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Reports on religion in six Asian nations reveal religious diversity

The Pew Research Center (PRC) recently released a report on religion in six South and Southeast Asian countries, focusing on religious and ethnic identity, attitudes toward other religions, and differences in religious belief and practice across religious communities and countries.

Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand (mainly Buddhist), Malaysia, Indonesia (mostly Muslim), and Singapore (various religious populations) are among the countries.

This study, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation, is part of a larger effort by the PRC to understand religious change and its impact on societies around the world.

The report was presented on September 29 in a Zoom conference organized by the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (NUS). Responders said Asia is indeed diverse.

The report explored religious and ethnic identity, attitudes towards other religions, and different patterns of religious belief and practice across religious communities and countries.

It also tackled the deities to whom people pray or offer their respects, funerary practices, differing levels of religiosity by age, and a deeper look at how religion and national identity intersect.

Among others, Kenneth Dean, a professor at NUS, said the report presented evidence of affiliation with religion. It is most impressive for religious tourism and pluralism, something to celebrate that sets Asia apart from Europe. Asian religion is not exclusive, he said.

Erica Larson, a research fellow at NUS, said the report shows the complexity of the region and that diversity makes a better place. Every religion must be valued, she said.

Jonathan Evans, senior researcher at PRC, referred the audience to his work, which is accessible via

The report said, “In Thailand, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka, Buddhists see strong links between their religion and country (national identity), as do Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia."

Cambodian Buddhists express comparatively high levels of support for engagement by religious leaders in politics.

Most Indonesian and Malaysian Muslims describe Islam as more than a religion. Most Malaysian Muslims say religious leaders should be politicians as well as talk about their politics.

Few express negative sentiments about diversity in their country.

Singaporeans are most likely to view various religions as compatible with their society. Despite these expressions of tolerance and religious mixing, religious identity can also be a firm line between groups in this part of the world.

In fact, many people across the countries surveyed say it is unacceptable for people to give up their religion or convert to another faith. In Indonesia, 92% of Muslims say it is unacceptable for a person to leave Islam, and 83% of Christians say it is unacceptable to leave Christianity for another religion.

Overall, Muslims are more likely than other religious communities to say that conversion away from their faith is unacceptable. But this is also the position taken by two-thirds or more of Buddhists in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand—the study’s three Buddhist-majority nations.

Majorities across all surveyed countries believe in God or unseen beings. Rates of specific religious practices are often related to the religious makeup of each country. For example, overwhelming majorities in Cambodia (96%), Sri Lanka (92%), and Thailand (84%), say they burn incense; all three are Buddhist-majority countries, and Buddhists across southern Asia are more likely than Hindus, Christians, or Muslims to burn incense.

Meditation is also highest in the Buddhist-majority countries of Thailand and Sri Lanka (62% each), although Hindus across the region are more likely than Buddhists to say they practice meditation.

By contrast, daily prayer is most common in Indonesia and Malaysia, the two Muslim-majority countries in the survey. And, across the region, Muslims are more likely to say they pray at least once a day than are Hindus, Christians, or Buddhists.

By multiple measures, religiously unaffiliated adults in Singapore are among the least religious or spiritual people in the region. However, sizable shares of unaffiliated Singaporeans do express some religious or spiritual beliefs or follow some practices.

Rituals surrounding death are important to all the major religious groups in the countries surveyed.

By some measures, older adults are more religious than younger adults.

Since this is the first time the Pew Research Center has conducted an extensive national survey on religion in most countries, opportunities for looking at how religious beliefs and practices are changing over time are limited.

But differences between older and younger adults may provide clues into how each country is changing religiously.

In five of the six countries surveyed, nearly universal shares of both younger and older adults identify with a religion. Only in Singapore are younger adults (ages 18 to 34) slightly more likely than older adults to be religiously unaffiliated (26% vs. 20%).

In several countries, younger Buddhist adults are more likely than older Buddhists to say it is acceptable for a person to leave Buddhism for another religion. For example, younger Thai Buddhists are twice as likely as those who are older to say that leaving Buddhism is acceptable (46% vs. 22%).

Among Muslims, only in Singapore are younger adults more likely than older Muslims to say it is acceptable to leave Islam for another religion (25% vs. 9%).

Singapore differs from the other countries surveyed in that it has no majority religion and, thus, no single religion that is clearly associated with Singaporean national identity.

Who are the people in Singapore who don’t identify with a religion, and what do they believe?

In stark contrast with neighboring populations in which nearly everyone claims a religious affiliation, roughly one in five Singaporeans do not identify with any religion—a group sometimes referred to as the “nones.” Singapore’s “nones” are overwhelmingly of Chinese descent and mostly college-educated.

By some measures, Singapore’s religiously unaffiliated population does not appear very religious or spiritual. For instance, only 3% of the country’s “nones” say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 36% of Singaporean adults overall.

But as a group, Singapore’s religiously unaffiliated do not completely disavow religious or spiritual beliefs and practices. Nearly two-thirds of the “nones” (65%) say they think karma exists, and 43% say that a person can feel the presence of deceased family members—roughly comparable to the shares of Muslims (47%) and Christians (43%) in Singapore who say the same.

As one might expect, religion-state integrationists are somewhat more likely than others in their communities to support religious leaders’ direct involvement in politics.

In Thailand, for instance, Buddhists who link Buddhist and Thai identities and say Thai law should be based on Buddhist dharma are roughly twice as likely as other Buddhists to say religious leaders should be politicians (31% vs. 16%).

Buddhist nationalism has been linked with antagonism and violence between Buddhists and religious minorities in countries dominated by Theravada Buddhism, including during the Sri Lankan civil war. Similarly, some scholars have asserted that there is a connection between rising “religious nationalism” and xenophobia in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

In general, people who say that it is very important to be a member of their religious community to honestly share the national identity and that they want their society’s laws to be based on their religion are less likely to see other religions as compatible with their country’s culture and values.

They are also less likely to accept followers of other religions as neighbors, although most religion-state integrationists say they would be willing to get people from other religions as neighbors. - Madonna T. Virola 


Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), a media platform of the Catholic Church, aims to share Christ. RVA started in 1969 as a continental Catholic radio station to serve Asian countries in their respective local language, thus earning the tag “the Voice of Asian Christianity.”  Responding to the emerging context, RVA embraced media platforms to connect with the global Asian audience via its 21 language websites and various social media platforms.