Jump directly to the Content


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

(UPDATED) Pew surveys 30,000 Indians across 6 faiths and 17 languages and finds support for tolerance yet also segregation.
Pew: What India’s Christians, Hindus, Muslims and More Think About Religion
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: NurPhoto / Chadchai Ra-ngubpai / Frank Bienewald / Getty Images

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

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

A quarter of Christians say religious diversity harms India, while about half say it benefits the country.

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.

Most Indian Christian leaders interviewed by CT agreed that Pew’s report offers quantitative validation of their lived experience. Though in a nation as vast and complex as India, many saw areas or subsets that deserved more scrutiny so that local differences could be made even more apparent.

The report is “quite comprehensive, timely, and strategic,” said Atul Aghamkar, an expert scholar on urban missions in India. He cautioned the findings may represent the views of urban Indians more than rural ones.

“Most findings will find agreement with anyone who lives here in India,” said C. B. Samuel, a respected Bible teacher and former executive director of EFICOR (formerly the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief). He believes the report accurately captures religion and communal relations in India in general, and noted how Northeast India, West Bengal, and South Indian states stand out when scrutinized.

Overall the report is “fine and well done” while it “presents a view of the Hindi heartland of India as the main view,” said Canon Vinay Samuel, founder of the Oxford Center for Mission Studies (OCMS) and the Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life (OCRPL). “The study validates a lot of what one has known over the years, and that is encouraging.”

Archbishop Felix Anthony Machado, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and a leader in interreligious dialogue—which he described as “the need of the hour”—said the findings “reflect the reality” of India in general.

The report “covered a wide range of issues pertinent to the country,” said Finny Philip, an Indian board member of the Lausanne Movement, but he wished that tribal religions had been surveyed alongside the six main faiths. Having long worked in India’s tribal belt, for him the survey “failed to capture the rural heart of India” where caste segregation runs deep.

John Dayal, a Delhi-based Christian political analyst and cofounder and past secretary general of the All India Christian Council, credited the report for its “good coverage of cultural issues” and said its findings were “almost on the dot” regarding intermarriage and “closest to the reality” on housing matters, which “will be of use in social action to diffuse tensions.”

But he also said the report failed to fully capture the “extreme polarization” caused by the recent election campaigns of Hindu nationalists and the resulting Islamophobia which “now permeates all aspects of national intuitional and public life.”

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.”

“Most Indians delude themselves and believe they respect other religions. In practice, this is not true,” OCRPL’s Samuel told CT. “The gap between espoused belief and actual practice could be more starkly highlighted.

“Religion continues to be important as a marker of identity, and that is encouraging in some ways,” he said. “But it is also true that religion has little influence on one’s ethical life in India. That does not appear in the study.”

Richard Howell, principal at the Caleb Institute of Theology and past general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, cautioned that the report could “create an impression all is well” but an “in-depth analysis of the consequences of segregated living and its impact on lower castes” is needed.

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%).

Philip found Pew’s findings on conversion to be the most surprising, including that conversions are so rare in India, that Hindus gain as many people as they lose, and that most conversions from Hinduism to Christianity happen in the South.

“It will be a disappointment to the government to realize that ‘religious conversions are rare in India,’” he said, “and it is encouraging to know that the efforts to enact the anti-conversion laws in most of the states are futile and a publicity stunt.”

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.”

“Obviously, religion is something deep and one may not afford to remain on one’s limited understanding,” said Machado. “When I, as a religious leader, talk to my own Catholic Christians, I find how little they know of the richness of their faith. But they are who they are, and God does not punish them for that—although I do try to create a network to learn more about their own religious faith as well as the faith of their neighbors who may belong to other faiths.”

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:

  • 1 in 10 Indian Christians report being discriminated against in the past 12 months because of their faith. This includes 19 percent of Christians in the East and 12 percent in the Northeast, vs. 6 percent in the South.
  • 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 likely to completely agree and most likely to disagree among the religious groups surveyed.
  • A quarter of Indian Christians say they practice yoga (mostly monthly or less) while three-quarters say they never do. Among Hindus and the general population, about a third say they practice yoga while about two-thirds say they never do.

Potential good news in the report for those concerned about Christian persecution in India:

  • A solid 4 out of 5 Hindus say respecting other religions is “very important” to being Hindu and to “being truly Indian.”
  • Only 49 percent of Indian Hindus supported the BJP in the 2019 elections, as did 55 percent of Hindus who say being Hindu is very important to be truly Indian. And only 30 percent of Hindus say all three: that they voted for the BJP and they believe being Hindu and speaking Hindu are very important to being truly Indian.

This would suggest that Hindutva nationalists don’t represent majority opinion among Indian Hindus, and that advocates for Christian can find common allies, particularly in India’s South (where only 5 percent of Hindus say all three), Northeast (19%), West (26%), and East (28%).

Yet the biggest concern for Aghamkar within Pew’s findings is “the clear trend toward Hindutva ideology” among India’s Hindu majority and the resulting impact on religious harmony. For example, attitudes toward conversion—whether Hindus becoming Christians or Christians becoming Hindus (known as “homecoming”)—seem to be aligning more with Hindutva beliefs, he said, based on how Hindus answered the report’s questions.

“I’ve had a fear that communal relations in the recent past have been deeply disturbed by the polarization of politics, and the report almost affirms that,” Aghamkar, with the National Center for Urban Transformation based in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), told CT. “The recent trend of mixing Hindutva with national identity is now clearly validated.”

