New Questions About Asian American Buddhists

Since 1965, the Buddhist population has grown considerably as a result of increased immigration from Asia. Buddhism is not new to the US since many of the early immigrants, largely Japanese and Chinese immigrants brought their Buddhist faith with them. But as a result of racist policies that tinged with some Christian nationalism (e.g “America is Christian not religiously pluralist”) the number of Buddhist Americans never grew at the normal rate like other groups. Since most Asian Americans today are immigrants, and since a large proportion of them are not proficient in English (especially in answering a phone survey) most surveys since 1965 have no accurate recording of the Buddhist population. The new Pew Report on Asian American religions helps bring some of our current understanding of Buddhist religion in perspective. As the report points out, 14% of Asian Americans in the survey currently identify as Buddhist. If the Asian American population is roughly 17 million, that’s nearly 2.4 million Asian Americans. If we add the white Buddhist population (using the Religious Landscape Survey from 2007), that’s an additional 1 million or so (there are smaller numbers of non-white and non-Asian American Buddhists, but even when we combine their figures it would not add up to even half of the white Buddhist constituency). So Asian Americans form the largest fraction of American Buddhists today (about 60% if there are nearly 4 million Buddhists). Note how this differs from the original figures presented in the 2007 Landscape survey which was only administered in English. White Buddhists now make up about 25 to 30% of the American Buddhist population, not 53%.

Within Asian America does any one particular nationality or ethnic group dominate the Buddhist population? Appendix 2 of the report shows some of the religious distributions of the major six nationalities that comprise about 83% of Asian Americans today: Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese. Given that migration patterns have changed, I wondered whether the proportions of the Buddhist population were coming from the same places where this faith tradition is more popular. Pulling the numbers from different sections of the report I came up with the following:

Asian American Buddhists Compared to Country of Origin – Pew Asian American Survey 2012
Nationality% Buddhist% Buddhist in US Asian groupsApproximate %Difference
People’s Republic of China15150
South Korea206-14

(Note: the * refers to the catch-all “Other religions” for the Filipino figures. Buddhists were not separated out). Interestingly, Chinese, Indian, and Filipino proportions are roughly in the same range in the US as it is in their home countries. However in the three countries where the percentage of Buddhists is 20% or greater (Vietnam, Japan, Korea), we find that those rates are not sustained in the US ranging roughly around 12 to 16% lower. Notably too, only Vietnamese Buddhists come close enough to nearly 50% of the Buddhist American population. Think about it, there are more white American Buddhists than any one nationality of Buddhists among Asian Americans even though they are proportionally much smaller among whites than among Asian Americans.

That said, we might wonder why there is a lower proportion of Buddhists in the US relative to their expected proportions in the Asian countries from which many of them originate. One explanation is that there is a selective Christian migration from Asia to the US. Whether Buddhism dominates the religious landscape (like in the Vietnamese case) or has a large minority presence (like the Chinese, Japanese and Korean cases), a lower proportion of them are migrating relative to Christians. Indeed another Pew report shows that Christianity tends to be the main religion of the majority of today’s migrants around the world. This is one way of explaining too that the selectivity of Asian immigration today reflects the movement of particular kinds of people rather than a random selection. One of these particularities is religion, where more Christians from Asia tend to immigrate relative to their proportions in these countries.

Another explanation is based on stateside experience: there may also be lower retention among Asian American Buddhists or higher exit. As the report shows while 14% of those Asian Americans surveyed identified as Buddhist, 22% were raised Buddhist. No other religious group (save the unaffiliated category which is the topic of a different blog post) shows this much attrition. Put in two different rates, 54% of those raised Buddhist are currently the same religion but of those who are currently Buddhist, 85% were raised Buddhist. So while a lower proportion remain Buddhist compared to their childhood faith, those that are currently Buddhist largely grew up so. Sociologists describe these fluctuations as religious switching.

