CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

The 2007 International Conference
June 7-9, 2007
Bordeaux, France
Globalization, Immigration, and Change in Religious Movements

"We're not that religious" - Religious identification and practice among the Danish Vietnamese[1]

by Jørn BORUP (Aarhus University)

A paper presented at the 2007 International Conference, Bordeaux, France. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

1. Introduction

This is a presentation of a work in progress on the religiosity of a minority, many of whom claim not really to be religious, in a minor country, whose contribution to world civilizations according to media representations seems to be the production of infamous cartoons. Focussing on the Vietnamese, however, not only reveals a different reality of a(nother) minority in a minor country. It also relates to general research fields on migrant religiosity also with significance outside the Danish context. 

When doing research on Buddhism in Denmark as part of Danish Pluralism Project[2] I got acquainted with a group of Buddhists, turning out to be the majority of Danish Buddhists, and yet a minority within minorities in Denmark: the Vietnamese. Not only did I find them to be a very friendly people, it also appeared to me that some of them were meeting regularly at a very exotic temple close to the university in Aarhus – in fact so exotic, that many have mistaken the temple for a restaurant or a local Tivoli.

I also found a discrepancy between the fact that very little research had been done on this minority and the fact that they have often been declared the “model immigrants”. It seems to be common knowledge, that the Vietnamese make no problems, they educate and behave well, they are integrated into the labour market, they hardly figure in crime statistics, they never claim religious or cultural privileges, in other words, though not really having been studied, there seems to be also in Denmark a consensus that they are the “perfect silent other”.

The background of this project was thus a general interest in knowing more about a “neutral” minority as the Vietnamese, and to see whether, how, to which extent and why they seemingly were a model immigrant community. This, of course to a large extend mirrors the host- culture’s sympathetic attitude towards Far Eastern religiosity (Buddhism) and “well-known” religiosity (Chrsitianity). But might it also have something to do with their culture, or even religion? The presence of two distinct universalistic world religions with the same cultural roots in the same diasporadic context at least seems to be an obvious topic of investigation in the fields of both religious and migration studies.

Object of research project

To focus such a broad scope, the object of research primarily will investigate the religious and cultural identification and practice among Vietnamese in DK, the Viet Khiew religious diaspora.

I am simply interested in founding out about:

- Religious demography

- Belief and practice

- Engagement

- Values

- Role of religious leaders

- Diaspora

- Differences religious background: Catholics/Buddhists

- Differences generations

- The role of religion and culture matter in integration


In approaching such questions, I have made a questionnaire with 36 questions hopefully to be returned by 300 respondents (by June, I have 200 responses). These will be supplied with the data of a recent survey from Denmark’s Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs’ “Think Tank”, where 500 Vietnamese respondents were part of a major survey among five other ethnic minority groups in measuring values. Comparing the results with also those from the Vietnamese World Value Survey will give a sound basis of analyzing aspects of religious and cultural values and practices statistically, and interviews among 40 persons with different backgrounds hopefully will supplement the quantative data with qualitative ones.

Theoretical problems/key terms:

In a project like this, certain keywords need to be clarified and analyzed, as they are not only very often used in the social sciences, but also very polyvalent in meaning and use.  “Immigration”/integration/diaspora are terms with both social, cultural and economical relevance, just like “culture” and “religion” are broad and often vague containers of ideas and practices. Such multivalent fluency in use of concepts and categorizations do, however, point to the fluency and processuality of the reality, the concepts are signifying. Without going into theoretical details here, I will just underline my general approach in seeing religion and culture as living and always constructed realities, and diaspora culture and religion as an interactive process, and not just a movement of one static essence from one context into another.


Own figures:

o      13.000 Vietnamese. Refugees, family united and descendants

o      14 Vietnamese communities being part of the Catholic Church in DK, 6 Buddhist temples, 4 Catholic priests, 4 Buddhist monks, 1 Buddhist nun.

o      3.000 Catholic members, 3.000 Buddhist members

Statistical data are very different according to how religiosity is measured. In Vietnam:

o      Wikipedia: 92 % Buddhists

o      Nationmaster.com: 9.3% Buddhists, 6.7% Catholic, none: 90.8%

o      Adherents.com: 55% Buddhists

o      Melford/Baumann: Religions of the World: Buddhists: 49%, Catholics: 6.7 % 31.8 % none

o      US. Dept. of State: 50% Buddhists, 8-10 % Catholics

o      World Value Survey Vietnam: 15.3% Buddhists, 5.9% Catholics

o      Danish survey: 43 % Buddhists, 37 % Catholics, none: 15 %,

Categorizing diaspora Vietnamese usually spreads in a spectrum from there being 40-80% Buddhists and 10-30% Catholics. This, of course is not statistically satisfying. And it is not methodologically sound to automatically recognize the often assumed fact that those not being Catholics as a default value are Buddhists. However, in a way it does make sense!

