Buddhists do believe in god

By Razib Khan | June 23, 2008 1:46 pm

One of the points that I run into all the time is that Buddhism is a religion without god, that is it is an atheistic religion. I admit this assertion as an ideal or elite belief, but contend that the vast majority of the world’s Buddhists are theists, so one can’t simply present Buddhism as an atheistic religion when most Buddhists are not atheists. I do tend to agree that Western converts to Buddhism are often atheists, and that’s one reason Westerners view it as atheistic religion since the Buddhists they are most likely to know are not ethnically Asian ones. The US Religious Landscape Survey actually has some questions which assess the beliefs of American Buddhists.
buddhistsgod.jpg


racebudhist.jpgAs you can see the majority of American Buddhists are theists. To the left you see the ethnic distribution; even allocating all the atheists and agnostics (“Don’t know/ refused/ other”) to whites still leaves the majority of white American Buddhists admitting at least some belief in god! So you can’t dismiss this result purely as an artifact of Asian immigration to the United States introducing “debased” Buddhism.
This is not to say that I believe Buddhism is a theistic religion; one can’t deny that many people are Buddhists who are admitted atheists. It is to offer that to generalize about a religion one must look at the true distribution of beliefs and practices, not just scholarly inferences based on textual clues in their scriptures. Of the American religions listed Buddhism did have the highest number atheists (Jews were second at 10%), so it is correct to say that of all major World Religions atheistic interpretations are most prevalent in Buddhism. But it is too much to make the claim that Buddhism is an atheistic religion as such.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
  • http://leherensuge.blogspot.com/ Luis

    Dunno. It’s like finding out that, say, most Christians believe in Astrology and therefore concluding that Christianity is as Astrological. Or, maybe more likely, that most Catholics use preservatives and therefore concluding that Catholic doctrine is in favor of that. I guess that it is doctrine what defines a religion or ideology more than praxis.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Or, maybe more likely, that most Catholics use preservatives and therefore concluding that Catholic doctrine is in favor of that.
    you’ve confused my intent: it’s adoctrinal. practice doesn’t say anything about doctrine, nor does doctrine say anything about practice. at least by necessity. also, it would be news if you found that most self-identified catholics didn’t believe in transubstantiation, right?

  • http://realityconditions.blogspot.com/ Alejandro

    I suspect that by “preservatives”, Luis meant to say “condoms”.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    I suspect that by “preservatives”, Luis meant to say “condoms”.
    ah, a weird translation out of spanish?

  • Karma Yonten

    As some Jews in the survey say they are atheists, it’s very clear that the problem lies with the participants self identifying as Jews. Monotheism is clearly the central tenet of Judaism.
    In the same way, some Americans identify themeselves as Buddhists, but ignore a central tenet of Buddhism. (Incarnation as a diety is a trap leading to a decent into the hell realms.)
    The former group is interpreting “Jewish” as a kind of cultural or ethnic affinity, and disregarding religious doctrine. I suspect the latter is using “Buddhist” as a catchall term for a variety of vague “New Age” beliefs. For them “Buddhist” is a more comforting self description than “Pagan.”
    A far larger problem is your extrapolation that “the vast majority of the World’s Buddhists are theists.” Unless you can produce survey data from populations in China, Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea, where most of the world’s Buddhists live (and where monotheism does not have a long term history as a cultural assumption) you can’t back your position up.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Unless you can produce survey data from populations in China, Southeast Asia, Japan and Korea, where most of the world’s Buddhists live (and where monotheism does not have a long term history as a cultural assumption) you can’t back your position up.
    see theological incorrectness by d. jason slone, who has done extensive ethnographic field work among asian buddhists. in any case
    http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2008/02/christians_in_east_asia_are_sm.php
    45% of buddhists in south korea believe in an absolute being/god. i would be willing to bet the numbers are much higher in myanmar, thailand and indochina. i’m willing to bet that this is around the number for chinese and japanese buddhists. but southeast asian buddhists are generally theists if the ethnography is correct, so that would mean most buddhists are avowed theists (remember that the proportion of buddhists in china is rather small, while the vast majority of mainland southeast asians are at least nominal buddhists).

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    As some Jews in the survey say they are atheists, it’s very clear that the problem lies with the participants self identifying as Jews. Monotheism is clearly the central tenet of Judaism.

    and who are you to decide, with all due respect, god? reconstructionist judaism is actually explicitly open to atheism. that being said, i know many reform jews who are atheists though that movement is explicitly theist, so there’s a contradiction between what some believe at the grassroots and what affiliation entails. but, jews are less fixated on doctrinal confessions so it won’t be as much of an issue in communal settings.

