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Buddhism By Numbers

August 5, 2008

What the Pew Forum report reveals about the face of American Buddhism
- and how the results can help sanghas change and grow.
By Hoko Jan Karnegis
Tricycle Magazine
Fall 2008, Vol. 18, No. 1

WHEN YOU think of the words "American Buddhist," what do you see?
Someone white, middle-aged, no kids? An adult convert from
Protestantism? Someone with a graduate degree, living in the western
United States?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's "2008 U.S. Religious
Landscape Survey," released in late February, may provide some new
clues about what American Buddhists are like. The Pew Forum conducted
more than 35,000 telephone surveys with adult respondents, 0.7% of
whom identified themselves as Buddhist.

A caveat: While the resulting figures are interesting and may be
useful in evaluating American sangha development, care must be taken
in relying heavily on them. The margin for error is +6.5%, and only
411 respondents identify themselves as Buddhist. Also, Hawaii, home
to a significant number of Buddhists, was not included in the survey.

Nonetheless, larger trends and themes emerge and help to point out
where further study is needed.

MORE than half (53%) of Buddhist respondents are white; another third
(32%) are Asian or Asian-American. Nearly three-quarters of Buddhist
respondents (74%) were born in the U.S. In addition, gender was
equally represented: 53% of Buddhist respondents are male and 47% female.

Buddhists are among the most highly educated respondents, with nearly
three-quarters (74%) having attended college. More than a quarter
(26%) have graduate degrees, compared with 10% of the American
population as a whole.

When it comes to income levels, Buddhist respondents cluster at both
ends of the spectrum. A quarter make less than $30,000 a year, but
almost as many (22%) earn more than $100,000 annually. More than half
(56%) make more than $50,000 a year.

A plurality of Buddhist respondents (40%) are between 30 and 49 years
of age, with another 30% being between 50 and 64. Less than a quarter
(23%) are between 18 and 29 years old.

Almost three-quarters (73%) of Buddhist respondents converted to the
practice; only 27% were raised Buddhist. Nearly a third of Buddhist
respondents (32%) are former Protestants; another 22% are former
Catholics, and 6% belong to other faiths, including Judaism.

Under half (45%) of Buddhist respondents are married; another third
(31%) have never married, and 12% are divorced. Of married Buddhist
respondents, more than half (55%) have non-Buddhist spouses.

Most of these spouses (27%) are unaffiliated with any religion; 15%
are Protestant. In the U.S. Population overall, 37% are married to a
spouse with a different religious affiliation.

The vast majority (70%) of Buddhist respondents do not have children
at home. Comparatively, the figure is 61% for Catholics, 66% for
Protestants, and 72% for Jews. Of children raised Buddhist, half do
not continue to practice when they reach adulthood, 28% percent stop
practicing any religion, and 22% change to another faith. Buddhists
and Jehovah's Witnesses are the two religious groups showing the
lowest retention rate.

The largest group of Buddhist respondents (45%) live in the West;
almost a quarter (23%) live in the South. California and New Mexico
are the states claiming the largest number of respondents.

MORE than a quarter of Pew respondents (28%) report that they have
left the religion in which they were raised. While every religious
group is experiencing turnover, some are growing by gaining adherents
faster than they are losing them.

The group of respondents who are unaffiliated with any particular
religion (16.1%) is the fastest-growing segment, despite having one
of the lowest retention rates of any group.

Looking at gender figures, 20% of men report no religious
affiliation, compared with 13% of women.

The unaffiliated are relatively young: 31% percent are under age 30,
and 71% are younger than 50. A quarter of young adults ages 18 to 29
say they are unaffiliated.

Christians make up the largest segment of the U.S. Population
(78.4%), with Protestants making up slightly more than half (51.3%)
and Catholics nearly another quarter (23.9%).

