Asian Buddhists are not atheists

By Razib Khan | November 19, 2010 3:10 pm

In response to my two posts below on atheism statistics, people in the comments and around the web (e.g., Facebook) have pointed out that Buddhism is necessarily/can be atheistic, and that Buddhism, is not/not necessarily a religion, and therefore that explains the statistics. Some of these people are lazy/stupid judging by the way the argument is delivered, but they are clearly grounded in a reality which is expressed in books and documentaries which introduce people to Buddhism. There is a small issue which confounds this analysis of the atheism statistics: most East Asians do not identify as Buddhist. This is mostly because most citizens of the People’s Republic of China do not identify with Buddhism. That being said, Buddhism is clearly the dominant organized religion historically in many East Asian nations (though that has not been true in South Korea for the past generation). I reject the equivalence between the role of Catholicism in much of Europe and that of Buddhism in East Asia (the Church was a much more powerful, prestigious, and influential institution than the Buddhist sangha with only a few exceptional periods), but it can be argued that these are Buddhist cultures, just as they are Confucian societies.

But there’s a bigger issue with this objection: most Asians who identify as Buddhist are themselves theists. This is also the case for American Buddhists. Some people have objected that theism in a Buddhist context is not equivalent to theism in a Hindu, and especially Abrahamic sense. There is no creator god obviously. That is fine, but I think it is important to point out that no matter the theological details of their beliefs, most Buddhists do seem to accept the existence of supernatural entities which we would term “gods.” I was aware of this personally because I’ve encountered several people of Chinese origin who tell me that they’re Buddhist, they believe in god, when I tell them I’m an atheist (usually in response to the question about whether I am Muslim).

The previous question as to whether someone was a “Religious person,” “Not a religious person,” or a “Convinced atheist,” can be broken down by religion. I did so. Below are the data for Buddhists alone. I also provided the sample size for Buddhists. The overall N’s were on the order of 1,000-2,000. So you can see that only a small minority (5% actually) of Chinese in the People’s Republic identify as Buddhists. The other values are obviously percentages.

Country N Religious Not A Religious Person A Convinced Atheist
Japan 319 37 60 3
S Korea 298 37 61 3
China 70 91 9 0
Taiwan 224 50 41 8
Vietnam 226 62 15 23
Hong Kong 160 100 0 0
Thailand 1484 34 66 0
Malaysia 240 78 20 2
CATEGORIZED UNDER: Data Analysis, Religion
  • a proud third

    Stupid & lazy – okay, both true. But in the comments on your last Discover blog entry (Facebook is boring) I was the one who wrote that the higher percentage of atheists in buddhism-dominated countries may be due to the compatibility of buddhism and atheism. This does not mean that every buddhist is an atheist. Most of them are not, especially the ones with a lack education. But they CAN be be because there is no great tradition of burning or stoning (or whatever the followers of the local one true jehovallah deem an adequate punishment) them for it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    your point is broadly plausible. the main objection i would offer is that the difference within buddhist countries seem to be fall along sinic vs. non-sinic ones. a test would be sri lanka and burma, where buddhists and non-buddhists with broad cultural similarities coexist.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention Asian Buddhists are not atheists | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine -- Topsy.com()

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Samuel Huntington noted in “Clash of Civilizations” that Buddhism was suppressed in favor of Confucian, Taoist or other systems in China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. His minor Buddhist civilization consisted of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailan, Laos and Cambodia (Therevada branch) along with Tibet, Mongolia and Bhutan (Lamaist Mahayana branch). He was quite mistaken in perceiving the western portion of Ukraine as “Uniate” and liable to split from the east though. The great majority of both halves of Ukraine are eastern orthodox (even if the east does lean more toward Russia). Eugene Girin at VDARE did include the Ukranian Autocephalous Orthodox Church as characteristically western, but adding them to the Uniates still only gets a bit under 11% of the Ukranian population.

  • MarkD

    Very interesting blog entry! Thanks for writing it.

    “..most Buddhists do seem to accept the existence of supernatural entities which we would term “gods.” I was aware of this personally because I’ve encountered several people…”

    Most Buddhists?
    And you have encountered several people and they said ____?

    I’m not denying the existence of Buddhists that also have specific theistic beliefs, but are there any statistical breakdowns on this?

    The survey link referenced (“most Asians who identify as Buddhist are themselves theists.”) that asked the question “Do you believe in God or a Universal Spirit?” was very vague.

    I think a “Universal Spirit” belief would barely count as theistic only in the most broad and stretched sense of the word. That’s hardly a personal or active personification of God in the Theistic sense. It’s not even Deism. It more leans to Monism.

  • http://nosacredc0w.wordpress.com NoSacredCow

    I think the summation is that people can claim to be whatever they want to claim.
    If someone wants to be called a vegan cannibal, that’s all well and good. No harm no fowl.