  • http://branemrys.blogspot.com Brandon

    In the same way, some Americans identify themeselves as Buddhists, but ignore a central tenet of Buddhism. (Incarnation as a diety is a trap leading to a decent into the hell realms.)
    There is no ignoring of any “central tenet” of Buddhism. What Razib says about contemporary attitudes about God among Buddhists rings true in light of the history of Buddhist philosophy, since there are a lot of historical Buddhist philosophical works and commentaries that appear to assume the existence of gods (there are lots that don’t deal with the issue at all, of course). The ‘central tenet’ of Buddhism with regard to gods, if you want to call it that, is not that there are no gods, but that you should not, as a matter of practice, look to gods for salvation from the cycle of suffering. Obviously this is compatible with a wide range of views on whether there are any gods at all; e.g., it’s arguably more common in historical Buddhist works to deny that the gods are free of the cycle of rebirth than to deny that they exist at all. They are two different questions entirely.(Buddhism is roughly parallel to Epicureanism here; Epicureans could consistently be atheists, but their classical position with regard to the gods was simply that they had very little to do with anything, which meant that those Epicureans who believed that gods existed, which seems to have included Epicurus himself, were also consistent; they just held that the gods, too, like everything else, were just atoms in the void.)

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    brandon’s point is relevant. additionally, as well all know in many variants of buddhism the intercessor is basically a god, e.g., amitabha. but the same tendency even crops up in therevada buddhism too.

  • Eddie

    I think the point Brandon makes is important, especially given the wording of the question: “Do you believe in God or a Universal spirit”? That is not specific enough to draw the conclusion you do. Many Buddhists believe in gods and/or a ‘god realm’ as one of the 6 realms of Samsara, but do NOT believe in an all-powerful creator deity.
    The phrase ‘Universal Spirit’ is also rather vague too, since it does not specifically imply a being that is “responsible” for creation or who designed the universe. It could be interpreted as a phrase indicating something like ‘communal karma’ or ‘storehouse consciousness’ or other concepts not truly akin to a creator deity.
    I think if the question were worded differently, to specifically ask if you believe there is a single Creator deity who is responsible for all things existing, then the positive responses would be much lower.
    In any case, thanks for highlighting the survey! Despite the occasional vagueness it is quite interesting.

  • ngong

    I suppose that if you asked Christians the same question, the figure would be nearly 100%. To me, the figures above suggest that whatever Buddhism is “about”, god belief is peripheral.

  • HI

    Eddie,
    I think you are using too specific concept of god that, while may fit with the god of Christianity and other Abrahamic religions, doesn’t fit with gods in many religions in the world. Who is “an all-powerful creator deity” or “a single Creator deity who is responsible for all things existing” in Shintoism, for example? In a survey like this, you have to use a more general concept of “god” by necessity.

  • Jake

    Good work. Interesting.
    An ancient verse ascribed to the Buddha in the Questions of King Milinda says:
    Not far from here do you need to look!
    Highest existence — what can it avail?
    Here in this present aggregate,
    In your own body overcome the world!

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clark Clark Goble

    Even within Christianity though things are complex since not everyone accepts creation ex nihilo and so accepts that some things just exist on their own uncreated by God but perhaps organized by God.
    The fact is that when we try to paint with big brush strokes you always misrepresent large diverse movements.
    The problem is that there is absolutely no single concept of god that fits all religious use of the term god.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    Even within Christianity though things are complex since not everyone accepts creation ex nihilo and so accepts that some things just exist on their own uncreated by God but perhaps organized by God.
    i assume that the proportion which reject creation ex nihilio is higher in utah than in rhode island? ;-)

  • bigTom

    Well, I was Buddhist for about twenty years, and still group identify with them. While we did speak of some semi-supernatural entities, such as demons, it was always claimed that these don’t have real existence, but rather that through ones mental attitude one was either in tune (or not) with the universe. Karma was seen as a means of influencing ones own luck. So the concreteness of such beings was quite a bit less than is usually the case among westerners.

  • http://leherensuge.blogspot.com/ Luis

    I suspect that by “preservatives”, Luis meant to say “condoms”.
    ah, a weird translation out of spanish?
    Hehe, sure. Contraceptives in general actually. We also use condom (“condón”) but it’s percieved as slightly more explicit maybe and also contraceptives (“preservativo” in Spanish) has a wider meaning.
    I hope the misunderstanding did not obscure my central point about doctrine vs. praxis.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    I hope the misunderstanding did not obscure my central point about doctrine vs. praxis.
    many buddhists may believe that vegetarianism has merit but not be vegetarians themselves. that’s an appropriate analogy. what we’re talking here is simply a contradiction of an assumption about belief. a better analogous example would be the fact that a substantial minority of professing american christians seem to accept reincarnation.

