July 14, 2011

How many Americans know the Dalai Lama's religion? Fewer than half.

As you probably know, the Dalai Lama is visiting Washington, D.C., this week. And if you know that, I assume that you can probably also correctly name the Dalai Lama's religion. Well, if you're American, that puts you in the minority. The Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey found that fewer than half (47%) of Americans know the Dalai Lama is Buddhist.

Note that atheists/agnostics (74%) and Jews (74%) were much more adept than other groups at correctly identifying the Dalai Lama's faith.

Fewer people (36%) identify Buddhism as the religion that aims at nirvana, the state of being free from suffering.

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mike4metta's picture

Unfortunately, many Christian sects regard comparative religion study as unacceptable, "un-christian" behavior to varying degrees, hence the low %'s cited in the Tricycle article.

This may also explain why worldwide "Evangelical Protestant leaders" in a June 2011 Pew Research survey had high "unfavorable" views of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Atheists: 65%, 65%, 67% and 70% respectively. See: http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Evangelical-Protestant-Churches/Global...

I am reminded of a unfortunately all-too-true quote by early 19th century eccentric cleric and writer Charles Caleb Colton: "We hate some persons because we do not know them; and we will not know them because we hate them."

gutoku's picture

This isn't very surprising. I have met many people, who consider themselves Buddhists, who did not know that there are differences between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. To many Americans, the Dalai Lama may not seem Buddhist because he does not seem Zen. Also, in his public talks, he seems to espouse a kind of universal "all religions are one" attitude, and does not always emphasize Buddhism.

It is interesting that those most knowledgeable about others' religions are the atheists and agnostics. I wonder if this skepticism precedes or results from this knowledge.

Sam Mowe's picture

I imagine people who identify as either atheist or agnostic are people who have done some thinking on life's big questions, so it makes sense to me that they would be knowledgeable about religion. If you don't think about it or care about it I would guess that you get labeled as belonging to the religion that you're born into.

BodhiDuck's picture

What I find particularly interesting is that they didn't seem to ask any Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims these questions.

Wisdom Moon's picture

It's hardly surprising when the Dalai Lama doesn't promote Buddhism but a strange kind of humanist secularism.

Dolgyal's picture

That's rather funny coming from you, who claim the present Dalai Lama is a muslim (not to mention alternately a communist, fascist, murderer and so on ad absurdum).

What is "strange" is splinter group western cultists who distort the dharma.

Wisdom Moon's picture

No, what is 'strange' is correct views in these degenerate times. The Dalai Lama doesn't teach refuge in the Three Jewels - doesn't that seems strange to you, considering that he claims to be a Buddhist?

Sam Mowe's picture

Dolgyal and Wisdom Moon,

I can see where this comment thread is heading. Let's try to keep the conversation respectful and on topic.


emedae's picture

I'm not surprised. I moved from Hawaii where Buddhism is common -- to Portland OR where there isn't any recognized religion but Christian.

Sam Mowe's picture

Say it ain't so, emedae! Portland is my hometown... you'll have to rep the Buddhists for me there.

Dalai Grandma's picture

I observe that it is a task for American Buddhists to recognize that it is a religion with an ethical system, that it is not enough to sit on a cushion. Blogged about this today (as Dalai Grandma).

Dominic Gomez's picture

>it is a task for American Buddhists to recognize that it is a religion with an ethical system<
The basis of which is the law of causality.

Emmet Bondurant's picture

What do you expect from a country whose primary method of learning about other countries and cultures is by bombing them?

Sam Mowe's picture

Yeah, I guess this shouldn't be surprising considering all of the Obama/Muslim hoopla. Things like this always make me feel really out of touch. Who are the participants in these surveys?

Christopher Budd's picture

I suppose we should be thankful that the majority of Americans didn't say that he was an Islamic terrorist.

bblueskye's picture

Years ago, I worked with a Christian woman who homeschooled her children and she told me her Christian homeschooling materials said Buddhists worship Buddha's bones.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Interestingly, this person's reference material may not have been that far off.
After Shakyamuni Buddha died, his body was cremated and, it is said, the ashes divided into eight portions. Eight stupas (dome- or mound-shaped shrines) were erected in eight regions throughout South Asia to house Shakyamuni's relics (presumably also comprised of the charred remains of his bones).
Lay believers held these stupas in deep reverence, contributing to their construction and venerating the physical remnants of a great religious leader.