April 17, 2009

God-fearing Buddhists?

Do Buddhists believe in God? Last year, science writer and blogger Razib Khan wrote that they do—American Buddhists, anyway. He drew his conclusions from the Pew Forum's U.S. Religions Landscape Survey. Khan now contends that this is likely true of Buddhists worldwide, extrapolating from data supplied by the World Values Survey. In his April 15 post to Gene Expression, a Seed Media Group science blog, he takes a look at data from Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, and notes that Sri Lankans tend to fit into a similarly theistic pattern.

To be sure, Khan does not claim that Buddhism is theistic, just that many of its adherents are. This, from his 2008 post on theistic American Buddhists:

This is not to say that I believe Buddhism is a theistic religion; one can't deny that many people are Buddhists who are admitted atheists. It is to offer that to generalize about a religion one must look at the true distribution of beliefs and practices, not just scholarly inferences based on textual clues in their scriptures.

The first commenter to Khan's post wonders if something was lost in translation. For my part, I'd point out that "nontheist" is a better word to use than "atheist." The Buddha never contended that there was no God, although he considered eternalism and nihilism both mistaken. Of course, what the Buddha contended and what Buddhists believe can sometimes be two different things, as Khan points out.

(Note: When we reported on the demographics of American Buddhists last year (Buddhism by the Numbers) citing a 2008 Pew Forum survey, many readers questioned the integrity of the Pew results.)

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
R.K's picture

well, actually, base on what I know, Buddhism is the teachings of Buddha. It shows humanity how to avoid suffering, attain happiness, unfold our wisdom, become enlightened and in this way benefit self and others. Buddhists are free to belief whether there`s a God or not because it won`t effect the teaching to become enlightened..

God exists or not? In Buddhism a normal human being won`t be able to prove it unless they achieve the "enlightened" or become Buddha..

JD's picture

"I’ve have a difficult time understanding why people talk about Buddhists “believing” anything."

Actually, 99% of the Buddhists I've encountered are "believers" (i.e. they can read the sutras but they don't have the slightest idea what they mean). For instance, take the 4 Noble Truths. Lets be honest, does the average Buddhist have the slightest idea what they mean or how they function in a meditative practice(?):

"The path to arahantship takes the fruition on non-returning as its basis. In other words, those who are to become arahants gather all eight factors of the noble path and bring them to bear as before on physical and mental phenomena, but now they deal with a level of these phenomena more subtle than before, converged into a single point. Once they have gathered the factors of the path at the level of physical and mental phenomena, they make a focused examination, back and forth, using the power of their discernment, bringing this subtler level of physical and mental phenomena into a single point as stress, the cause of stress, the path, and disbanding, all four Noble Truths gathered into one. They focus on seeing how stress is one with the cause of stress, how the cause of stress is one with the path, how the path is one with the disbanding of stress."


"The third level of knowledge — that the duty appropriate to the truth has been completed — corresponds to the mode of "entry into emptiness" on the verge of non-fashioning, when one realizes that nothing more needs to be contributed to the present moment. In fact, nothing more can be contributed to the present moment. As noted in the preceding section, this is the point where right view transcends itself. In terms of the four noble truths, this is where simple distinctions among the four truths begin to break down. As a modern teacher has put it, the meditator sees that all four truths are ultimately identical. After having used jhana and discernment, which form the heart of the path, to gain understanding of pain and to abandon clinging and craving, one comes to see that even jhana and discernment are composed of the same aggregates as stress and pain [§173], and that one's attitude toward them involves subtle levels of clinging and craving as well.

Thus the path is simply a refined version of the first three noble truths, in which one has taken suffering, craving, and ignorance, and turned them into tools for pleasure, detachment, and insight. "


Ed's picture

I've have a difficult time understanding why people talk about Buddhists "believing" anything. I've always felt Buddhism is founded on direct experience, not beliefs.

Squirming continually in doubt is the challenge, and the joy, of Buddhism.

BlindRob's picture

" “Devas” are not really gods in the Greco/Roman/Hindu polytheistic sense. They’re just seen as mortal beings that inhabit a more refined plane of existence."

---Yup, and what with their existance in a higher plane, their abilties to appear out of nowhere, to hover in midair, and to do other supernatural things like illuminate an entire grove of trees, I'm saying that's what a god is. Just that, not anything else. There is no immortal god in Buddhism, by definition.

Xing Ping's picture
Do Buddhists believe in God? « American Buddhism's picture

[...] Do Buddhists believe in God? Filed under: American Buddhism — amerbud @ 7:17 pm Tags: Deists, First Noble Truth, God, suffering, Theists Check out the Tricycle Editors’ Blog. [...]

James's picture

"The Buddha never contended that there was no God, although he considered eternalism and nihilism both mistaken."

I don't agree with you here. The question he refused to answer is whether the cosmos are eternal or not. This issue has no inherent connection to God. He explicitly rejects the idea that there is some all powerful creator god in the Pali Canon. Indeed, there are many satires in the canon that ridicule the concept.

"Of course there are gods in Buddhism- Samsara is chockablock full of them, and many of them visited Buddha after his enlightenment to either congratulate or to challenge him."

"Devas" are not really gods in the Greco/Roman/Hindu polytheistic sense. They're just seen as mortal beings that inhabit a more refined plane of existence.

BlindRob's picture

Of course there are gods in Buddhism- Samsara is chockablock full of them, and many of them visited Buddha after his enlightenment to either congratulate or to challenge him. Is there a supreme all powerful god? Brahman, the chiefest god in Buddha's culture, is said to have shown up as the newly enlightened Buddha was pondering disappering into the forest and in effect to have said 'get Me out of here!'