So what happens to the 45% of former Buddhists? As the religious retention table shows (p. 52), about 27% now describe themselves as unaffiliated, and another 11% report being Protestant. There’s clearly a lot of movement among those Asian Americans raised in this religious tradition. But in a country that espouses religious freedom and tolerance, why is retention among Buddhists so low? And why are the switches occurring with these two groups?

While there are many explanations for this question, one possibility that jumped out to me was religious assimilation. If assimilation can be described as the process of immigrants fitting into mainstream American society, then religious assimilation is the process of immigrants fitting into the religious mainstream of American society. In our current cultural politics it seems as if there are two dominant “religious parties”, evangelical Protestantism and no religious affiliation. Despite our religious ideals, I wonder if some of the attrition is explained by the minimized presence of Buddhism in the public discussion over the influence of religion in American society which espouses religious tolerance. Judging from media analysis research by Jane Iwamura, it’s clear that Buddhism has a problematic place in the popular imagination of the American public, but is it also subtly marginalized for that very same reason? In other words is Buddhism trivialized by the misrepresentations portrayed in the media as well as the near absence of it in our public discourse over religion? As such, for those who grew up Buddhist, whether in the US or abroad, are more of them inclined to leave their faith tradition (or perhaps privatize it) as a result of being exposed to a culture that either does not take religion seriously or asserts the exclusivist claims of only one faith?

Still another explanation might be tied into ethnic diversity and changes in immigration. Without direct access to the data, I wonder if the aforementioned effects might vary based on the immigration wave in question. For example, Japanese migration to the US has slowed considerably. Therefore more of the Japanese Americans in a sample like this were likely US born and perhaps even third generation Americans or more (recall the internment of World War II). I wonder if Buddhist religious retention is lower for multi-generational Asian American Buddhists compared to those who “just arrived” since the 1970s. This might be evidenced by ethnicity (comparing Japanese with Vietnamese respondents), or if we know the particular generational status of each respondent we could directly test whether this might be the case.

These findings require more investigation and this is where more qualitative research can help us understand how American Buddhists think about their faith and what might these retention figures mean. Want to learn more about American Buddhism? Check out these scholarly works by Wendy Cadge,  Sharon Suh and Carolyn Chen as a start.


Building a Better Asian American Survey

As some readers may know, the 2nd report on religion in Asian America was released. Given the additional time the advisory board (including me and over a dozen professors who do Asian American research) was given to send in comments and the notable changes incorporated into the final product, many of us feel a little better about this report than the first one. In this post I want to share the challenges of understanding religious prevalence in a hard-to-reach group. In the limited history of Asian American data collection (of the national-level variety), compromises are often made in one of two ways: obtain a stratified and fairly random sample in English or translate the survey in the major Asian language groups. Since trying to survey a smaller group that constitutes about 5-6% of the population, both of these factors are important and costly.

The implications of these differences are big when it comes to understanding religion in Asian America. What happens to the proportional distribution of Asian ethnic Christians based on different sampling techniques? (Some have wondered whether one particular ethnic group dominates Asian American Christianity or whether it’s an even spread across all groups).

CAVEAT: To keep matters simple and consistent across three survey examples, I am limiting the discussion to the six largest Asian American groups which have been unchanged since the 1990s: Chinese, Filipino, South Asian Indians, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese in roughly that order). Surveying groups smaller than these (e.g. Bangladeshi, Cambodian, Laotian, Pakistani, Thai plus at least 20 others) will require some innovative survey techniques or way more research money than most scholars can acquire through grants. That said, I humbly show only these top 6 groups knowing that these illustrations miss out on a significant swath of Asian Americans numbering in millions.

The first example is less randomly stratified but language-inclusive:

This snapshot was taken from a paper I wrote that tried to summarize the sociological study of Asian American Christianity. I created a pie graph of the top 6 Asian American groups all of whom described themselves as “Catholic”, “Protestant”, or “Other Christian.” I used the freely available survey, the Pilot National Asian American Politics Survey, 2001. While this survey was translated into 6 languages plus English for respondents to answer the survey was limited to 5 major cities with large Asian American populations (New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Chicago, San Francisco).

