way too much data, or not enough?

Because we here at the buddha is my dj aim to please, allow me to present some interesting statistics and data culled, mostly, from a recently published book, North American Buddhists in Social Context, an edited volume of ten chapters dealing with different communities of Buddhists across the United States and Canada. I’m citing these stats in part because of the conversation that popped up in the comments thread to my last post. I’m also posting them because I think sharing data is a worthwhile and valuable activity that allows us to have something meaningful and factual to talk about rather than basing our assumptions of what (we think) we know or our own limited experience.

Having said that, the data I’m presenting is really a very, very small part of this book. There’s a lot more in it and I encourage those of you interested in this subject to pony up the money, bug your local library to get a copy, wait for it to come out in cheaper paper back, or borrow it from someone willing to part with it. One of the essential values of this book is that it doesn’t just present raw data but does some really top-rate analysis to help us make sense of the data.

I myself am going to stay clear of too much analysis. Except where I think it’s important to point out what some of these numbers mean and why their relevant for American Buddhisms.

So, without further ado.

Janet McLellan’s piece focuses on Canada and mostly on the Greater Toronto Area. Unlike the US Census, our neighbors to the north actually ask “What’s your religion?” According to the 2001 Census, there were over 300,000 self-identified Canadian Buddhists, and 97,165 lived in the GTA. McLellan claims that these numbers are a gross underestimate. She estimates that there are 250,000 Buddhists in the GTA alone, for example. One of the reasons she says this is because she notes that there are a huge number of refugees living in Canada (we’ll come back to this). Many of these folks converted to Christianity when they arrived, often at the behest of their Canadian sponsors. However, and this is where religious identity gets tricky, many of them were what you’d call “nominal Christians.” Despite claiming to be Christian, they would still set up home altars, attend religious or memorial services at Buddhist temples, and, McLellan reports, large numbers converted back to Buddhism later in their lives when they were more established.

Carl Bankston and Danielle Antionette Hidalgo have tons of statistics on Theravada Buddhists. (We love them!) I’ll refrain from putting them in a neat little graph (I’l leave neat little graphs to Arunlikhati!). Here’s what they show:

First, Theravada Buddhism in the States is still very closely related to ethnic Asian communities who arrived in two successive waves, first, through the 1960s and 70s from Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka; second in the 1980s and on from Laos and Cambodia. This is not irrelevant because, unlike Korean immigrants, say, a larger proportion of these folks are Buddhists. And, particularly those who were refugees from Laos and Cambodia, almost all of them are Buddhists. I say this rather factually because the reality is that these folks were refugees from oppressive regimes in their home countries or massive international wars or genocidal maniacs, many of whom targeted Buddhists specifically. Let’s not forget that.

More raw numbers!

Country of origin 1975 1980 2000 2001*
Thailand 45,000 111,000 2810
Sri Lanka 3000 20,000 45,845**
Burma 3000 *** 1070
Cambodia 46,000 178,000 14,840****
Laos 800***** 47,683/147,375 167,792 12845

* 2001 is just for Canada.

** This was confusing in the book. I’m not sure if this is the total number of Sinhalese in Canada or the total number of South Asians.

*** “Burmese” was not listed as an option on the 2000 US Census.

**** McLellan claims this number is too low and should be around 20,000.

***** At one point, they claim there were 800 Lao refugees in 1975, then go on to say that there were 47,000 Lao living in the States in 1980 (and 147,000 in 1990). So I’m not totally clear on where these numbers are coming from or which ones are the most accurate. But, honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was such a huge jump in such a short period given what was happening in Laos and Cambodia during this period.

Lastly, they note that in the 2000 US Census, 35% of people who checked “Thai” also reported that they were of mixed ancestry. Later in the chapter, they mention that 60% of Thai Americans are women, and that 60% of them are married to a non-Thai man. This has huge implications for the way present and future American Buddhists enact their Buddhism.

Bankston and Hidalgo also cite some statistics that Numrich has presented elsewhere on the number of Theravada temples in the US. These numbers come from two sources in 1996 and 1998. So they’re probably no longer accurate, but here ya go:

  • Approximate number of Theravada Temples in the US: 150
  • Number of monks: between 450 – 600
  • Thai Temples: 55
  • Cambodian: 34
  • Lao: 34
  • Burmese: 1
  • Sri Lankan: 8

Lastly from this chapter, they provide some income information. The median per capita income in 2000 for:

  • Cambodian-Americans: $10,366
  • Lao-Americans: $11,830
  • Thai-American: $19,966
  • US as a whole: $21,587

This is not at all unrelated to issues of class, access, and the Pew Report. Remember, the Pew only contacted households and only conducted their survey in English and Spanish. Poor, immigrant communities are more likely to be out working for a living and less likely to speak English which is one of the reasons we need to take Pew with a grain of salt.

