So How Many Asian American Buddhists Are There?

There are about 1.5 million Asian American Buddhists in the United States. Or at least, that’s my estimate. My confidence interval is pretty big, but I feel certain enough to start tossing this number around from now on. This figure keeps the data and assumptions of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, but adjusts them to address discrepancies related to the U.S. Census, linguistic preferences of Asian Americans and geography (i.e. counting Hawai‘i and Alaska).

Recounting Asian American Buddhists

In past posts, I observed that the Pew Forum severely underestimated the size of the Asian American community (by about 56%!), and I also investigated what it meant to exclude Buddhists in Hawai‘i. I even tried out my own deliberately-flawed estimate. But there was one issue that I left off until now: language.

Scott Mitchell emphasized the issue of language in a letter to Tricycle. He writes:

Furthermore, it bears repeating that the Pew Center conducted their survey exclusively in English and Spanish and only called land-line households. This further excludes two significant populations of American Buddhists: non-English speaking Asians, and younger Buddhists who may not have a land-line but certainly have a cell phone. Were these two populations actually counted, I wonder if we would be seeing the same results of an aging, largely white Buddhist population. Again, the Pew Center’s methodology does not count certain segments of the American populace that are relevant to our Buddhist communities.

It turns out that the Pew Study was aware of this. The report includes a couple pages which explain that the methodology of the survey resulted in numbers that underestimated the number of Spanish speakers who identified as Catholic by about 17%. I made the assumption that the underestimation of “Asian” speakers who identified as Buddhist was the same. This may be complete inaccurate for Asians/Buddhists, but it’s the only validated base of reference that I have found to work with.

In raw terms, this new number of Asian American Buddhists (792,000) isn’t much higher than if we take Buddhists in Hawai‘i into account (782,000). It’s even much smaller than if we fix the Pew Study’s estimate of the size of the Asian American community by using U.S. Census data. But when all the adjustments fold together, the final estimate of 1.5 million Buddhists is more than double the original estimate of the Pew Study.

This new figure also increases the size of the U.S. Buddhist community to 2.9 million. That’s less than 30% more than the Pew Study’s estimate, as this new figure is based on the assumption that virtually all of those uncounted Buddhists are Asian American. That increase now brings the proportion of Asian Americans to just over 50% of the Buddhist community in the United States.

Now, I have to admit my own bias when it comes to counting the number of Asian American Buddhists. From the outset, I imagined that the number of Asian American Buddhists was at least half of the American Buddhist community. This study confirms my predictions. And whenever I see a study that confirms a researcher’s predictions, then I have to take the results with a grain of salt. So keep your salt shakers close at hand. This Asian-heavy perception of mine probably arose because I was born and raised in a city where every third person you run into is of Asian descent. In contrast, I just came back from Boston, where there are more Jews than Asian Americans. So I imagine that Americans who live in the Old Country are likely to be more open to the Pew Study’s proportions than we who live on the West Coast (where most of the Buddhists are). This perception was certainly true among the Asian Americans I met out East.

Now I have a new estimate to plug into my Asian Meter graphs. After all, the original point of reviewing the Pew Study was because I didn’t feel as though I had proper estimates for those graphs. There are many, many issues with my analysis, but this is what I’ll be running with until I find a better set of numbers to bandy about.

5 Replies to “So How Many Asian American Buddhists Are There?”

  1. Great research!

    My only question would be how sure you are about the religious affiliation of uncounted Asian-Americans?

    I mean, if you were to look at young Korean-Americans for example, you’d find that most were Christian.

    Wouldn’t the same go for those from the Philipines as well, etc etc

    So it’s a bit of a jump from identifying Asain-Americans not counted, to then assuming they are Buddhist.

    Or did you somehow cover this in your calculations? I’d be very interested in knowing how you managed that.

    But, that aside, yes, interesting stuff.

    Thank you.

    Marcus

  2. Thanks, Marcus. Let me respond in two parts, but first let me say that, following feedback from Rev. Danny Fisher, I revised my number. I now think that there are 1.9 million Asian American Buddhists.

    My only question would be how sure you are about the religious affiliation of uncounted Asian-Americans?

    This is a good question. “Uncounted” was a poor and misleading word for me to use. The Pew forum was a survey, not a census, and they undersampled. The survey estimated 9% of Asian Americans as Buddhist, and I ran with this assumption.

    I mean, if you were to look at young Korean-Americans for example, you’d find that most were Christian. Wouldn’t the same go for those from the Philipines as well, etc etc. So it’s a bit of a jump from identifying Asain-Americans not counted, to then assuming they are Buddhist. Or did you somehow cover this in your calculations? I’d be very interested in knowing how you managed that.

    This looks like a misunderstanding. I never said said that I assumed that all Asian Americans not counted are Buddhist. (But again there’s my misleading use of “uncounted.” Sorry!) What I intended to say is as follows. The proportion of Asian Americans who were Buddhist was undersampled, and I increased this estimate by magnitudes that directly affected Asian American (Buddhist)s.

    I arrived at the final figure as follows. The Pew undersampled Asian Americans, such that community was estimated at 56% its 2007 size. I increased the number of Asian American Buddhists accordingly, thus keeping the proportion of Asian Americans constant with the Pew’s above assumption.

    But then there’s also the linguistic disparity. The Pew Forum found that in a purely bilingual survey, 65% of Latinos identified as Catholic, but in an English-only survey, a mere 43% of Latinos identified as Catholic. So I further expanded the number of Asian American Buddhists by the proportion by which Latino Catholics were undersampled in an English-only survey (51%). This increases the proportion of Asian American Buddhists to over 13% of the Asian American community. Now this figure of course relies on at least a few assumptions regarding the similarity of Asian American Buddhists and Latino Catholics.

    I have no reason to assume otherwise — the alternative assumption being that Asian Americans behave more like white Americans than like Latinos when responding to English-only telephone surveys.

    But it may be helpful if I put my numbers into perspective. Saying that there are 1.9 million Asian American Buddhists is equivalent to saying that less than 10% of all Americans of East Asian descent and 60-65% of all Americans of Southeast Asian descent are Buddhist.

    I understand this response may not directly answer your question. Should you feel the need, please free to nudge me more.

  3. Thank you so much Arunlikhati,

    Like I say, I have no background in (or adequate understanding of!) this field, but everything you have said here makes sense to me. Thank you so much for clearing up my question!

    And thank you again for the valuable research!

    Marcus

  4. I have been following your blog. My interest is in the Tibetan diaspora population in the u.s, and how they practice Vajrayana, and interact with American Buddhists in the different sanghas around the country. Does anyone have information about this? I would love to hear from practicing Tibetans.

  5. @diane: The Tibetan American community is very small (about 10,000 according to Wikipedia). You can actually drill down into the US Census and/or survey data to find the geographic distribution of Tibetans (ancestry code 714). Maybe I’ll look into this another time. There are a significant numbers in the Eastern United States. I remember when I was in Ithaca, I was surprised to find a small Tibetan community there.

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