How Religion Impacts Immigrant Communities

4 min read

Karl Marx famously coined religion the “opiate of the masses.” He argued that religion disconnects disadvantaged people from the here and now and dulls their engagement in progressive politics. Historically, religion has been the cause of wars and genocides and, at the micro level, has been the source of estrangement and conflict in families.

Immigrant populations are especially vulnerable to the impact of religion on their communities as they are often the disadvantaged group in their host country. For many, religion becomes their source of community, comfort, safety, connection, and acceptance.

Western Religion as a Pathway to Assimilation

According to Pew Research Center, the United States is home to more immigrants than any other country in the world, and about one-fifth of the population is foreign-born. Mexico is the top origin country of the U.S., followed by immigrants from Asia. Around 77 percent of Latinos and 42 percent of Asian Americans identify as Christian, a Western religion and product of colonialism. Adopting Western religion has become a path to assimilation and acceptance for immigrants.

Existing research suggests that affiliation with Western religions, such as Christianity, is associated with better outcomes for immigrants, whereas affiliation with non-Western religions, including but not limited to Islam, may serve as an obstacle to acculturation. Ethnic minorities’ religious identities are said to influence the majority population’s perceptions of immigrants and to shape the permeability of cultural boundaries in host societies.

Church Is Community

Moreover, California is home to the largest population of South Korean immigrants and also the highest concentration of Korean churches in the U.S. For many South Koreans, church isn’t just a religion for them—it’s a slice of home in this foreign land where they can connect with people who speak their language and understand their culture. For Korean Americans, the church is more than just a place of worship. It’s also a place to conduct business, as both clergy and patrons, market mom-and-pop businesses, network, socialize, and find spouses. Church is a huge part of their daily lives and identity.

Intergenerational Acculturation Gaps Widen With Religious Conflict

However, research has shown that Asian American families experience intergenerational conflicts, which are exacerbated by acculturation differences between parents and their children (Lee, Choe, Kim, & Ngo, 2000). The intergenerational acculturation gap conflict between immigrant parents and their children can lead to increased stress as parents may expect their children to adhere to their Asian culture of origin, and children may seek to adopt U.S. culture. Since the church is such an important part of immigrant culture, children who don’t want to participate end up feeling isolated, ostracized, and ashamed.

In this way, religion simultaneously connects and disconnects immigrant families from their culture and each other. It becomes increasingly harder for immigrant children to differentiate from their families and to assert more progressive, secular beliefs, which is often more common among younger generations.

Furthermore, the country’s religious landscape perpetuates this, with 70 percent of all Americans identifying as Christian.

Religious Trauma

Therefore, many children of immigrants feel the pressure of assimilating to the dominant religion, resulting in religious trauma. Some common symptoms of religious trauma are shame about not wanting to go to church or participating in religious activities, avoidance of church or triggers, avoidance of confrontation about not wanting to go to church, feeling like you are inherently bad, hypervigilance around religious people, and difficulty identifying your needs and setting boundaries.

Some folks struggle with this for a lifetime and live in hiding, and others become estranged from their families. Some find themselves somewhere in between the two. Nonetheless, it’s important to know that this is a common phenomenon, and you are definitely not alone. The reason why it’s not talked about is because it’s taboo.

However, it’s normal to want to identify your own set of beliefs and values, even if they clash with your family’s. Trauma makes it difficult to find your voice because trauma makes you feel unheard, unseen, and unable to make change. The first step in changing this is to take action by normalizing this experience and by talking to someone you trust.

Spirituality can be a basic human need, a beautiful thing that drives us to connect and encourages us to believe in a power greater than ourselves. However, when it becomes forced upon you, and you feel pressured to assimilate, that’s when it becomes abuse. Spirituality should be something you are drawn to out of love, not out of guilt or obligation.

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