Buddhism: The Organized Religion for Atheists

I’ve been thinking about China lately and to me one of the most singular aspects of Chinese civilization compared with other developed civilizations is the relative unimportance of religion throughout its history. In fact, if you take the broad sweep of Chinese history the must influential system of belief is without a doubt Confucianism. There are some Westerners/history teachers who consider Confucianism a religion, but it seems a misrepresentation and a broad use of the term “religion”. I don’t have much new to say on this debate so I’ll just quote the wiki on Confucianism.

Confucianism is definitively non-theistic. Confucianism is humanistic, and does not involve a belief in the supernatural or in a personal god. On spirituality, Confucius said to Chi Lu, one of his students, that “You are not yet able to serve men, how can you serve spirits?” Attributes that are seen as religious—such as ancestor worship, ritual, and sacrifice—were advocated by Confucius as necessary for social harmony; however, these attributes can be traced to the traditional non-Confucian Chinese beliefs of Chinese folk religion, and are also practiced by Daoists and Chinese Buddhists. Scholars recognize that classification ultimately depends on how one defines religion. Using stricter definitions of religion, Confucianism has been described as a moral science or philosophy.

I think about the circumstances of pre-modern China which consisted of a mostly illiterate population, largely agrarian, extreme poverty, wanton violence, and a semi-Malthusian state of affairs with not much growth on the horizon. If societies must have organized religion because people are credulous, uneducated, and do truly live awful lives where even a story that it will all be better when you die gives solace then I argue Buddhism is a great choice. It is the best choice if most of the ruling class/educated are pretty much atheists already. My thesis is basically if you had a society full of atheists and they were forced to choose a religion for the rest of their people or “co-sign” then that religion would be something like Buddhism.

Some pros of Buddhism are its innate non-violence and a non-proselytizing nature. Perhaps sects of Buddhism have been adapted for semi-violent goals such as Shaolin Monks or Zen Buddhism by Samurai warriors. I must say I am ignorant of some Buddhist history, but I do not recall any war ever being fought because of Buddhism. I also do not recall any religions being persecuted by Buddhists for adhering to that religion (Religions were persecuted by “Buddhists”; use nuance here.). Also, when I think of Buddhism’s spread to other countries in East Asia; the story is always that someone from Japan visited China and brought Buddhism back. It’s never that Buddhist emissaries from China spread Buddhism to Korea. It also seems to me that Buddhism was relatively less influential in the politics of China than the Catholic Church was in Europe. Buddhism just does not hold as large or as important part of Chinese history as other religions did to their respective countries. To me this stems from the tenets of the religion. It is not really a religion about worshipping a god or about salvation/sin. It is more internal and is not concerned with others; perhaps libertarian in a sense. It is also very adaptable/amenable to other systems of thought such as Confucianism, folk religions, and even Christianity.

Now the reason why I say the Chinese rulers or people chose Buddhism is because of the many religions that have passed through China with very little impact. Almost all of the world’s large religions have passed through and none have taken hold the way Buddhism has (especially during the Yuan dynasty); maybe it’s just cultural. I’d like to think it’s because the Chinese people knew better. There have also been multiple folk religions in Chinese history; I would include Daoism in here, but these were smaller or local and have always taken a backseat to Buddhism. Now, it is true some parts of China are muslim and some parts would later become Christian (this is much later in Chinese history), but these were relatively small compared with Buddhism. And Buddhism had perhaps a first mover advantage (I find this a weak argument as Daoism predates Buddhism and Korea is a counterexample of Buddhism losing ground to Christianity/Catholicism). If there is such a thing as a marketplace of religion; I argue the Chinese people chose Buddhism.

When I was growing up with relatives that were in some sense Buddhist; I noticed that when they did all the ritualistic things like burning incense, praying, burning money, or going to temple it was drastically different than Americans. The main difference is that most of my relatives or other people I saw didn’t really believe in what they were doing. They did those things ritualistically, but they never believed that when they burned money for their relatives that actual money was going to go to them in the after life. At least not in the same way that a Christian actually believes that Jesus Christ was resurrected. When I talked to regular “Buddhists” I found that almost none of them really believed in the supernatural aspects of it. Perhaps it is similar to secular Jews. The most striking example of the Buddhists not really believing aspect to me is how I can’t think of a single child of these Buddhists being a Buddhist themselves. In America, in my personal experience I have barely met any Chinese/Japanese/Korean second-generation Buddhists if not zero (I think this is also true for a few other religions, Hinduism). When Buddhists leave China, their children are inevitably not Buddhist or at least just perform ritualistic things. I read a post online awhile back that I can’t find anymore, but it said that in America the majority of Buddhists are non-Asian and I think the percentage of Chinese Buddhists was shockingly low because of the following generations being almost entirely non-Buddhist.