The findings raise some useful questions for the continuing
development of the American Buddhist sangha. For instance,
constructing and conducting a Buddhist practice together as a family
appears not to be a central concern for the majority of respondents.
Most married Buddhist respondents have nonpracticing spouses and are
not raising children, and most Buddhist children have given up the
practice by the time they grow up. In addition, the 18-to-29 age
group is one of the smallest among Buddhist respondents, second only
to the 65+ group (7%). What does the low number of young
practitioners mean for the future of American Buddhism? Clearly the
largest influx of new practitioners is coming from adults who
convert. Adult religious education will likely continue to be a focus
of American sanghas, given that most new practitioners have grown up
in another tradition (or no tradition) and there is little underlying
cultural understanding of Buddhism. What do new practitioners bring
with them from their previous traditions, and what do they need to
know in order to effectively begin and maintain their Buddhist practice?

With nearly three-quarters of Buddhist respondents having some
college education, and more than a quarter with graduate degrees, it
would seem that colleges and surrounding areas present fertile ground
for the spread of the dharma. Are there also opportunities for
sanghas to reach out to potential practitioners whose educational
path does not include college? How might this be done? And what about
non-white, non-Asian practitioners? Only 6% of Buddhist respondents
were Latino, 4% black, and 5% mixed race or other. According to U.S.
Census figures, 15% of the U.S. Population identifies as Latino,
while 13% identify as black. Perhaps there are opportunities for
growing sanghas to reach out to and provide meaningful practice
experience for underrepresented groups in their areas.

Finally, the widely divergent income levels of Buddhist respondents
are worth considering in planning for sangha development. The need to
gather financial support is a source of discomfort in some sanghas,
raising questions about clinging, greed, and acceptance. These are
certainly issues that need examination within the context of Buddhist
teaching. However, a perceived sense of lack may not actually reflect
the sangha's circumstances. Granted that income levels will vary by
geography, if 39% of American Buddhists are earning more than $75,000
annually and more than a fifth (22%) earn more than $100,000, there
are likely some very meaningful giving opportunities available that
would benefit both the donor and the sangha. How can sanghas create a
healthy climate of giving that encourages those with the financial
means to help support practice? On a related note, if the quarter of
Buddhist respondents making less than $30,000 a year are suffering
because of their income level, can sanghas offer help through
workstudy programs, discounted program fees, or other initiatives?
Are there other basic needs with which the practice community can help?

More recently, the Pew Forum released the second half of the survey,
which explores the social and political views of respondents along
with the specifics of their religious beliefs and practices. Perhaps
unsurprisingly, Buddhists were the most liberal of any religious
affiliation surveyed. 50% of Buddhists identified as liberal, while
just 12% identified as conservative, leaving 32% as moderates.
Nationwide, 20% of respondents are liberal, 37% are conservative, and
36% are moderate. Buddhists were also more likely than any other
single faith to be accepting of homosexuality:82% of respondents
stated that they believed that homosexuality should be accepted by
society, as compared to 50% of respondents nationally. 81% of
Buddhists surveyed said that abortion should be legal in all or most
cases, as opposed to a national average of 51%. Collectively, these
results suggest that many Buddhists lean leftward on today's most
debated social issues - finding themselves at odds with about half of
the country.

However, many Buddhists do share the greater number of American's
belief in God or a universal spirit: 39% stated that they were
certain of a higher power, while 28% ranked themselves as fairly
certain. Nationwide, those numbers are 71% and 17%, respectively. 19%
of Buddhists said that they did not believe in God, while only 5% of
nationwide respondents said the same. What does all of this tell us
about how Buddhism in America may evolve down the road? While it's
inadvisable to generalize, it's safe bet that it will be driving a Prius.

The complete Pew Forum report is available for free online at

Hoko Jan Karnegis was ordained as a novice by Shohaku Okumura in
2005. In 2007 she completed a Master of Liberal Studies degree at the
University of Minnesota with a thesis on sangha organization and leadership.
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