  • Zora

    What we experience often can’t be controlled or explained. How do you relate to the inexplicable? You can personify it, as one or many beings. Gods is the word we’d use. Or you can refuse to personify it. “Buddha nature pervades the whole universe.” In either case, you’re dealing with an idea about something that evades ideas. When some people, like Maimonides or St. Theresa of Avila or Rumi, talk about God, I think I understand that god. When some people talk about Buddha nature or the void, I think I understand that. Two ways of looking at the same thing. Same no-thing.
    Some people. Most people will take ideas of god or the void and try to turn them into levers with which to move the world. Get what they want. Religion turns immediately into its antithesis.
    Sorry if this this is too gnomic. I find I can’t expand without becoming the antithesis.
    If someone had asked me that poll question, I would have refused to answer on the grounds that the question didn’t make sense.

  • bob koepp

    bigTom – In traditional buddhism, “real existence” is denied of everything, so demons are as “real” as you and me. Of course, the proportion of buddhists who incorporate such “doctrines” in their lived faith is probably comparable to the proportion of animists… to … zorastrians who “walk the walk” — virtually nil.

  • Eddie

    HI, you are right, I did use a narrow interpretation because the original post did say ‘believe in god’, not ‘believe in gods’, or ‘believe in dieties’ and so that’s what I responded to. Having said that, your point on varying definitions of ‘god’ is well-taken.
    To have a fuller discussion of this we’d have to distinguish what we mean when we say ‘theistic’ vs. ‘atheistic’. For example, are Vajrayana Buddhists ‘theistic’ because they teach of ‘deities’? Given the formal definition of ‘theistic’ I saw in Merriam-Webster, I’d say no: “belief in the existence of a god or gods; specifically : belief in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world”. But, a different definition of ‘theistic’ may lead to a different answer.
    In the end I think it comes down to semantics: in defining what you mean by terms like God, god, theism, atheist, and so on, it would make the discussion clearer. In any case, an interesting topic! :-)

  • HI

    Eddie,
    I guess the point I wanted to make was that if you use too narrow interpretations of “god” and “theistic,” the only religions that fit are the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. Buddhism is different from the Abrahamic religions. That is trivial. I thought what we are interested in is whether Buddhism is distinct from most religions by being uniquely “atheistic.”
    Maybe I’m just showing my frustration that I often feel when discussing religions with Westerners, whose views on religions are mostly shaped by Christianity, or at most by the three Abrahamic religions. There is no question that those are the most influential religions with many followers. And I wish if I were more versed in the Bible to appreciate Western literature, for example. But those don’t cover a very large spectrum of religions in the world.

  • ngong

    HI…I’ve lived in Thailand for the last decade and I very much understand your point. Whether the discussion takes place between atheists or not, it’s deeply colored by abrahamist perceptions.
    You go to a Thai, ask him if he believes in “god” (“prajao”), and there’s a decent chance he’ll say “yes”. He could be thinking of the “God Realm”, a sort of incarnation that’s not entirely desirable from a Buddhist point of view. But the Westerner goes ahead and puts a check mark in the “theist” box.
    Ask a Tibetan Lama about the “real” existence of the deities to which he prays to or identifies with (yidam practice). He’s likely to be quite coy. Alexandra David Neel noted this a good century ago, before Tibetans were making such an obvious effort to appear pro-science. But you tick the “polytheist” box.
    Go to a Thai Buddhist and ask him what supernatural beliefs he holds. He probably has a lot. Westerners, accustomed to monotheistic exclusivity, assume those superstitions are Buddhist. Ask a follow-up question, however, and you’ll find the Buddhist doesn’t ascribe those superstitions to Buddhism at all. Hinduism, or Chinese folk religion, perhaps. It’s simply assumed, however, that there’s no such thing as a Buddhist-Hindu. Hell, I’ve met self-identified Buddhist-Muslims in the South of Thailand.
    Etc.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    ngong, thanks for the nuance! i want to be clear that i am not trying to be *definitive*, but opening up the floor to the idea that frankly in this case a more post modern attitude toward what is true about religion X might be warranted.

  • Oscar

    The problem here is the title “Buddhists do believe in god.” You seem to be purposefully bombastic, such that the post title can very easily read “[All] Buddhists DO believe in [G]od! [Hah! I showed you~~]”
    Of course, reading the whole post and then your comments, the title can be read, “[Some] Buddhists [report that they] believe in [some sort of] god [or gods].” Entirely unarguable, and therefore, not really news at all.
    If you don’t want to be “definitive” don’t use titles that define so clearly!

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    If you don’t want to be “definitive” don’t use titles that define so clearly!
    just how the biz of headlines goes, dude :-)

  • Rogue Epidemiologist

    FWIW, it seems I’m a small cross-secction of the posts, so here goes. I’m a practicing Theravada Buddhist of SE Asian extraction, American born and raised. I’m agnostic — I don’t feel that my belief or disbelief is connected to the practice of my faith, though I think patent rejection of God a la Hitchens and Dawkins is intellectually and spiritually arrogant. Whatever the case, Buddhism does not necessitate theism nor atheism. It leaves room for people to believe either way. btw, I also like bacon. There are others like me, and plenty others who aren’t. Whoopty doo.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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