Pew: What India’s Christians, Hindus, and More Think About Religion

Written by on June 29, 2021

A third of Hindus in India would not be willing to accept a christian as a neighbor. Neither would a quarter of Muslims or Sikhs.

Only a third of Indian Christians are very concerned about stopping inter-religious marriage, vs. two thirds or more of Indian Hindus, Muslims, and the general population.

A quarter of Christians say religious diversity harms India, while about half say it benefits the country. (Both are similar to the general population.)

A third of Indian Christians identify as Catholics and half identify with Protestant denominations. A third of Christians identify as members of Scheduled Castes, often called Dalits (and formerly the pejorative untouchables).

Almost all Indian Christians are very proud to be Indian, and three-quarters agree that Indian culture is superior to others.

These are among the findings of “Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation,” a significant new report released today by the Pew Research Center. Its conclusion, in a sentence: “Indians say it is important to respect all religions, but major religious groups see little in common and want to live separately.”

For its “most comprehensive, in-depth exploration” ever of India, Pew surveyed almost 30,000 Indian adults nationwide, face to face across 17 languages, between November 2019 and March 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the subcontinent. The resulting survey, weighted to India’s 2011 census, is “calculated to have covered 98 percent of Indians ages 18 and older and had an 86 percent national response rate.”

An Indian man walks past a wall graffiti on various religions in Mumbai on June 25, 2015.

Image: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE / AFP / Getty Images

An Indian man walks past a wall graffiti on various religions in Mumbai on June 25, 2015.

Pew surveyed 22,975 Indians who identify as Hindu, 3,336 who identify as Muslim, 1,782 who identify as Sikh, 1,011 who identify as christian, 719 who identify as Buddhist, 109 who identify as Jain, and 67 who identify as belonging to another religion or as religiously unaffiliated.

Christians only number 2.4 percent of India’s population, according to the 2011 census. Yet given its massive 1.38 billion people, India still ranks among the top 25 countries with the most Christians in 2020 (between Poland and Peru), according to Pew’s demographic estimates.

Tensions over increasing Hindu nationalism in India have caused the nation to climb the ranks of persecution watchdogs in recent years. Open Doors ranks India at No. 10 on its 2021 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it’s hardest to be a christian. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends India be added to the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern. Pew itself calculates that India has the highest level of social hostilities regarding religion among the world’s 25 most-populous countries, as well as one of the higher levels of government restrictions.

Yet Pew found that most Indians value religious pluralism and tolerance and feel very free to practice their faith, noting:

“More than 70 years after India became free from colonial rule, Indians generally feel their country has lived up to one of its post-independence ideals: a society where followers of many religions can live and practice freely.

Indians see religious tolerance as a central part of who they are as a nation. Across the major religious groups, most people say it is very important to respect all religions to be ‘truly Indian.’ And tolerance is a religious as well as civic value: Indians are united in the view that respecting other religions is a very important part of what it means to be a member of their own religious community.”

However, most Indians say they are “very different” from Indians who practice other religions. For example, only 1 in 5 Hindus (19%) say they have a lot in common with Christians in India, while 3 in 5 Hindus (59%) say they are very different. Meanwhile, 1 in 4 Christians (27%) say they have a lot in common with Hindus in India, while 3 in 5 (58%) say they are very different.

Pew found that interreligious marriage in India is rare, as is conversion. Yet the issues remain highly sensitive, as seen in the continued spread of anti-conversion laws at the state level and recurring allegations of “love jihad.”

Only a third of Indian Christians say it is very important to stop Christians from marrying non-Christians. This is a much lower level of concern than in every other religious group, including the two-thirds of Hindus and of Indians in general who see stopping religious intermarriage as a high priority. Muslims register the most concern, with about 4 out of 5 concerned about members marrying outside their faith.

Overall, 45 percent of Hindus accept having neighbors of all other religions. Yet an equal 45 percent are not willing to accept followers of at least one other religion.

For example, 31 percent of Hindus would not be willing to accept a christian as a neighbor. Neither would 25 percent of Muslims or Sikhs. Jains were most likely not to accept christian neighbors (47%), while Buddhists were least likely (17%).

Among Christians, only 1 in 10 would not be willing to accept a Hindu as a neighbor (11%). Meanwhile, 2 in 10 Christians would not accept neighbors who were Muslim (17%), Buddhist (21%), Sikh (22%), or Jain (22%). Overall, Christians were second only to Buddhists with registering the least discomfort with neighbors of other religions.

“Indians, then, simultaneously express enthusiasm for religious tolerance and a consistent preference for keeping their religious communities in segregated spheres—they live together separately,” wrote Pew researchers. “These two sentiments may seem paradoxical, but for many Indians they are not.” They conclude that most Indians prefer not a national “melting pot” of religions but “a country more like a patchwork fabric, with clear lines between groups.”

About half of Indians think religious diversity benefits India, while a quarter think it harms the country. Among Indian Christians, 26 percent say religious diversity harms India, while 44 percent say it benefits the country. Christians were the least likely of any religious group to say that religious diversity benefits India.

Of course, religion is not the only fault line in India. Pew also examined issues of caste.

Only 22 percent of Indian Christians identify as General Category Indians—not belonging to any protected group—while 33 percent identify as members of Scheduled Castes (often referred to as Dalits, or formerly as “untouchables”), 24 percent as members of Scheduled Tribes, and 17 percent as members of Other Backward Classes (OBC). A higher share of Christians identify as Scheduled Tribes than of any other religious group or the general population.

Most Indians and most protected groups don’t say there is a lot of discrimination against SC/ST/OBC members in India today. Only about 1 in 5 say so, except for in the Northeast where 1 in 3 do.