Allison's picture

do I believe in “my self” or do I believe in “other” power? As a child, I could, in the dark and at odd unexpected moments, touch the arbitrariness of this particular body, this time, this setting, these thoughts, and it was those experiences of vastness and freedom, I suppose, that led me both to Christianity AND Buddhism (having been raised by a 1950’s materialist).

Do I understand “God?” Can I spout a thousand dissertations on the universal ground of being, supreme creators, nirvana and enlightenment? Nope. But in the dark when I used to think I was talking to myself, I realize I am turning over my thoughts to God, that God answers in a thousand ways in the world around me, that I am held by God when I fall. Buddhism has taught me how to fall. Christianity to know that I am always caught and held.

By the way, for a more compelling look at just this issue I recommend Clark Strand’s new book How to Believe in God (Whether You Believe in Religion or Not), particularly the chapter at the beginning of Part 3 about the Buddha holding up a flower and Jesus’ lilies of the field. Heart-opening stuff…if you dare.

Dave's picture

If you were to ask if there is a Universal Consciousness, if you were to ask if there is a greater Meaning in existence, if you were to ask if there is infinity within the finite, what would people say? Just because Asia did not have a Jehova or Yahweh doesn't mean that there was a deficit in terms of a sense of the Ultimate, that which calls us from and to that which is beyond our delusions and ordinary ways of knowing. Even among Abrahamic traditions there is a broader and more humbling view of the Divine than the popular depictions, and there is often a concurrent aversion to any and all terms and qualities associated with these depictions among those who have rejected these depictions, even if there is no other reason to object to these qualities than guilt by association.

Whether or not you adhere to this conception and call it God or that conception and call it Amida or some other conception and give it no name, these concepts are still placeholders for the truth of our naked, humbled experience of genuine Awareness. I suspect more of us than we could ever believe spend time pretending, preferring a comfortable groomed image of this encounter. Images modeled after the genuine inspiration of saints and bodhisattvas, but with all the glory and revelation and little of the actual frustration and suffering. I am most certainly guilty of this - I could be the poster boy for it. But I get this feeling, for whatever it's worth, that once you have submitted completely to these first-hand encounters with such Awareness, the debates over whether you choose to call it I AM or Tao or the Great Spirit really kind of loses its appeal.

I think this is a vitally important discussion for the (Western convert) Buddhist community to have as an ongoing dialogue, however we label ourselves in terms of God.

Darwiniana » Tricycle responds on Buddhists and atheism's picture

[...] responds to Gene Expression: God-fearing Buddhists? Do Buddhists believe in God? Last year, science writer and blogger Razib Khan wrote that they [...]

Jamie G's picture

For the record, I'm more of an IGnostic.

MrTeacup's picture

The question that the survey asked was "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" and 75% said yes. But the poll was conducted in English and Spanish, which might mean Asian immigrants are undercounted. So this probably means that at least a large majority of American converts to Buddhism believe in God.

Of course, we all know that the Buddha was silent on whether a supreme creator being exists, and one interpretation of this is that we should be open-minded and non-judgmental of other views.

From my readings, it seems that the Buddha actually thought that belief in a supreme creator had negative consequences: "When one falls back on creation by a supreme being as being essential, monks, there is no desire, no effort [at the thought], 'This should be done. This shouldn't be done.' When one can't pin down as a truth or reality what should & shouldn't be done, one dwells bewildered & unprotected. One cannot righteously refer to oneself as a contemplative."

~C4Chaos's picture

Buddhism is a *very* big umbrella. it has different flavors based on the cultural setting where it spread and developed so it's really hard to generalize.

that said, i believe that Khan may have a point that some Buddhists (Western and Eastern) are expressing mythical thinking i.e., worshipping and praying to Buddhas as if they were gods, and using the notion of Nirvana as an escape from samsara (aka the "real" world). this has more to do with the level of development of people (or stages of faith) than the core philosophy of Buddhism (of which one the main ones is "Emptiness").

Buddhism is neither atheism nor non-theism because there is no "God" in Buddhist worldview in the first place. (Atheism and Non-theism can only exist with opposition to a theistic worldview).

my two cents.


Ann's picture

I prefer the term non-theist because of the negative connotations of the word atheist. Words have power and I choose non-theist to represent me. I wasn't sure that I would sustain that in the face of crisis. I grew up Christian and slowly moved to buddhism as I realized that the religion of my youth and early adulthood did not fit the beliefs and spirituality of my middle years. My husband recently had a severe medical crisis. It was the teaching of buddhism that helped me accept our changing reality, not a belief in a god. So non-theist works for me. Not "I looked and didn't find god. But I looked and found myself."

Monica's picture

I tend to prefer non-theist to atheist not because I am wishy-washy on the question of God or seeking some kind of political correctness, but because I helps re-frame the question. An atheist asks "Does God exist?" A non-theist asks "Does it matter if God exists?"

I do not believe in god, but further, I do not believe it matters whether or not God exists. If God were proven to exist, I do not believe it would not change my actions. I would be no more or less a moral person. Right and wrong, happiness and suffering, would still be as there are. Therefore the entire question is moot.

Jamie G's picture

Atheist is the correct word. Generally, an atheist is one who lacks a belief in a god. But because of the negative connotations with the word atheist, some are preferring the term non-theist. I think it is because those that simply lack belief don't want to be thrown in with the bunch that assert no god exists, or who are known as "strong atheists". Still, I think it is unwarranted, because even strong atheist Richard Dawkins admits that any reasonable atheist can only claim to be an agnostic atheists at best, there are neither gnostic theists or gnostic atheists, no one knows with 100% certainty.