In the mentioned Danish survey from the Ministry of Refugees, Immigration and integration Affairs, 16.7 % of the “not religious”, and 14.3 % of the atheists answered affirmatively that they did participate in religious ceremonies apart from weddings and funerals, and 20 % of the “not religious” in another question actually responded that they were either religious or not very religious – perhaps this says more about the interview situation than about actual belief.


Asking other questions in the framework of a more inclusive concept of religion would definitely give other statistics. If for instance people were asked, if they have an altar for ancestors at home, or if they participate in ceremonies related to death, it would show a significant increase in actions and beliefs related to religion. In the Vietnamese WVS, for instance, 30.4% of those not having identified as belonging to other religious denominations, identified themselves as followers of “ancestor worship”, and among those only 8.5 % considered themselves atheist. Either a monk or a priest at some point will be invited to conduct rituals, and the ancestor alter typically will have some kind of Christian or Buddhist symbolism, and questions of death – when such questions are consciously considered – will undoubtedly have some kind of religious significance related to either Catholic or Buddhist context/belief system.

Another reason for “religion” to statistically be underrepresented in statistics in East Asia in general, is the fact, that it is often understood to be equivalent to “belief”, “doctrinal understanding”, “regular worship/practice”, or even membership of church/temple/organization. When asking other questions – or observing the behaviour - there is a large number of what an anthropologist once writing about religion in China called “occasional Buddhists”; those only occasionally practicing Buddhism and who may not identify their typically East Asian “syncretistic” religiosity (including “folk belief”, “ancestor worship” or “life philosophy”) with religion or Buddhism proper.

Indeed, it probably would be hard to find many totally convinced non-religious Vietnamese, if a more inclusive concept of religion is used. And I think there is a point in doing so! Therefore my own estimated percentage figure is 60% for Buddhists and 35% for Catholics, leaving only 5% for the really hardcore atheists having nothing at all to do with religion.



Such broad categorization of religious affiliation naturally does not say anything about the huge differences of engagement and identification amongst the different agents of Vietnamese origin. Nor does it say anything about their actual belief or practice. Since I have not yet collected responses from all of my respondent groups, it is too early to characterize the kind and degree of engagement with Vietnamese religiosity, but some general remarks based on test samples, interviews and observation can be made:


o      Belief:

o      Spirits exists, and they can effect my life

o      life after death

o      ancestors still alive

o      amulet/cross can protect and help people

o      Catholics: God directly involved in every day life (only few Buddhists: Buddha involved in daily life)

o      Rituals give spiritual benefits

o      Catholics: faith means a lot in every day life

o      Catholics: Priest means some or a lot for own faith (fewer Buddhists mean this)


-       Practice:

o      Catholics more often go to church, than Buddhists go to temple

§     many Buddhists only visit at religious festivals and rites of passage (death)

o      Most Catholics pray, few Buddhits meditate

o      Those praying: pray to God/Buddha , fewer to ancestors (mainly Buddhists)

o      Those praying: for personal absolution/forgiveness, health, a better world

o      Catholics also: pilgrimage, processions, celebrations of Vietnamese “saints”


General characteristics

-       Catholics more “moral” than Buddhists (e.g., more restrictive about abortion, homosexuality and divorce)

-       Catholics more “religious” than Buddhists

o      More Catholics than Buddhists identify as “more religious”

o      More Catholics than Buddhists have become more religious the last 3 years

o      More Catholics than Buddhists bring up their children with religion

o      More Catholics than Buddhists are think a well functioning marriage depends on being of same religion

o      More Catholics use priest than Buddhists use monk

Differences religion

It is of course not necessary to explicate the two religions to be – two different religions. Survey responses do not necessarily say anything about reality, and belief systems do not necessarily say anything about religious practice. There seem, however, to be a typological difference between the two traditions in terms of both self identity, belief and practice. And interestingly it underlines the religious plurality of the culture of origin. In other words: religion matters!

Catholicism in most cultures is known to be exclusivist. Though ancestors are also part of ritual actions, ancestor worship and other cultural elements are “theologized” to a larger extent than “folkish” elements are hermeneutically “buddhized” in the Buddhist tradition, which is historically more used to syncretistic elements and generally more inclusivist religiosity.

