The study of Buddhism in America has long grappled with a seemingly simple question: how to determine exactly who is a Buddhist? In a recent scholarly article, J. Gordon Melton and Constance Jones write: “Assessing the size of the Buddhist community can begin either with the major Buddhist associations and centers and their understanding of their membership and constituency, or with individuals and their recognized communities. self-identification (the approach taken by religious polls). When you encounter the fuzzy boundary, both approaches offer prospects and both are fraught with pitfalls. » (ARDA)
So, with the release this month of the largest-ever survey of American religious identity by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), we may wonder what insights it offers and what is omitted from the data on Buddhism. in America. To answer this question, we took a closer look at the survey – which included questions on a wide variety of aspects, from household income, homeownership rates and marital status, to LGBT, ethnicity and political affiliations – with two of the leading scholars on Buddhism in America today: Jeff Wilson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at the University of Waterloo, Ontario , and author of Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Cultureand Scott A. Mitchell, Dean of Student and Faculty Affairs at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley, Calif., and author of Buddhism in America: global religion, local contexts.
To begin with, the inquiry follows the second of the aforementioned methodologies: it examines individuals’ recognized self-identification as Buddhists. Wilson and Mitchell both noted problems with this, referring to the fact that the largest percentage of “unaffiliated” respondents come from Asia-Pacific Islanders, *Wilson said, “The pure concept of belonging to a religion is weaker in Buddhist Asia than in any other major region of the world. [unaffiliated] respondents are likely to be actually involved in Buddhist practice in some way.
Mitchell also noted that because the survey begins by asking respondents to select a single religious affiliation from a list, it’s likely that many “people in the categories ‘something else or nothing in particular’ might be.” Buddhists “”. continued:
This comes back to the question of what constitutes religious identity. A fixed religious identity is an inherently Christian idea, one that doesn’t make much sense in other times and cultures, especially in Buddhist cultures. Another way to look at religion is to put belief aside and look at behavior. Is someone who engages in practices or rituals related to Buddhism or derived from Buddhism a Buddhist? Should they profess a specific Buddhist identity? When saying “I am a Buddhist”, should I also say “I am not a Taoist”? Why or why not? These are tricky questions, and I’m not advocating any particular view here, but the bottom line is a simple “Are you X religion?” question is always, by design, to leave out people on the margins.
Other surveys, Mitchell noted, have asked a variety of questions about religious beliefs and activities to provide a more nuanced understanding of religious participation.
One of the report’s key findings was that “with aging white Christian groups now accounting for less than half of public and non-Christian groups making up the nation’s youngest religious communities, the future of American religion is likely to be strikingly different from its past.” (PRRI Release) Specifically, the survey reports that 35% of Buddhists in America are under 30, compared to just 11% of Catholics, 11% of white evangelical Protestants, and 14% of white line Protestants. This suggests a break with the past, when a third or more of American Catholic and Protestant Christians were under the age of 30, suggesting an aging and therefore declining overall population.
However, Wilson urges caution in reading these statistics:
I can’t help but wonder if this result reflects data collection methods rather than reality. The drive to claim a Buddhist identity is likely to be higher among younger Buddhists than among older Buddhists (i.e. people who are significantly involved in Buddhist practice, but have not acclimated to the norm American culture to claim a particular religious tradition). This is, again, due to the cultural history of non-identification in much of Asia (especially East Asia), which would skew the results. In other words, there may be plenty of older Asian Americans practicing Buddhism, but they may not say they are Buddhists in the polls, so their much more outspoken descendants end up being overrepresented in this category.
Another area questioned by Wilson was political affiliation. The survey found that only 9% of American Buddhists were Republicans. Wilson pointed to a 2008 Pew Forum survey, which “leans in some respects toward the more liberal end of American Buddhism,” which gave a figure of 18%. (Tricycle) Speaking of the PRRI number, he said, “It’s either an indication that the survey was not representative of true Buddhists in America, or it accurately shows that Buddhists who lean Republican as voters are nevertheless very unlikely to join the party, for some reason. The first seems more likely, but the second would be very intriguing. As above, the survey may have missed older Buddhists (who, like members of other American religions, lean more towards Republicans than Democrats), or those who vote conservatively, but n did not claim Republican Party support in the poll. The poll’s methodology could again be to blame for this, as it only asked respondents if they were Republicans, Democrats, Independents, or others/don’t know. Buddhists tied for the most independents at 47%, many of whom might have fallen into the conservative side in previous polls.
Wilson found the information about LGBT affiliation to be plausible. According to the PRRI survey, “Buddhists and Unitarian-Universalists have a much higher proportion of LGBT members than other religious traditions. One in seven Buddhists (14%) and Unitarian-Universalists (14%) identify as LGBT .(PRRI)
Mitchell also agreed with the total number of Buddhists in the United States given in the PRRI survey (about 1%, or 3.2 million people). “I think a conservative Buddhist population of 1-2% of the United States is probably accurate. If you prefer a stricter definition of ‘Buddhist’, round down. If you prefer a looser or more fluid definition of “Buddhist,” round up.” This disparity, however, is quite large and will continue to challenge scholars and others to find better ways to understand and study Buddhists in America and elsewhere in the West.
* Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans
Reflections on Buddhist Demography in America: An Initial Report on the First American Buddhist Census (ARDA, Religious Data Archive Association)
PRRI Releases Largest Survey of American Religious and Faith Identity Ever (PRRI version)
America’s Changing Religious Identity: Full Report PDF (PRRI)
Voting Buddhist? (Tricycle)