If you have used the PNAAPS, you’ll notice that the Christian Asian Indian figure is rather high. That’s because (as I state in the article) identifying some Asian Indians by surname (using marketing lists that try to approximate ethnicity or race based on household names) is really difficult when they are often based on important saints like Thomas, George etc. So I did some extrapolations based on other scholars who also gave best estimates and I came up with that rough number.

Aside from that this survey can basically tell us the proportion of adult Asian American Christians from 5 major cities around the year 2000.

This next one is more random and stratified but only done in English:

In 2007 the Pew Research Center released the Religious Landscape Survey, a massive survey of over 35,000 respondents. After appropriate weighting measures (basically adjusting the sample to approximate the population), this survey yielded about 800 Asian American respondents who gave detailed information. If survey respondents were not born in the US or if their parents were not born in the US, they were asked a follow up question of national origin. About a hundred or so only said they were Asian and did not submit any other identifying information and had no foreign-born ties of any sort. So this basically melds together any Asian American who was born in the US as a generic “Asian.” The other major problem with this survey is that it was only translated into Spanish. So that means Asian Americans (most of whom are foreign-born) were called in English to answer a complex survey. You can be sure that those who were not comfortable with their English proficiency didn’t continue the survey.

This chart tells us the prevalence of English-proficient adult Asian American Christians who were foreign-born or had foreign-born parents around 2007.

A social scientist is trained to report findings based on the parameters of the data. So in the case of the PNAAPS, the verbage for one of the data points would read: “Vietnamese American Christians represented about 9% of all Asian American Christians in 5 major cities with large Asian American populations [in 2001].” The Landscape Survey finding would read: “Vietnamese Americans who are English-proficient represented about 5% of all English-proficient Asian American Christians in the United States [in 2007].” That’s a lot of hedging but it’s faithful to the data.

So we turn now to the new Pew Asian American Religions report. None of the advisory board members have access to the survey so I took the raw figures and punched them in my spreadsheet to get best estimates. This survey is stratified and random and translated into multiple major Asian languages within the largest 6 groups. This is what I found:

Time may be a significant factor here even when we account for methodological problems of the past. It’s possible that the PNAAPS and PRLS figures are close to the mark for their respective years. That said, if we see little fluctuation between surveys it might mean that accounting for language and stratified sampling does not make a big difference for this group; conversely if we do see big fluctuations, it might be a result of either of these two factors or something else like changes in immigration rates.

From personal experience, most of the Korean Christians I know are reluctant to answer a survey over the phone in English (trying to explain a medical condition or a legal issue is no small feat either). So when I see a jump from 17% of Asian American Christians are Korean in an English-only survey to 24%, I start thinking that maybe this survey picked up on those folks who can answer complex questions but in Korean only. The 3% difference between a 5-city survey and the new survey suggests to me that they are somewhat concentrated in certain major metro areas.

These explanations don’t make as much sense when I see the change in Japanese American figures. Since Japan is much less Christian, making a survey available in Japanese (I would think) would lower the proportion of Japanese American Christians (even if there is a pro-migration of Christians from Japan to the US, migration levels are very low in the past decade from Japan). On the other hand, it might be that Japanese American Christians are more dispersed than previous surveys found. The wildly different figures for Filipino American Christians suggests that many more of them (compared to other ethnic groups) are comfortable speaking in English, and to some extent they are likely less spread out (or geographically dispersed) compared to other groups.

Scholars and anyone interested in Asian American diversity have a better survey now and can make stronger statements (depending on the issue) about the prevalence rates in Asian America. To use the previous example about Vietnamese American Christians the new survey allows us to say this: “Vietnamese American Christians took up about 12% of all Asian American Christians [in 2012].” Simpler statements like this are possible when the sample is more rigorously obtained through sensitivity to location and language diversity. It also requires funding agencies to invest a lot for better data.

