When it comes to disagreeing with religions, it is rather easy. I hope no one ever imagines it is some great logical crisis to deny most religions, you just find the silly stuff (talking snakes, flying horses, frost giants) and you realize that you are looking at a fairy tale.
There is one religion that tends to throw a wrench in the engine though, Buddhism. I have a number of atheist friends, and occasionally I will hear sentiments to the tune of, “But what about Buddhism? Isn’t it more of a philosophy than a religion?” usually followed with “They don’t even have any gods.”
If you are American, or even from a Western country, you may have heard the same at some point. To us in the West, Buddhism is often a distant and vague thing, represented by guys wearing red togas and shaved heads. So we take what little we have heard of Buddhism, and we run with it. I have decided to dig a little further, see what I can find.
You see, with Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, Catholicism, Islam, Rastafarianism, or any of the other religions built off of those kooky Jews in the Middle East, your average atheist has a healthy supply of counter-arguments, observations, affronts, and anecdotes. This is what we live with. I haven’t had to deal with a Buddhist trying to push an anti-abortion law in my state, and I haven’t been forced to meditate on the words of the Vajrayana. These things don’t happen here, so instead we are left with the occasional images skimmed from media and maybe friendly contact with a Buddhist or two.
Take for instance this guy:
As a kid, this was THE Buddha. If you ask a lot of older folks, they probably think this is Buddha too. Turns out he is Budai, sometimes considered an incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha, but often confused for Guatama Buddha, THE Buddha. Of course, this answer is going to switch depending on which denomination of Buddhist you are even talking to.
So we don’t even know what Buddha looks like, and yet you will hear Buddhism brought up in defense of keeping all religion. Clearly, Buddhism is less fantastical than say, Christianity. Except, if the average Westerner doesn’t even know what Buddha looks like, what are the odds we know what crazy stuff may be mentioned in the Vajrayana, or the Mahayana.
I’ve heard, from an American woman who turned to Buddhism, that Buddhism is all about meditation, and bettering yourself. Which sounds a lot like how Christians would boil down their faith (it is all about love, and becoming a better you). To me this seemed interesting, a religion that was devoid of ritual, worship, deities, and the supernatural. Meditation can be helpful for some, so to have the one thing your religion is known for be something rather functional, well that would be a nice thumbs up for India (well, they also created Hinduism, so I guess they get a 50/50).
So I went to Patheos.com, which has a wonderful library on religions. See, when I was reading Joseph Campbell’s book on Oriental Mythology, I was seeing mention of all sorts of mythological stories connected to Buddhism. So I had to know who was right, random lady who says she is a Buddhist, or a man who spent his life studying mythology.
According to Patheos, a criticism of Buddhism has been that many Westerners boil the whole religion down to meditation, ignoring the shrine rituals, worship, monastic tradition, and even scripture, of a faith that can be as strict as any other. We try to ignore the Buddha who resisted kings of evil with an army of demons, or the Buddha whose journey from spoiled prince to enlightened Bodhisattva who rose beyond all needs, or the Buddhism that has epics written about its fantastical episodes. We know it as exotic, so we craft it to be something different than what we have already, a fairy tale that justifies a culture.
I think it is a matter of sociological distance. For Christianity, no matter how long ago it started (about 500 years after Buddhism), it is fresh in our minds, and its precepts have shaped our culture. Even if Christianity has its roots in the year 100 CE, we know its roots in last Tuesday when we rememebered our grandmother’s funeral service. On the other hand, Buddhism is distant geographically, rooted in India and China, it is distant culturally, its rites are not our rites, so it truly feels like a 5th century BCE creation. It is the new thing that we can say represents something old, exotic, and better.
As far as my research shows, Buddhism offers nothing better. Nothing but distance and unfamiliarity. When we finally dig beneath the surface of this amazing Eastern religion, we find nothing but dusty scripture. Or to let Buddha say it:
“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”