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.


The Religious Non-Christian Diaspora

In my continuing research over Asian American diversity, one of the recurring issues is religious diversity. I blogged earlier that Asian Americans are the least Christian of all racial groups in the US. About 46% of those who are Asian American are either Protestant or Catholic according to multilingual surveys. So the other 54% are a combination of non-Christian religions and those who say they have “no religion” (which is a tricky issue when we talk to Asian Americans). Of the non-Christian religious adherents among Asian Americans, the biggest three are Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. There’s some debate over what percent of Buddhists are Asian (versus white) and what percentage of Muslims are Asian (should we count Middle Easterners as Asian or White?). But nevertheless where there are Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, there are likely Asian Americans.

One of the neat resources made available by the Association of Religion Data Archives are county-level maps of religious groups supplied by the Religious Congregations and Membership Study. And as of their data collection in 2010, we have enough data to map adherents of non-Christian faith traditions by county. I recently had a chance to study a few of these maps (which are all free and online by the way), and would like to share them with you here. This is a map of Hindu adherents according to 5 equal-sized groupings or quintiles. The Hindu-Asian connection is clearest since the vast majority of Hindus in the US are south Asian.  [Read more…]

Danny Chen and the Beloved in the twilight of Chinatown

Happy Lunar New Year everyone! If you’re like a lot of Americans, you may not have much exposure to Chinese culture and yet you’ll know exactly where the nearest Chinese restaurant or buffet is. On a few occasions my friends want to go to a Chinese or pan-Asian buffet for a meal, and recently I looked around more carefully at the men and women that are working there. These days the staff at a buffet aren’t always Chinese or Asian, but they are clearly not well off. Some of them might resemble my Asian American peers who worked at their parents’ or a relatives’ restaurant out of duty and to earn a little spending cash. Many of these teens and young adults wound up going to college and landing middle class jobs. Theirs was the story of the classic model minority: started out working class, often under difficult circumstances, worked hard to make it to the middle class or higher and achieved it. [Read more…]