June 10, 2014

Painting the West Saffron

A new map published by the Washington Post misrepresents Buddhist populations in Western states.

Jeff Wilson

Scholars have known for some time that Buddhism is the largest religion in Hawaii after Christianity, the majority religion in all US states. Now—according to an article in last week’s Washington Post—Buddhism has also attained second-place status in a dozen Western states.

The Washington Post makes its case with a colorful map that indicates the number of adherents to the second-largest religion in each state. It shows Buddhism taking second-place honors in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

When you look at the map by county, however, the data isn’t as clear as the first state-by-state map suggests. The solid swath of Buddhist saffron that covers nearly the entire western side of America in the state map becomes a fractured mess of color in the county map. It reveals that Buddhism is sometimes only popular in a handful of the Western states’ small counties, with many other surrounding counties colored to indicate that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, or Baha’i are the dominant minority. Buddhists dominate only a single county in both Nevada and Oklahoma, for example, but because those counties are so populous, the whole state gets awarded to the Buddhists. The opposite also happens: there are places where Buddhists are clearly numerous, yet the state is claimed for some other religion. (The informative value of these kinds of maps in general was recently critiqued in an article in Jacobin titled “Infotainment Journalism.”)

My reaction to these maps, especially the primary state-by-state one, is conflicted. The data on Buddhism may be broadly correct, but a closer look reveals many flaws. The Religious Congregations and Membership Study, which provides the data for these maps, pulls its statistics on Buddhism from a significant but problematic study conducted in 2009. I was present when the results of that study were announced at the American Academy of Religion, and like many other experts, I came away troubled by the conceptual flaws in the data collection. My own understanding of the numbers, based on field site visits to many hundreds of Buddhist groups in every tradition and every part of America, differed significantly from theirs. Some groups I knew to be much smaller than they were being represented, while others were certainly larger than the study claimed. And there were some key groups that seemed to be flat out missing. I happened to be seated next to a high-ranking insider for one of the (allegedly) biggest groups included in the study, and as the number of adherents in his organization was rattled off by the presenter, he sharply drew in his breath, shook his head, and turned to whisper to me that the study’s number was way off: his group had at best a third of the number of members that the study was claiming.

Why is it so hard to get the numbers right on Buddhists in America, despite the best efforts of highly trained and experienced social scientists? To save space (and the reader’s patience), I’ll just focus on the largest factors that cause under- and overestimation of Buddhist populations in the US. The data for the maps is based on a study that counted affiliations with organized religious groups—a method, like nearly all studies of American religion, derived from a Protestant Christian model. This model fundamentally assumes that all religious persons gather together into exclusive public bodies with which they maintain a unique personal identification. But that just isn’t true of most religions, and it certainly isn’t true for most people who practice Buddhism, in Asia or in the United States.

For the average Buddhist practitioner, there has never been an expectation of regular visitation to a site like Sunday morning church service. Nor has there been an expectation of formal membership in a specific group, such as belonging to a congregation. The average person in Buddhist Asia hasn’t claimed personal identification with a particular sect—indeed, in many cultures historically influenced by Buddhism, regular participants in Buddhist activities won’t even admit to belonging to any religion, let alone claiming identity as a Buddhist.

The Buddhist pattern of non-attendance and non-affiliation holds fairly well in the United States, too. Here, religious incorporation laws based on Protestant congregationalism and dominant cultural expectations have led some Buddhists to create formal institutions that hold weekly meetings and maintain membership lists (or at least mailing lists). But the simple fact is that great masses of people practicing Buddhism—including self-identified Buddhists— don’t profess affiliation with any particular institution. This means that even generally reliable data collection methods, such as large-scale phone surveys that ask individuals to list their religious identifications, do not capture a fully accurate picture of Buddhist numbers.

When you collect data by contacting Buddhist groups in the phonebook (so to speak—the study’s attempts to identify formal Buddhist groups were actually more wide-ranging and sophisticated), you miss crucial pieces of the puzzle. Not only do you neglect the sizable numbers of people who rarely or never attend a public group; you also overlook the many grassroots gatherings and loose networks that aren’t registered as formal tax-exempt organizations. These missing Buddhists almost certainly comprise the majority of people practicing Buddhism in America. So at the very best, these maps represent the relative sizes of minority religious institutions in each state rather than the actual relative number of Buddhists, Muslims, and so forth.

On the other hand, approaching the groups you can find and asking them how many adherents they have is also a recipe for problems. Religious groups often have little incentive to report accurate numbers. Many lack the ability—or interest—to collect reliable data. Minority religious groups have even less incentive: when you’re heavily outnumbered in a historically racist and at times religiously intolerant society, you’ve got compelling reasons to exaggerate your size and strength. Projecting a larger image of small organizations can help dissuade those who might be inclined to harass those groups they think can’t fight back.

