Monday, 5 March 2012


Something that has interested me for a long time is the extent to which religion is a philosophical belief or a cultural belief. One can say that to be a Christian, you must believe both a) a theist God and b) that God was manifested in human flesh to lead you to salvation. If you meet both of these conditions, then you are a philosophical Christian.
Since the sixties, there has been an increasing interest in "Oriental" religions (with reference to Said, Orientalism, 1978). Many people from European cultures, myself included, have adopted elements of these Oriental religions, such as Buddhism. I call myself a Buddhist because I agree with the central philosophical beliefs of Buddhism, regardless of the culture they originated in; there is suffering in the world, suffering is caused by attachment and so on. However, some Buddhist converts are not what I would call philosophical Buddhists. Many European Buddhists make a point of praying to Buddha, for example, while not necessarily contemplating the philosophy that Buddha taught.
While it is true that many sects of Buddhism (mostly Mahayana and, arguably, Vajrayana) do deify Buddha and pray to him, I would argue that these particular converts are not Buddhists in that sense. They have converted to the cultural aspects of Buddhism without the philosophical. If you examine their philosophical beliefs, it becomes apparent that their religion is in fact Christianity, simply given the cultural guise of Buddhism.
These cultural converts believe in an all-powerful being who was made manifest on earth in human form, who grants salvation to his followers. Christianity calls this being God, manifest as Jesus Christ, who offers redemption from our sins. Cultural converts rename the being Buddha, reincarnate as Shakyamuni, offering release from our suffering, but the concepts themselves are identical. Are these cultural converts Christians or Buddhists?
Douglas Adams makes a point of this in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He references the religion of Viltvodle VI, which believes the universe to be created by a supreme being called the Great Green Arkleseizure, and that the world will be ended by the Coming of the Great White Handkerchief. Is this a different religion to Christianity, with different names for God and Armageddon? What does that mean for Christianity spoken in languages other than English? Are the English God, the Italian Dio, the Japanese Kami and the Viltvodle Great Green Arkleseizure different beings or the same?
This does not mean that I am attempting to undermine or invalidate the beliefs of these cultural converts. I am making the point that the philosophy and the culture of a religion are two distinct elements, and when people adopt one but not the other it can become unclear as to their exact belief. Religion should be purely philosophical in nature. Any great truth revealed to man should be universal, not based in a cultural group. I was reading in the paper yesterday that an English girl, on converting to Islam, began wearing traditional Asian clothes as well as the Hijab. Why was this necessary? Should a physicist dress in Lederhosen out of respect for Einstein's German heritage, or a mathematician don period clothing when performing Newton's calculus?
Religion, unfortunately, will never become pure philosophy. It has always been the nature of religion to spread to the masses, to cloak itself in layers of ritual and language and symbol, and it is still these elements today that most attract converts - even when the philosophy does not.

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