Buddhism as an "Atheistic Religion": a Western Fantasy

Too often, I find that atheists are reluctant to criticize Buddhism.  Atheists who would otherwise have no problems ripping apart Christianity, Islam, shamanism, cargo cults and the like... somehow falter when it comes time to deliver that final blow to ALL belief systems based on faith and superstition.  They somehow cannot find anything bad to say about Buddhism.

In the West, Buddhism has been built up as an idealistic belief system.  It's perfect and nonviolent and -- and it's atheist!  But it's also a religion, so the theists can't complain either!  It's perfect!  Uh... no.  I hate to pop anyone's bubble (who am I kidding?  I love popping bubbles), but this "atheist religion" thing is such a baldfaced LIE that I'm ashamed to admit that it's the liberal academics that are the most to blame for spreading it.  And now it's gotten so pervasive, and it's such an alluring concept, that many atheists just nod and accept it as fact because the lie was told to them by other atheists, and because they want to believe it.  Confirmation bias and all that.  I think they need a crash course in Buddhism as it's practiced.

Buddhists are NOT atheists.  When I say "Buddhist" here, I don't mean the "philosophical Buddhists" that many atheists claim to be - I'll get to that later - I mean the types of Buddhists you'll find in Buddhist-majority populations.  The ones who grew up Buddhist.  The ones who visit Buddhist temples.  They are not atheists, and they're not not-atheists because they're "doin' it wrong" when it comes to their own religion.  There is no "right" way to do Buddhism, and if there were, wouldn't it be the lifelong Buddhists who would best be able to argue that point rather than American converts coming from a Christian majority nation?

At its best, Buddhism is deist.  At its worst, Buddhism is polytheistic.  There are gods and goddesses, bodhisattvas and devas, for just about everything.  Basically, in those sects, it's fat-free Hinduism.  (Hinduism Light?  Diet Hinduism?)  You just take away that nasty stuff about castes, limit the powers of the gods, add some stuff about a human prophet (who may or may not have been Jesus Christ Mohammed a messianic figure sent by Dharmakaya/the universe/"the force" to teach us all about Truth), and voila!  Buddhism.

How can a religion that purports to be vehemently non-theist actually be polytheist?  Well, it can.  Of course the scriptures will be quick to say that the bodhisattvas are fallible beings themselves, but the fact is that followers of the religion still believe these mystical beings live on a "higher plane of existence" and sometimes listen to human prayers.  I don't care what they're called, but when people pray to "higher beings" in the hopes that those prayers will be answered by benevolent powers that exist in some spiritual lala-land, that is worship of a deity.  When there are more than one of those deities, that's freakin' polytheism.

And then there is, like in Hinduism, also a somewhat monotheistic middle ground.  Brahma has many faces but is one god, and apparently so is the Buddha.  He's, like, everything, even the other gods.  We are god, man.  It's real trippy, though one thing it is not... is atheistic.

When Asian atheists say they're Buddhist, it might not mean what you think it means.  Because you can drop the superstitious faith and still carry out traditional rites.  Giving up god(s) doesn't mean giving up Christmas dinners or visiting shrines on New Year's.  Being "Buddhist", for some, is like being a reform Jew.  Many aspects of secular Jewish culture have nothing to do with the violent tantrums of some stupid sky-god.  Secular Buddhism is the same.  It's basically a "yeah, I'm descended from a long line of people who believed in such-and-such" identity marker.  In truth, atheism is much more prevalent in East Asia than statistics often show because those polls are asking the wrong questions.  For example, records stating what percentage of people in Japan are of this or that faith come from associating one's family line with a local temple or shrine.  They don't even ask anyone.  (The picture is very different when people are asked.)

I recently read a translated version of a trashy gay Japanese romance novel (don't judge me, lol) and there was a quote that stuck out to me.

"Are you a practicing Christian, Satsuki?" Edward asked with concern.

"No, I'm a Buddhist," Satsuki replied.

Actually, he was an atheist, but foreigners didn't really understand that, so he had prepared this response.

THIS.  OMG THIS -- is why so many Westerners think Buddhism is/can be an "atheistic religion".  Atheistic religion?  That's an oxymoron.  If you take away the superstition and mysticism, all that's left is a philosophy and a set of cultural practices, NOT a religion.

Religious people tend to respect other religions more than they respect nontheists.  "I'm an atheist" is practically evangelical bait.  "I'm a Buddhist" has become the standard response for non-confrontational, non-religious East Asians.  It's code for "please don't try to convert me", and it works. 