Among other things, projecting a larger image of your organization can make it seem less marginal. The issue is compounded by the sense of competition that many religious groups—including some Buddhists—feel with outside groups. Numbers come to be seen as a measure of the effectiveness, even the correctness, of one’s doctrines and practices. It can be embarrassing or humiliating to report the low number of people who agree with your conviction of how the universe operates. Many misrepresent their groups’ sizes as much to avoid their own anxieties as to brag to outsiders.

The numbers that the Washington Post maps utilize thus cannot be accurate in any strict sense of the word, since they’ve missed many Buddhists on the one hand and received dubious information from some of the groups on the other. But does this mean that the study, and the maps derived from it, are useless to us? Not necessarily so.

Although not completely accurate, the study is suggestive and intriguing. Leaving aside the specific numbers, we can focus on overall patterns. Regardless of whether or not Buddhism is indeed the second-largest religion in all 13 listed states—and none of the other 37—we can be relatively confident that Buddhism tends to represent a higher percentage of adherents compared to other non-Christian groups in the West than in other parts of the country.

In my book Dixie Dharma, I argue that we need to take a regional view in examining Buddhism in America, and the West is one of the most important of America’s Buddhist regions. Western states have received the highest share of Buddhist immigrants since the 1840s, and the region’s spirit of religious experimentation has encouraged many others to explore Buddhism. Buddhism on the Left Coast has had a long time to establish an institutional presence, and has also had a great mass of likely adherents from which to draw. It thus makes a good showing in a study based on a survey of religious institutions.

These differences between places, such as that between the West and the rest of America, give reason to take a regional lens rather than blithely talking about “American Buddhism” as a whole. To practice Buddhism in California may be a different thing than to practice it in South Carolina. Beyond the obvious differences of climate and terrain, the Buddhist experience is impacted by whether one has access to local institutions and a variety of traditions—something most Americans can’t take for granted. It matters if Buddhism is acknowledged as a relatively large presence in one’s area or exists among a variety of different minority religions and a significant population of non-religious (or at least non-committed) people. It’s quite a different Buddhist experience to practice in a place where religious diversity is low and not necessarily celebrated than in much of California.

Even if some survey one day suggests more reliably that Buddhism is the second-largest religion in every state, we’ll still need to keep these sorts of maps in perspective. The truth is that Christians outnumber members of non-Christian religions 15 to 1. And Christianity’s massive dominance is unlikely to change within our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren, no matter how multicultural the country becomes in the meantime. As sociologist Mark Silk points out in his own reaction to the Washington Post article, even the religiously unaffiliated outnumber all minority religions put together by a factor of 4 to 1. In light of this, being the second largest religion just doesn’t amount to much.

Jeff Wilson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo. His book Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South (University of North Carolina Press, 2012) uses regionalism to analyze Buddhist phenomena in the United States. His forthcoming book, Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, will be published by Oxford University Press in August.

Further reading: The World is Places

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pstaylor75's picture

This is an aside, but the map reminded me of a breakdown of the 2012 presidential election results by county. When you look at the total electoral votes, it looks like there are red states and blue states. When you see a breakdown by county, you realize that states that voted democrat many counties voting republican and vice versa. When you see a breakdown by population, you suddenly see that the counties voting republican tended to have lower populations than the counties voting democrat. And as there are different strains of Buddhist based on region, there are different strains of liberals or conservatives depending on where you live.


JoseBuendia's picture

The biggest mistake on the map is that the drafters, for some reason, seem to consider Mormons to be Christian.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Why not? The Christ figure is in their pantheon. A more inclusive and accurate catgory would be Monotheists.

JoseBuendia's picture

And Christians worship the Jewish god -- but they are different religions.

Mormonism is a lot like Islam -- based in the Abrahamic religion but with an overlay of new prophesy based on a new primary text.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I was suggesting categories of belief systems: monotheism (one central deity), polytheism (e.g. Hinduism), other (Buddhism).

shlomo.pesach's picture

Jeff, this is really interesting. It incites and adds to the conversation surrounding Buddhism modernism and the religious hermeneutics concerning American interpretations of Buddhism. I am looking forward to your upcoming book; to me it sounds like it would go hand in hand with Robert Sharf's article "Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Experience." Anyway, I appreciated your insight and ability to reveal the profundity of the situation rather than surmise it with conceptual overlays.

My first response ignited in reading this piece was recalling the second Buddhist organization planted [1] in America, the Bikoku Bukkyodan. The "Buddhist Churches of America" was the American branch of the Nishi-Honganji brach of Jodo-shinshu, and I think the imported Japanese conception of sectarian Buddhism lingers in the trends of you are seeing in the Washington Post. Therefore, whole I agree that "For the average Buddhist practitioner, there has never been an expectation of regular visitation to a site like Sunday morning church service," I provide Bikoku Bukkyodan as a point of disagreement with your next sentence: "Nor has there been an expectation of formal membership in a specific group, such as belonging to a congregation. The average person in Buddhist Asia hasn’t claimed personal identification with a particular sect." Japanese Buddhism [2] is organized and systemized by allegiance, but not necessarily attendance, to a specific temple of a specific brach of a specific sect. I think it is possible to trace the Japanese convention of Buddhism sectarianism to the Protestant Christian conception of religion you were discussing; this initial portrayal of Buddhism by Bikoku Bukkyodan established a seeming compatibility with Protestant Christian models of religion.

