Bahá'í membership statistics
Letter One, question
Subject: Re: Bahá'í Growth
Does anyone know the basis for the membership figures given below? Are they running composites of declarations less withdrawals and deaths? Are they the number of American Bahá'í subscribers? Do the figures include folks who signed cards during mass teaching campaigns without recognizing the station of Bahá'u'lláh? If so, is there an other basis for measuring "believers"?
Figure 1, "Number of American Bahá'ís for selected years" appears in Robert Stockman's short essay, "U.S. Bahá'í Community Membership: 1894-1996," published in The American Bahá'í November 23, 1996, page 27.
Subject: RE: Bahá'í Growth
The list of Bahá'í population numbers in the United States from the 18890s to the present is a composite from various sources. The figures before 1934 are the best estimates possible, based on the US Religious Census (information collected by the Bahá'ís based on various definitions of membership). The figures from 1940 to the 1960s or 1970s come from Bahá'í News, where the figures were occasionally published. From some time in the 1970s on, a staffer at the National Teaching Committee (one with graduate school experience, not someone with no statistical experience) compiled the data from national membership records, probably annual membership reports in the files.
The definition of membership is more or less the same since the 1930s; a person must sign a declaration card stating he/she believes in Bahá'u'lláh, the Bab, and `Abdu'l-Bahá, and understands there are laws and institutions to obey (the card does not specify them).
The National Center, obviously, is not in the position to decide which cards were signed in good faith and which were not. The National Spiritual Assembly instituted a two-tier process about 1974, of (1) declaration, and (2) enrollment, the latter involving a meeting with the declarant to ascertain that the person understands what s/he is doing. The two-stage process was inaugurated because of abuses in mass-teaching campaigns during 1968-72. It is difficult to say how extensive "abuse" was; there are stories about what people did ("sign here and you'll start getting a newspaper every month" for example). I participated in mass teaching in Florida in 1979 and saw no cutting of corners. I have never heard anyone say that "corner cutting" was extensive or widespread, so I am of the opinion that rigorous sociological research is needed to determine it, rather than relying on anecdotes.
The National Bahá'í Center does not maintain a list of "inactive" Bahá'ís. Its membership list is divided into several categories:
These figures are from the annual statistical report sent to the Universal House of Justice in late August and are public statistics. If you'd like to know how many Bahá'ís there are in any particular state, I can tell you.
Of the 138,000, roughly half have good addresses, and I think about a quarter each are mail returns and address unknowns. But people do not stay in the mail return or address unknown categories because sometimes they notify the NSA of their correct address. The Information Services department makes over 20,000 address changes a year; Bahá'ís move a lot (the United States census reports the average American moves once every five years). When an address is updated the date of the update is now kept, but I don't know whether it has always been kept. At some point in the future Bahá'í sociologists could define "membership" as someone whose address has not been listed as "address unknown" for the last, say, five years or the last ten years, but I am not sure whether the data would allow that yet.
A few other matters. Electoral districts are defined based on known addresses, of course. Some areas have more "address unknowns" than others. I once asked the computer to give me the list of everyone in South Bend, Indiana (where I live) who falls in all three categories. We had 27 with known addresses and maybe three in the other two categories.
Defining membership is extremely subjective and whenever anyone says group X has so many members you always have to ask "by what definition"? There are usually several definitions that are legitimate. If you go through a town and ask everyone what their religion is, you will get a definition based on "religious identity." You will find people who say they are Lutherans that the local Lutheran church has never seen, because they moved into town as Lutherans and still consider themselves Lutherans, but never go to church. There are a very small number of people in the United States that are Bahá'ís by that definition. When I was the Bahá'í representative to the Harvard-Radcliffe United Ministry I got all the "religious identification cards" that had been marked "Bahá'í" (these were included in the registration packet every September; completing it was optional). In addition to the cards turned in by the Bahá'ís there were always 1 or 2 people we had never heard of. There were also a few people who checked multiple boxes, like "Orthodox Jew" "Bahá'í" and "Buddhist."
Even with the "address known" people, the "quality" of faith varies a lot. I have a friend who declared after knowing about the Faith for 20 years. Every now and them we get in a discussion and he say "Rob, what do we believe about X?" He wants me to tell him what "we" (he and I) as Bahá'ís believe! This friend also gets feasts and firesides mixed up. But does he have a Bahá'í identity? Yes.
Regarding what fraction of the "mass taught" Bahá'ís have a Bahá'í identity, this requires research to answer. If people didn't have an identity when they signed a card, maybe they do after receiving *The American Bahá'í* for twenty years! Whenever new membership cards are mailed to people, a hundred or so are returned by people who say they aren't Bahá'ís. Recently an effort was made to find telephone numbers for Bahá'ís who were "address unknown" in South Carolina and they were called. I haven't heard the details, but the informal estimate I heard was that maybe 10% of them do not identify themselves as Bahá'ís.
I hope we can get better data, though. Recently 4,000 Bahá'ís were chosen at random and sent a letter asking them to participate in a "survey panel" for 18 months. A third replied favorably; almost no one refused. The panel has been divided into thirds and each third will be surveyed twice a year on different matters. Then a different 4,000 people will be selected and asked to participate and new panels will be constituted. The surveying task force hopes to make surveying a permanent part of the Bahá'í community culture. The panels are being checked for sample bias and other scientific efforts are being made to check reliability of the results. I hope in a year or so the results can be published in a proper, peer-reviewed journal, just like research on Baptists and other groups. The Bahá'í Faith is part of the Cooperative Congregational Survey project, a massive effort by 40 denominations to survey their congregations simultaneously about the same issues in early 2000 (coincident with the decennial US census). So surveying of the American Bahá'í community--which actually began in the early 1980s, and accelerated with small surveys in 1988 and 1992--is now beginning to be developed on a professional basis. I hope the results, in a few years, will replace anecdotes and speculation with hard data.