Religious Diversity in Austin, TX: Come for the Economy, Stay for the Attitude (2003)

According to the 2002 Census, 657, 688 people live within Austin city limits. Of that population, 129,163 are foreign born–about 19.64 percent.[1] This places Austin twenty-fifth on a list of large American cities with the highest percentages of foreign-born residents.[2] Because the Census measures only household population, these figures generally do not reflect the 4,500 international students at the University of Texas who have come from 115 different countries. Politically, Austin is considered by many to be a liberal anomaly in an otherwise conservative state. Economically, the city is known for its communication and technology industries–perhaps the most famous being Dell computers. Austin is also known for the music industry and a budding film industry. As I visited different faith centers, I tried to learn the answer to two questions about the city where I grew up: How religiously diverse is Austin and what factors have contributed to its diversity?

The centerpiece of this research has been a series of profiles for twelve different faith centers. Before starting the project, I created a list of nearly 30 non-Judeo-Christian centers in the city. (Centers that could generally not be found in the phone-book under “churches.”) At first, I desired to focus on faith-centers that primarily served a specific immigrant population (Vietnamese, Thai, Punjabi, etc.) However, the majority of the groups on my list–especially many of the Buddhist centers–primarily served more mixed and naturalized populations. While both categories of faith-centers added to the religious diversity of the city, there seemed to be two different contributing factors: the city’s rising immigrant population has brought new centers to Austin representing faiths from all over the world; at the same time, many Austinites seem to be looking to new faiths other than that of their parents or grandparents. It is my assertion that both factors may be fundamentally intertwined via Austin’s economy. The theory of “creative-class” economics may help to explain the religious landscape of Austin

The Rise of Austin's Creative Class

Carnegie-Mellon’s Richard Florida, author of Rise of the Creative Class, ranks Austin as the number two “creative economy” in the country.[3] Florida’s theory of the “creative-class” describes an economy based on software design, music, film, management consulting, and writing as opposed to trade or industry. Centers of creative economy, or “idea cities,” are characterized by higher population growth, higher yearly wages, increased patent production, and a higher immigrant population. While the majority of immigrants arrive at gateway cities on the nation’s coasts, immigrants with more education and resources are often drawn to idea cities.

From 1990 to 2000 (1990 being the date that Richard Florida has designated as “the rise of the creative-class”), the number of foreign-born people living in Austin city limits nearly tripled, from 33,714 to 94,985.[4] Business analysts indicate that Austin’s immigrant population has been a great boon to the city’s renowned tech industry.[5] The culture of Austin has also been affected by this migration as well as the demography and economy.

The effects of the creative-class on American religion is currently a point of much debate in creative-class theory. Some speculate that a creativity-based economy leads to a decline in church attendance and traditional values.[6] Others have argued that a high percentage of immigrants are Christian and that the “secularization hypothesis” is really a rather antiquated theory not supported by the facts.[7] Since 1990, Austin has seen an increase in church attendance and the rise of many large temples and mosques. While “the rise of the creative-class” has not damaged church attendance as predicted, it does seem to be linked to religious diversity. Both immigrant and non-immigrant members of the creative-class seem to contribute to the rising number of Austin’s religious groups. I believe that the two halves of the creative-class share a kind of symbiotic relationship that leads to increased religious diversity.

How Religiously Diverse is Austin?

How religiously diverse is Austin? It can be safely stated that Austin enjoys a high level of religious diversity. However, it remains difficult to answer the question precisely even after looking at the city’s immigrant population, the number of different religious groups, and surveying different perspectives with qualitative interviewing.

The Census shows that Austin has a high number of foreign-nationals. However, this says little about the city’s religious diversity. Out of the population of 129,163 foreign-born living in Austin reported in the 2002 Census, 91,245 are from Latin America–a population that is traditionally Catholic. The next largest immigrant group is from Asia with 29,583 people.[8] Much of this population is also Christian. Austin boasts three Christian churches which are entirely Indian [9] and at least one which is entirely Korean. Thus, immigrant and religious diversity are not necessarily linked.

A clearer picture can be reached by looking at the number and variety of religious groups in the city. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to measure exactly how many different religious traditions and denominations exist in Austin. Austin Area Interreligious Ministries (AAIM) currently has 123 member communities including Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Ethical Culturists, Scientologists, etc. However, of the twelve groups that I profiled, only three were members of AAIM. The reason for this relates to the two factors of religious diversity described above: immigrants and non-immigrants. For example, of the sixteen Austin Buddhist groups that I was able to contact, only three were members of AAIM. Of those three, none were immigrant Buddhist groups. For several reasons, immigrant groups tend to be more “low profile” and less likely to become members of AAIM and it is for these same reasons that I had difficulty measuring the number of religious groups in the city.

After I made contact with AAIM, I found that we were both in the business of seeking out and discovering religious groups. Many immigrant faith communities are not listed in the phone book. Even large or well-established immigrant centers may not have a website or an e-mail address. Not surprisingly, AAIM had simply never heard of some of the groups that I profiled.

