Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Is Buddhism a religion?

Gethin, in the opening lines of his book Foundations of Buddhism, answers this question definitively. “The term ‘Buddhism’ refers to a vast and complex religious and philosophical tradition…” (pg 1) On that page Gethin then goes on to quote Cousins to the effect that “half the world’s population lives in areas where Buddhism has at one time or another been the dominant religious influence.” Given this opening to a book-length introduction to Buddhism, it would seem that the answer to the question about whether Buddhism is a religion is clear. However, Gethin seems to step back a little from this assessment later in the book. “I am not concerned here to pronounce on the question sometimes asked of Buddhism: Is it a religion? Obviously, it depends on how one defines ‘a religion.’ Gethin then goes on to give the argument that it is NOT a religion: there is no belief in a creator god, no belief in a god who controls human destiny, nor does it have a creed. On the other hand, Gethin argues that Buddhism does share some traits with religious faiths. “Buddhism views activities that would be generally understood as religious-such as devotional practices and rituals—as a legitimate, useful, and even essential part of the practice and training that leads to the cessation of suffering.” (p 65) It seems that Gethin would side with the idea that something is a religion if you think it is.

In response to the observation that Buddhism is non theistic, Helmuth Von Glasenapp agreed with the premise, but nonetheless concluded that even as a non-theistic tradition, Buddhism is still as religion. He even went so far as to title his work: Buddhism – A Non-theisic Religion. John Bowker in his book The Religious Imagination and the Sense of God argued that Von Glasenapp saw Buddhism as a religion “despite the absence of an absolute deity, since many of the functions which other religions supply in the construction of human lives are certainly found in Buddhism.” (pg 247)

So what are we left with, when we try to define religion? Start with von Glasenapp’s idea that religion supplies functions in the construction of human lives. Add to this Tillich’s definition: “as whatever a person believes will give him an 'ultimate transformation' or something that will result in given desired end-state”. Then, read those ideas again in the light of Gethin’s observation that whether you see something as religion depends on what your own definition of religion is. We are left with a pretty broad category of beliefs, even non-theistic beliefs, that can be considered religions. So, in answer to the question, I would conclude that Buddhism is a religion.


Bowker, John. The Religious Imagination and the Sense of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1978.

Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1998.