One of the most frequently asked questions at the Pluralism Project is about statistics- how many people are here from a given religious tradition, how many centers are there, what percentage of the population are we talking about. There is a paucity of information since the U.S. Census does not collect figures on religious adherence for the country. What information we have about such numbers is controversial; some suggest that a religious tradition that keeps track of its own adherents has a vested interest in maximizing those numbers. The presence of religious diversity does not require proof; it is a fact that can be seen in communities across America.
Eileen Linder, the editor of the 2000 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches suggests that counting is not the best way to understand our increased religious pluralism; "we now have a critical mass of people from different religious traditions. Whether we have the numbers or not...we need to learn ways to engage with them."
Numbers do offer some perspective on the diversity. The number of Baha'is in the U.S. is accurately counted using a very strict definition. Ellen Wheeler, Assistant Director of the Office of Public Information for the Baha'is of the United States, offers the following statistics: There are 1,152 local Spiritual Assemblies in the US, of at least 9 people each. The total number of Baha'is in the US is 142,245 as of July 2000, and of these 7,403 are youth and 7,434 are children. Her statistics are based on a signed declaration card which is sent to the national center in Chicago. Other sources that offer larger numbers (the 2000 Britannica Book of the Year estimates 753,000) are surely using a less strict definition of who is Baha'i, possibly including all those who attend Baha'i fireside gatherings. Both estimates have validity, and their discrepancy points to the significance of how one defines an adherent to a tradition. Who is being counted?
While size is one factor in considering the impact of a religious tradition, there are ways that even relatively small traditions influence our common society. For example, Gaustan and Barlow, in their recent publication New Historical Atlas of Religion in America, suggest ways in which the Baha'i community is significant to the entire public. They write, "reflecting its modest numbers - about one-twentieth of 1 percent of the U.S. population - the Baha'i community has wielded only limited influence on American society. Nonetheless, Baha'is have channeled their efforts into two streams of continuing importance: world peace and improved race relations. Particularly in the later realm, Baha'is influence may yet come to outweigh its numbers. Both by principle and by demographic fact, American Baha'is are a highly diverse lot. As a community, Baha'is may prove an instructive laboratory for the creation of values essential to ensure mutual respect in an increasingly diverse society."
For Buddhists, the matter is even more complex. There is no one central office counting the numbers, and there is the added complexity of immigrants and American converts, along with those who enjoy a meditation practice or participate in other Buddhist practices but do not consider themselves Buddhist. Current estimates of the number of Buddhists in the US range from 2,450,000 to 3-4 million. However these figures are estimates to be used with caution.
Martin Bauman, in his article entitled The Dharma Has Come West: A Survey of Recent Studies and Sources, writes that in the mid 1990's there are roughly 3-4 Million Buddhists in the USA, which included 800,000 Euro/American Buddhists. He estimated 500-600 centers, and using a total population figure of 261 million, Buddhists represented 1.6% of the population. Don Morreale lists over a thousand centers in the U.S. and Canada in his Complete Guide to Buddhist America, and the Pluralism Project currently lists 1212 Buddhist Centers in the US, which indicates continued growth of this population through to the present time.
The estimated number of Hindus ranges from just over one million to almost 1,300,000. Gaustad and Barlow write of "well over 1 million Hindus residing in the United States," which they arrive at by considering Asian Indian immigration data along with an estimate of non-Asian Hindus.
The number of Sikhs is thought to be roughly around 250,000.
The 1997 Jain Directory of North America lists 6644 Jain families in the United States, which could easily translate into 25,000 Jains. Gaustad and Barlow write of the increase in Jains and their particlular demographics as follows: "In the early 1990s, there were an estimated 20,000 American Jains (5000 families). Jain centers and temples doubled from 34 in 1987 to more than 60 by the mid-1990s. Communities exist in most U. S. states and Canadian provinces, but 80 percent of North American Jains live in ten states, dominated by New Jersey (16 percent), California (15 percent), and New York (12 percent), with significant representation in Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Texas." By now the Pluralism Project directory lists 107 Jain centers and temples, which indicates even more growth.
The number of Zoroastrians in the U.S. is estimated to be 18,000.
The number of Muslims hovers around an estimated 6 million, according to national Muslim organizations.
The number of Jews likewise hovers around 6 million. The American Jewish Committee suggests - 6,061,000, 2.2 % of population, as of July 1, 1999, exclusive of PR and Virgin Islands, while the Britannica Book of the Year estimates 5,621,000.
Pagans estimate themselves to be between 768,000 and one million practitioners in the United States. A poll conducted by the Covenant of the Goddess, a national organization, estimates 768,400 Witches and Pagans in the U.S. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance suggest a 50% margin of error for all of the widely varying estimates on the number of Pagans. The estimates do not capture the much larger population that is interested in Paganism, as evidenced by the book buying audience and presence and activity on the web.
On an aggregate level, we are looking at roughly 17 million people, over 6 percent of the population, practicing diverse religious traditions within the U.S., and that does not consider the diversity within Christianity itself. Surely we need to learn to engage around our differences, to use the opportunity of such diversity to benefit the whole society by clarifying our faith commitments and learning from engagement and encounter.