November 29, 2007

Religious Market Share

In its December 2007 issue (p. 26 or so), National Geographic reports on World Religions (with helpful and colorful diagrams.) The world breaks down this way: 33% Christian, 21% Muslim, 14% Nonbelievers, 13% Hindus, 12% Other, 6% Buddhist, and a small amount of Jews, some fraction of 1%. The data comes from 2005, courtesy of the World Christian Database (Center for the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) and there is nothing about number or methods. It doesn't really matter -- Americans are mostly interested in the Muslim figures in studies like this. The Nonbelievers figure is probably skewed by Communist countries, which all rank very high in Nonbelievers, with the exception of Laos -- and frankly I'm very skeptical as to what their data is on Laos anyway. This is all about Market Share. (I am curious about what's under "Other" -- religions less relevant to Western Christians than Judaism, perhaps?) The Dalai Lama has said religions should stop fighting for "market share" but of course missionary activity is in full swing, often doing very good things in very difficult and dangerous areas.

Clark Strand was interviewed by Andrea Useem of the Religion News Service. The question of market share, often asked of Tricycle by the mainstream media, was asked of Strand here:

Q: How many Buddhists are there in the U.S., and what percentage of that number are converts like yourself?

A: The numbers are notoriously unreliable. The numbers range from 6 million to 600,000. The percentage of converts is hard to judge. Is a convert a person who has a few books by the Dalai Lama on his or her night stand? Buddhism has become a kind of default religion for American seekers.

(For the record, the World Christian Database says the U.S. is 1% Buddhist, or around 3 million.)

More heat for ASEAN -- tough part of the world to be a diplomat. The Western World pressures them to promote democracy -- Burma has paid some lip service to this but Communist Laos and Vietnam have no plans for democracy. Of course not -- they have a big neighbor with a lot to say about that. Burma has resumed rice shipments to Bangladesh. Don't blame Bangladesh -- they really need it. The post-cyclone suffering there remains intense.

- Philip Ryan, Web Editor

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Gerald Ford's picture

Actually, I personally like Strand's views on Western Buddhism (I think it definitely needs a new direction), so if Tricycle wants to post them, find by me, so long as they can balance views with non-Tricycle staff. ;)

Anyways, I find the 6% Buddhist figure a load of rich-creamery-butter myself. I bet that this comes form teh fact that many Asian people do not explicitly consider themselves Buddhist, but rather follow a mix of Buddhism and local religious beliefs. Westerns are more likely to actually identify themselves with a particular religion. I think you're right that this survey is just to highlight to growth of Islam.

Ah well. Even one nice, sincere Buddhist is better than nothing. :)

Tom Armstrong's picture

Philip: Curious that you quote your Tricycle colleague Clark Strand here. Is he an authority on the number of Buddhists there are and why they are Buddhists? I would guess not. And if his numbers have any meaning, they come from a source that Strand ought to be able to easily provide.

Strand has taken up the hobby of disparaging Western Buddhism fulltime and without offering evidence. I would submit that he is as bad a source of information on Buddhism as Dick Cheney is on Democrats.