its vagueness. What exactly does it mean to say that a person or group is less religious? How is religiosity defined? I think that most American Christians attend only church once a week and maybe a mid-week church function and the number of people who pray at least once-a-day varies from around five out of ten, to ninety out of ten depending on denomination. But even this may not accurately or completely reflect religiosity in daily life. For example, the spiritual concept of "mindfulness" is very much grounded in religious concepts and an individual who gives a few bucks to the homeless guy on the corner every morning may well be considered to be acting in a mindful way as derived from whatever religious doctrine they follow, yet may not consider themselves to be following a religious life.
Furthermore, "mindfulness" is a more difficult concept to quantify because throughout the day, individuals may well be carrying out "mindful" acts but may not necessarily view this as being an act of religious practice although they may understand that it is a reflection of their religious belief. Plus, because self-reporting is by definition subjective, what constitutes religiosity will mean vastly different things to different people. For some, praying five-times a day may not be religious enough and for others praying once-a-week might seem devotional. So, the premise of the article is so overly vague to lack any real meaning and would really seem to amount to little more than a musing that seems to take some random statistics and extrapolate, to an almost far-fetched degree, a potentially momentous social shift, based on a vague premise. But, Asians should, by now, be used to hearing white men making dramatic generalized suggestions about our community based on vague premises and dubious reasoning.
Yet, what is revealing about the article is the way that it reflects an unfair, and perhaps biased, attitude towards immigration from non-white countries, whilst no consideration is given to the effects of immigration from white countries. For instance, in the past twenty years, around 4.5 million immigrants have settled in the US from predominantly "white" countries of Europe and Australia. Although, relatively low compared to immigration from Asia and Latin America, it is not an insignificant number. Significantly for this discussion is the fact that Europe (both Western and Eastern) are reported to have some of the highest rates of unbelief in the world, ranging from 20%-35% of populations in some Western European countries up to almost 50% of populations in some Eastern European countries reporting no religion.
Coincidentally (or not) in the passed two decades the dialogue on religious belief has developed into a culture war as more and more atheists have become outspoken about their disbelief and push for a less religious America (a result of European immigration perhaps?). At the forefront of this "movement" have been Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins two British-born, high-profile atheists, one of whom (Hitchens) is a naturalized American citizen, the other (Dawkins) lived and worked at the University of California, and is a regular visitor to the US and, for all I know, may well be a permanent resident. Between them they have sold almost three million books in which they suggest that religious believers may be stupid, wicked hypocrites, and that religion is the most corrupting thing ever to afflict the human race. From Australia another atheist, Peter Singer, has lived and worked since 1999 at Princeton University. Singer is less well-known, but still an influential philosopher, whose materialism-derived utilitarian ethics has caused controversy amongst the religious and non-religious alike.
These three highly influential public figures whose work has greatly influenced American thought in the past decade or so, and made atheism and materialistic ethics a major part of the dialogue on belief, have encouraged Americans to abandon religion and embrace atheism. Yet, no Americans have come forward to suggest that European immigrants might be making America less religious, even though that would seem to be a reasonable and logical conclusion. There just doesn't seem to be the same concern about the societal effects on American religious practice of an influx of Europeans into America.
One could argue that the numbers aren't sufficient enough to make such a major impact on general society. But I would submit that higher "social capital" of white people more than makes up for the low numbers. What I mean by this, is that white people (especially men) as a group and individuals are given more value, authority, and credibility in American society than other ethnicities, such that it may be easier for them to attain positions of influence and authority within the culture. The case of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Singer are clear examples of this; these three men have undoubtedly had more influence over America's attitudes towards religion than all of the Asian immigrant 711 owners and Asians in academia and finance put together, yet,
it doesn't cross anybody's mind that European immigrants might contribute significantly making America less religious.
But the concerns about the effects of immigration from white countries do not stop with the religious question. In recent years, the rising influence of extreme right-wing thinking in Western and Eastern Europe has caused some considerable concern amongst rights groups across the continent. Recent elections in France and Greece show that far-right parties have gained almost 20% and 7% of the vote respectively. Even more problematic are the declarations of mainstream leaders of France, Britain, and Germany that multiculturalism has failed which reflects a shift away from tolerant attitudes towards ethnic minorities.
Given these facts, it would be reasonable to conclude that of the millions of European immigrants that have settled in the US over the passed two decades, a sizeable number of them would carry with them attitudes that may be, at best, opposed to a multicultural society, and at worst, harbour extreme right-wing sympathies. Either way, white people are given the benefit of the doubt most times, and (as Hitchens and Dawkins illustrate) we can expect that their ethnic origin will not be considered with regards to the effect their presence or ideas will have on society, it is reasonable to presume that any European immigrants who harbour these attitudes will have their ideas easily and seamlessly absorbed and adopted by mainstream America. Because white immigrants are a true unknown - after all, who is studying white immigrants and the attitudes that they bring with them? - they truly represent a potentially grave threat to America's multicultural existence.
For many immigrants, Asian or otherwise, the US has come to represent an ideal in which regardless of the circumstances of one's birth and origin, one can come to America and find personal success and dream that one day your own child could become President, with nothing to hold you back but your own demons. America's ideals of liberty, justice, religious and political freedom, fairness, and the belief that you can control your own destiny, are what attracts the millions of Asian immigrants to America. The growing shift in Europe towards intolerance of minorities, multiculturalism, and (ever more increasingly) religious practice stand in stark contrast to very core values that have made America the beacon of freedom that it has come to represent. Yet, the idea that European immigration could have a major negative influence on these American ideals is never examined.
Instead, America notes the impact on religious belief from Asian immigrants who have no substantial voice in the political arena or, more significantly, have no influence or voice in America's cultural dialogue (the one exception to this is the Dalai Lama who hangs out religiously with Hollywood celebs as they meditate to the tune of Kumbaya). Most absurd is the lack of meaningful evidence for making this kind of projection. There's little evidence that Asian immigration up until now has had any impact on religious belief, even though in some states and cities Asians account for up to a third of the population. In an brazen display of double-speak Prothero's article points out the religiosity of Asian immigrants, as well as the tendency for immigrants to become more religious once they arrive in the US. He then makes a vague reference to the high rate of the "unaffiliated", and then suggests that this may reflect a possible trend to less religiosity. For Prothero, 2 plus 2 equals 5.
Most disturbing is the character and tone of the article which follows a common pattern that I alluded to here, and is the routine way in which mainstream America discusses its "Asian problem". White commentators can make just about any allegation or statement about Asian people and be given the platform to say it even though the evidence for it may be tenuous at best. Even worse in this case is the fact that it is white European immigrants - up to 50% of whom may have no belief in God - and in the case of many (like Hitchens) actively seek an end to religious practice, who would most logically present the biggest threat to America's religious practice and even freedoms. Yet, no white social or religious expert worries that European immigration will strengthen these attitudes, even though that would seem to be the most logical conclusion.
The issue of ethnic Caucasian immigrants from Europe and Australia bringing extreme right-wing attitudes and opposition to multiculturalism (which in reality means non-white multiculturalism) with them is an even bigger concern. An America that fails at multiculturalism, is a failed America that no longer stands for freedom and equality.