A Curious Puzzle: Americans’ Chilly to Lukewarm Perceptions of Buddhists Featured

by on Thursday, 08 January 2015 Comments

When Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell discuss how Americans view various religious groups in their critically acclaimed book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (2010), they reported that the three most "unpopular" groups are Mormons, Buddhists, and Muslims. Based on a "feeling thermometer" from 0 (coldest) to 100 (warmest), all three were ranked in the 40s, below the overall mean of 55 degree and the neutral point of 50. One may wonder how Buddhists could have received such a chilly reception in the US in absence of any typical factors that make a religion unpopular to others, such as negative media attention, social behaviors that run counter to laws or ethic codes of the larger society, historical or ongoing conflicts, and proselytizing competition for converts.

The number puzzles me, especially in comparison with the positive way Buddhists are perceived in France. As reported in a Figaro article in 2013, Buddhism is ranked by Tilder et l'Institut Montaigne as the religion most favorably viewed by the French: 87% of them have a good image of Buddhism, followed by 76% for Protestantism, 69% for Catholicism, 64% for Judaism, and 26% for Islam. Even if we take the exact numbers with a grain of salt, the "warm" feeling the French have for Buddhism can be corroborated by numerous other studies, surveys and newspaper or magazine articles.

It is certainly not the first time the French and Americans so sharply disagree, but the contrast makes it obvious that Americans' negative view of Buddhism may not have much to do with its place outside of Judeo-Christian framework. Putnam and Campbell believe that Americans' religious tolerance stems mainly from the fact that most of them "are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths." As a result, since there are so few Buddhists and Muslims, most Americans are not closely acquainted with anyone of them, preventing "religious bridging". The thesis makes a lot of sense in many regards, but it does not explain, for instance, why American Jews gave Buddhists a warm score of 64, the highest of what they gave to any religious groups other than themselves (Catholics received the same score).

If the condition for Buddhists to be viewed warmly in the US is for a large number of other Americans to be "intimately acquainted" with them, we may wait for a very long time. In a well-researched book, My Freshman Year (2005), anthropologist Rebekah Nathan (pseudonym) observes that college students, whom we might expect to be most dynamic and open-minded, tend to socialize in homogenous groups with those who resemble themselves in appearances and backgrounds. Yes, they are usually polite and civil, but display a surprising level of indifference towards unfamiliar cultures, bitterly felt by international students. Perhaps one of the deepest problems in the US is a pervasive lack of curiosity for difference or unfamiliarity, which is reflected in an overwhelming need to feel comfortable, and to find others "relatable" before willing to be associated with them. Living in the same neighborhood does not mean genuine friendship would result from such proximity, because neighbors seldom socialize with each other. Robert Putnam's bestselling Bowling Alone (2000) depicts precisely an America where people became increasingly disconnected from one another.

It is well-noted that divisions tend to run along racial lines, even in places of worship. In a fascinating article in Huffington Post, "Buddhism's Race Problem: Buddhist 'People of Color Sanghas'", Jaweed Kaleem reports on emerging exclusive Buddhist meditation groups where whites are not allowed, because minority practitioners feel judged and unwelcome in established meditation centers where members are almost entirely white. It may seem odd that Buddhism, a religion that teaches detachment from the self and appearances, cannot bridge the believers' racial division, but we need to take into account America's long history of racial segregation. It was only in 1967 that the US Supreme Court outlawed the so-called "anti-miscegenation laws".

Putnam and Campbell's book was based on Faith Matters Surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007. When Pew Research Center conducted a new survey in July 2014, Americans' "feeling temperature" for Buddhism has increased to 53 degree, still lukewarm but a noticeable improvement, warmer than 48 for Mormons and 40 for Muslims. What has changed? The survey offers various clues. Younger Americans give Buddhist significantly higher marks than older ones: 18 to 29 year-olds, a significant proportion of whom were too young to be included in the previous surveys, rate them at 58 degree, while those 65 and older give them a tepid 47. In addition, there seems to be a correlation with politics: Democrats view Buddhists much more favorably than Mormons (57 versus 44), while Republicans rate them slightly lower (49 versus 52). Does knowing someone from a religious group result in a more positive view? It definitely does, but not to the same degree. Buddhists receive the largest boost, from 48 to 70, the highest mark, but only 23% of Americans know anyone of them.

How do we interpret such statistics? How come Buddhists benefit so much more from familiarity than other religions? For what reasons some religious groups view Buddhists much more favorably than others do? Why do Democrats have a significantly more positive view of Buddhists than Republicans? To what extent those diverse perceptions are related to the specific teachings of Buddhism? Numbers do not lie, as the saying goes, but neither do they tell the whole story.

Photo By Aaron Logan (from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/albums.php) [CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Jin Lu (魯進)

Born in Sichuan, China, I have studied French literature in Beijing, Boston, and Paris. I am currently a professor of French at Purdue University Calumet, USA. Joséphine Baker has two loves; I have three, or perhaps more? If you do not want to tear yourself apart, you need at least three things, and that gives you balance. I enjoy dreaming, reading and writing, among others.

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