Ever since I started making my Asian Meter graphs (here, here and here), I’ve been trying to find a good measure of the proportion of Asians in the Buddhist American community to use as a sort of benchmark. I’ve used two percentages: 32% from the Pew Forum and 80% from David N. Snyder. Both are flawed estimates, but here I’ll just focus on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Religious Landscape Survey (the “Pew survey” for short).
For the past week I’ve been mulling over two percentages that the Pew survey provided. There is the widely circulated number that 32% of Buddhist Americans are of Asian descent (and not hapa). You can find this in Tricycle‘s Fall 2008 issue. Then there is the less commonly known number, which is ostensibly the flip-side of the first, that 9% of Asian Americans are Buddhist. The problem is that these two numbers don’t add up.
The Pew study’s numbers are difficult to peel apart. The final percentages that we’re given are not direct reflections of the people surveyed. The actual respondents had proportionally fewer minorities than the general population (also more old people, etc.), so the Pew analysts spun the numbers through a weighted Deming regression to fit national demographics. This massaging of the data explains why 1.16% of respondents identified as Buddhist, while the study reported that only 0.7% of Americans are Buddhist. The proportion of white respondents was reduced to correct for oversampling, and the proportion of minorities was increased to correct for undersampling. (That looks like a lot of white people for the final figure to drop so much!)
Let me explain why the numbers for Asian American Buddhists don’t add up. The Pew study reported that 0.7% of Americans are Buddhist. According to population estimates at the time of the survey, 0.7% spells out to over 2.1 million Buddhists. The percentage of Asian American Buddhists was 32%, and when multiplied by 2.1 million comes out at just over 675,000. (If the math doesn’t work for you, try using 2,126,772 instead of 2.1 million.) Now, there were 13.2 million (non-hapa) Asian Americans in the United States in 2007. That means that of them, only 5.1% of Asian Americans identified as Buddhist.
That seems low. That last percentage also contradicts the 9% of the Asian American community that the Pew study reported was Buddhist.
So let’s work these numbers the other way around. If 9% of Asian Americans are Buddhist, that means there are 1.2 million Asian Buddhists in the United States. That’s quite a bit more than 675,000! If 68% of Buddhist Americans are not Asian, then we have 2.5 million non-Asian Buddhists plus the 1.2 million Asian Buddhists for a total of 3.7 million Buddhist Americans. That’s 1.23% of the country!
I don’t know how these different numbers came to be. Please don’t cite them. This difference isn’t because of a simple rounding error. For example, if we said that 0.8% of Americans are Buddhist, then we’d still end up with a mere 772,000 Asian American Buddhists (5.8% of Asian Americans). The problem is likely because, in spite of all of its efforts, the Pew study still underestimates the size of the Asian American community in general, especially those who aren’t native English speakers.
There are many more issues to talk about, and I’m laying them all out on this blog as both a resource and so that other people can correct my math. In fact, I haven’t taken a math class since my senior year in high school, so I appreciate all corrections to my fuzzy numbers. I have a couple more posts lined up, so stay tuned if you happen to have something to say about the Pew study.
Update: I previously reported 680,000 as the Pew’s estimate for Asian American Buddhists, but when I looked at my spreadsheet this morning, I found this number was based on the most current population estimate. When revising the population estimate to 2007, the number is 675,000.