Ask an Atheist / Opinion

East vs. West: Ask an Atheist Sizes Up World Religions

Prompt: Do Eastern religions provide any benefits that Western ones might not?

 

In the Western world, or at least in the United States, religions of the Orient have increasingly come to take on an “exotic” and “mystical” flavor. People try these belief systems on as one might try on a new fashionable hat from a faraway land. Some have even gone as far as declaring that Buddhism is not a religion, preferring to call it a “philosophy” or a “way of life.” It is true, the definitions for what constitutes as a religion blurs in the East, as religions there have shared strikingly similar qualities with what we might call philosophy or culture. Even so, if it is a belief system that has to do with spirituality and the supernatural (which Buddhism and Hinduism surely do), it is in all likelihood, in the very definition of the word, a religion.

It is only human nature to either idealize the things we do not know or, on the contrary, to fear and demonize them. That is why some Christians might not hesitate to call Buddhists or Hindus hell-bound heathens, while other Christians might say they are peaceful folk who are simply taking another path to finding God (even though many Buddhists and Hindus do not even remotely believe in the Christian definition of God).

Both of these viewpoints are broad overgeneralizations. Binary thinking gets us nowhere, and we have to remember that each religion and belief system does offer both negative and positive things. However, not all religions are created equal. Throughout their history, they wax and they wane, they go through periods of atrocities (Crusades, anyone?) and relative do-goodedness. To expect any belief system to have the answers to every single one of your questions and problems is, in my opinion, just setting one’s self up for failure.

When I was abroad in Southeast Asia, I had the fortune of conversing with genuine Buddhist monks and followers. From these experiences I developed a much clearer picture of what Buddhism preaches and what it means to be a Buddhist. I don’t think it would be a stretch at all to say that Buddhism is, for the most part, a religion of peace, but Westerners tend to conveniently forget all the baggage that comes with these religions. Even with all its good parts, Buddhism is steeped in supernatural beliefs and unnecessary rituals that, the way I see it, do nothing but introduce flaws and hold it back from achieving its full potential.

Jay Grafft is a third-year communication major.

 

 

I would argue that most religions have relatively similar intentions, such as defining a metaphysical truth or outlining a purpose for our existence. However, they definitely vary in their impact on the surrounding world. In scientific terms, the mythical beliefs of Buddhism or Hinduism aren’t grounded in anything more observable than Christianity or Islam, but, in my opinion, there’s a certain humility about them relative to the Western theologies that I admire.

There are many, many kinds of Buddhism. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for individual monasteries and their patriarchs to develop their own systems. The word “Buddhism” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but in this article I will focus on what I learned in a UCSB course on the Chan/Zen perspective. By the way, take that class if you get the chance; Greg Hillis is a badass and there’s a reason his classes fill up. Anyway, with Buddhism, it’s worth considering that it was born out of the very collectivistic cultures in India and China. A Chan practitioner believes in a collective consciousness within which all life exists in lieu of an individualized relationship with a deity. Sometimes they take it a bit too far, like those who assert that all dualistic concepts (i.e. right vs. wrong) are essentially groundless, but, to be fair, it seems to be working for them.

With regard to Hinduism, I’m going to come out and say that most of us really don’t know what that is. Maybe it’s all the anthropomorphic animals, but Westerners tend to have this perception that Hinduism is a culture frozen in time. The truth is, like Buddhism, there was a geographic determinism to the development of their beliefs; different towns and social classes have different interpretations of it. I didn’t trust the Internet with this research, so I decided to interview my friend, Venkat, who moved here from India. That’s only one account of a religion which speaks to a billion people, but, when compared to me, he was still the relative expert.

Hinduism hits on the same theme of coexistence that Buddhism does; compared to Western ideologies like Christianity and Islam, they take pride in the fact that Hinduism hasn’t provided a platform for war for thousands of years. They even have more compassion for animals than we tend to in the States. The perception that they “worship” cows is a misunderstanding born from their refusal to eat meat. To them, a cow is like a pet, so the thought of eating what is essentially a member of the family is repulsive. I actually think that’s better than the idea of keeping kosher. Some Jews don’t mix beef and dairy because they think it’s an insult to bathe a calf in its mother’s milk, but if they really cared, they wouldn’t kill the cow.

It’s obviously not perfect though. Hinduism is the source of beliefs like samsara and reincarnation, which formed the basis of the caste system. Essentially, their relationship to other belief systems is commendable, but they can be pretty messed up to their own kind sometimes. No one in the Western world would ever hold a disabled person’s previous life accountable for their affliction.

With all this in mind, I wouldn’t recommend switching from one to the other, but I still believe that Eastern philosophies can potentially make the Western ones better. While I don’t think that beliefs resigning to an afterlife or God have any physical value, it would be meaningful if the zealots of the Western world took a page out of some of the sutras and learned to humble themselves in relation to their own beliefs. Between the two halves of the theological landscape, I find it easiest to side with the groups that recognize their own limitations.

Travis Vail is a fourth-year communication major.

 

This article appeared online only at dailynexus.com on Friday, May 3, 2013.

 

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One Comment

  1. Let’s note the chief differences between Hinduism, Buddhism
    and Christianity starting with view of the universe.
    Christianity says that God the Creator, began the universe
    while Hindus and Buddhists maintain that the universe is
    eternal and their Gods developed from an eternal universe.
    Thus Christianity is more compatible with science and the
    big bang that started our universe. Hindus will say that the
    universe expands and contracts every few billions of years
    but this has also been disproved because the universe has
    been shown to be expanding too fast for gravitational attraction among the galaxies to stop the expansion.

    Regarding rituals, Hindus lock their followers into caste systems such as low caste outcasts who can mainly
    sweep streets or priests and high class artisans who
    can keep their children in prized positions because of
    the Hinduist teachings. Buddhists often worship nature
    spirits or those of their ancestors also creating ritual
    istic attitudes toward their families and stifling creativity or any questioning of traditions.
    Christianity has a history of establishing hospitals,
    universities and cities of independent craftsmen.
    more later, artgrey
    C

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