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About the Author

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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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Why Do Hindus Have the Highest Religious Retention Rate in the U.S?

Reporting on religion is about telling stories — but sometimes it’s also about numbers. Many articles on religion in the U.S. include the boring caveat: “Because the U.S. Census no longer asks about religion, numbers of [insert religious group] are hard to come by.” Denominations and other religious groups usually release their own membership figures, but of course that’s like Exxon telling us about their great environmental record. When a major survey report does come out from a scholarly institution, that’s big news to religion journalists, and the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released today the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is one of the biggest we’ve seen in a while. (Boring caveat of my own: I do some contract work for the Pew Forum, so you can decide if I’m too wildly biased to comment on the report findings.)

The Religion News Service, of course, was all over this report, assigning a team to cover its many angles. My job last week was to make sense of the figures on Hindus and Buddhists in America, and the Hindu angle in particular caught my attention.

The headline from the survey was entirely unexpected: That Hindu Americans seem to be winning the contest, waged by parents across the country, to keep children in their faith. The study authors write:

Hinduism exhibits the highest overall retention rate, with more than eight-in-ten (84%) adults who were raised as Hindu still identifying themselves as Hindu. The Mormon, Orthodox and Jewish traditions all have retention rates of at least 70%, while the retention rate for Catholics is 68%.

Not only that, but Hindus were most likely to marry within their own faith:

Hindus and Mormons are the most likely to be married (78% and 71%, respectively) and to be married to someone of the same religion (90% and 83%, respectively).

Have Hindu American hit on a secret formula for passing along religious identity? What explains these high numbers?

I put these questions to Vasudha Naraynanan, professor of religious studies at the University of Florida. She answered first with an almost theological explanation:

We have very loose boundaries in terms of what it means to be Hindu. It is not a congregational religion. There are no hard-and-fast rules about converting into or out of it, unless you’re talking about a particular sectarian movement [like the Hare Krishnas.] Even those who don’t maintain a Hindu lifestyle in terms of diet or religious practice may still think they are Hindu. So people feel comfortable remaining Hindu for most of their lives.

As she spoke, I immediately thought of Judaism in America, how religious identity can overlap with ethnic identity. You can be a “cultural Hindu,” Prof. Narayanan said. But if being a “cultural Jew” is equally possible, then what explains the fact that Jews, according to this study, have pretty low retention rates? Thirty-one percent of Jews in America are married to people of other religious identities. And according to this study, 1.1 million adults who grew up Jewish are no longer Jewish. This loss is offset by conversions — an estimated 675,000 — but there is a net loss of 450,000. (That’s nothing compared to Catholics, however: One of the headlines of the survey is that Catholics are losing member like crazy — a trend that is only partially offset by large numbers of Catholic immigrants.)

So, what else is going on with Hindus besides an ethnic-religious overlap and a flexible theology that makes it easy to belong? The key may be found in another piece of data in the report: eight-out-of-ten Hindus are foreign born. Says Prof. Narayanan: “Many are from India, and they still feel ethnically different, and have remained Hindu” and also sought out fellow Hindus as marriage partners. Other stats paint a portrait of a recent-immigrant population: According to the study, more then four times as many Hindus arrived in the U.S. after 1989 than before 1960.

So when we are looking at retention rates, then, we’re largely looking at people who grew up either in India or in the India diaspora (East Africa, the Caribbean) and now live in the U.S. (This population is largely professional, judging from the study, which points out that a staggering 48 percent of Hindus in the U.S. have post-graduate degrees. Hindu Americans as a group also have higher-than-average incomes.)

The question, then, is what happens with the children of these immigrants? Will they remain Hindu at the same rate as their parents? Prof. Narayanan expects the figures in coming years to look very different. “What may change is the second generation marrying out of the faith, and that is beginning to happen already,” she said.

Children born or raised here become completely bi-cultural. They feel at home both as Hindus and in the civic religion of America. They are friends with many different kinds of people, and they may marry into other traditions. If they are assimilated, they don’t see Americans as ‘other.’

These last comments brought to my mind the Jhumpa Lahiri book, The Namesake, (also a Mira Nair movie now,) in which the second-generation protagonist, Gogol, dates a sophisticated secular American woman after college. Interestingly, however, Gogol realizes the cultural gap between him and this girlfriend, with her Bohemian-intellectual New York parents, is too distant when his own Indian-born father dies and he seeks solace in the traditions of his childhood. Gogol moves on to marry an equally sophisticated Indian-American woman: He seems to be evolving quickly from the pattern of the second-generation to the third-generation, in which roots are rediscovered and embraced.