There are many ideas in Buddhism that atheists can agree with, just as many atheists also feel that "love thy neighbor" and "thou shalt not kill" are generally good ideas.  Can one be a Christian who doesn't believe Jesus Christ was the son of god?  Can one be a Buddhist who doesn't believe the Buddha had reached a state of perfect enlightenment?  Agreeing only with the nice, neutral talking points makes you about as Buddhist as it makes you Christian.

Dudes, admit to cherrypicking or GTFO.  The accusation of cherrypicking is often leveled at confused theists who insist that their holy text of choice is perfect, yet throw away the parts they don't like.  Why, then, do these atheists not point out the crap in Buddhist scriptures?  Instead, they pick out the most profound-sounding quotes and recite them as if to say, "Look here!  The Asians are wise."  This exoticism and idealism of the "mysterious East" strips away the humanity from the cultures they're exalting.  (And I could run at the mouth forever and a day about the objectification of Asian women that results from this, but I'll restrain myself.)

Practicing Buddhists engage in (scripture-supported!) activities as irrational as those found in any other religion.  Maybe they don't throw acid on people's faces, but still.  Arbitrary restrictions abound!

  • Buddhism is vegetarian... except when it's not.  Mahayana Buddhism allows fish and eggs to be consumed, but forbids:
    • garlic
    • onions
    • shallots
    • chives
    • leeks
    • asofoetida (a spice often found in curries)
  • Some sects also forbid roots and tubers from being eaten because they kill the plant when harvested, which means no:
    • radishes
    • potatoes
    • carrots
    • beets
    • do I have to go on?

They make up a lot of excuses for this, such as "those foods make people angry/lustful" or "gods will stay far away from [people who eat pungent foods] because they smell bad, and hungry ghosts will hover around and kiss their lips".  Today's lesson is: the Buddha will judge you for your halitosis.  Oh, and Italians get lots of lurve from hungry ghosts.

Strip away the excuses, though, and you'll find that the basic justification for the ban on onions and garlic is simply that IT TASTES TOO GOOD.  Life is suffering.  Attachment is suffering.  Therefore, one must seek to make oneself as miserable as possible by never indulging in the glory that is garlic bread.  For you see, if eating is pleasurable, you'll want to eat more, and you'll actually enjoy life.  If you enjoy this life, how on earth will you be convinced of a perfect afterlife in nirvana?

This is exactly the same type of BS the Abrahamic religions try to pull on their followers.  You're a poor, uneducated peasant farmer/laborer and your life is already pretty damn tough, but now you can't have alcohol, you can't have sex, and you can't eat anything that actually tastes good.  It takes away all the hope you might have of making this life better, and thus keeps you in your "rightful place", subservient to the priesthood class.  Now throw yourself into prayer for a better afterlife!  (BTW, make sure to pay lip service to, uh, fighting poverty by embracing poverty... or something.  Whatever.  Just make it sound esoterically profound!)

Buddhist monks are the Catholic priests of the East.  You want sex scandals?  We got sex scandals.  "Do as I say, not as I do" should be the mantra of religious leaders everywhere.  We all know about the Catholic priests and their sex crimes.  The same abuse of power occurs in Buddhist monasteries.  They claim celibacy while molesting their young apprentices.  Everyone knows it happens.  It's been the subject of crude jokes for hundreds of years, but word doesn't often get out because the children sent to monasteries have much less contact with the outside world compared to, say, an altar boy.

Speaking of abuses of power...  You know what?  I can't even stomach the thought of typing up this shit.  Let's just say that the Shaolin monks have become Hollywood celebrities (their faith is as fake and materialistic as that of televangelists), and Tibetan Buddhism makes me very, very angry. 

It makes me angry that the anti-Chinese political climate of the US makes it so that anyone who doesn't buy into the CIA's propaganda that China is responsible for every horrid thing that ever happened to Tibet is labeled as a secret communist plant sent by the Chinese government.  It makes me angry that they play linguistic games in order to tie religious Tibet to the "noble struggle" and atheist China to "human rights abuses".  These games do nothing but obscure the issue while preying on ignorant American fears of Chinese world domination.  (Mwahahahaha!  Evil commies!)  And I am angry that to criticize Tibetan Buddhism makes me somehow a "Chinese oppressor".  I am angry that I'm told again and again that I can't possibly be for a free Tibet if I hate the cruel practices of Tibetan Buddhism as much as I do.  I am NOT a "pinko" if I believe, based on facts, that China did some good for the Tibetan people, and that the average Tibetan people are better off now than they ever were under the old theocracy.  Oh, it makes me SO ANGRY. 

http://www.michaelparenti.org/Tibet.html

If you've read my rambling blog post this far, then read that, please, and help stop the spread of the myths about Buddhism.  No matter how peaceful the teachings may seem, the religion is still, to put it bluntly, hella fucked up.

