09 June 2017

How Many Baha'is Are in the World?

I found some!
How many Baha'is are in the world? The correct answer is: nobody knows. But there is a deep primordial need for Baha'is and non-Baha'is alike to somehow gauge the relative success and strength of the world religions. This need is most easily met with the simplest of statistics, how many believers are there?

To Baha'is who expect their religion to gradually permeate the majority of the world's population over the next few centuries, they will be excited to see its growth. In fact, they will most likely overstate its actual growth because growth begets growth. When an idea spreads in a population, it can quickly move from 10 to 50% of the population, but the growth from 0 to 10% can be painfully slow and difficult.

There are also those who want to see the Baha'i Faith fail. They will be excited for low estimates of the Baha'i population worldwide, because lower numbers are discouraging. It takes extra moral strength to carry beliefs that are different from the majority of society.

From 1991 until present, the Baha'i World Centre has said that there are "more than five million Baha'is." Outside observers have actually given a higher number, listing the community as "more than seven million", ranging from 7.2 to 7.8 million.

Internally, the Baha'i number is most likely from worldwide membership rolls, and the external observer sources are a variety of censuses and surveys. I'd like to explore some ideas about both of these sources, and if this is boring I totally understand if you want to go do something else.

Baha'i Membership

A common criticism of the Baha'i rolls is that they are inflated. This is fair in a certain sense, but Baha'is are not doing anything wrong. I'll explain.

I live in a city of 600,000 and the Baha'i membership rolls have 412 adults (age 21 and over). Out of those, 40 have requested no mail, and 341 have good addresses. That leaves 31 with "unknown" addresses. Between 110-150 give to the fund at least once each year (age 15 and up). At election time between 55-70 people (age 21 and up) cast ballots for the Local Spiritual Assembly. At the large centralized gatherings, it's common to have between 50-70 people in attendance (of all ages). So how many Baha'is are in the city? Nobody knows, but it would sure be useful to answer that question in two parts.

If you look at religious communities that are comparable in size and are not part of the dominant culture, you find that they commonly give a two-part answer. For example, Jehovah's Witnesses claim 8.3 million active participants, and 20 million people who attend at least once a year.

Many churches will have a membership list that ranges from 200-400, and an actual church attendance of less than 100 and a small core of leadership of just a handful. That is because people can wholeheartedly believe in a faith, but religious practice comes in a spectrum from someone who rarely reads scripture and has no participation in community life, to someone who reads every day and actively teaches others.

As it is for Baha'is. Out of those 412, let's say 250 are never seen at formal community activities (60%). Out of those, there is certainly a mix of people that either 1) say they are Baha'is, or 2) say they are not Baha'is. And really nobody knows their status, or how many are in which category. It would be incredibly difficult to figure it out and it's mostly not worth the effort. There are people who regard themselves as Baha'is who are not enrolled. There are Baha'is who have not participated in years but they are truly Baha'is in their hearts. I've known cases of people who haven't shown themselves for years but when the Faith is misrepresented in the news, they approach the Local Assembly expecting action to be taken. I've known people who get inundated with responsibilities of family and work, who don't join in community life but raise their children as Baha'is. I've known people who discover the Baha'i Faith from these hidden enrolled Baha'is because they are still teaching their family and friends. For most people, declaring their belief in Baha'u'llah is taken quite seriously, and you never know where they are in their lives, so the approach of keeping declared believers on the rolls seems quite reasonable.

There are certainly also cases of people enrolled who would not self-identify as Baha'is. If someone enrolls in the Faith and later changes their mind, they typically don't tell anyone. Robert Stockman suggested in 1998 that his informal estimate was 10% of the "address unknowns" say they are not Baha'is when called. It's just a total guess, but I'd say out of that 60% that are not seen, 60% of those would not consider themselves Baha'is if you asked them (about 35% of total).