Catholics seem more conscious about their own doctrinal and institutional identity, being based on obligations to institutionalized and “official” religion, and the fact that Buddhists in marrying Catholics in most cases need to convert also to the Buddhists is an expression of the (sometimes even called fundamentalist) mentality of the Catholics. The Buddhists mainly are related to a more “practical religiosity”, and it is interesting that many Buddhists don’t even know that they belong to Mahayana Buddhism, and that also temple and institutionalized religion have also room for “popular religion” elements such as ancestor worship, divination and healing.

o      Catholics believing, practicing, identifying and belonging

o      Buddhists practising and believing without belonging or identifying

When they say “we’re not that religious”, they are right, but only partly: they do not practice so much, and their institutional and doctrinal identification is not as rigid as their Catholic colleagues. But they are still religious, although differently so. Religion is not so much obligation, as it is tradition and a optional offer of human and cultural cultivation.

That Catholicism to a much larger extent demands and practices church religiosity than Buddhism demands and practices temple religiosity might also explain the amount of symbolic power attributed the priest more than the Buddhist monk. Catholic hierarchical relationships also make some Ethnic Danish/European Catholics consider the Vietnamese more “traditional”, in the same way as Asian Buddhists by the convert Buddhists are considered more traditional and their religiosity more “cultural”. It might in this regard be tempting to transfer the dichotomy between the Two Buddhisms (“ethnic” and “convert”)  into also the Christian traditions, distinguishing between the “two Catholicisms” (“western” and “non-Western”).


Thus, religion matters, but so does culture. This is also evident in the process of immigration and integration with the host culture.

A Vietnamese anthropologist a few years ago claimed that the religiosity of the Catholics in Vietnam was a hindrance to advancing their carrier and educational possibilities. According to him, they simply spent too much mental and social energy into having and practicing a “thick” religiosity.

While such an inverted Weberian protestant ethic naturally might be discussed, it is of course interesting to analyze and speculate whether and which religious and cultural elements are more or less adaptable in interacting with other cultural and religious contexts.

It is too soon for me to say anything about that now, but at least it does not seem to be the case in DK, that Catholics are more or less integrated into Danish society than, say Buddhists. It might be due to a different cultural context in the predominantly Christian host country. Just as the Buddhists have their temples as important religious containers and generators in preserving Vietnamese culture – or as cultural symbols actively preserving and supporting religion - the Catholics have their universal church communities with which to cultivate their identity. Or it might simply be because the refugee Catholics were different “kinds”, than the ones analyzed in North Vietnam. It should not be ignored, that individual personality and psychological factors are also important variables in immigration processes.

The statistically most important variable, however, is culture of origin. In the Danish value survey among immigrants, it was found that ethnic origin is much more important than all other variables (gender, education, job, religion etc). In was found that Vietnamese and Iranians were the minority groups being closest to ethnic Danes in terms of a list of “Danish values” (democracy, freedom of speech, gender equalization, separation state/religion, morals). Thus, also culture matters!

We might speculate about the possible explanations for such characteristics; why and how does culture influence integration? Which variables within “culture” matters? Is it different social variables of the country of origin, and if so, why do the same variables apparently seem to have different implications for different people with different religious and cultural backgrounds?

It could be argued, that many Vietnamese refugees came from “westernized” contexts in South Vietnam (Saigon), and that many escaped the country because they felt democracy-suppressed in a communist context, where entrepreneurship and a (Confucian) “work ethic” stressing education and social mobility is not applauded as in the West. Stressing the values and practices of family based networks not only is a factor inviting possibilities of cultural isolation in a parallel society, it might also be a strong social capital combining a strong cultural self-identity and a positive integration, just like the strong symbolic capital of simply being Vietnamese itself helps this minority group associate with the host culture in a positive way.

It is an interesting topic to further investigate how and to which extent certain types and degrees of both culture and religion matter in interacting with other kinds and types of culture and religion in a modern, pluralistic world. Though naturally hard to actually measure, it will definitely be one of the threads I hope also to follow in the research project, which still needs a lot of work, and any comments and suggestions from you will be warmly appreciated.

[1] This paper was based on a power point presentation.

[2] On the Danish Pluralism Project, see: http://www.teo.au.dk/en/cms/pluralism. On Buddhism in Denmark, see Jørn Borup Dansk Dharma. Buddhisme og buddhister i Danmark. Højbjerg: Forlaget Univers, 2005 (an article in English will appear in Journal of Global Buddhism).