Furthermore, I found that some immigrant groups simply did not desire to be known. I managed to contact a Sikh group and a community of Zoroastrians who did not wish to be listed in the Pluralism Project’s directory. Similarly, some immigrant groups–for example the International Buddhist Progress Society’s Xiang Yun temple–are very well known but declined an invitation to join AAIM. By contrast, even very small non-immigrant groups seem more likely to have a website and to desire greater recognition.

It is possible that this phenomenon is linked to different missions of immigrant and non-immigrant religious groups. For example, the Xiang Yun temple has been following a specific program of development since its founding. For them, it was simply not yet time to become involved in interfaith organizations. Another possibility is that non-immigrant groups are more influenced by the American model of a religious institution–that is, an institution should have a board of directors, advertise, expand, etc. While I was able to contact many of the lesser-known religious groups, I am certain that I did not find all of the religious groups in Austin.

If we cannot quantify religious diversity using the Census or by counting religious groups, can it be measured by a city’s attitude? During my research I spoke with a wide variety of people both at the twelve centers I profiled and at various interfaith functions. Whenever I interviewed someone for the Pluralism Project, I would always ask the neutral question, “What has it been like for you living in Austin?” The answer was always positive whether I was interviewing Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or Wiccans. Sureshwari Devi of Barsana Dham described Austin as “excellent,” and Abbess Yi-Hong of the Xiang Yun temple described Austin as “a model of different people living in harmony.” The attitude of the city definitely seemed to be a factor in these perceptions of Austin's religious diversity. The question then became whether a positive attitude toward diversity is merely a nicety or if it actually indicates or contributes to religious diversity.

When I spoke with Stacy M. Weidmann, a Wiccan High-Priestess, she commented that Austin has a culture of open-mindedness and this is why the city claims a high number of Pagans and Wiccans, not to mention Satanists[10] and other esoteric movements. Some would argue that an open-minded attitude is not real diversity but rather bohemianism. It could further be said that any number of small, non-immigrant religious groups is not indicative of a religiously diverse city but rather of a liberal college town. I myself pondered this view through much of my research. However, combined with Austin’s high number of immigrants and its wide variety of immigrant and non-immigrant religious groups, I feel that the attitude factor does indicate that Austin is a community with great religious diversity. Furthermore, the creative-class theory suggests that there may be a very real and tangible link between a city’s open-minded attitude and its immigrant population. Thus both factors contribute to, and are indicative of, Austin’s diversity.

The Attitude Factor

I was now puzzled as to the cause of this attitude. Almost everyone described Austin as an open-minded city that is generally welcoming of diversity. What no one could tell me was why Austin has this attitude. Austin is considered by most of Texas to be the sole liberal city in an otherwise conservative state. (While visiting a Theravada monastery, a Burmese Buddhist from Houston asked me, jovially, “Why are you studying religion in this redneck part of the country?”) Austinites take such pride in their own uniqueness that “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers can be seen all over town. However, little of this fervor is to be found in Houston, which has an even higher percentage of immigrants than Austin. Houston is ranked ninth on the 2002 Census list of large American cities with the highest percentages of foreign-born residents. Houston also has substantial populations of Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.

A journalist from the Austin American Statesman suggested the possibility that in other Texas cities such as Houston, immigrant religions may be culturally drowned out by the overwhelming Baptist status-quo. However, this “Baptist theory” as it relates to the attitude factor does not stand up to scrutiny. According to the Glenmary Research Center in Atlanta, in 2000, 43.1 percent of Travis County (where Austin is located) residents belonged to identified Christian denominations.[11] That number is up from 38.9 percent in 1956. Furthermore, this growth seems to have come largely from Catholics and conservative, evangelical Protestant denominations.[12] The large influx of immigrants to Austin in the 1990s seems to have bolstered the city’s Christian population.

I think that a better explanation of the attitude factor can be found in the creative-class. If religious diversity receives greater appreciation in Austin, it is because Austin’s economy has gathered together creative professionals who share the open-minded perspective described by High-Priestess Weidmann.

One obvious example of creative professionals enhancing the appreciation of religious diversity can be found in the field of education. During my research I met Dr. Mary Black of the University of Texas and Dr. Kelley Bautch of St. Edward’s University. Both have made arrangements for field trips with large religious centers such as Barsana Dham, the International Buddhist Progress Society’s Xiang Yun Temple, the Um-Moameneen-Sayeda-Khadija Mosque, and others. Because of this, these centers receive a level of understanding from the public that they would not in a non-college town. These temples reported that when they held celebrations that were open to the public such as the Buddha’s Birthday at the Xiang Yun temple, or the Mela festival at Barsana Dham, hundreds of visitors arrived of all faiths and ethnicities. Similar temples exist in Houston, but the community at-large may be less likely to know about them or visit them. This is the attitude factor in action.

Attitude and Immigration

By studying Austin, I have concluded that the attitude factor does contribute to an increase in religious diversity. It is not merely bohemianism. While some of Richard Florida’s comments that “gays and rock bands” are signs of a strong economy are a bit flamboyant, his theory of an “idea city” does seem to apply to religious diversity in Austin. Open-minded people, of all faiths, have created Austin’s economy. The economy, in turn, has drawn record numbers of educated immigrants. Skilled immigrants further contribute to the idea-economy and the cycle continues.

