Gene Expression

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.

  Japan Korea Thai. Viet. Malaysia Taiwan Singapore
Budd Budd Protest Cath Budd Budd Budd Mus Budd Budd Mus Protest
  0 7.4 12 1.4 7.6 0.1 25.7 0.4 0.4 2.9 4.3 0.4 1
  2 7.1 7.8 0.2 4.8 - 9.3 0.8 - 2.5 1.6 0.2 -
  3 8.9 8.9 0.7 12.8 0.2 2.7 2.1 0.3 5.8 4.7 - 1
  4 4.3 3.2 - 5.6 0.5 4 5 1.3 7.1 2.3 - -
  5 8 19.7 8.8 11.1 4.4 10.6 17.4 7 20 23.8 0.4 3.1
  6 25.2 11.8 9 16.6 8.2. 6.2 17 11.5 24.6 15.2 0.2 3.1
  7 12.9 13.6 13.7 15.3 23.2 8.4 17.4 7.9 9.6 15.6 0.2 6.2
  8 12.6 13 11.2 9.8 29.2 15.9 12.9 9.9 12.9 16.8 2 12.6
  9 5.8 6 11.1 6.9 16.3 7.1 12.9 9 4.6 10.9 2.9 12.5
  10 7.7 4.1 44 9.6 18 10.2 14.1 52.6 10 4.7 93.7 60.4

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Russell
    April 19, 2009

    It’s relevant that a large fraction of Buddhists don’t believe in a god, and are still viewed as Buddhists by themselves and other Buddhists. It says that god-belief doesn’t characterize Buddhism, the way it does Christianity or Islam.

  2. #2 bhiksuni Ratana
    April 19, 2009

    Dear sir,
    I think that one should specify the word “God”. What is God? Originally Buddha’s rejection of Creation and Creator came as a reaction to Vedic concepts of the matter. There is no evidence that the monotheïstic God of the Jewish Religion was known among the peoples of Northern India where Buddha lived. When Buddha speaks about a Creator he refers to one or other of the many names that the Vedic religion used to designate it.
    The Indic words ‘deva’, ‘brahma’ and the like have in the recent past, and unfortunately still in the present, wrongly been translated into English as ‘gods’. And yes, this is more often than not accepted as a correct translation by Asian lay Buddhists who cannot be bothered with the fine print of Buddha’s Teachings; the canon is generally unavailable to most and monks tend to avoid thorny issues.

    The content given to the word God East and West should not be confounded. When a Chinese Buddhist uses the word ‘god’ s/he refers to pre-Buddhist concepts in the Daoïst religion that could be translated with the word Nature or Natural Force. Likewise the Buddhists living in South-East Asia retained in some cases parts of their extra-Buddhististic shamanistic religion where there generally is equally mention of natural forces that they, if pressed to give it an English name, designate as “God” or “god”. It might indeed be compared to the remnants of Northern European nature worship from ancient times that in some way makes for the popular phrase “I believe that there is ‘something’,” meaning that these people surmise the presence of some natural power that is above and beyond them.

    It might therefore be the case that questionaires the World Values Survey used were not specific enough, and that they too used the word God the way someone does who doesn’t know anything about flowers. Yes indeed, a rose is a flower, but not all flowers are roses.

  3. #3 razib
    April 19, 2009

    The content given to the word God East and West should not be confounded.

    they should not if you are a partisan of either set of religions. it is fine to do so if you are an atheist in many contexts, as substantively they aren’t that different. substantively in terms of an operational definition which people implicitly assume and use in any manner to justify or interpret behavior.

  4. #4 perpetualspiral
    April 19, 2009

    It is a dangerous thing to say that Buddhists ‘believe in God’. The Buddhist view of God/gods differs from the Judeo-Christian notion in a way that is often misunderstood. This article, because it doesn’t explain the difference, is spreading more ignorance about Buddhism. It is not enough to say that Buddhists don’t believe in a Creator deity. In Buddhism, deities are used to focus attention, to aid in spiritual development/enlightenment. A Buddhist strictly following the tradition of the Buddha does not ‘believe’ in anything that cannot be proved objectively or experientially. Buddhist deities, if they exist in some substantial form, would still never be ‘supernatural’. They may be beyond the scope of current scientific measurement, but that doesn’t mean they are supernatural. In any case, Buddhists are never encouraged to have ‘faith’ in anything that they can’t experience for themselves. It is a ‘come and see for yourself’ religion.

    Furthermore, there are many different sects, some who focus on deities, and some that don’t, and it is too much of a generalization to say “Buddhists [i.e. all Buddhists] believe in God”. The author should have done more research to find out which sects focus on dieties and which don’t. Being both a Buddhist and an atheist myself, I know there is no contradiction there. Buddhism, by definition, does not require belief in anything supernatural, nor does it require atheism. Buddhist teaching does not make statements about whether God/gods exist, because their existence has no bearing on the goals of Buddhism. Indeed, the question of whether God/gods exist in any ultimate sense is intentionally beyond the scope of Buddhism itself.