So it would be useful for everyone to read the data for what it is, Baha'i membership rolls are a list of people that have at one point professed belief. There are exceptions to that of course: there are Baha'is who have gone around signing up people who didn't understand what they were signing up to. Sometimes a Baha'i will call people on the list who live nearby to invite them to events. In one such case in my city, someone responded, "We don't go to that church anymore", indicating that they never even understood their enrollment in the first place (they were removed from the list, by the way). But those cases of mass sign-ups are rare and looked down upon by the majority of Baha'is. I have personally known a Baha'i who was chastised by an Assembly for that. In 1974 the National Assembly took steps to avoid enrolling people who did not understand what they were signing up for. There are also cases of children being signed up by their parents without actively deciding for themselves, but that should also be rare because it is a key Baha'i principle that parents should not decide the religion of their children.

Back to the point, the total number on the enrollment list is just what it is, and you have to pay close attention to the ages being described. Nobody should claim it reflects a perfect measure of self-identification in a city or country, but it's a quick and easy way to get pretty close. Based on my wild totally unqualified guessing, you could just take off 35% from the total enrollment and that is probably getting you close to reality.

Another useful number to report is active participation, which currently is not published by Baha'is the way it is for some other religious groups where "good standing" requires more than professing faith. It's not common practice now, but a good estimate of active participation could come from how many enrolled Baha'is contribute to the Baha'i funds at least once per year. That would be easy to calculate because ONLY Baha'is are allowed to give to the funds, so each contribution must be associated with a real person. But that estimate would probably be low because it would not account for spouses and children when one person donates for the household. Another method might be to report how many vote in the annual election, but that would also be low; I have known numerous people who are actively involved but forget to vote. Based on my experience, 2.5 times the number of actual voters would be a good measure of Baha'is who participate at least once per year, or 1.5 times the number of fund contributors.

When asked, I usually say that my city has about 400 enrolled, and 150-200 active believers.

Outside Surveys in the United States

I've only heard of one case where the US Baha'i National Center organized a survey. It was around the year 2000 and found that 50% of people in the US had heard of the Baha'i Faith and could say one basic fact about it. I don't think it was big enough to independently survey the size of self-identifying Baha'is because, well, it's really complicated and expensive to do.

There have been several surveys of American religious adherence, mostly sponsored by Christian groups. There were two big surveys by Trinity College: the National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI) in 1990 with a sample size of 113,000, and the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) in 2001 with a sample size of 50,000. Both were done by the same Ph.D. Barry Kosmin.

The NSRI estimated 28,000 self-identifying adult Baha'is in 1990, and Baha'i membership rolls listed 110,000 the same year. This may seem like overinflation of membership by Baha'is, but there are several things to consider:
  • The NSRI estimated adults over the age of 18, but the Baha'i rolls likely include ages 15 and older, and possibly include children (the source lists "number of Baha'is" without specifying age).
  • The Baha'i community has a sizeable proportion of Iranian immigrants who may not speak English. It would only take 6.4 cases of phone calls to homes that don't speak English to make the data underestimate by 10,000, when the total Baha'is were estimated at 28,000. 
  • The sample size of the survey was small compared to the number of Baha'is, leaving a relatively large margin of error. There were 18 people out of 113,000 that identified as Baha'i. Each additional person responding Baha'i adds over 1,500 to the total estimate. 
Noting a protest from Baha'is, the authors of the survey gave the following remarks:
"The medium of communication, the telephone, has its restrictions. It is very likely that our Mennonite total does not include the estimated 90,000 Old Order Amish who do not possess telephones. It is also possible that our methodology tended to undercount groups that live in communal settings. Such a lapse was suggested to us by the Baha’i religious organization, which operates several collective settlements in the Carolinas and claims 110,000 adherents nationwide, as a partial reason for the undercount in the NSRI (we found only 28,000). It is likely that many recent immigrants from Iran, with their expertise of persecution, were reluctant to reveal their Baha’i faith in a telephone interview. As we explained earlier, the range of miscount for small groups of 200,000 or fewer adherents could be proportionately very large. Quite possibly, the NSRI underestimated many small groups and overinflated others. (NSRI 1990 Methodology)
The gap between mebership rolls and survey data was narrowed when the ARIS survey estimated 84,000 self-identifying adult Baha'is in 2001. That's a 200% increase from the last survey 11 years earlier. The Baha'is rolls only saw a 22% increase during that time.

