Losing Our Religion: Buddhism in a Post-Religious Society

Posted: July 1st, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Over the weekend, I read this fascinating UC-Berkeley study about the trend of Americans moving surprising quickly away from organized religion. Among Americans under the age of 30, the trend is  happening even more quickly. It seems, increasingly, we are looking for secular, rather than religious answers to our problems. Since I’ve always been a pretty non-religious person, this trend definitely resonates with me.

As I have stated before, I firmly believe that Buddhist meditation, philosophy and psychology should not be viewed as religious practices. I simply don’t believe that they meet the conventional criteria. Of course, there are many different views on this matter, all with valid thoughts behind them. Many of the different viewpoints arise from the fact that the word “religion” is so hazily and differently defined by different people. But in my view and approach, I don’t think there is a way of defining Buddhism as a religion without also defining Western psychology and science as religions, too.

At least in the United States, it’s becoming clear that the next generation is not looking for religion, so it would be really silly to try to sell a new religion to those people. Just call it bad marketing. I believe framing Buddhism as a religion is neither helpful nor true, although of course there are different valid viewpoints on this matter. But when something is neither helpful nor true, it should be abandoned. That seems a pretty simple rule. If something is helpful but not true, or true but not helpful, then maybe there is a skillful means in holding on to it. For me, Buddhism as religion needs to be let go.

Give the study a read. It’s very interesting.

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7 Comments on “Losing Our Religion: Buddhism in a Post-Religious Society”

  1. 1 Dennis said at 10:33 am on July 1st, 2013:

    I tend to agree pretty strongly with this POV, Ethan. But having spent two years living in a Shambhala monastery where (in my perception, anyway) the practice was and is interpreted very much as a religion, I can’t say this approach suits everyone across the board.

  2. 2 Ethan said at 10:38 am on July 1st, 2013:

    Totally agree, Dennis. There are many nuanced viewpoints on this matter.

  3. 3 What does Buddhism in America Mean to You? said at 2:29 pm on July 1st, 2013:

    [...] Nichtern with a very short article on why Buddhists should not consider ourselves religions, “Losing Our Religion: Buddhism in a Post-Religious Society.” This is not a perfect case of apples to apples, though, as he is not arguing that Buddhists [...]

  4. 4 Rejecting Scientistic and Post-Religious Buddhism said at 6:33 am on July 6th, 2013:

    [...] in the Buddhist blogosphere this week. First, my friend Shastri Ethan Nichtern writes about “Buddhism in a Post-Religious Society” for his blog, saying, “I firmly believe that Buddhist meditation, philosophy and psychology [...]

  5. 5 Lee Love said at 8:17 am on July 6th, 2013:

    Hard to separate Buddhism from Religion if you are familiar with any Buddhist society.

  6. 6 Kenley Neufeld said at 9:44 pm on July 17th, 2013:

    Love the study; thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  7. 7 Michael Flinn said at 5:50 am on July 20th, 2013:

    The word ‘religion’ can be defined from its root (ligare) “to bind or connect.” In that sense, even Shambhala could be considered a religion, as its members are connected by a set of beliefs or practices. However, as most people in the west define religion as being inclusive of a deity, it may be useful to dispense with the word religion…not accurate, but useful.

    The caution with any so called ‘secular’ approach is that, IMO, one should not throw out the Buddhadharma with the bathwater…what Gautama taught is what we now call Buddhism, and to create a secular neo-psychology and call it Buddhism is really quite inaccurate. I do not feel that one can cherry pick from the Dharma, any more than one can teach astronomy without dark energy and dark matter. If one wishes to teach a Buddhism stripped of the important and integral teachings of karma, dependent origination, anatta, and rebirth, these teachings should be called something else.


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