Tetsuden Kashima has some great stuff on the Japanese American community. First, he has two American samples, mainland and Hawaiian, which is awesome (though not statistically that different, surprisingly). But then he goes on to compare his data with Japan, which is even more awesome! (Can you tell I geek out on this stuff?) He’s a hard-core sociologist, so I actually got a little lost in his numbers. Here’s some stuff I was able to cull.

First, Kashima states that according to the 2000 US Census, 61% of Japanese Americans live in Hawaii, California, and Washington. Based on this data, he and his team targeted specific locations to conduct their survey. The resulting pool of respondents totaled 540 which represents a fairly good cross section of the Japanese-American community in terms of age, location, gender, etc., etc. The numbers below are the total percentages of total responses from each location for each question. So, for example, 30% of Hawaiian respondent claims to have no religion.

Let me state up front here that this is terrible what I’m doing. The following chart is a summary, a really bad summary, of 10 different charts in the book, complete with +/- ratings, percentages, raw numbers, averages, etc., etc. But this is a blog for Christ’s sake. So here goes!

Questions Hawaii West Coast Japan* US at large*
No religion 30.6 25.6 63.6 14
Have religion 69.4 74.4 36.5 85.9
Buddhist 26.02 33.43 28.5 n/a**
Protestant 29.59 27.33 1.2 79.2
Catholic 5.61 2.33 n/a*** n/a***
Other 8.67 11.34 5.3 3.7
All religions the same (agree)**** 62.6 72.09 63.3 56.5
All religions the same (disagree)**** 30.6 23.84 16.4 39.9
Religion is important 79.59 77.91 75.5 87.3

* Kashima got data for Japan from a Japanese source/researcher. I don’t know where he’s getting US at large data from.

** This is actually 0% in his chart. But I think it’s just a statistically small number, so he’s left it off.

*** There is no category for Catholic on this chart. But according to Pew, 23.4% of Americans identify as Catholic.

**** This question was actually, “Some people say that although there are many different religions in the world, each with their own beliefs, their teachings really amount to the same thing. Would agree with this or disagree?”

***** This question was actually, “Without reference to any of the established religions, do think a religious attitude is important or not?” And I think it’s terribly interesting that while 63% of Japanese said they don’t have a religion, 75% answered “important” to this question.

I have three more, hopefully short, things to say about the data in this book. First, there was a chapter by a guy named Coleman on what we might call “white American Buddhist communities.” I had several problems with this essay that I’ll not get into now. For the purposes of this post, my concern was that he didn’t provide any details about his survey of the five communities under study. He had some interesting stuff to say, but little in the way of data.

Secondly, Carolyn Chen wrote a piece on Taiwanese American Buddhist that was really really interesting. But her survey was very limited, only a handful of responses. So I’m a little hesitant to present it with the broad sweep of data above. What I will say, though, is that in her research she found that many Taiwanese Americans considered themselves “converts” to Buddhism specifically because Buddhism is a rational, modern religion that isn’t superstitious or backwards like indigenous Taiwanese folk beliefs or Christianity. This needs way more research.

Lastly, just like Chen, Karen Chai Kim has a piece on Korean American Buddhists which is also really valuable given the fact that the large majority of Korean Americans are Christian. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have a lot of data. This, too, needs way more research.

So. That’s that. All you data geeks can rejoice and meet me in the comments section for more analysis. Tomorrow we’ll return to our regularly scheduled silliness.

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One thought on “way too much data, or not enough?

  1. I think I need to just go up to Santa Barbara and check this book out of the UC library (too impatient to wait for it through interlibrary loan). I know the data here is incomplete, but below are some thoughts of mine that should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

    Regarding Theravada Buddhism in the United States, it’s both useful and problematic to correlate religion with nationality and/or ethnicity. It’s useful because the immigrants are recent and have had less time to form new religious identities, and the “Theravada” countries tend to be overwhelmingly Buddhist. It’s problematic because ethnicity is not the same as national origin, which is what Bankston and Hidalgo’s numbers seem to suggest.

    Here are some bets that I would place based on my experience in the SEA community (i.e. plural of anecdotes). Maybe I’ll post more research about it later. A small proportion of Thai Americans are Christian, but at a significantly larger rate than in Thailand. The same is probably also true for Cambodian immigrants, but for a much different reason than for Thai immigrants. As for Sri Lankans, I’d also bet a higher proportion of them are Tamil (and Hindu) in North America than in Sri Lanka. And as for Burma, the Burmese community is very small, and like Sri Lanka, the non-Buddhist minorities represent more strongly in America than in Burma (I’m thinking of the Indian Burmese, Christian Chinese Burmese, Christian Karen Burmese, etc.). And the Laotian group is perhaps the most problematic. Are the researchers referring to all people from Laos, including the very large and non-Buddhist Hmong community? I’d guess that at most half of the “born in Laos” community is Buddhist.

    I have at least one more post on the Pew Study coming. It addresses two of the complaints you raised, namely “What about those Hawai’i Buddhists?” and “What about the language issue?” All the data’s crunched, but I’ve been crunched on time. Sorry for the long comment!

    This stuff is great! Thank you so much for posting!

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