Attendance at gatherings is not a great way to get a count of religious belief, but in 2008 Baha'is held large regional conferences across the United States and Canada. The combined attendance was about 19,000, confirming that the ARIS results of 84,000 in 2001 are probably far more accurate than the NSRI estimate of 28,000 in 1990.

Clearly the margin of error is too large to get an accurate picture, and many other surveys since then have not included Baha'i as an option when surveying religious identification. The more recent surveys have had smaller sample sizes, and imagine the difficulty in getting large numbers of samples. The 2001 survey cold-called 732,000 random phone numbers to get 50,000 survey results.

The Whole World

So far I've described the United States, the place that is actually organized and has resources to maintain membership rolls and perform surveys. It just gets worse from there, and if any news media says that there are X number of people in the world of whatever religious faith, if they don't provide a source then they really have no idea.

There are two sources that look legit. Something like independent research came from the World Christian Encyclopedia, which tried to survey global religions in 2010 and estimated 7.3 million Baha'is. The other source is the Association for Religious Data Archives (ARDA) in 2005, which estimated 7.3 million and gathered data from "the US Census Bureau's International Data Base, the US State Department's International Religious Freedom Report, the United Nations Human Development Reports, and others."

In 2012 the Pew Research Center published a report on the Global Religious Landscape, and this could have been the best quality estimate for Baha'is, but they lumped Baha'is in the "Other Religions" category that includes Sikhs and Zoroastrians. They said that there was not enough data to separate out these groups because they are not always included in censuses and surveys. They said:
"Because of the lack of data on these faiths in many countries, the Pew Forum has not attempted to estimate the size of individual religions within this category... (Global Religious Landscape)
It should be noted that most likely none of these sources come from actual surveys. They are armchair investigators. Nobody walked around the mountains of Bolivia and then the jungles of Indonesia and asked people what they believe. They are most likely, all of them, primarily influenced by the Baha'i membership rolls and a small handful of surveys and censuses performed by others. When a number is actually pinned down in a particular year and place, estimated growth rates are used to project future numbers. The problems noted for surveying the United States become tenfold when trying to estimate Baha'is worldwide.

While visiting another country I asked someone how many Baha'is were there, and they said, "Five thousand, plus or minus five thousand." I think Baha'is would love to get accurate numbers of believers, but it is just hard to do. I don't have any personal knowledge of it, but the publicly stated number of "more than five million Baha'is" in 1991 was probably the result of internal statistical gathering at the time, and hasn't been done since. The Universal House of Justice has been publishing concrete metrics that are more easily measured like number of Local Assemblies (12,000), localities where Baha'is reside (130,000), or ethnic groups/races represented (2,000). Recent years have seen a great maturing of Baha'i institutions at the cluster level ('Cluster' is a community grouping about the size of a US county) and the ability to collect statistics is better than ever before, so you might see the official worldwide estimate updated again soon.

The Curious Case of India

There is an interesting footnote about India. It has the highest official estimate of Baha'is of any country at over 2 million, however, a national census in 2011 gave only 4,572. That's right, the census says there are 0.2% of the Baha'i estimate. That should grab your attention if you're looking into how many Baha'is are in the world.

And this isn't new. The Indian Census happens every ten years, and in 2001 they gave 11,324 Baha'is, and in 1991 they gave 5,575 Baha'is. You may notice that the Baha'is in the census have gone down over time.

The independent ARDA review in 2005 certainly saw these numbers and still estimated 1.9 million Baha'is in India. So what is going on? I was surprised to find absolutely no commentary on this other than a few bloggers. It is actually noteworthy that demographic researchers seem to be ignoring the census and not bothering to explain it. Did someone accidentally add on a few zeros when reporting the total? Or did someone take away a few zeros?

It took me just minutes to figure out that the census in India is not given much respect, particularly when it comes to religious adherence. See thisthis, and this article. The censuses taken each decade lack internal consistency and contradict estimates from other data sources. A census that includes religion can be incredibly controversial in a country with so much religious diversity, and political tensions could easily arise from the results. The United States doesn't even include religion in its census. Besides poor methodology and political distortions, the numbers might be distorted because the majority of Baha'is are in rural villages that are difficult to reach for surveys, and concentrated in certain towns and states. Or maybe some of the census takers grouped Baha'is with "Other" instead of listing the detail. Were they only counting tribal leaders and assuming the whole clan was the same? Or were they counting their cultural heritage as Hindu?

