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41I42XDmNfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Those who have followed my varied opinions over the years are probably aware that an obscure book, Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t, is one of my favorites in terms of understanding the human condition. Though the book’s core focus is a cognitive anthropological treatment of religion, it also has a nice introduction contrasting the normal form of analysis in mainstream American cultural anthropology to the naturalistic paradigm. Books like these are very useful for overly intellectual types (religious and irreligious) who naturally reduce religion to explicit propositions, often relating to theology. Cognitive anthropology suggests that in fact the basic fundamentals of the religious impulse have very little to do the explicit cultural trappings which are so well known in the organized religions which arose after the Axial Age. Often these complex systems of belief and practice are centered around philosophical or revealed truths, and statements of confession which exhibit logical structures, at least superficially. Though it is probably a misleading analogy, many think of DNA as the blueprint for the form and function of organisms. In a similar fashion it is common to see religious texts and the opinions of seminal thinkers as the blueprint for a given religion. The empirical reality is that this view is upside down. Traits which we think of as seminal to religion, such as profession of specific elements of faith, are relatively recent cultural innovations on top of a far more robust and deep primal layering of religion as a psychological and cultural phenomena.

If we kept that in mind then op-eds with titles like this would be far less surprising, Sri Lanka’s Violent Buddhists:

Extremist Buddhist monks are confounding; they directly contradict a canonically nonviolent religion often perceived as apolitical. Like radical monks in Thailand and Myanmar, Sri Lankan hard-liners reserve special ire for Muslims. The B.B.S. and its counterparts have incited mobs to demolish mosques. A June speech by the B.B.S. chief Galagodaththe Gnanasara triggered anti-Muslim rioting in Sri Lanka’s southern villages; thugs burned homes, four people were killed and at least 80 were injured. But instead of arresting Mr. Gnanasara, the president simply urged “all parties concerned to act in restraint.”

Reading the canonical Gospels would anyone have assumed that Christianity would serve as the foundation for militant orders such as the Knights Templar? The idea of Buddhism as a peculiarly pacific religion I think makes sense more in light of the biases of its introduction in the West (some of the same goes for Hinduism, which is often reduced to Vedanta, with other streams of practice and thought being termed “debased”). Oda Nobunaga’s suppression of militarized Buddhist orders in medieval Japan is just one illustration how the religion was turned toward forceful ends over the past few thousand years. I am broadly open to Peter Turchin’s thesis that “higher religious” that have emerged in the last 2,500 years are cultural adaptations to multi-ethnic empires where a new moral and ethical basis served to unit elites and ameliorate tensions introduced by social stratification. But it is also clear that these ideological systems of thought which took upon religious garb have also made accommodations with the temporal powers that be (e.g., the orthodox Christian “vice-reagent of God upon earth” and the Dharmic cakravartin).

In the particular historical context of Therevada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Theological Incorrectness is useful because the author did his field work in that nation, and shows how in practice there is little difference between Buddhists and Hindus in relation to implicit beliefs and rituals. This despite the high social tension between the two groups, and the canonical chasm between Buddhism and Hinduism. It is also important to know that Buddhism in Sri Lanka went through a 19th century Renaissance, where input from Southeast Asian Theravada and Western sympathizers revitalized the religion and reshaped its self-image among the elites.* The extent of its decline and the reversal of its fortunes is evident in the fact that prominent leaders from the lowland Sinhala gentry converted from Protestant Christianity to Buddhism in the 20th century as a nationalist statement (while Sri Lankan Catholicism has withstood the test of time, most of the Protestant converts of the colonial era have been reabsorbed into Buddhism among the Sinhala). This exhibition of “muscular Buddhism”, and its connection to Sinhala nationalism, is nothing new or out of the ordinary, but has roots that go back many generations.

* Some have argued that the elite self-perception of Theravada Buddhists in terms of their religion being a philosophy as opposed to religion is due in part to Western influence in the 19th century. This being part of the “Protestanization of Buddhism,” transforming a ritualized national cult into a confessional set of creeds.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Buddhism, Sri Lanka 
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In response to my two posts below on atheism statistics, people in the comments and around the web (e.g., Facebook) have pointed out that Buddhism is necessarily/can be atheistic, and that Buddhism, is not/not necessarily a religion, and therefore that explains the statistics. Some of these people are lazy/stupid judging by the way the argument is delivered, but they are clearly grounded in a reality which is expressed in books and documentaries which introduce people to Buddhism. There is a small issue which confounds this analysis of the atheism statistics: most East Asians do not identify as Buddhist. This is mostly because most citizens of the People’s Republic of China do not identify with Buddhism. That being said, Buddhism is clearly the dominant organized religion historically in many East Asian nations (though that has not been true in South Korea for the past generation). I reject the equivalence between the role of Catholicism in much of Europe and that of Buddhism in East Asia (the Church was a much more powerful, prestigious, and influential institution than the Buddhist sangha with only a few exceptional periods), but it can be argued that these are Buddhist cultures, just as they are Confucian societies.

But there’s a bigger issue with this objection: most Asians who identify as Buddhist are themselves theists. This is also the case for American Buddhists. Some people have objected that theism in a Buddhist context is not equivalent to theism in a Hindu, and especially Abrahamic sense. There is no creator god obviously. That is fine, but I think it is important to point out that no matter the theological details of their beliefs, most Buddhists do seem to accept the existence of supernatural entities which we would term “gods.” I was aware of this personally because I’ve encountered several people of Chinese origin who tell me that they’re Buddhist, they believe in god, when I tell them I’m an atheist (usually in response to the question about whether I am Muslim).

The previous question as to whether someone was a “Religious person,” “Not a religious person,” or a “Convinced atheist,” can be broken down by religion. I did so. Below are the data for Buddhists alone. I also provided the sample size for Buddhists. The overall N’s were on the order of 1,000-2,000. So you can see that only a small minority (5% actually) of Chinese in the People’s Republic identify as Buddhists. The other values are obviously percentages.

Country N Religious Not A Religious Person A Convinced Atheist
Japan 319 37 60 3
S Korea 298 37 61 3
China 70 91 9 0
Taiwan 224 50 41 8
Vietnam 226 62 15 23
Hong Kong 160 100 0 0
Thailand 1484 34 66 0
Malaysia 240 78 20 2
• Category: Science • Tags: Atheism, Buddhism, Data Analysis, Religion, Statistics 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"