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Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 11, 2012 at 5:57pm

Sorry Kacie, I took the liberty of having received advance notice of an astral projection of the Kacie consciousness. Or I am a presumptuous ass!

What is your take on ethics?

Comment by Kacie Tsao on September 11, 2012 at 5:31pm

Yes, feel free to digress!  I'll just slink off to the side and watch the discussion unfold. :)

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 11, 2012 at 4:46pm

Kacie wont mind about a little digression. Besides everything is related in buddhism.

I think the notion of objective lacks foundation. But I can be persuaded that is not true. Philosophically I believe that ethics lacks an objective basis. Best we can do is accept that we are human and some sort of Bentham formula applies. Common sense notions propounded by uncommon minds works for me. Evolution probably is relevant here. Social mammals have rules that foster cooperation and the betterment of the group. Humans ought to follow suit but a balance must be struck between the rights of the individual and the demands of the group.

Comment by Jonathan Chang on September 11, 2012 at 4:24pm

Well, when we peel off enough layers, all attempts to explain what's "real" seem arbitrary. Every philosophy eventually rely on the assumption of what should be considered "self-evident" (or axioms), and what's self-evident in Buddhism just happen to be perception and the mind.

I'm not sure if this is the right place to discuss this in detail, but I would say I lean towards the nihilistic, non-cognitivist, emotivism. I would say that all moral statements amount to a persuasive opinion similar to: "I believe people should [moral imperative] because I approve/disapprove of it, and everyone else should too." It's an emotional affirmation projected universally. If someone says, "I don't like it when people steal.", it lacks persuasive effect. That's why they say, "Stealing is wrong.", which is an attempt to shame you into sharing their opinion. It has the same effect of, "Nobody should like it when people steal. If they do, then shame on them!"

Ultimately, rightness/wrongness are determined by whether an action or intent would bolster or threaten whatever arbitrary comfort zone or assumption that an individual holds, so all moral judgments come from a place of fear.

So what do you think about ethics?

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 11, 2012 at 3:56pm

Okay JC, what is your approach to ethics?

Have to say that the buddhist notion of real/illusory seems arbitrary.

Not familiar with Moore and his fallacy. Good explanation of buddhist practices. Knew what you meant about buddhism and christianity. Good observation.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 11, 2012 at 3:52pm

Kacie I agree that the universe is not intelligible, probably not. But I dont know whether that is because of limitations of humans, sometimes framed as the finite attempting to understand the infinite, or because "reality" does not exist. Or the onion will be peeled back endlessly.

The quest for knowledge is a cool part of human nature, agreed. I wonder whether theoretical physicists are the happiest professionals.

Comment by Jonathan Chang on September 11, 2012 at 3:18pm

Glen, I like much of what David Hume and Bertrand Russell have to say, but not all of it. For example, I'm not a proponent of their sentimentalist approach to ethics, which I believe amounts to intuition and superstition (or the "it's common sense" fallacy). I do like the way they present their logic, for the most part, besides in ethics.

Back to Buddhism... Buddhism is often characterized by those who know it as the religion of apathy, which is somewhat true, but a distinction must be made to give the right impression: Buddhists do not advocate a passive, ignore-everything, type of apathy; but an introspective one where a practitioner is always focusing on the origination of every thought. For example, in the aforementioned monastic rule where a monk should not make a noise while putting the plate down, the idea behind it is that by making a quick, uncontrolled movement where he lets a plate collide with the table, the monk momentarily loses focus on the thought process behind the movement of his arm. One of the key concepts in Buddhism is cause and effect, or what they call dependent-origination: everything that someone perceives or does is a reaction to something before it, and in Buddhism, every thought is a reaction to another thought. So one of the ways they teach to attain Nirvana is to always be conscious of the stream of thoughts.

In meditation, for example, the practitioner is to focus on the movement of air that comprises breath as he inhales and exhales, and the thought that controls that voluntary breathing. This perception and thought is the only thing that is "real" in Buddhism. If the practitioner starts thinking about his job, or atheism, or anything else, he is distracted. If a mosquito bites him in the face that causes him to lose focus, he is distracted. If a man is slapping him around while he is doing this, then he must continue for as long as he can, or else he is distracted. In other words, although monastic monks appear apathetic to the world around them, they are trying constantly to be aware of the origination of every thought and perception, and eliminating the thoughts that are deemed to be illusory (thoughts about future, past, someone else, something not immediately perceivable, anything besides what they are doing in the moment, etc.).

