Patheos answers the question:

Is Buddhism a Religion?

Buddhism is one of the five world religions found in every list of major religions. The other four are Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. These five are included in every list of major world religions due to their number of adherents, international spread, and influence on historical events. The list of major world religions is occasionally expanded to include Confucianism, Taoism, Sikhism, Baha’i, or larger categories of “indigenous religions” or “new religious movements.”

In addition to being one of the five major world religions, Buddhism is also one of the three main universalizing religions. The universalizing religions are faiths that include as part of their creed or basic belief system a desire to spread throughout the world and convert other peoples. While many religions hope to gain new converts, universalizing religions see it as a sacred duty to convert others and may deliberately travel to other countries or areas to spread their faith. The three main universalizing religions are Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity.

While most people understand Buddhism as a religion, some prefer to describe Buddhism as a “philosophy” or “way of life.” Some Buddhists may have a negative view of the word “religion.” To them, religion implies zealotry or closed-mindedness, so they would prefer to distance their own beliefs and practices from such a connotation. Others have a positive idea of religion but struggle to picture a religious tradition that does not worship a central deity or pantheon of deities. In Buddhism, nothing is eternal, so there can be no eternal deity; Buddhism is essentially atheistic. There is no place in Buddhism for any sort of true Creator that Western religions would recognize. There are gods to be found in Buddhism, but the gods of Buddhism are mortal, if long-lived, as well as imperfect.

A lack of true “gods” does not mean that Buddhism is not a religion. Religions are systems of life that answer key questions about the meaning of existence, give essential guidelines to behavior, and create hopes and beliefs about life and death. The entire point of Buddhism is to transform from an ordinary, ignorant person into an enlightened Buddha or bodhisattva capable of using great compassion and understanding to free other beings from suffering. Like the other major religions, Buddhism has a clear code or creed it follows, and all of the Buddhist traditions agree on the basic, underlying assumptions of the tradition, such as the source of suffering, the goal of liberation, the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, and karma. There is a strong Buddhist community spread across the globe that has organized itself into different schools and monastic traditions. Buddhism sets forth a clear set of values in the Five Precepts, gives greater meaning to life in the goals of the bodhisattva path, and views the world through both the ordinary powers found in a human’s five senses and through the extraordinary powers that Buddhists believe can be achieved through study, koans, and diligent meditation.

Buddhists are as diligent about the practice of their faith as any Christian or Muslim. They also are willing to travel to spread their beliefs as missionaries. Furthermore, Buddhists in China and Tibet have famously suffered and died rather than betray their beliefs just as Christian martyrs have done. Both in practice and in theory, Buddhism fits the criteria of a religion.

Read more about Buddhism’s ideas of deity here.

11/14/2023 11:56:59 PM
Kathleen A. Mulhern
About About Kathleen Mulhern, PH.D.
Kathleen Mulhern is a writer, editor, historian, speaker, and professor. She teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Colorado School of Mines and Regis University, and is currently an adjunct professor at Denver Seminary in the areas of Church History and Spiritual Formation. Kathleen graduated with a B.A. from Wheaton College, earned an M.A. in French Literature from the University of Denver, an M.A. degree in Church History from Denver Seminary, and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Colorado.