This brings up the complexity of the figures involved in the evolution of Buddhism in America, Paul Carus, Soen Shaku, D.T. Suzuki, and it forces our conversation to consider 19th and 18th century conceptions of Buddhism as a 'world religion.' I feel obliged to consider the expanse of the situation but cannot delve into the specifics of their influence of the understanding of Buddhism present in the Washington Post study. What I do find interesting is that this representation of Buddhism as sectarian and physically tied to an institution betrays evidence that the conception of Buddhism as 'non-sectarian' and 'simple mindfulness' is not entirely widespread.

Thanks again for the article; very provoking.

[1] Was it planted? Was it transmitted? Was it brought? I think the verbs get tricky when talking about such a complex process of cultural and religious exchange. I also think, and this reverberates Robert Sharf's argument in "Coming to Terms with Chinese Buddhism," that discussing 'transmission' in terms of discrete entities is problematic. We cannot supplant the divergent and multitudinous practices of Buddhism with ideas such as 'Asian' and 'Western'.

[2] I must admit there are plenty of examples to disprove this widespread normative claim: trans- and inter-sectarian dialogue (Critical Buddhism), lay movements that depart from their sects (Sanbo-kyodan), and imported non-sectarian groups (Goenka Vipasanna). I still believe that the sectarian attitude supplies the substantial body of Japanese Buddhism.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It would be interesting to see a map showing the relationship of saffron states to blue (or red) ones.

jwilson101's picture

Dominic, thanks for your comment. As I indicated in the blog post, there is reason to be suspicious that there really are saffron states, or that we can correctly identify which ones they are (other than Hawaii, which we have solid data for). If we wanted to start correlating with politics, things would get even stickier. Political commentators have long noted that the simplistic reductionism of red and blue states hides as much as it reveals, and fundamentally misrepresents important aspects of the American political landscape. One suggested solution has been the use of a spectrum approach that puts purple at the center (moderates) and shades toward red or blue depending on the actual mix of conservatives and liberals. I've adopted this approach to theorize about American Buddhism, suggesting in an article that we should try talking about "purple Buddhism" instead of simplistic, inaccurate dualisms of ethnic/Asian/immigrant/cradle/baggage Buddhism vs. convert/white/Western/newcomer/import Buddhism (a common set of dualities asserted by both some scholars and many lay observers). That research is here (sorry, it's behind a paywall): http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00173.x/abst...

All of that said, it'd still probably be fun to see those overlapping maps, especially if we had genuinely good data, preferably on a county-by-county basis for both religious adherence and political affiliation. I bet there'd be some surprises in there for folks with stereotypical views about Buddhism.

kje514's picture

Most likely the Buddhist representation on this map corresponds to Asian populations, not Western practitioners. There are far more Asian Buddhist organizations than Western Buddhist organizations with far larger populations.

jwilson101's picture

Thank you for your comment. I don't doubt that you have reasons to analyze the situation in that manner, but in my own experience, the situation doesn't seem quite as clear-cut as you may believe. Leaving aside the difficulty of working with false dichotomies such as Asian vs Western (by definition, all Buddhist groups in America are Western, of course), I've noticed in my fieldwork that many Asian-American dominated groups tend to be larger than those dominated by other demographics, but that non-Asian-Americans (in most cases, Caucasians) tend to create and publicize a significantly larger number of groups, and to maintain that public face even when they fail to grow beyond a handful of people over many years. In other words, there seem to be fewer Asian-American dominated groups but they have more people associated with them, while white people have created a larger number of (numerically smaller) groups.

There was a study out a few years ago that said that, contrary to the common scholarly consensus, American Buddhism was mostly dominated by white people. The method of the study had been to count numbers of public Buddhist groups and note their primary racial composition. Based on that, they confidently declared that American Buddhism was mostly white. But they were just plain wrong. They hadn't noted the much smaller size, on the whole, of the white-dominated groups, nor dealt with the problems of non-affiliation that I mentioned here in my blog post.

Then we have the issue of regionalism, which I brought up in my blog post. If you live in a region that happens to have more Asian-American majority temples than non-Asian-American majority temples, you tend to believe that phenomenon is representative of the whole country. Or if you live in a place dominated by white Buddhist groups, you tend to think that's the way it works everywhere. Also, if you belong to a tradition that happens to be dominated by a particular demographic, or are most familiar with a handful of traditions with particular racial/ethnic majorities, you often believe these anecdotal or personal observations (not wrong on the micro-scale) correctly match other traditions you're less familiar with or larger scales of size. Scholars too fall into these traps. But much more comprehensive evidence collection tends to reveal a very mixed-up state for Buddhist America, with some places dominated by one or another type of Buddhist, many places with some sort of mix, some places essentially devoid of Buddhists, etc. And there are places where the Asian-American majority temples are few but large, others where they are many and large, yet others where they are few and tiny, etc, etc.