by Guest Contributor (and frequent commenter) Atlasien
The similarities are fascinating. Buddhism and Islam in the United States are both minority religions with roughly the same number of adherents. Providing an exact demographic breakdown is impossible, and the issue of demographic study is controversial for both religions.
Here’s a good link to Muslim demographics in the U.S. It’s “good” not because I know anything about the site’s objectivity, but because it outlines the difficulties of achieving anything near an accurate count, and it lists multiple poll sources. There are somewhere between 1 and 7 million Muslims in the United States. In terms of ethnicity, about a quarter to a third of them are African-American, a quarter to a third are South Asian, a quarter are Arab and the rest are a mixed bag that includes a sprinkling of American-born white people and European immigrants.
Here’s a link for Buddhists that focuses on a recent controversial poll and does some great data-crunching. There are somewhere between 1 and 5 million Buddhists in the United States. As arunlikhati mentions in the above link, the 2008 Pew Forum Report has a demographic breakdown that’s horrendously inaccurate. They left out Hawaii, and the survey was conducted entirely in English or Spanish. That would be like providing a demographic breakdown of Catholicism by skipping Texas and asking questions only in English and Vietnamese. It’s completely nuts! Unfortunately, since “Pew” has such a strong brand name, the results of this study are going to be floating around for a while.
The Pew poll underrepresents the number of Asian-American Buddhists. A better estimate is that Asian-Americans represent somewhere from 60-90% of all Buddhists. The rest are composed predominantly of white people, plus a mixed bag with small numbers of African-Americans, Latinos and others. Different Asian-American groups that are well-represented in the US are going to have very different breakdowns. Vietnamese- and Cambodian-Americans will have high levels of Buddhism, Japanese-Americans will be medium, Chinese-Americans are all over the map while Korean-Americans are predominantly Christian.
Unlike Judaism and Hinduism, both Islam and Buddhism are religions with explicitly universal application and a strong history of proselytizing. There are strands within or associated with Judaism and Hinduism that do advance universal claims, but I think it’s safe to say that most adherents don’t claim universality as a goal. As a natural but somewhat paradoxical consequence of this universality, Islam and Buddhism have huge internal divides around race, ethnicity, class, immigration and convert status.