Stop Using the Pew Study

The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life) came up today amid Danny Fisher’s thoughts on the American media’s reaction to Tiger Woods’ Buddhist identity. I’ve discussed my objections to this study before, but here’s a shorter version of why I find it resolutely objectionable when Buddhists take it at face value.

I borrowed a couple numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, namely the 2007 estimates for the total U.S. population (298.8 million) and the number of Asian Americans (14.5 million). Then I took two percentages that Danny Fisher pulled from the Religious Landscape Survey. With some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic, I arrived at the following figures.

If 0.7% of Americans are Buddhist, then there are about 2.1 million Buddhists in America. 

If 9% of Asian Americans are Buddhist, then there are about 1.3 million Asian American Buddhists in America. 

Now let’s do some basic division: 1.3 million Asian American Buddhists out of 2.1 million American Buddhists means that 62% of American Buddhists identify as Asian.

But wait a second! According to the Pew Forum, only 32% of American Buddhists identify as Asian. Why don’t these numbers add up?

Well, Pew takes a lower estimate of how many Americans identify as Asian. Their survey responses are skewed toward white middle-class Americans—even after they try to correct for bias. Their estimate leaves out about 40% of the Asian Americans that the U.S. Census Bureau includes. All else being equal, if we continue to sincerely describe our community by citing a study which ignores 40% of Asian American Buddhists—that’s 500,000 Americans—we are then likewise complicit in the racial marginalization of the largest part of the American Buddhist community.