“[More] Hindus are linking their identity with religion and politics. This was not the case earlier, as many Hindus and especially urban globalized Hindus were understood as moving away from traditional religious values that tended to [delink] them from their national identity.”

“The identity of religious faith with politics is a recent phenomenon,” said Machado. “It is ‘religion instrumentalized’ for vested interests.”

“There is a political move to exploit religious identities and create differences that can be used for gaining power,” said Samuel of EFICOR, who expects tolerance will reduce further.

Philip shares these concerns about the trends toward religious segregation and defining
“true Indians” as Hindus and what both imply for communal harmony.

While the overlap Pew found on some religious beliefs and practices—such as wearing a bindi, celebrating festivals, or believing in karma and reincarnation—can be “used as bridge-building points to develop harmony,” he believes that “since tolerance is understood as segregation, ghettoing and minority targeting will be a worrying trend.”

Harmony is now ‘social distancing,’” said Philip.

In contrast, Aghamkar expressed encouragement that most Indians “still believe in God and want to express their faith,” as well as that religious tolerance “seems to be still evident.”

“In the despondency of the day,” said Dayal, “it is encouraging to know that two-thirds of all communities want to live in peace with each other.”

While the report’s findings describe favorably the religious freedom situation in India, Christian leaders offered mixed reactions.

The survey gives the impression that there is religious freedom for everyone to practice their faith, but this is not close to the truth,” said Philip. “The violence against the minority has increased considerably in the last 10 years.”

“I don’t think religious freedom is going to be looked at in India favorably in days to come unless some drastic political changes take place,” said Aghamkar. “International pressure would be required to bring some changes in allowing religious freedom.” He wants to see more collaborative efforts launched to “think nationally and bring pressure on the government to change certain policies that affects Christians.”

“To uphold the fundamental human right of religious freedom should be the supreme religious concern of any civilized society and every government,” said Machado. “Aberrations could be supervised, but the human right of religion is the first of all human rights because it is the supreme law of conscience of every human being.”

“The report does not come close to assessing the intensity of Hindu political hatred against Islam, the common Muslims, and their institutions,” said Dayal. “This is a critical issue in internal harmony and regional stability and peace.”

Dayal said the report “puts statistical annotations to common observations” yet wishes it could help gauge religious persecution by state and non-state actors and devise responses to challenge it. “There is urgent and pressing need to reverse the Islamophobia in governance and in public life,” he said. “There is need to devise institutions to bring communities on common platforms to discuss issues and diffuse tensions. And there is an urgent need to get religious minorities to believe that the national justice system will not sell them down the river.”

“I think the report’s optimism about religious freedom in India is right,” said Samuel of OCRPL. “I think there will always be freedom—not because of a belief in it, but due to the reality of religious diversity in India that cannot be subdued or controlled. It is too diverse and too vast for any group, however powerful, to control.”

However, he said, “the church must continue to provide a religious and moral basis for religious freedom.”

India’s religious divide and conflicts “will increase rather than decrease,” according to Samuel. “The current direction of Hinduism in India is driven by some forces that are linked to state power, which means that one form of Hindu religious nationalism will grow rapidly and is likely to clash with other forms of Hinduism and other religions.”

Yet in the area of religion itself, “India has not changed much,” he told CT. “I have seen religious suspicion and conflict for all my life. There are always pockets of cooperation and friendship between religions, but the Bollywood view of religious harmony in India is a myth and continues to be so.”

How might Indian Christians respond to this examination of religion in India?

Being a minority, the church needs to take bold steps in bringing harmony,” said Philip. “The church has a great history of serving and building the nation through educational and medical missions. These core missions of the church can bring transformation to a disintegrated country along religious lines.”

“Some careful and prayerful reflections are required of the church in India, and innovative and contextually appropriate ways may need to be explored to move forward with witnessing in India,” said Aghamkar. “Taking into consideration those who do not agree with Hindutva ideology … may need to be taken into consideration for Christian witness, as these are the ones that are so called ‘open segments.’”

Samuel of EFICOR wants Christians to “intentionally become visible in doing good.”

“The faithful are led by their pastor, bishop, or cardinal. … That makes it incumbent on the church and community leadership not to fall prey to the evil of bigotry, which many do, and of caste,” said Dayal. “It is also important for many churches to shed their preconceptions which are born of ignorance or insufficient knowledge and training in cultural demography.

“A better understanding of the cultural landscape will help,” he said. “The survey makes it clear.”

Overall, Indian Christian leaders ask for prayer.

“The first item on our prayer list must be regional peace for India,” said Dayal. “Its religious peace depends on its relationship with Pakistan, for instance.

“The second item must be for wisdom for our leadership to forsake a policy of polarization, and for restoration and strengthening of democratic institutions and [the courts],” he told CT. “The third item must be for intercommunal peace and harmony through the dialogue of life and in the framework of a just and secular, democratic, constitutional justice system.

“The final item must be for wisdom and grace to Christian leaders to discern what is good for the people,” said Dayal, “and to constrict their evangelism, their social action programs, and their teaching curricula in accordance.”

Philip also offered four prayer points:

Pray for wisdom for the leaders of India to develop a unified identity incorporating all communities amid growing segregation. Pray against the “fear of the majority” that the minority will convert the majority to their beliefs and practices. That the government will intentionally work towards communal harmony of various religious groups. That the church will become a wonderful expression of unity and harmony in the nation.

“We need to be consciously praying for the clarity, direction, and cooperation within the leadership of the church to move forward and find specific ways to build the kingdom of God in India,” said Aghamkar.

Additional reporting by CT editors

Support Our Work

Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month

Read These Next