The blog of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle has responded to my post that Buddhists generally believe in God. Some of the comments also brought up some semantic issues which are real in how Buddhists view God, and how it might be distinguished from more personalized conceptions of the divine being, especially in the Abrahamic religions. The short of it is that many Buddhists will accede that gods may exist, but that their role in the religion is relatively marginal. Additionally, Buddhists reject the Creator God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which is an important distinction.
First, though the distinctions among gods are certainly relevant and important for religionists, to a nonreligious atheist, like myself, they’re not particularly important. A spook in the sky is a spook in the sky. More clinically a supernatural agent is a supernatural agent. The fact that one may believe in the existence of supernatural agents, but not worship a particular supernatural agent, is an interesting point, but from my perspective believing in a supernatural agent makes you a theist. Even a supernatural agent of somewhat limited scope vis-a-vis the omni-God of the philosophical monotheists. On a somewhat related point there is ethnographic and psychological cross-cultural data, reported in Theological Incorrectness, that suggest that the gods of all religions are conceptualized by human minds in the same way.
In any case, it seems entirely likely that Buddhists do generally believe in God/gods. But do they emphasize these supernatural agents to the same extent as monotheists? The World Values Survey asked how important God was in someone’s life. Below are a slice of nations, with Buddhists as well as some non-Buddhist groups as comparison points.
On the face of it it does seem that monotheists place God at the center of their lives in a way that Buddhists do not. One might quibble here and suggest that the way that the question was asked biased Buddhists to presume that “God” was the God of the Abrahamists, as opposed to god-like entities with supernatural powers of more Buddhist nature. But until further exploration confirms this hypothesis, I think one should accept the survey data and assume that religion does have an influence in reshaping the weights of various supernatural concepts and entities in one’s life. The Abrahamic meme does seem to transform people into relative God-addicts, as opposed to the recreational use common among Buddhists.*
* I suspect that there is some conflation here between “Buddhism” and the pre-Western nature of religious orientation in much of East Asia. Hindus in the data sets actually resemble Abrahamists more than the Buddhists.