Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on ReligionInstitute for Studies of Relgion
IJRR :: 2018 Volume 14 :: Article 3
2018 Volume 14, Article 3
Introducing the Sort-of Buddhist: Or, “If There Is No ‘I’ to Have a Religious Identity, Then How Do I Fill Out This Survey?”

Author: Anne C. Spencer (The College of Idaho Caldwell) and Scott Draper ( The College of Idaho Caldwell)

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Western concepts of religious identity developed from worldviews that posit a permanent self and require exclusive acceptance of a single religion for salvation. These assumptions become problematic, however, when applied to traditions holding different worldviews. As a result, Western religious demographic research uses categories that do not accurately reflect many practitioners’ understanding of themselves and their religious paths. New approaches are needed to assess contemporary religious identity. A 2011 survey of participants in the Buddhist Churches of America asked respondents, “Would you describe yourself as Buddhist?” Response options included the new category: “yes, sort of.” While the majority answered that they were “definitely” Buddhist, 15 percent chose the “sort of” option. We explore potential motives for this selection from multiple perspectives including a brief overview of Buddhist philosophy and teaching regarding the nature of self, a review of previous literature on Buddhist identity, and quantitative and qualitative analysis of new and existing data. Our literature review and qualitative results suggest that the choice of Sort-of Buddhist identity reflects an understanding of religious identity grounded in Buddhist teaching regarding the “self” as impermanent and interdependent. We also identify a pattern in which individuals who began attending Buddhist temples as adults are disproportionately likely to identify as “sort of” Buddhist, even though they respond similarly to “definitely” Buddhists on measures of religious participation. Finally, we suggest that contemporary ambivalence toward exclusive religious identity in the U.S. may also be a factor in choosing a “sort of” religious identity.

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