Sunday, May 29, 2005

American Buddhists

Most American Buddhists are Asian immigrants or the descendants of Asian immigrants, but what about the converts? And what is the general overall picture of Buddhism in the US?

Here are some numbers from The New Buddhism by James Coleman (as opposed to the book by David Brazier) as cited in "Buddhadharma" magazine--
When asked about their family's religious background, 8.6 percent said it was nonreligious, 16.5 percent Jewish, 25.6 percent Roman Catholic, 42.2 percent Protestant, and 1.9 percent Buddhist. A comparison of these findings with the demographic of the entire U.S. population confirms that the often made observation than Jews--who make up only 3 percent of the total population of the United States but more than five times the percentage of my respondents--are more likely to be attracted to Buddhism than other Americans. My survey did not, however, support the common belief that people with a Catholic background are also more likely to become involved with Buddhism. The percentage of Buddhists from a Catholic family was virtually identical with the overall percentage of Catholics in the American population. Those with Protestant backgrounds, on the other hand, appear less likely to get involved. Whereas they made up 42 percent of my respondents, they constitute 56 percent of the total American population.

My data clearly indicate that American Buddhism appeals most strongly to the middle and upper-middle class--another fact that is generally recognized in the Buddhist community. About a third of the respondents reported their family income to be between $30,000 and $60,000, while another 19 percent fell in the $60,000 to $90,000 range. About 20 percent of the respondents had incomes over $90,000 and about 30 percent fell on the other end of the spectrum, making less than $30,000. Although these income figures were somewhat higher than the national average at the time the survey was conducted, the education level of American Buddhists was right off the charts. Of the 353 people who responded to the question on educational achievement, only a single person reported having failed to finish high school, and less than one in twenty said that their education stopped with high school graduation. Eleven percent said they had some college, 32 percent were college graduates, and surprisingly, more than hald of the respondents (51 percent) had advanced degrees. Thus it may be that the participants in the new Buddhism represent the most highly educated group in the West today.

Just as these Buddhists are far more educated than the average American, they are far more liberal as well. Almost 60 percent of the respondents said they were Democrats, while only 2.6 percent reported a Reublican affiliation. Surprisingly, the Republicans were outnumbered by the members of the tiny Green Party by more than three to one (the Greens were 9.9 percent of the total sample). A self-ranking on a left-to-right political scale also produced a distribution heavily skewed to the left. On a one to ten scale, with one being the furthest right and ten the furthest left, the average respondent ranked him- or herself as an eight.

I haven't had a chance to read the book, but I would wonder how the following numbers would look--what percentage are affiliated with a more congregational practice and a group with a nationwide set of affiliated sanghas like the Buddhist Churches of America or Soka Gakkai? How does the distribution look for different types of Buddhism (Nichiren, Pure Land, Zen, Vipassana, Tibetan, etc.)? How does race and income correlate to type of Buddhism and congregational versus more individualistic/less formal sanghas? To what degree does being a current college student as opposed to being in a lower-paying full-time job account for the chunk of people who are in the under 30K per annum bracket? It would also be interesting to look at familial religious background on a scale of more conservative/fundamentalist to more moderate to more open/liberal as well as by Protestant denomination.


  1. Hi! Just wanted to answer a few of your questions.

    My family seems to be the exception to the rule. My stepmother was born in Japan, but immigrated here about 30 years ago. She is conservative, as is my father (who converted when they married), and my brother and his wife (who converted). They all practice Soka Gakkai. They are all republicans who voted for Bush.

    They are all educated, but they have all had money problems, and don't earn very much.

    I--on the other hand--am very spiritual, and though I don't identify as any one "religion," the buddhism that I read and meditate on is more zen. I am Green.

    So there you go. Good blog, by the way! And I see you link to the infamous Metacrock. He gets more and more liberal as the years pass. Did he vote for Bush or just abstain this election?

  2. Thank you for sharing. Considering the importance of kosen-rufu (and the approach through shakubuku) in SGI, that must be an interesting dynamic.

    Metacrock? He's always been politically liberal. He can't stand Bush, and he was encouraging folks to vote for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004.

  3. I knew there was a reason Metacrock doesn't make me shudder. ;-)

    As far as my family goes, they are very very strange people with whom I rarely associate. And I guess that's as personal as I should get.

    I'm very glad to have found this blog. Thank you!

  4. Also? Even though there are now 3 comments on this post, it still says 0 Comments.

  5. Huh. It said four just now when I viewed the page. Sometimes I have to hit refresh when I load the page because my browswer sometimes uses the most recent temporary internet files associated with a partcular URL to quickly load the page.

    In any case the blog is working much better than the ezboard at the moment. They were hacked pretty fiercely.

  6. "In any case the blog is working much better than the ezboard at the moment. They were hacked pretty fiercely."

    Really? I've not been to ezboards in awhile. Your site is good, but I just don't have the time to participate. You may see me lurking occasionally.

    Oh, by the way, I'm an idiot. The "comments" work fine. I was just jumping the gun.


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