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. 


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 Jonathan Chang on September 10, 2012 at 11:50pm

I'm not a fan of mysticism and sophistry; wave-particle duality, and all that, I believe is incompatible with many philosophies that they are purported to be in effect. That is because, for one, wave-particles are not conscious; just because there's a duality doesn't mean wave-particle describes it.

From my understanding though, Buddhism is an idealist monist (which means the only world that exists is the mental one), and more specifically panpsychist (all minds are connected in a unified consciousness) philosophy. The physical world is an extension, or manifestation of the mind.

The "goal" in Buddhism would then be to perfect the mind by recognizing the illusion. The thing that's not often understood is that all the rest of the stuff you've either read or heard somewhere about monastic life, which there are hundreds of rules if you decided to become a Buddhist monk, are intentionally esoteric -- they are meant to guide a monk into being level-minded, increase their concentration and eliminate distraction. Rules such that you can't make a noise when eating or putting your plate down is to get you to concentrate on the task and be measured in your movements. However, it must be clarified that Buddha never required this for Nirvana, the ultimate goal, and that the teachings are just guidance. Different Buddhist sects have different rules passed down from different teachers, but those rules are all meant ultimately to help the monk understand and be closer to that "truth".

The ironic thing I see about Buddhism that maybe 90% of its followers (90% of statistics are made up, right?) will never understand is that in order to attain Nirvana, one must not seek Nirvana, because even your understanding of Nirvana originates from an external, illusory, source. I would actually argue this is true for Western religions, though most (90%) would probably disagree: If you follow the Bible because you want to enter Heaven, then you will never be a true believer of Christ.

Comment by Kacie Tsao on September 10, 2012 at 10:38pm

Hi, Glen! The original teachings... hmm... 

Depressing. :P

Like existentialism, Buddhism offers some sound arguments.  Also similarly, it's not a happy philosophy.  I mean, it basically is saying that we are all doomed to suffer throughout our lives.  The only way to cease suffering is to become detached from worldly affairs.  I'm not a Buddhist scholar by any means, but I can definitely see how some sects interpret those teachings as advocating apathy.  You can't suffer if you have less emotional reactivity than a robot.

I do like some of the ideas about transcendence.  The world is an illusion and yet not an illusion.  What the Buddha called "spirit" we can say is "energy", and when you throw in wave-particle duality, it's true that we are all made of that same fundamental "stuff" of the universe.  It's funny how he was right about that.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 10, 2012 at 6:41pm

Kacie, it seems human nature is the same from here to Timbuktu or Portland Oregon. What is your opinion of the original teachings?

Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on September 10, 2012 at 5:51pm

Thanks, Kacie Tsao, for your enlightening blog. I've had only cursory exposure to Buddhism though there's a temple complex in my neighborhood.

Comment by Kacie Tsao on September 10, 2012 at 1:33pm

Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Jonathan.  Those are good points about the roots of Buddhism as a philosophy.  The core teachings require a lot of contemplation to grasp, and it's rare for the common practitioner to truly understand the implications.

In some ways, the philosophy behind Buddhism was too far ahead of its time.  That's why I think Buddhism's transition from philosophy to religion was handled so poorly.  It's like trying to teach a Little League baseball team to calculate pitch trajectories.  They won't care for such esoteric knowledge, but they might listen to you because you sound smart.  And as with any situation where few people have access to knowledge, the common practitioners start to ascribe mystical powers to that which they have no explanation for, and the monastics become drunk on their new-found power.  And Buddhism, as a religion, becomes increasingly used as a tool of oppression; as a tool that fosters ignorance while claiming to bring its adherents to a state of true understanding.

Comment by Jonathan Chang on September 6, 2012 at 3:25am

The highest echelons of Buddhist priests in Taiwan and China have made the claim that once you reach a certain level, you no longer have to follow traditions, which is why some of them drive around in their Mercedes Benz and give speeches for honor and blessings in exchange for money, while being revered as a spiritual figure.