There’s much more to learn about religion in Asian America so I encourage readers to check it out. Hat tip to Pew for funding a well-executed survey.


Socializing Character Through Popular Comic Books

Fill in the blank: “With great power _______” If you know the answer to this, you’ve been exposed to American comic books. “With great power comes great responsibility” is the lesson that a young Peter Parker ignores from his uncle who subsequently dies from a fatal gunshot wound that Parker could have prevented. So what’s sociology have to do with this? Maybe I’m just trying to rationalize something I just enjoy, but I do think comic books are a window into social life. And believe it or not, they can sometimes illuminate aspects about religion we would not normally think about.

Comic books have received surprising new attention in part because the current President of the United States has stated publicly that he enjoyed them while growing up. Yes President Obama has gone on record as saying that his favorite comic book characters are Spiderman and Conan the Barbarian. Marvel Comics ran with this and showcased Spiderman with the new president:

and an independent company went so far as to mythologize the 2008 election campaign as the adventures of “Barack the Barbarian”

The primary audience for comic books as we all know is males of nearly every age now it seems; the incredible disproportion of male heroes to female heroes demonstrates this. The male heroes usually exhibit power manifested in superhuman and sometimes unearthly form. Strength, speed, invulnerability, energy- all of these are part of the world of super heroes. But since these stories of grown men and women are geared primarily at youngsters, they serve as moral narratives that inform young minds about life. This is not all that shocking to most of us; we understand how this works in any story we share with children from Grimm’s Fairy Tales to Harry Potter. Mainstream comic books simply offer another world (or worlds) in which these same dilemmas of right and wrong, good and evil, trust and betrayal, competition and cooperation, choice and action are all worked out in dramatic fantasy. In sociological terms media like comic books usually (not always) narrate moral values and become part of the socialization experience of many. Parents are always the number one source for modeling morality since they are usually the most visible to children. But comic books and other media can also be a means of socialization.

That said, I was hooked when I discovered this PBS documentary called “Wham! Bam! Islam!” It was a delightful narration of a dream that one Kuwaiti Muslim psychologist, Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa shared with the world: to make his faith accessible to familiar and new audiences through the medium of comic books.

The comic books that most readers of this blog are familiar with are nearly entirely based in America (and almost exclusively in New York [even in DC comics, Gotham City and Metropolis are just “New York by day” and “New York at night”]). And the heroes are almost entirely white and/or American. Interestingly most of our mainstream characters are actually religious and specifically Christian (mainly Catholic and Protestant forms as seen in this list online [hat tip to the individual or group to construct this]).

What’s a Muslim kid (or adult) to do when there’s nary a character in mainstream comic books that he can identify with? Indeed this website of superhero religious affiliations shows a list of Muslim heroes and if you look carefully you will notice that none of the 55 or so are clear central characters in the Marvel and DC Universes. Thirteen are particularly new and appear as a result of Dr. Al-Mutawa’s efforts. 

The aim was to create a world in which 99 superheroes emerged from a series of events linked to an archaeological object that’s significant in Muslim history. Each of the 99 represents an aspect of Allah’s character (technically 99 names of Allah). Through this story, the author can then portray Muslim virtue through the behavior and perhaps powers of superheroes that align with basic Muslim theology. As with any form of art that is intended for broad and young appeal, the specifics and accuracy of theology are tempered by clarity of narration. So it’s not surprising that Dr. Al-Mutawa has not gained sympathy from the most orthodox of Muslim theologians.

