Gene Expression cites some numbers from the recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey on the US Religious Landscape that suggest a sizable number of US Buddhists believe in God (in some form or another). She's right.
Here is Razib's post:
One of the points that I run into all the time is that Buddhism is a religion without god, that is it is an atheistic religion. I admit this assertion as an ideal or elite belief, but contend that the vast majority of the world's Buddhists are theists, so one can't simply present Buddhism as an atheistic religion when most Buddhists are not atheists. I do tend to agree that Western converts to Buddhism are often atheists, and that's one reason Westerners view it as atheistic religion since the Buddhists they are most likely to know are not ethnically Asian ones. The US Religious Landscape Survey actually has some questions which assess the beliefs of American Buddhists.
As you can see the majority of American Buddhists are theists. To the left you see the ethnic distribution; even allocating all the atheists and agnostics ("Don't know/ refused/ other") to whites still leaves the majority of white American Buddhists admitting at least some belief in god! So you can't dismiss this result purely as an artifact of Asian immigration to the United States introducing "debased" Buddhism.
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. Of the American religions listed Buddhism did have the highest number atheists (Jews were second at 10%), so it is correct to say that of all major World Religions atheistic interpretations are most prevalent in Buddhism. But it is too much to make the claim that Buddhism is an atheistic religion as such.
Question wording: Do you believe in God or a universal spirit? [IF YES, ASK:] How certain are you about this belief? Are you absolutely certain, fairly certain, not too certain, or not at all certain?So in a religion with no God, 75% of it's adherents in the US still believe (to some degree) in a God or Universal Spirit. And we Buddhists claim to be so much more rational.Belief in God or Universal Spirit Among Buddhists39% Believe in God: absolutely certain28% Believe in God: fairly certain8% Believe in God: not too certain/ not at all certain/ unsure how certain19% Do not believe in God6% Don't know/ refused/ other
Seriously, though, this likely represents a whole range of beliefs that most Christians, Jews, or Muslims would not consider having any relationship to their vision of God. Essentially, it suggests that in Buddhism, as is true in most religions, there are multiple worldviews that allow multiple interpretations of the Buddhist texts and teachings.
On the bright side, we pretty much also agree that there are many paths to "eternal life" and more than one way to interpret Buddhist "scriptures." So, at least we're relativists.
Views of One's Religion as the One True Faith Among BuddhistsFor an opposing position, and an explanation of what Buddhism actually teaches about God, one can check out this page from Buddha Dharma Education Association, by Ven. S. Dhammika:5% My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life86% Many religions can lead to eternal life5% Neither/ both equally4% Don't know/refusedQuestion wording: [IF RESPONDENT HAS A RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION, ASK:] Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right. First/next: My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, OR: many religions can lead to eternal life.* * * * *Interpretation of Religious Teachings Among Buddhists5% There is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of my religion90% There is MORE than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion1% Neither/ both equally5% Don't know/ refusedQuestion wording: [IF RESPONDENT HAS A RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION, ASK:] Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right. First/next: There is only ONE true way to interpret the teachings of my religion, OR: there is MORE than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.
- Do Buddhist believe in god?
- No, we do not. There are several reasons for this. The Buddha, like modern sociologists and psychologists, believed that religious ideas and especially the god idea have their origin in fear. The Buddha says:
"Gripped by fear men go to the sacred mountains,
sacred groves, sacred trees and shrines". (DP 188)
Primitive man found himself in a dangerous and hostile world, the fear of wild animals, of not being able to find enough food, of injury or disease, and of natural phenomena like thunder, lightning and volcanoes was constantly with him. Finding no security, he created the idea of gods in order to give him comfort in good times, courage in times of danger and consolation when things went wrong. To this day, you will notice that people become more religious at times of crises, you will hear them say that the belief in a god or gods gives them the strength they need to deal with life. You will hear them explain that they believe in a particular god because they prayed in time of need and their prayer was answered. All this seems to support the Buddha’s teaching that the god-idea is a response to fear and frustration. The Buddha taught us to try to understand our fears, to lessen our desires and to calmly and courageously accept the things we cannot change. He replaced fear, not with irrational belief but with rational understanding.
The second reason the Buddha did not believe in a god is because there does not seem to be any evidence to support this idea. There are numerous religions, all claiming that they alone have god’s words preserved in their holy book, that they alone understand god’s nature, that their god exists and that the gods of other religions do not. Some claim that god is masculine, some that she is feminine and others that it is neuter. They are all satisfied that there is ample evidence to prove the existence of their god but they laugh in disbelief at the evidence other religions use to prove the existence of another god. It is not surprising that with so many different religions spending so many centuries trying to prove the existence of their gods that still no real, concrete, substantial or irrefutable evidence has been found. Buddhists suspend judgement until such evidence is forthcoming.
The third reason the Buddha did not believe in a god is that the belief is not necessary. Some claim that the belief in a god is necessary in order to explain the origin on the universe. But this is not so. Science has very convincingly explained how the universe came into being without having to introduce the god-idea. Some claim that belief in god is necessary to have a happy, meaningful life. Again we can see that this is not so. There are millions of atheists and free-thinkers, not to mention many Buddhists, who live useful, happy and meaningful lives without belief in a god. Some claim that belief in god’s power is necessary because humans, being weak, do not have the strength to help themselves. Once again, the evidence indicates the opposite. One often hears of people who have overcome great disabilities and handicaps, enormous odds and difficulties, through their own inner resources, through their own efforts and without belief in a god. Some claim that god is necessary in order to give man salvation. But this argument only holds good if you accept the theological concept of salvation and Buddhists do not accept such a concept. Based on his own experience, the Buddha saw that each human being had the capacity to purify the mind, develop infinite love and compassion and perfect understanding. He shifted attention from the heavens to the heart and encouraged us to find solutions to our problems through self-understanding.