Why Shouldn’t Buddhists Use the Pew Study?

The Face of Western Buddhism” (Buddhadharma Fall 2011) is a perfect case study of how to marginalize Asian American Buddhists in print. Sociologist James Coleman depicts Buddhist America using the effectively racist dichotomy of immigrants versus converts and he whitewashes American Buddhist history by ignoring several decades of Asian American Buddhist pioneers. Most problematic is that the author presents his case as one based on sound empiricism.

Coleman paints the picture of an affluent White Buddhist America where “roughly three-quarters of American Buddhists are converts,” where “Buddhists are more likely to identify themselves as liberals,” where Buddhists “are more likely to have a higher income and better education than the average American” and where “Buddhists are the fastest-growing religious group in American today.”

The meat of this analysis comes from the U.S. Religious Landscape Surveyby the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life—a study that no self-respecting academic could use to describe American Buddhism without being guilty of racial marginalization. As I demonstrated before, the Pew forum can only come to this sort of conclusion because its survey is skewed toward White middle-class Americans.

The Pew study itself even admits that the survey deserves “caution” when looking at religious groups with large numbers of immigrants:

English-only surveys, and even English surveys with a Spanish option, are likely biased in that their samples do not sufficiently represent the full spectrum of Latinos, many of whom are recent immigrants and are unable to complete a telephone survey in English. […] This suggests that caution is also in order when estimating the number of adherents of other religious groups that are disproportionately composed of immigrants, such as Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and members of other world religions.

According to U.S. Census surveys, there were 14.9 million Asian Americans in 2007. If you follow the Pew study’s numbers, there were only 7.5 million. (You can do the math.) That’s a big difference and ample grounds to question any of the study’s findings on Buddhist America.

Honestly, people. Stop using the Pew study.