But maybe Lahiri can see the future artistically in a way that a demographic survey cannot: Because Gogol’s marriage to his Hindu-American wife ends, and the reader is left wondering what is next for him. Just so, readers of the Pew study will find themselves asking: Will the next generation of Hindu Americans remain proudly, solidly Hindu? Or will ethnic pride and distinctiveness gradually fade along with religious identity? The data-snapshot from Pew is not enough to extrapolate. Indeed, Pew Forum director Luis Lugo said today the Forum’s job is not to predict the future — but he did promise future studies that would help “make the snapshots into a movie.” Until then, we’ll to rely on the novelists.


There Are 10 Responses So Far. »

  1. i just randomly jotted my thoughts as they came to me.

    * the professor got it right. it is easy to remain hindu because it is so loosely defined. there are practically no major binding rules to follow.
    * being hindu doesn’t stop one from participating in other religious traditions so unless the person wants to adopt another faith that is stricter there is really no need to redefine themselves. call it having your cake and eating it too. or maybe its hedging your bets?
    * to be successfully assimilated, both the majority and minority shouldn’t feel threatened by each other. for most people i know, being hindu is basically a cultural identity. for these people, as far as beliefs go, hinduism = religious pluralism which is very acceptable world view to have in this society. so the average american is ok with hindus. as for the hindus, they don’t have to worry as much about corrosion of religious identity given that it is not so concrete/stringent. this makes assimilation easier for them.
    * will ethnic pride and distinctiveness fade? if things stay the way they are in america, probably. but if hindus feel threatened then it could change. that might happen if, say, india-pakistan relations got much worse and seeped into relations between hindus and muslims here. or if a new wave of religious fervor starts spreading where people want to convert hindus to christianity.

  2. Judging from what I saw in the UK, where Indians are more stridently religious (both Hindus and Muslims), I can predict that Hindus will become less religiously affiliated in the US as long as the current climate of tolerance continues. But if there begins to exist the same kind of racial/religious tensions I have seen in the UK, I expect Hindus in the US to become even more wedded to their faith. On balance, that will be a bad thing - but this is just my opinion.

  3. Namasthe Andrea: Hindus Have the Highest Religious Retention Rate in the U.S and else where due to

    1. Hinduism is NOT an organized religion like Islam or Christianity. It is A CULTURE, A WAY OF LIFE.

    2. It has no hidden agenda or motive expect to spread truth.

    All Hindus scriptures discuss about TRUTH and how to search after truth. Hindu scriptures state “self-realization” is the ultimate goal of every human being, whether the person is a Hindu or not.”

    3. As Rig Veda 89-1 states, it welcomes truth from every side.

    Beauty of Hinduism is that it accept truth from very many sources. Hinduism is the result of deep meditation of Rishis, who searched after truth through out their lives.

    4. It does NOT proclaim monopoly on GOD or TRUTH or SALAVTION.

    No where in the Hindu scriptures, you will read that Hindus alone have monopoly on God or salvation. Hindu scriptures state, any person who searches after truth will ultimately attain self realization, whether that person is a Hindu or not.

    Voltaire in Essay on Tolerance wrote: I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death, your right to say it. Hinduism is the symbolic representation of what Voltaire wrote.

    Aa no bhadraah kratavo yantu vishvatah
    ” Let noble thoughts come to us from every side”.

    5. Absolute FREEDOM OF THOUGHTS & ACTIONS is the cardinal principle of Hinduism.

    Even an atheist can condemn Hinduism and later can proudly proclaim he or she is a Hindu. In fact, unlike all religions and cultures in the world, Hinduism had an atheistic philosophy called CHARVAKA philosophy founded by Charvaka who rejected existence of God. Charvaka died in bed. He was not killed by any one. He died in bed due to old age.

    Ed Viswanathan
    [email protected]

  4. Good article, a pleasure to read - would love your thoughts on the American Muslim retention rate. Or is that already in a different post?

  5. I am wondering if the children of Hindus who marry non-Hindus in America still identify as Hindus.

  6. This a very thought-provoking post. I had an opportunity to speak with Professor Narayanan a month or so after this blog was posted (if memory serves me correctly), and I believe our conversation may help to shed a little light on her statement here. It may not be so much theological as it is an anthropological statement. In our conversation, we also talked about boundaries, specifically the different kinds of boundaries that religious traditions use to mark themselves off from “the other.” Using my interfaith marriage as an example, we discussed that although my Christian family was very welcoming of my Hindu wife and eager to learn about her customs, they would politely refuse to participate in anything that could be construed as worshiping a Hindu deity and even felt uncomfortable inside Hindu temples. HER family, on the other hand, initially had trouble accepting her desire to marry a “foreigner,” citing what they believed to be obvious differences in cultural values, but had no qualms about attending church and praying to Jesus.

