There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the new Pew Religion and Life Study, both here and at other blogs. In liberal religious circles, the matter of the discrepancy between reported UUs and those on the books at actual UU congregations has been the main topic of conversation.
The Pew study, like all studies, has certain flaws and oversights. For counting Unitarian-Universalists, it is quite good. But we should recognize that there are nonetheless difficulties with any project of this type and thus take it with a little grain of salt.
A good way to point to potential flaws is to look at how minority religious groups are counted. For example, this study seriously undercounts Buddhists in America. The Pew study claims that Buddhists make up .7% of the adult population, with is approximately 1.6 million people. 53% of these people are white, 32% are Asian-American, and the rest are a mix of races.
Scholars who work on American Buddhism know that these figures are wrong–quite wrong. Buddhist adherence in the USA is at least two or three times larger than this figure, and Asian-Americans make up the largest category, perhaps as much as 70-75% of adult Buddhists. Where did Pew go wrong?
Well, for one thing the study was only conducted in English and Spanish, but 40% of the millions of Asian-American adults in the USA are not fluent in either of these languages. That means that millions of Buddhists went unrepresented right there. Furthermore, the study did not cover Hawaii, which not only has a huge Asian-American population but a very large Buddhist concentration–Buddhism is the biggest religion in Hawaii after Christianity.
We should also be aware that studies like this which measure self-identification tend to miss Buddhist practice. Many people involved in Buddhism do not use an affiliational model of religion: they are Buddhist because they go to Buddhist temples and do Buddhist practices, not because they belong to a Buddhist organization or profess allegiance to Buddhism. Buddhism is not a creed-based religion and in many countries has no history of individual membership–it is common for Chinese and Japanese people to report “no religion” when asked, yet to participate regularly in Buddhist rites and draw on Buddhism for their spiritual needs.
If Buddhism is so poorly handled by this major study, naturally we can wonder whether Unitarian-Universalism and other religions are also bungled. But while we should be careful (always) about overconfidence in social science tools that measure such nebulous things as religious identity and commitment, there is little reason to assume that the mistakes made in measuring Buddhism apply in all cases. UUism is overwhelmingly dominated by fluent English speakers in the U.S., amply represented on the mainland, and derives from a Protestant tradition of individual self-identification and affiliation. It is thus exactly the type of religion that the study is well designed to handle.
There is likely some error in the reporting on UUism, but it shouldn’t be especially significant. If the numbers are treated as ballpark figures that represent the general ratio of UUs to the whole population, rather than as exact figures that tell us precisely how many people there really are out there, they can be used with a sufficient degree of confidence for most projects.