What do Americans know about Buddhism? “Not much,” say most.

One-fifth of survey respondents incorrectly said that Buddhists believe in an “immortal soul,” and most said they don’t personally know a Buddhist.

Martine Panzica
26 July 2019
Photo by Nat Weerawong.

In a new study on Americans’ religious knowledge, 38% of respondents said they know “not much” about Buddhism. For the study, which was conducted by the Pew Research Center, 10,971 Americans were asked 32 multiple-choice questions on religion, including questions on Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. While most respondents seemed to have general knowledge regarding Christianity, the respondents had substantially less understanding of the other religions.

The majority of Americans do not claim to be experts, with 20% of Americans reporting they know “nothing at all” about Buddhism. 38% said they know “not much,” and another 36% said they know “some.” 6% of Americans — or one in twenty — said they knew “a lot” about Buddhism. For comparison, Pew estimates that 1% of Americans are Buddhist (though that number is debated). About one-quarter of respondents said that they personally know someone who is Buddhist.

One of the survey questions on Buddhism asked respondents to identify one of Buddhism’s four noble truths, given four options. About one-fifth of Americans correctly identified the “truth of suffering,” while another fifth selected “every living being has an immortal soul,” — a view upheld in Hinduism, often conflated with Buddhism, but explicitly rejected in Buddhist teachings.

Americans also confused Buddhism and Hinduism when asked about the core text of Hinduism. 15% of respondents correctly identified Hinduism’s core text as the Vedas, while 20% selected the Mahayana Sutras, the core text of the Mahayana school of Buddhism. (Get an in-depth explanation of sutras in Daigaku Rummé’s definition.)

The study asked respondents to rate their views towards various religions out of 100, with a higher number indicating a more positive impression. Of all religions, Buddhism had the largest difference in ratings between those who know a lot about religion and those who don’t. Americans who scored well on the religion quiz gave Buddhism an average rating of 65/100, while those who scored poorly gave Buddhism a relatively low rating of 49/100. In general, the study found Americans who knew more about a religion had significantly more positive views of both the religion and its adherents.

To read more on this study from the Pew Research Center, you can look at the complete findings here. And, if you want to test your own knowledge of religion, you can take the 15-question survey quiz yourself.

If you want to brush up on your knowledge of Buddhism — or share info with someone you know who would like to learn more — you can find some introductory articles and answers to common questions, here:

Martine Panzica

Martine Panzica

Martine Panzica is a Digital Editorial Assistant at Lion’s Roar. She is passionate about the power of storytelling in media, and sustainable development. To learn more about her, visit martinepanzica.com.