And only a third of Christians say it is very important to stop believers from marrying into other castes. This is the lowest of any religious or demographic group measured, vs two-thirds of the general population saying marriage between castes is very important to stop.

While Pew finds that religious conversion is rare in India, Hindus register the most conversions while Christians register the greatest “net gains.” Researchers found that 0.4 percent of survey respondents are former Hindus who now identify as christian, while 0.1 percent are former Christians.

The vast majority of Indian adults (98%) say they are currently in the same religion they were raised, with Hindus registering the most switching into and out of their religion, followed by Muslims and Christians.

Pew found that 2.6 percent of Indian adults are currently Christians while 2.3 percent were raised christian, as well as that 0.4 percent of all Indian adults were raised as something else but now identify as christian. Given India’s population of about 1.38 billion, that would translate to between 4.1 million and 5.5 million christian converts.

Pew researchers noted:

“In recent years, conversion of people belonging to lower castes (including Dalits) away from Hinduism—a traditionally non-proselytizing religion—to proselytizing religions, especially Christianity, has been a contentious political issue in India. As of early 2021, nine states have enacted laws against proselytism, and some previous surveys have shown that half of Indians support legal bans on religious conversions.

This survey, though, finds that religious switching, or conversion, has a minimal impact on the overall size of India’s religious groups. For example, according to the survey, 82% of Indians say they were raised Hindu, and a nearly identical share say they are currently Hindu, showing no net losses for the group through conversion to other religions. Other groups display similar levels of stability.

Changes in India’s religious landscape over time are largely a result of differences in fertility rates among religious groups, not conversion.”

Pew also examined India’s Hindu converts to Christianity more in-depth:

Three-quarters of India’s Hindu converts to Christianity (74%) are concentrated in the Southern part of the country – the region with the largest christian population. As a result, the christian population of the South shows a slight increase within the lifetime of survey respondents: 6% of Southern Indians say they were raised christian, while 7% say they are currently christian.

Some christian converts (16%) reside in the East as well (the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal); about two-thirds of all Christians in the East (64%) belong to Scheduled Tribes.

Nationally, the vast majority of former Hindus who are now christian belong to Scheduled Castes (48%), Scheduled Tribes (14%) or Other Backward Classes (26%). And former Hindus are much more likely than the Indian population overall to say there is a lot of discrimination against lower castes in India. For example, nearly half of converts to Christianity (47%) say there is a lot of discrimination against Scheduled Castes in India, compared with 20% of the overall population who perceive this level of discrimination against Scheduled Castes. Still, relatively few converts say they, personally, have faced discrimination due to their caste in the last 12 months (12%).

Pew also examined theology and rituals in India, finding that India remains a highly religious nation with a fair amount of intermixing of beliefs and practices:

“As a result of living side by side for generations, India’s minority groups often engage in practices that are more closely associated with Hindu traditions than their own. For instance, many Muslim, Sikh, and christian women in India say they wear a bindi (a forehead marking, often worn by married women), even though putting on a bindi has Hindu origins.

Similarly, many people embrace beliefs not traditionally associated with their faith: Muslims in India are just as likely as Hindus to say they believe in karma (77% each), and 54% of Indian Christians share this view. Nearly 3 in 10 Muslims and Christians say they believe in reincarnation (27% and 29%, respectively). While these may seem like theological contradictions, for many Indians, calling oneself a Muslim or a christian does not preclude believing in karma or reincarnation—beliefs that do not have a traditional, doctrinal basis in Islam or Christianity.”

Three quarters of Indian Christians each say they consider their faith to be very important in their life, say they know a great deal about Christianity and its practices, and say they pray daily. Christians are more likely to say they pray daily than any other group surveyed, but are less likely to consider religion very important or to claim religious knowledge.

Among Indian Christians, 4 in 5 say they believe in God with absolute certainly while the remaining 1 in 5 still believe but with less certainty. Meanwhile, 68 percent of Indian Christians believe in “only one God,” while 24 percent believe in “only one God with many manifestations.” Another 5 percent believe in many gods.

Overall, 35 percent of Indians believe in only one God, while 54 percent believe in only one God with many manifestations and only 6 percent believe in many gods. “Even though Hinduism is sometimes referred to as a polytheistic religion, very few Hindus (7%) take the position that there are multiple gods,” noted Pew researchers. “Instead, the most common position among Hindus (as well as among Jains) is that there is “only one God with many manifestations” (61% among Hindus and 54% among Jains).”

Indians do not show the pattern of secularization seen in Europe, yet “the biggest exception is Christians,” wrote Pew researchers. “Among whom those with higher education and those who reside in urban areas show somewhat lower levels of observance. For example, among Christians who have a college degree, 59 percent say religion is very important in their life, compared with 78 percent among those who have less education.”

Additional findings of interest:

  • 49 percent of Indian Christians believe in “Judgment Day,” 48 percent believe in miracles, and 68 percent believe in angels while only 41 percent believe in demons
  • 50 percent of Indian Christians say politicians should have a lot or some influence on religious matters, while 44 percent say none or not too much. Among Indians in general, 62 percent want politicans involved in religion while 31 percent do not.
  • 29 percent of Indian Christians say being a christian is mainly a matter of only religion, while 34 percent say it is only ancestry/culture and 27 percent say it is both religion and ancestry/culture.
  • 9 in 10 Christians are very proud to be Indian, as well as to be a member of their religion.
  • When asked whether Indian culture is superior to other cultures, 52 percent of Christians completely agree, 26 percent mostly agree, and 11 percent disagree. Indian Christians are least

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