Numbers

Wilson is right (as is Silk) that the Washington Post map is wrong.

I don’t think we should throw it away, though. Or, at the very least, I don’t think we should thumb our noses at it and say “their methodology is flawed, to hell with it.” Rather, and I say this as a teacher, I think we should use it as an opportunity to discuss the limits of our knowledge and our assumptions. After all, you only ever get answers to questions you ask, and to the extent that this survey was designed by asking questions about institutions (or congregations), it necessarily reflects that bias.

But let’s not assume that we’re bias-free just because we can so easily see the bias in others. Wilson does a great job of critiquing the methodological flaws in this survey as they pertain to the specific case of Buddhism, including that by relying on institutional affiliation the survey necessarily misses those who practice Buddhism but don’t belong to an organization while simultaneously relying on institutional membership data that might be inflated. On the other hand, surveys (such as the 2008 and 2012 Pew surveys) that rely on self-identification may underestimate numbers of Buddhists because not all persons who practice Buddhism self-identify as such or openly reject the label. These folks (see Tweed’s “night stand Buddhists” and “Buddhist sympathizers”) are a potentially large population who, because they eschew these two standard ways of “counting” religious adherents, are notoriously hard to quantify. Wilson, however, makes the startling claim that “[t]hese missing Buddhists almost certainly comprise the majority of people practicing Buddhism in America. So at the very best, these maps represent the relative sizes of minority religious institutions in each state rather than the actual relative number of Buddhists, Muslims, and so forth.”

I’d be very curious to know how he supports this claim that the “majority” of US Buddhists fall into a category that is nearly impossible to quantify.(1)

More to the point, the continual advocacy for these “missing” Buddhists in the literature on US Buddhism is itself a sort of bias. It presumes that individual practice, absent of any institutional affiliation or self-identification, is as important or more important than traditionally defined Buddhist institutions or lineages. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. I’d argue that neither of these positions is more important; they’re just two aspects of what it means to do Buddhist practice in the US. Sometimes, it can be very useful to know the “relative sizes” of “institutions.” After all, what is an institution if not a sangha?

Finally, I almost hate to do this, but I must. While I agree with the majority of Wilson’s concerns about this survey, he uses this critique to bring us back to his regionalism approach to the study of US Buddhism. “To practice Buddhism in California may be a different thing than to practice it in South Carolina,” he writes. Yes, absolutely. But I would go further. To practice Buddhism in Ukiah is most certainly a different thing than to practice Buddhism in Alturas. (I consider Jeff a colleague and a friend, and he once said to me that he thought we should go even more hyper-local in our approach. It’s in that spirit that I’m writing this, to point out that the spirit of religious tolerance and experimentation in California is hardly universal in my home state.)

In 2008, by a slim margin, California voted to ban same-sex marriage (a ban since overturned). This came as a shock to folks who mistake “Hollywood” for “California.” To those of us living here, we know very well that the Golden State is anything but homogenous. In places like Alturas — located in a part of the state so conservative it’s tried to succeed from California and form its own state with southern Oregon — Proposition 8 passed by as wide a margin as it failed in San Francisco. Alturas, by the way, is just 300 miles away from Abhayagiri Monastery, but it may as well be 3000 miles away in terms of a place where diversity in general is celebrated.

Which brings me to a set of questions. Is flawed data necessarily useless? Or can we use flawed data pedagogically? When the 2008 Pew Report came out, many of us used it as an opportunity to reveal the flaws in our thinking about “American Buddhism” especially as it pertained to the real majority of US Buddhists (cough Asian Americans cough).(2) Can we use this set of flawed data in a useful way, to expose the limits of our thinking about states and regions? Does it make sense to talk about “California” Buddhism? On the flip side, can we locate patters of practice or belief across state lines? For example, both Dallas County, Texas, and Santa Barbara County, California, voted for Pres. Obama by the same percentage in the last election. Are these two metropolitan locations more similar to each other than they are to neighboring counties in their own states? Why or why not? Looking at the county-by-county map of US Buddhist institutions (even if that inaccurately reflects individual persons) are there similar patterns between, say, Contra Costa County, California, and Fulton County, Georgia (both of which have the same range of reported “congregations” according to this survey)? There may be. There likely aren’t. But in the absence of a different type of data — ethnographies of Buddhist communities in both locations — we just don’t know and shouldn’t presume to know.

In short, we’ve got a lot to learn and a lot of unanswered questions. Stop reading this; go out there and find some answers.


Tangential aside 1: Say what you will about the Pew Reports, but I think it’s worth noting that their 2012 report on Asian American religion used “religious commitment” as a category rather than membership. This had its own flaws (as a measurement based on a set of questions that included rates of attendance at worship services but did not include whether or not folks had a home altar), but I think it’s a good first step toward better accounting of religious/spiritual practice and, potentially, could be used as a way to get an accurate number of this category of “missing” Buddhists. Maybe. It’s something to think about, anyway.

Open question 2: It’s possible that Asian American Buddhists are included in Wilson’s category of “missing” Buddhists. But he doesn’t explicitly say this, so I’m not sure. I’d be curious if this is what he means, and I will admit that when I first read this piece I assumed his “missing” Buddhists were a reference to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd — an assumption that might be wrong. And I’d be happy to be wrong.

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