My opinion on Buddhism is that if we were to define "suffering" as getting your hopes up and ultimately being disappointed, then I would agree that material attachment leads to suffering, and I would also agree that the best way to avoid suffering is to cease material attachment, ignoring for the moment the supernatural aspects of Buddhism (e.g. morality, Nirvana, Hell, etc.). In that regards, Buddhism seems to be internally consistent.

Aside: Here's a Chinese folk story about Tao, but also applicable to Buddhism if you imagine that the father in the story understands the nature of the "suffering" we are talking about:

Story of the Lost Horse

However, where I disagree is that we should necessarily seek to avoid this "suffering". Not that we shouldn't, but if life is ultimately meaningless, then "suffering" is meaningless, and even if we treat Nirvana, the eternal Tao, or anything else as a worthy goal, it is not the final goal -- the categorical imperative -- because I still cannot fathom any solution to Hume's is-ought problem. Even if there's a God that says, "This is morality. This is what you should do." Then that would be what we should do to satisfy God, not what we should do, period. In other words, the very notion of Kant's categorical imperative (a 'should' without an 'if') is incomprehensible to me. So while there are lessons that could be learned from Buddhism, I could ultimately find no reason why I should (or shouldn't) follow it, because suffering shouldn't be any more or less preferable to non-suffering, at least philosophically, lest we violate G.E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy.

From a practical standpoint, I feel one would go through just as much suffering trying to succeed, and most likely failing, the Buddhist goal compared to any other goal.

I should clarify that I previously meant Nirvana, or even the Christian Heaven, must be incidental, and not the objective. If it is incidental, then it isn't as meaningless. An analogy would be if a man sees a child in the middle of the road (he's the son of a famous celebrity, to make this easier to accept). If the man saves the child in order to save the child, then he can be considered a 'hero'. If the man saves the child in order to get some kind of reward, whether it be money or fame, then he is not so much a 'hero'. Likewise, if a man is a believer of Christ, then he must internally believe it is wrong to covet a neighbor's wife, for example. He must believe he should not do so because it is wrong. But if he doesn't particularly think it is wrong, he just fears Hell, then he's not a true believer.

Comment by Kacie Tsao on September 11, 2012 at 2:58pm

It's most likely not humanly possible to comprehend the truth of the universe.  The best we can do are approximations and representations.  We're very limited creatures trying to understand and transmit information through symbols of our own creation, but I also like to think that's the best part of humanity, that as a whole we're never satisfied with the amount of knowledge we have now.  We always want more.  Those who don't seek out new knowledge are trapped in a cycle of ignorance (samsara?).  Lazy thinkers and mental stagnation bring about the rise of dogmatism and unexamined religious beliefs.

Nirvana and other mystical/religious concepts are great symbols to use when trying to illustrate such abstract thoughts.  It's something of a paradox that it's something we would seek to reach, yet can never reach through seeking.  Like our understanding of the universe.  We're limited by our biology and can never grasp the whole truth of it no matter how we struggle to do so.  But if we don't seek to understand, the knowledge won't just come to us, either.  How, then, to understand the workings of the universe?  We just keep struggling, generations after generations of humans, to reach for something that can not even be defined.  But even though the poorly defined end-goal can never be ours, if we keep seeking, we'll find lots of other cool stuff along the way.

I can appreciate their usefulness as symbols, but yeah, if the concepts of nirvana, dharma, and samsara are taken literally, then they're total BS. 

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 11, 2012 at 1:34pm

JC I agree about mysticism and sophistry. Guessing you are a fan of David Hume and Bertrand Russsel.

Likely those monastic tricks avoid brain parts that focus on negative emotions. Thus the stay busy advice for those who are troubled.

If we are being honest we simply lack the knowledge to make sweeping pronouncements about reality. We just dont know. It is a form of arrogance and mysticism when a thinker describes heaven or nirvana. Seeking nirvana-that is like the tao that can be spoken, it is not the eternal tao.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on September 11, 2012 at 1:23pm

Hi Kacie.

Suffering, inevitable, yeah. Detatchment the best way to circumvent it, I dont know. How about suicide? What of focusing on the moments of great joy and living in the moment while confronting grief by being as stoic and philosophical as humanly possible. To eliminate desire is to dehumanize, I think.

Not only are we made of the same fundamental stuff. The stuff is identical. I am reading some string theory now and it makes me realize how far away humans are from understanding reality or getting to ultimate questions.

I do give Buddha credit for greater depth and insite than we find in western religious thought. Still if nirvana is the objective, even if nirvana is incidental as JC points out, it is analogous to nonsense western notions.

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