Tricycle printed a letter to the editor from Scott Mitchell that criticized their “Buddhism by the Numbers” piece in the Fall 2008 issue. If you can’t read his whole complaint, it’s also available on his blog. There are four specific issues, but in this post, I’m addressing one in particular:
The exclusion of the Hawaiian population is troublesome for a number of reasons: chief among them the continual marginalization of Hawaii as part of the United States, and the marginalization of Japanese-American Buddhists generally. In other words, these Asian-American Buddhists were literally not counted in this report.
That’s one side of the coin. Here’s an alternative perspective: I imagine that the Pew Study did some internal analysis and concluded on excluding Hawai‘i, since the Aloha State’s unique contribution to the national profile would not have justified the extra contract cost in contacting them. Now I’m not saying that excluding Hawaiians is fair, but it’s worth crunching the numbers to see to what extent the Buddhists of Hawai‘i really do change the national profile.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about Hawai‘i, the state with the largest proportion of Buddhists, but a population smaller than San Diego. The most recent data for Buddhists in Hawai‘i dates to 1999, where the state data book estimates 110,000 Buddhists or 9% of the islands. If we hold this percentage constant through 2007, then we’re still left with about 115,000 Buddhists. Considering that the Pew study already accounted for about 9,000 of Buddhists in Hawai‘i, then we could say that the study was short some 106,000 Buddhists, or roughly 0.03% of the national population.
How much do 100,000 missing Buddhists inflate the Asian numbers? Not all Buddhists in Hawai‘i are Asian Americans, but I’m using the assumption that they are just to show how little of a difference it makes. By adding the missing Buddhists of Hawai‘i, the number of Asian Buddhists in the Pew Study goes up from 676,000 to 782,000. That’s a large increase in terms of Asian American Buddhists — over 15 percent!
But in terms of the greater American Buddhist community, we’re not a talking about a seismic shift. The chart above underscores the difference. The number of Buddhist Americans moves from 2.1 million to 2.2 million (less than 5% increase) and the increase in Asian Americans as a proportion of the greater Buddhist community is even more modest, from 32% to 35%. Remember: this statistic is making the assumption that all the Buddhists in Hawai‘i are Asian American, which we already know isn’t true.
It looks as though the Pew Forum study is flawed, as all studies are, but some flaws are more distracting than others. The omission of Hawai‘i doesn’t change the numbers that much. When we see criticisms of studies like the Pew’s, it’s important to point out all the potential problems and oversights. But our complaints are worth little if we don’t follow through on them. In this case, that means understanding the magnitude of the Pew’s omission.
There was one other complaint from Scott, which turns out to be more pivotal: the language barrier. This constraint had a huge influence on the study’s proportion of Asian Americans in the Buddhist community. Given the excessive length of this post already, I’ll have to cover this topic another day!