But for me, what’s so interesting here is not the theological content and whether it’s true to Islam. It’s about the social implications of this. As the second largest religion in the world, Islam has not had a positive portrayal in western cultures. Through the use of comic book superheroes that relate a relatively unheard of Islamic concept in Christian/secular environments, Al-Mutawa helps affirm Muslim identity for youngsters who might feel insecure about their faith in environments where they sense hostility. Imagine the Muslim kid who feels embarrassed about his Muslim faith in Iowa or Paris picking up an issue of The 99 and finding a new way to validate his culture and faith. And for those avid non-Muslim readers of comic books, we’re invited into this new world where heroism is linked with Muslim virtue.

So here’s my main and final point: why hasn’t any Christian thought about doing this with major characters? As the superhero religions website shows in the blurbs on the right, of the 14 “most consistently religious” only Wonder Woman stands out to me as a widely known character and her religion is “Greco-Roman Classical Religion” (she is Amazonian after all). From my experience, Daredevil’s Catholic background stood out to me as the only one among the pantheon of heroes to wrestle with his faith and his behavior. We have little evidence of comic book characters that portray Christian beliefs in ways that might model for young men and women the virtues described in the Christian traditions. Perhaps Christians who are concerned about the socialization of the next generation can learn from this new venture from a Muslim fan of comic books.



Popular Civil Religion and the Making of a Texas Convert

On our trek across the mid-Atlantic states recently, I experienced what I might describe as a new awareness of my Texanization (new word, copyright pending). We were at the National Harbor (near Washington DC), a neat plaza-like area flanked on 3 sides by streets and stores and 1 side facing the harbor (I still prefer to say that word like I remember hearing it from locals in South Bend, IN: “hhar-ber”). I was looking down the pier and gazed up at the many flags waving in the soft breeze. And it was at this moment I realized that something in me had changed.

I started looking for the Texas flag.

It took 8 years but who’s counting? Truth be told, understanding Texas culture was a part of my daily experience as the many symbols I saw seemed to add-up to what I describe as a popular civil religion. Civil religion is as Margarita Mooney pointed out earlier, quoting Robert Bellah:

“from the earliest years of the [American] republic is a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity. This religion-there seems no other word for it-while not antithetical to and indeed sharing much in common with Christianity, was neither sectarian nor in any specific sense Christian.”

It is a way of describing the kind of sacred qualities that imbue much of our national culture, from invoking God in speeches and anthems to the use of Biblical allusions and imagery in monuments, memorials and film. With the infusion of the sacred in our national pride we tend to associate American-ness as a kind of semi-religious experience. Indeed many modern nations have some examples of civil religion if one looks closely enough.

But Texas is unique in this regard. It’s not that its civil religious sensibility with respect to the US is so much greater than any other state. It’s that its civil religious sensibility with itself is so remarkable. Texas has its own heroes (e.g. Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin), its own sacred sites (e.g. Alamo, San Jacinto) to be sure. My emphasis here is on the popular dimension of civil religion, which I describe as the everyday faith of civil religion. Texas has this in spades. Much as “God bless America” pins would be an example of popular American civil religion, “God bless Texas” would be a similar example for this state. To point out how unique this is, can you name one other state that with this kind of religious infusion?

This popular civil religion is bundled together with other examples of how the state identity is so deeply emblazoned (sometimes literally on the body) in the everyday experience of Texas life. I often like to use my home state of Pennsylvania as a counterexample. I have never seen:

Pennsylvania shaped ice cube trays

Pennsylvania shaped tortilla chips



Pennsylvania shaped handicap-parking symbols (!)

The other image that one sees with remarkable frequency is the state flag. It’s not just that car dealerships seem to compete for the biggest version of the state flag, it’s that the flag is visible in all manner of clothing and art (note the tattoo above).

It would not surprise me one bit if young Texans could well draw the shape of their state AND the state flag given the way these images are branded everywhere. I know of no other state with this degree of commitment to brainwashing, er, socializing the residents and visitors with Texas pride. Indeed I’ve grown so accustomed to these popular civic symbols that I now look for it (or even other state equivalents) whenever I am traveling.


What other states emphasize their identity in ways that resemble the Lone Star state? Any curious examples of Texas tchotchke come to mind?