The teachings of Buddhism can be effectively split into 2 categories: the monastic monk, and the common man. While many Asians claim to be Buddhists, they are only somewhat aware of the core teachings, and may incorporate some extensions of Buddhist morality into their beliefs, but true Buddhism is not at all easy to understand. For example, a lot of the arbitrary rules you've outlined are merely part of a process to stop people from caring about worldly matters; that is, they were created with the intention of being esoteric and arbitrary. They are not rules that must be followed to achieve nirvana, but are paths, teachings that were passed down from Buddha. That they taste too good may be exactly the reason that they were disallowed, since the only "truths" Buddha has ever defined as the absolute truths are called the 4 Noble Truths.

1. Everything in the physical world is impermanent.

2. Craving, or attachment, for impermanent things will cause suffering because you cannot attain them.

3. It is possible to not suffer.

4. ... by ceasing to crave for impermanent things.

Now... there are problems with this when we examine the precepts of Buddhism under close, philosophical, scrutiny. But I would also say they (the problems) are completely different than the problems of an Abrahamic religion.

I think, for one, you will find that Thereveda Buddhism, commonly practiced in Southeast Asia, has a lot less idol-worshipping than Mahayana, and a lot more introspection. That isn't to say they are atheist religions -- that's a simplification.

I think the reason why Buddhism is common with some westerners is because:

1. There are those who wish to relinquish the Abrahamic God, but may not be ready to accept the lack of an afterlife.

2. There are those who revel in sophistry and mysticism; it's like an exclusive club where they can talk about understanding things without actually understanding them. These people may also dabble in Wicca, Satanism, Druidry, or other Pagan religions.

3. The thought process behind the conceptualization of Buddhism, surprisingly, arises from the same context behind the conceptualization of many very popular 20th century philosophies, namely Existentialism or Absurdism (see Camus), which is: How do we respond to existential nihilism without resorting to Nihilism? Buddha originally became an ascetic after seeing the hypocrisies of being a prince, as the story goes, that he eventually, after weeks of fasting, came to sit under a tree where he developed the concept of the Middle Path -- detachment. Several of Buddha's original disciples, as was written in scriptures, committed suicide after hearing that the physical world isn't real, and this was partially what Buddhism was meant to address.

I think for those who have undergone enough introspection and finally confronted existential nihilism, it's like being hit with a ton of bricks, that anything thereafter would seem plausible. You see, many philosophers in the 20th century have accepted that there is no meaning to life, and went on to create philosophies on how we should deal with this undeniable fact without committing suicide (i.e. Nihilism).

Comment by Kacie Tsao on September 4, 2012 at 5:11pm

Thanks for reading. :)

I think the most popular feature of Buddhism is that it's so easy to incorporate into existing belief systems.  If you just don't dig too deeply into the scriptures, or you toss the parts you don't like, you can mix the rest into the local folk religion.  My experience with Taiwanese Buddhism has been that there is a strong component of animism perhaps due in part to Taoist influence and the traditional belief in qi.  As for gods, Guanyin is the most important figure, and many people do pray at her statues.  My father, when he went back to Taiwan, was told to pray to Guanyin every day in order to alleviate his health issues.  The prayer process also involved first shaking, like dice, two crescent-shaped pieces of wood.  If the pieces of wood are still connected and upright when they hit the ground, Guanyin is listening.  So you shake and you shake until it's your turn to plead to the goddess.  Though some, if they're trying to argue the point, will say Guanyin is pusa, not a goddess...  The resulting behavior - the ritualistic prayer and worship of her - is the same.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on September 4, 2012 at 2:06pm

Thanks Kacie, enjoyed reading that-will also read the article.

You seem smart for a girl.

Comment by David Layton on September 4, 2012 at 1:12am

Cogent and well stated. My wife is Taiwanese, and I have visited Taiwan with her. Taiwan is a predominantly Buddhist country, and the landscape has more red-topped temples than there are churches in the US. This Buddhism is kind of a sophisticated animism. There are not gods as such, but there are plenty of spirits good and evil, plus there is an ancestor-worship component. Practicing Taiwanese Buddhists are full believers in a supernatural spirit realm, and that in itself is not fully atheistic.



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