Another source of the inconsistency may come from Baha'is enrolling people who didn't understand what they were signing up for. After all, this happened occasionally in the United States, maybe it happened on a larger scale in India?

A look at the mass conversions that began in 1961 sheds some light on the numbers. India had mostly urban educated Baha'is until several attempts at teaching in rural villages became incredibly successful. Partly because of the Indian caste system and Baha'i principles of the oneness of humanity, the rural poor who were stuck in a lower caste were drawn to the message and enrolled by the hundreds. The Baha'i teachers at the time also didn't require Hindus to completely abandon all their traditions, but even reinforced certain Hindu beliefs, almost the opposite of Christian or Buddhist missionaries.

Indian villagers may have considered themselves culturally Hindus but believers in Baha'u'llah as the current avatar for this age. Baha'i converts in Christian countries have a similar emphasis on Baha'u'llah as the return of Christ. This audience-specific gradual teaching was similar to how `Abdu'l-Baha approached early believers in America, where some people initially viewed it as a syncretic combination of faiths, and social laws were not emphasized for decades. This approach in India could easily have left hundreds of thousands of rural Indians as enrolled Baha'is who would declare their cultural heritage as Hindu on a census, or more likely, have others declare them as Hindus.

Another result of mass teaching is that obviously there were many people who enrolled with enthusiasm, but either didn't fully understand the implications, or quickly faded back into Hindu traditions as it became clear that further study of the Faith would require a change in traditions. This is the stickest problem to resolve when trying to estimate numbers of believers, because it requires the demographer to make guesses at how many people studied further or pulled away. How many were "true" conversions?

Similar to the statistics in the USA, there is no deception in Baha'is reporting numbers. Remember, the membership rolls are just what they are, the number of people who at one point or another have accepted Baha'u'llah (The US declaration card says that the new Baha'i "believes in Baha'u'llah, the Bab, and `Abdu'l-Baha, and understands there are laws and institutions to obey"). Veteran Baha'is would have made attempts at consolidating those new Indian believers, but that is hard work and so is keeping accurate records. The urban Baha'is would not be in a position to then remove people from membership unless they clearly communicated that they didn't believe, which is rare.

Based on Baha'i accounts of the time, by the end of the 1960s many of the Indian converts had been fully integrated into regional training institutes that brought in villagers for multi-day trainings and sent them back as tutors to provide their own classes to villages. Many of the villagers themselves became active in teaching and bringing messages to areas without formal communications. It was a quarter century after the mass teaching began and was already consolidating that the Lotus Temple was built in Delhi, which brought meteoric attention to the Baha'i Faith, further accelerating growth.

It was in large part the shortcomings and successes of the story of mass teaching in India that showed the need to establish a formal training program to consolidate new Baha'is after an exciting conversion. The Ruhi curriculum now serves as the training medium for Baha'is worldwide.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that the Indian census data on Baha'is is just wildly inaccurate. The census counted only 71 Baha'is in the territory of Delhi, where the Lotus Temple and Baha'i National Centre sit. In 2008 there were three regional conferences in India in the cities of New Delhi, Bangalore, and Kolkata that attracted more than 2,800, 1,500, and 1,500 Baha'is, respectively. 750 of those were coming from other countries, so that leaves more than 5,050 Indian Baha'is gathering in person during 2008. Any physical gathering would only bring a small fraction of the self-identifying Baha'is in the country.

How many Baha'is are in the world? In the United States? In India? Nobody knows. Baha'i membership rolls are the best source of data on how many people have professed belief, understanding that religious faith is complex and record keeping is difficult. Independent surveys are perhaps the best way to gauge self-identification on a large scale, but they are also difficult and costly. Baha'is are diverse and spread out, with relatively small numbers in almost every city and territory in the world, which makes counting them particularly difficult.

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