    Why the difference? Well, I think you hit the nail on the head when you made the analogy to “cultural (and I would add “ethnic”) Jews.” The criteria that these traditions use to define themselves over and against “the other”-their “boundaries”-are different. My wife and I often joke that one talks to new friends differently depending on where one is at. In America, the “first question” typically asked is, “What do you do?” But in India, it’s “What’s your caste?” (to which the answer would indicate not only one’s status but also family lineage and region of origin). Similarly, when talking about religion, Christians and Muslims might ask, “What do you believe?” But for Hindus, and perhaps for many “cultural/ethnic Jews,” this question may be of less significance than others.

    If my case study can be extrapolated (and I think that it can), it would seem that the order of import for criteria that mark off the “boundaries” for Christians might be: 1) beliefs, 2) rituals, 3) cultural values, 4) ethnic heritage. But for Hindus, the order might run: 1) ethnic heritage, 2) cultural values, 3) rituals, 4) beliefs. Indeed a typical Hindu family is more likely to accept their child’s marriage to an Indian who has converted to Christianity than an American who has joined the Hare Krishna movement. Because in their eyes, the former is “a Hindu who worships Jesus,” while the later is “a Christian who has seen the truth of Hinduism.”

    I do not know enough about Jewish identity to say too much about it, but perhaps thinking about these criteria for boundaries could help explain the fall in retension rates. It is possible that the community’s criteria have shifted in such a way, for example, that those who would have once considered themselves “agnostic/atheistic/secular Jews” or “Buddhist Jews” now merely consider themselves agnostics/atheists/secularists or Buddhists. If this is the case, my questions would be: 1) what was the cause of this shift in boundary criteria? and 2) is it possible that globalization and continued development in India will eventually effect a similar shift in the Hindu community?

  7. The hindu diaspora in the USA is not unique
    It actually has a relatively low retention rate

    The hindu diaspora in the caribbean, Malaysia, Fiji, and UK has a much higher retention rate

    In the caribbean, they have withstood over 150 years of aggressive evangelism targeted at caribbean hindus

    In both the UK and the USA, 40% of the hindu diaspora consists of Gujurati Patels, and if the Patels in the UK retain hinduism, there is no reason why Patels in the USA will also not retain hinduism

    Most Hindus have ties with their family in India
    If a hindu converts to an abrahamic religion, it will affect the
    marraige prospects of their cousins and nephews and nieces in India and lower the prestige of their family in Indian society

  8. Religious retention in hinduism has several aspects

    A hindu can be an atheist, an agnostic, a severe critic of hindu beliefs and practises and still be within the fold
    Some even keep pictures of Jesus along with hindu gods on their family altar. The only thing that will cause him to be considered non-hindu is if he converts to an abrahamic religion.
    So it takes extreme steps to be considered an apostate, whereas in abrahamic religions, minor disagreements with church doctrine will cause apostasy. A hindu can convert to sikhism, jainism, buddhism and still be considered within the hindu fold

    So having established that the only thing that will cause apostasy for hindus is conversion to abrahamic religions,
    we next consider why hindus dont convert to abrahamic religions

    In folk history, handed down in families, abrahamic religions are considered as religions of the ‘invaders’
    This is due to over 1000 years of islamic massacres and terrorism
    As far as xtianity goes, there is over 300 years of inquisitions in goa, the church as a tool of colonialism, the role of the church in
    separatist terrorism in north-east India, the abusive evangelical campaigns and so on

    As far as caribbean hindus go, xtianity has been used as a tool of oppression against them, even today by black xtians

    As far as Patels go, they are not very fluent in english, they still read gujurati language newspapers. Most are members of the swaminarayan sect, which stresses vegetarianism
    Being vegetarian puts another barrier against conversion to abrahamic religions

    As far as Sikhs go, the central aspect of their faith is the martyrdom of several gurus and thousands of sikhs for refusing to convert to abrahamic religions and apostasy is considered a very serious crime. Few sikhs have apostasised in the UK diaspora and same is expected in USA diaspora

    Another aspect to consider is the caste blend of the US India diaspora
    85% of them are upper castes and in the evangelical campaigns, upper castes are vilified

    Next, being a highly educated group, they are also aware of the history and textual and doctrinal errors various religions,
    and in hinduism, any claim to doctrinal perfection is considered suspect, so abrahamic religions are considered mentally stifling and claims like the ‘last prophet’ and ‘only begotten son’ are not accepted

  9. There is another very practical reason for Hindu men to remain hindus

    In the dating world in the US, Asian men are the worst losers
    Many hindu men have dabbled in xtianity during their teenage years
    such as using americanised names and even attending church in order to fit in. Yet they find that they are still ’sand niggers’ and cant get a date, despite being rich and educated and highly intelligent
    These men have gone back to hinduism so that they can get married using the caste network

  10. Looks like purpose of any religion is to find fulfilling life through the search of truth. People will pursue this with any brand they feel comfortable with. What does one gains by studying the rate of switching brands anyway? Are we aiming to find causes why brand switching efforts not delivering goods? The religion is a means and not an end thus people will change means (religion) to achieve various ends!

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