Although Austin’s immigrants are not as numerous or as established as in some cities, their financial success has enabled them to build new centers fairly quickly. Of the centers that I profiled for my research, almost all of them were either founded, or acquired the funds for a major construction during the period of 1990 to 2000–the decade analyzed by Richard Florida as “the rise of the creative-class.”

Austin’s value of diversity and interfaith community encourages new faith communities to grow even faster. Tangible examples of this include former mayor Gus Garcia’s work, expediting a new center’s acquisition of a building permit, the Austin Police Department’s work with the Sikh community to improve public safety, or a Chinese, Mahayana center paying for electrical maintenance to help a Burmese, Theravada center. A clever sign from the Austin Chamber of Commerce might read, “Come for the Economy, Stay for the Attitude.”

The Future

Finally, if the economy is a fundamental component of Austin’s religious landscape, what will happen now that the economy has taken such a blow? Much of the celebrated boom of the 1990s came from the hype surrounding the dot-com companies and can probably not be recreated. Austin’s two biggest technology companies, Dell and Motorola, have also downsized dramatically. Somewhat ironically, Dell has begun moving many of its jobs to India, eliminating the economic incentive for immigration.

The 2002 Census reveals that the rate of immigration seems to have actually increased since the economy began to turn sour. In 2000, Austin was home to 94, 984 foreign-born residents, 14.75 percent of the total population. In 2002, this figure rose to 129,163 foreign born residents, about 19.64 percent of the total population.[13] Obviously, not all incentives for immigration are economic. Some of the immigrants I spoke with this summer arrived in Austin because they had married servicemen stationed at Bergstrom Airforce Base (now the Austin international airport.) Many had come to Austin to attend the University of Texas. Finally, Austin is still a “creative” economy even if it is currently a damaged one. I predict that as long as there is an effort to “keep Austin weird,” Austin will continue to attract immigrants and continue to remain religiously diverse.

—Joe Laycock, Pluralism Project  Student Affiliate


[1] U.S. Census Bureau, "American Community Survey Profile 2002, Austin city--TX," Data Profiles 2002, 3 September 2002,, (7 October 2003).↩︎

[2] U.S. Census Bureau, "Ranking Tables: 2002, Percent of Population that is Foreign Born," Data Profiles 2002, 3 September 2002,, (7 October 2003).↩︎

[3] Richard Florida Creativity Group, "City Rankings,", 2003,, (9 October 2003).↩︎

[4] U.S. Census Bureau, "Census 2000 Supplementary Survey Profile: Austin city," Data Profiles 2000, 6 November 2002,, (7 October 2003).↩︎

[5] Mark Lisheran & Bill Bishop, "Austin's fast-growing immigrant community is a source of wealth. Studies show that cities that welcome newcomers have higher wages, stronger economies," National Association of Seed and Venture Funds, 9 June 2002,, (9 October 2003).↩︎

[6] Joe Hootman, "Deus ex Machina," The Houston Review, 10 October 2003,, (10 October 2003).↩︎

[7] Ibid.↩︎

[8] U.S. Census Bureau, "American Community Survey Profile 2002."↩︎

[9] Hootman, "Deus."↩︎

[10] I believe High-Priestess Weidmann may have been referring to the Temple of Set, which has a center in Austin. Although categorized as a form of Satanism, the Temple of Set perceives the divine essentially as a metaphor for human potential. For more information see: Anonymous, "General Information and Admissions Policies," Skeptic Tank Text Archive File, 23 January 2003,, (10 October 2003).↩︎

[11] The Greater Austin Metropolitan Area occupies most of Travis County.↩︎

[12] Joe Hootman, "The Ongoing Christianization of Travis County, Texas, 1956-2000," The Ongoing Christianization of Travis County,, (7 October 2003).↩︎

[13] U.S. Census Bureau, "Census 2000 Supplementary Survey Profile."↩︎


Hootman, Joe. “Deus ex Machina.” The Houston Review. 10 October 2003, (10 October 2003).

Hootman, Joe. “The Ongoing Christianization of Travis County, Texas, 1956-2000.” The Ongoing Christianization of Travis County. (7 October 2003).

Lisheran, Mark & Bishop, Bill. “Austin’s fast-growing immigrant community is a source of wealth. Studies show that cities that welcome newcomers have higher wages, stronger economies.” National Association of Seed and Venture Funds. 9 June 2002, (9 October 2003).

Richard Florida Creativity Group. “City Rankings.” 2003, (9 October 2003).

U.S. Census Bureau. “American Community Survey Profile 2002, Austin city – TX.” Data Profiles 2002. 3 September 2002, (7 October 2003).

U.S. Census Bureau. “Census 2000 Supplementary Survey Profile: Austin city.” Data Profiles 2000. 6 November 2002, (7 October 2003).

U.S. Census Bureau. “Ranking Tables: 2002, Percent of Population that is Foreign Born.” Data Profiles 2002. 3 September 2002, (7 October 2003).