The recent PEW Research Center findings on America’s religious landscape revealed that approximately 56 million Americans are religiously unaffiliated and belong to the category of nonreligious persons. There are more nonreligious people than Catholics or mainline Protestants and nonreligious people are second only to evangelical Protestants. Nonreligious people are comparatively younger and more educated.
In addition,the PEW survey estimated that the number of Hindus rose from 0.3 percent of the population in 2007 to 0.7 percent in 2014. 77 percent of Hindus in the U.S. are college graduates. Some very good questions have been raised by Murali Balaji about the challenges of gathering accurate numerical data for Hindus living in the United States of America. He suggests that the actual numbers may be higher than what is reported.
Although we may rejoice at our growing percentage of the adult population, the rise of large numbers of nonreligious people is particularly worrying for Hindus. Hindus are not immune from these wider trends in the United States. When I was a child attending a Hindu Sunday school class, we recited a series of questions and answers about Hinduism from a small catechetical text. One of the questions was, “Why are you a Hindu?” The answer followed: “Because I was born a Hindu.” It may have been a good answer in its time, but it will not work for a new generation of Hindu Americans. Affiliation with the Hindu tradition will not be guaranteed by birth.
The principal challenge to the religious commitment of a new generation of Hindu Americans is the rejection of a religious worldview or indifference to religion. Many young Hindus will pursue the finest education, achieve great success in their careers (36 percent of Hindu families have incomes exceeding $100,000 annually-compared to 19 percent of the overall population), live productive and, for the most part, ethical lives, and do all of this without any significant commitment to the Hindu tradition. The Hindu tradition will not inform their choice of a profession, a marriage partner, their leisure activities or their political values. They will not see what religion contributes to the pursuit of their primary life goals or even understand themselves as having religious needs.
The choice, as I see it for a new generation of Hindus in the U.S., is not between the Hindu tradition or another religion; it is between being Hindu or being non-religious.
When the challenge is the attraction of another religion, one may respond by demonstrating and commending the virtues of the Hindu tradition. When the challenge is indifference or the rejection of religion altogether, the response must be different. In the first case a religious need is assumed and one tries to demonstrate the best way of fulfilling this need. In the second case, there is no religious need; one has to begin by establishing one.
We must be clear about the ways in which a Hindu worldview enriches individual human and community life. In order to commend our tradition to another generation, we must first answer the question, “Why am I Hindu?” Answering this question is not just a matter of offering the right words, but also embodying what the tradition means for us in the way we live all dimensions of our lives in the world. This is not an easy question to answer since most of the first-generation Hindu Americans are Hindus by birth and do not wrestle in significant ways with alternative choices, religious or non-religious. They are Hindu without feeling the need to know why — a new generation wants to know why.