1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

New Pew Survey on Asian-Americans and Religion, and an Old Controversy

By July 19, 2012

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The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has come out with a new survey, this time focusing on Asian-Americans and religion. I haven't had time to look through it carefully, but one thing jumped out at me right away.

"While Asian Americans make up a majority of U.S. Buddhists, roughly a third of American Buddhists are non-Asian; the Pew Forum estimates that 67%-69% of Buddhists in the U.S. are Asian," it says. That's not a startling statistic, but it is very much at odds with a Pew survey released in 2008, which said that only 32 percent of Buddhists in the U.S. are ethnic Asians. Big difference.

Arun of Angry Asian Buddhist has written several posts about this, demonstrating that the older numbers just don't crunch. See, for example, "Stop Using the Pew Study" from September 2010. Arun's "back-of-the-envelope" rough calculation found that the percentage of U.S. Buddhists who are ethnic Asians had to be closer to 62 percent than 32 percent. Turns out Arun was right.

I see, however, that the older survey -- still online -- has not been corrected.

The 32 percent figure from 2008 has been picked up by journalists and sociologists ever since it was published. From this number many conclusions have been drawn about Buddhism in the U.S. that are, obviously, invalid. Arun has argued that the older Pew survey numbers have the effect of marginalizing Asian Americans.

Other than that -- and again, I've only looked through the new survey quickly --  the next most interesting thing was comparing Buddhists in the 2008 survey and the new survey in areas of social issues. From this I take it that ethnic Asian Buddhists tend to be more conservative than the Buddhists sampled in 2008.

The 2008 crew tended to lean heavily toward being liberal in political and social outlook, whereas the new survey shows Asian American Buddhists tend to be closer to the U.S. general public in political and social outlook. That's hardly startling, but it suggests that the 2008 survey did not present an accurate picture of U.S. Buddhists.

July 20, 2012 at 8:20 am
(1) David says:

It certainly figures that ethnic Asian Buddhists might be as a whole more conservative than non-Asian Buddhists. But I must admit that I never put much trust in surveys involving religion (or just about anything else). Surveys are designed to crunch numbers, not to ask subtle questions. They deal in labels, not realities. If someone’s Vietnamese parents are Buddhist and this person answers ‘Buddhist’ in a survey, is that due to belief or simply to applying a label out of family and cultural sympathy? Is such an answer meaningful? Similarly, if someone says he or she is a Jew or a Catholic because Grandpa goes to synagogue or to mass, what does that really mean? I understand that it is vexing if the number of Asians in America is under-reported, but from a religious point of view I think these surveys are of very limited value.

July 20, 2012 at 5:42 pm
(2) Greg Smith, Senior Researcher, Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life says:

The question about the difference between the new Pew Forum estimate of the share of the U.S. Buddhist population that is Asian American and the estimate based on the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which was conducted in 2007 and released in 2008, also arose during a July 19 press conference held in conjunction with the release of our new report, “Asian Americans: A Mosaic of Faiths.” For a variety of reasons, we think the estimate in the new report – that roughly two-thirds of U.S. Buddhists are Asian Americans – represents a better estimate than our 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (in which roughly one-third of Buddhists we interviewed described their race as “Asian”).

One key factor in the difference between the two estimates is related to the languages in which the surveys were conducted. The 2012 survey of Asian Americans was conducted in English and seven Asian languages (Cantonese, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Tagalog and Vietnamese); 42% of Asian-American Buddhists completed the survey in one of the seven Asian languages. By contrast, the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey was conducted in English and Spanish and would have missed any Asian-American Buddhists who were unable to complete a survey in English.

There are other factors as well that may help explain the different estimates. Just to cite an example, the 2012 survey was conducted on landlines and cell phones, whereas the 2007 survey was conducted entirely on landlines.

Ultimately, while the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey provided valuable information about the English- and Spanish-speaking Buddhist population at the time, we think the updated estimate in our new report is a better reflection of the composition of Buddhists in the U.S. today. We hope that our new survey will be a good resource for those seeking to understand religion among Asian Americans for many years to come.

Greg Smith
Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life

July 24, 2012 at 3:30 am
(3) Doug M says:


Nice to see that there is more clarity on the subject, and thanks to Greg Smith for helping to clarify why the numbers are different. Arun also puts a lot of work in bringing awareness to the subject so I am relieved to see that this is being recognized too.

@David: it’s not fair to argue that some Buddhists are more “Buddhist” than others. If a person identifies themselves as a Buddhist, they should be counted just as much as one who actively follows it.

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