So to sum it all up; the two systems of thought that dominated Chinese history were Confucianism and Buddhism and both lacked religious fervor. China seems like the place in the world where religion had the least impact of any society. Am I wrong?

If not, I’d like to give a high five to my Chinese ancestors; you were the only ones.

Various musings, mostly economics

Haven’t posted in awhile because of school plus kids. Just wanted to write down a few thoughts floating around in my head. I’m prefacing this post with the caveat that I’m a semi-amateur at economics so let me know where I’m wrong.

1. It’s always bothered me how conformist say Apple consumers tend to be or as I’m realizing currently, how libertarians can also be extremely conformist (especially on margins they deem unimportant like art/music/clothes/taking drugs/fun). I’ve also posted this on Twitter and Facebook; here’s my thought.

Groups who are non-conformist relative to the general population (Scientologists, skaters, “punks”, Apple consumers) or to what they consider out-groups have extremely high in-group conformity. And I think it’s almost a literal tradeoff. The more you think you are different from the average person (parents, middle America, etc.), the more you will conform unquestionably with those like-minded; maybe even more-so than the average person is a conformist on issues like football or crime. Now this is a general statement. There are definitely outliers, but I’m talking about the average non-conformist.

2. In economics classes it has always bothered me when we talk about utility functions and preferences. The classic examples are apples and oranges or something like guns and butter where a consumer prefers more of one good over the other and the consumer can rank these things. But, when I think about the real world and especially with my background of being Chinese-American from the SGV (feeling a bit like an alien would feel about American culture) it just strikes me how a huge majority of my preferences are not even preferences for most Americans. One thing to note is that I’m not really talking about how some people’s goods can be bads to other people (country music, ballet, horror movies, etc.)

I’m interested in how 50% of my preferences aren’t even known things to say someone in Kentucky. Now I know this can be handled with classical utility theory, but what I am trying to get at is… In real life the difference between people of different cultures isn’t that Americans prefer 6 bananas over 4 carrots, whereas Japanese prefer 5 carrots over 3 bananas; it’s that I prefer Wong Kar-Wai movies, Karaoke, and Hainan Chicken to someone else’s preference for Hockey, dirt-bike racing, and MMA. Many of people’s preferences aren’t even ranked or known by other people. In class when we talk about preferences though it’s always like this guy prefers more oranges than this other guy who prefers more apples. All I am saying is life isn’t really like that. I prefer things which aren’t even in other people’s utility functions and that is the norm.

3. Finally, it also bothers me when teachers talk about different types of non-monetary costs such as transaction costs, time costs, opportunity costs, etc. and fail to highlight the vast magnitudes of these things. When I hear professors talk about time costs/opportunity costs for example it might cost one person twenty percent more to do an activity because he makes more money and his time is more valuable. But, when I think of things in life these cost differences can be gargantuan.

What got me thinking about this; after high school I worked as tech support at EarthLink and dealt with people of varying skill levels. There are regular things in life for example setting up a twitter account, that would take my grandfather half a day to setup and more time to even understand. My grandfather could also pay someone say $50 to set it up for him and teach him how to use it whereas it would take me 5 minutes and no money. The same can be said for something like an oil change; a mechanic can do it for $5 in 10 minutes by himself whereas say someone else would have to wait an hour at Jiffy Lube and pay $50. A vast amount of things in life between people with different skills and different wages are like this. And it makes a huge difference in all those non-monetary costs; it is not a small 20% difference in many cases. The magnitudes are important and money doesn’t smooth all these things out.

4. I’ve been reading a history book on Taiwan, Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan, and thought this passage on P. 92 was interesting and about things I was unaware of.

“For most of their centuries of existence the triads have been seen primarily as Chinese nationalist organizations, usually dedicated to restoration of the Ming dynasty. Their criminal activities have often had a Robin Hood revolutionary flare. It is only in the last century that triads have become exclusively criminal gangs. Both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek were triad members. Chiang, indeed, started his career as a hit man for the Green Gang, which controlled drug trafficking in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s.”

The movie Shanghai Triad might have been referencing KMT and Chiang Kai-Shek. Also, eerily similar to Stalin and the original Bolsheviks.