    I think the headline of this article was a sensationalistic and rather false generalizaton. This topic, your readers, and Buddhists like myself deserve clear and precise information, which would have come from a thorough investigaton and a little more thought.

  5. #5 Tom Bri
    April 19, 2009

    The ancient Hebrews were well aware of the distinction between “God” and “the gods”. They were commanded to only worship the one God, but it doesn’t say anything about believing in the existence or not of the gods.

    The gods in Buddhism strike me as very similar to the gods of Europe and the middle east.

  6. #6 razib
    April 19, 2009

    think the headline of this article was a sensationalistic and rather false generalizaton. This topic, your readers, and Buddhists like myself deserve clear and precise information, which would have come from a thorough investigaton and a little more thought.

    it’s only important because religionists are prone to kill themselves over picayune differences. but as i said above, the differences are trivial in a substantive sense. no one knows what the philosophical differences mean in a concrete sense, they’re just willing to kill & organize around them.

  7. 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.

    Your original point is well taken and your post provides further helpful analysis. As for the comment above:

    It’s relevant that a large fraction of Buddhists don’t believe in a god, and are still viewed as Buddhists by themselves and other Buddhists. It says that god-belief doesn’t characterize Buddhism, the way it does Christianity or Islam.

    If by “a god” we mean an omnipotent, omniscient creator god, the question is really whether someone who believes in such a god would call himself a Buddhist. The absence of such a god is what more accurately characterizes Buddhism.

    I think we would do better to consider beliefs that actually are contained in Buddhist doctrine. For instance, while a belief in otherworldly beings is not central to Buddhism, for many, a literal understanding of rebirth is. Respected monk/scholar Bhikkhi Bodhi, as an example, goes so far as to say that without a literal understanding of rebirth, one is not practicing Buddhism at all. Columbia Buddhist studies professor Robert Thurman, on the other hand, disagrees, although he himself believes in not only rebirth but also reincarnation. Writer Stephen Batchelor, for his part, makes a case for Buddhist agnosticism (Rebirth: A Case for Buddhist Agnosticism). Batchelor asserts that many Buddhist schools—some Mahayana schools in particular—are essentialist and backslide into a belief in atman (Bristol University’s John Peacocke agrees). Batchelor took a lot of flak for this and for his book Buddhism Without Beliefs (the magazine I edit published it in partnership with Riverhead/Penguin) because many felt he’d rationalized the juice out of the teachings.

    My understanding of the original post is that Buddhism isn’t as free of claims unsubstantiated by scientific proofs as many think it is. I agree with that (I think most Buddhists would, too) and while I can’t vouch for the integrity of the data cited, if accurate, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  8. #8 Tom Bri
    April 19, 2009

    …it’s only important because religionists are prone to kill themselves over picayune differences…

    All too true. But that this is a human condition not a religious one. Socialists are happy to kill other socialists over minutia of doctrine. Union members kill non-believers who dare to attempt union jobs etc.

  9. #9 ngong
    April 19, 2009

    In any case, Buddhists are never encouraged to have ‘faith’ in anything that they can’t experience for themselves

    No. Practically speaking, faith is heavily pushed in some schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Amongst the masses, Padmasambhava is surprisingly Jesus-like.

    Doesn’t Pure Land Buddhism also require a good deal of “faith”?

  10. #10 Eric J. Johnson
    April 19, 2009

    Spiral, Tibet doesn’t seem to correspond to your sketch even nominally. Obviously zen is another story.

  11. #11 razib
    April 19, 2009

    But that this is a human condition not a religious one. Socialists are happy to kill other socialists over minutia of doctrine. Union members kill non-believers who dare to attempt union jobs etc.

    you make a good point, and of course it is a human condition. in any case, the scale of socialist-on-socialist killing dwarfs union-on-non-union killing, so i think bringing up the second example is kind of moronic and now people will be pissed at you for taking an anti-union potshot and be prone to derail the thread off its natural course.

  12. #12 razib
    April 19, 2009

    If by “a god” we mean an omnipotent, omniscient creator god, the question is really whether someone who believes in such a god would call himself a Buddhist.

    yes. but look, i don’t believe anyone know what they believe if they say them believe in an omni-god. that is, the very nature of such a god is beyond human ken. ergo, the empirical psychological data strong points to the reality that the supernatural agent people conceptualize, as opposed to avow a belief in, is a limited god of the type which has been with humanity since the beginning.

  13. #13 John Emerson
    April 19, 2009

    In what I’ve read, Buddhism is described as a hierarchical, esoteric religion whose entry-level believers are theists, but whose more advanced believers (whose precedence is accepted by the commoners) are not. The process of advancement in the religion is moving from myths and fossilized misperceptions such as God, Mount Sumeru, Atman, etc. to a less erroneous view of self and world. But Buddhists use the erroneous views as teaching devices, the way that you’d tell a child not to go somewhere because there were monsters there.

    Thus, statistically, Buddhists believe in God.