    Personally I don’t like to be referred to as “convinced atheist”, just plain old atheist is good enough for me. I also appreciate little bits and pieces of wisdom that some religions offer. But just little bits and pieces.

  • Neil

    I know Buddhism in China was suppressed in favor of Confucian thought, but Japan? I thought Buddhism was dominant/coexisted with Shinto until the Meiji restoration.

  • http://buddhism.about.com Barbara O’Brien

    As a Buddhist of 22 years, I’ve come to appreciate that Buddhism is so different from western ideas about religion that nearly everything most westerners think they know about it is wrong, including this blog post. Abrahamic concepts of theism, or atheism, simply do not apply. Trying to shoehorn Buddhism into western cognitive models of religion, as this writer does, just creates more ignorance instead of clarity. It’s like trying to understand algebra by assuming it’s a type of music.

    That said, it’s true that in much of Asia what gets called “Buddhism” is often a mash-up of Buddhism, at least one other major religion (usually Hinduism, Taoism, or Confucianism), plus local folk beliefs, including animistic beliefs about spirits and other supernatural creatures. So, yes, people who self-identify as Buddhists believe all sorts of things, many of which have nothing to do with Buddhism.

    But in what might be called “formal” or “classic” teachings of the several schools, such creatures often are thought of as projections of one’s own mind, something like archetypes. This is not always apparent from casual observation, and westerners are perpetually applying western concepts of “gods” onto iconic characters that are not gods in any western understanding of the word.

    In the West, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tie down who is a Buddhist, and who isn’t. There are people self-identify as Buddhists because they’re vegetarians who keep a Buddha statue in their living rooms, but they don’t know the Four Noble Truth from spinach. There is also some confusion between what in Mahayana is called “Buddha nature” and “god,” because westerners who convert sometimes go through a phase of projecting ideas about God onto Buddhist teachings.

    If you work with it awhile, though, you perceive that Buddha nature is not anything like the western concept of “God.” It is not something separate from yourself to be worshiped or prayed to; it is not have a will of its own, it is not a cosmic judge directing punishment or reward. It is not, in fact, a person, supernatural or otherwise. And merely believing in it isn’t the point.

  • http://3Dthreeroyalwarriors%26cbid%3D Saddha

    Buddhism is not atheism. Indian religions are not atheistic. Buddha himself is called Bhagvan, which literally means God.

    The difference is that Buddhism allows one to become the supreme most, God is not other!

  • Andrew Lancaster

    I think there is a possibility for further debate on the philosophy of the implied definitions in this posting. When modern science was first hammered out as a theoretical possibility by people like Francis Bacon they did not argue against anything outside nature, i.e. not for any new metaphysics. Bacon argued that we try to avoid that type of discussion because it is built upon so little. Let’s call this atheism. So far so good for the distinction being made in the post between religion and non-religious, in such a way that believing in gods is enough to be religious. The problem comes with the minimalist metaphysics that science did have to accept, i.e. that scientists believe there are “laws of nature” – patterns which repeat and which we have faith will also repeat tomorrow. So believing in metaphysical entities of ANY kind does not make one religious perhaps? Or there are gradations?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I think a “Universal Spirit” belief would barely count as theistic only in the most broad and stretched sense of the word. That’s hardly a personal or active personification of God in the Theistic sense. It’s not even Deism. It more leans to Monism.

    this seems fair. though the ethnography in buddhist societies doesn’t seem to indicate depersonalized monism. boddhisattvas and/or buddha is transformed into a supernatural savior. the burden of proof is on you after the initial data sweep.

    I know Buddhism in China was suppressed in favor of Confucian thought, but Japan? I thought Buddhism was dominant/coexisted with Shinto until the Meiji restoration.

    probably not right to say it was suppressed in favor of confucianism. rather, the independent temporal power of buddhist orders was broken during the regimes of oda nobunaga and his near successors/contemporaries. confucian thought was encouraged during the tokugawa period, though buddhism never lost its influence as much with the elite as it did in song china from what i can tell.

    I’ve come to appreciate that Buddhism is so different from western ideas about religion that nearly everything most westerners think they know about it is wrong, including this blog post. Abrahamic concepts of theism, or atheism, simply do not apply. Trying to shoehorn Buddhism into western cognitive models of religion, as this writer does, just creates more ignorance instead of clarity. It’s like trying to understand algebra by assuming it’s a type of music.

    this is an understandable comment, but the problem is most buddhists, like most humans, are stupid and superstitious. so they turn their religion into a stupid and superstitious practice. ergo, talk about philosophy-on-high only has so much broad utility in terms of characterizing human behavior and belief as it is in the real world, outside of the elites of scholars and mystics. therefore, all the theoretical philosophical distinctions between western and eastern religions generally disappears at the level of the superstitious masses. ergo, the chinese and japanese perceived christianity to be a variant of pure land buddhism.

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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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