    Much of what I’ve read is written in English for Westerners, but some of what I’ve read in Chinese says the same. In particular, God or Gods are subject to illusion the same way humans are, and wrongly believe that they created the world.

    Buddhism centers on the enlightenment experience or discovery of Gautama Buddha around 500 BC, but it’s a generica experience — there were many other Buddhas before him in various eras.

  14. #14 Spike Gomes
    April 20, 2009

    John Emerson:

    Going to the texts and commentaries is going about it backwards. Orthopraxy is more important than Orthodoxy in most branches.

    I’m not sure where you’re getting your perceptions of Buddhism from. If anything, within the Mahayana Tradition that China is steeped in, the higher practitioners are often steeped in rituals that ascribe all sorts of “merit” accumulation and transfer. Even in the austere Zen tradition there are rituals that the priests and monks must master in order to move up the ranks. Not mention, in China, Zen is pretty well blended with the Pure Land tradition.

    Sure there’s a lot of stuff written about “form of emptiness, emptiness of form” commentaries, but like I said before, orthopraxy, not orthodoxy predominates, and for every commentary written by a learned monk on such matters as the illusory nature of reality, there’s ten written by other learned monks for consumption by other learned monks on the power of invoking a certain Buddha to cure illness, be reborn in the Pure Land, or what have you. Of course, nowadays, there’s more interest in the “intellectual” stuff.

    Granted, though, in China, Taoism is the usual go to source for practical esoteric benefits.

    In General:

    Most humans are wired for religious belief (or set of belief behaviors and idealizations if you ask what my personal theories are on the matter), of course how that stuff is organized ain’t wired in any special way in regards as to how to define the concepts pushing those needed buttons in humans for meaning, significance and over-arching connection, etc. Depending on the person and concepts, quite a bit of crosswiring can occur.

    That most Buddhists believe in God(s) is not surprising. Nor is the fact that it’s expressed quite differently than the Judeo-Christian one. It’s more telling that this finding is a talking point in the West whereas among active Buddhists (by this I mean folks actively interested in their practice) in the East it would be either shrugged at or looked at quizzically. Hope that makes sense.

  15. #15 Keith Hays
    April 20, 2009

    I think a major point of Buddhism is missed in this discussion. It is not whether some Buddhist believe in a god or not, it is that Buddhism itself does not care whether a patricular person believes in god. This is of course more true at the beginning of the path than at the end. In the end even Buddhism must be left by the side of the river.

  16. #16 ngong
    April 20, 2009

    The following blog post and videos of ordinary Thai teenagers speaking about Buddhism may be of interest: http://efference.blogspot.com/2007/11/here-are-thai-teenagers-talking-about.html .

    I’m now studying at Mahidol University (near Bangkok), so perhaps I can make a point of continuing the interviews with Masters and Ph.D. students, if anyone finds insight/entertainment in the videos.

  17. #17 pete saussy
    April 20, 2009

    As a southern buddhist, I don’t know the god of abraham from adam’s housecat. to be/not be a bubbasattva does not require “belief” in much more than the weather forecast–”I believe its going to rain”

  18. #18 Spiv
    April 20, 2009

    <--Buddhist. The philosophy doesn't really mention "gawd," and sorta leaves it up to the individual to have their own opinions.

    Really, I think it's asking the wrong question. Are you going to spend all your questions on some possibly made up omnipotent being that appears to have no personal recourse on your life, or are you going to ask the questions about that life you're actually living? That same question is relevant to anti-theists (which I'll distinguish from non religious persons).

    Also, keep in mind many buddhists are against these intangibles like being reborn, or magical healing and spirits and demons and crap that seem to creep into some sects. That whole band of unreasoned thinking has a habit of leading to stupidity.

    Summary: Is there a god? F' if I know man. Does it really matter?

  19. #19 Peter
    April 20, 2009

    As both an American and a Buddhist of 35 years of practice, I can’t resist commenting. I’m surprised that there are any Buddhists who believe in God. I certainly don’t. I don’t even see Buddhism as a religion, per se. It’s not so much a belief based system as it is a practiced based system. If the Buddha’s experience of Nirvana is to be translated into “God”, then that term (i.e. “God”) loses any meaning as it is commonly used. There is no such thing as “God”, who is a divine being, in Buddhism. That much is certain. Of course, there are many “lower level” gods in Buddhist mythology, but they are merely viewed as temporal beings. I had always liked to think that all Buddhists are “atheists”. I’m sorry to hear that that is not the case. One caveat, though. There are many people who practice Buddhist meditation or observe other Buddhist modes of practice who may not consider themselves “Buddhist”, and may indeed, believe in God. That, of course, is a horse of a different feather.

  20. #20 wan
    October 7, 2009

    There is your god in Tripitaka too (Bible of Buddhism)
    God really exists. And to refer to Tripitaka, god is an angel in one of the heavens. Day of the end of the earth exists too. And in the far future there will be seven suns. All details are in Tripitaka.

    Difference is that target of Buddhists are not to live with the god, but to be… disappeared forever (no reincarnation)

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