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Beyond Belief: a Buddhist Critique of Christianity

Chapter 8:
How to answer the Evangelists
Part 1

As part of their efforts to promote their faith, evangelical Christians often ask Buddhists questions intended to confuse or discourage them. We will look at some of these questions and comments and give effective Buddhist responses.

You do not believe in God so you cannot explain how the world began

It is true that Christianity has an explanation about how everything began. But is this explanation correct? Let us examine it. The Bible says that God created everything in six days and on the seventh day he rested. This quaint story is nothing more than a myth and is no more true than the Hindu myth that the gods created everything by churning a sea of milk, or the classical belief that the universe hatched out of a cosmic egg.

Some parts of the creation myth are plainly absurd. For example it is said that on the first day God created light and darkness but on the fourth day he created the sun (Gen 1:15-16). How can there be day and night without the sun? The creation myth also contradicts modern science which has proven how the universe began and how life evolved. There are no departments of astronomy or biology in any of the world's universities which teach the creation myth for the simple reason that it is not based on fact. So while it is true that Christianity has an explanation for how everything began (as do most religions) that explanation is just a myth.

Then what does Buddhism say about how everything began? Buddhism says little on this subject and for a very good reason. The aim of Buddhism is to develop wisdom and compassion and thereby attain Nirvana. Knowing how the universe began can contribute nothing to this task.

Once a man demanded that the Buddha tell him how the universe began. The Buddha said to him "You are like a man who has been shot with a poison arrow and who, when the doctor comes to remove it, says 'Wait! Before the arrow is removed I want to know the name of the man who shot it, what clan he comes from, which village he was born in. I want to know what type of wood his bow is made from, what feathers are on the end of the arrow, how long the arrows are, etc etc etc.' That man would die before all these questions could be answered. My job is to help you to remove the arrow of suffering from yourself" (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No.63).

Buddhism concentrates on helping us solve the practical problems of living - it does not encourage useless speculation. And if a Buddhist did wish to know how and when the universe began he would ask a scientist.

Buddhism is impractical because it says you cannot even kill an ant

Before we defend Buddhism against the charge of being impractical, let us see if Christianity is practical. According to Jesus if someone slaps us on the cheek we should turn the other cheek and let them slap us there also (Matt 5;25). if we discover that someone has stolen our pants we should go out and give the thief our shirt too (Matt 5:40). If we ourselves cannot resist stealing we should cut off our hands (Matt 5:30). We could call all these teachings impractical although Christians would probably prefer to call them challenging. And of course they would be right. To turn the other cheek when someone assaults us is not easy. It requires that we control our anger and doing this helps to develop patience, humility, non-retaliation and love. If we are never challenged we will never grow.

The Buddha asked us to have respect for all life, even for humble creatures. As with turning the other cheek, this is not always easy. Like some people, creatures such as ants can be an irritating inconvenience. When we take the precept not to kill and try to practice it we are challenged to develop patience, humility, love, etc. So in asking us to respect all life, Buddhism is no more impractical than Christianity.

The Buddha is dead so he cannot help you

Buddhists sometimes have difficulty responding effectively when Christians say this to them. However if we know Dhamma well it will be quite easy to refute this claim because, like most Christian claims about Buddhism, it is based upon misunderstandings.

Firstly, the Buddha is not dead. He has attained Nirvana, a state of utter peace and freedom. The other name the Buddha gives Nirvana is the Deathless State (Amata) because after one attains it one is no longer subject to birth or death. Of course Nirvana is not the naive 'eternal life' described in the Bible, where the body is resurrected and where angels sing. In fact it is so subtle it is not easy to describe. However it is not non-existence, as the Buddha makes very clear (Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No.72; Sutta Nipata, verse 1076).

It is equally untrue to say that the Buddha cannot help us. During his forty year career, the Buddha explained in great detail and with masterly clarity everything we need to attain Nirvana. All we need to do is to follow his instructions. His words are as helpful and as valid today as when he first spoke them. Of course the Buddha doesn't help us in the same way as Christians claim Jesus helps them, and for a very good reason. If a student knew that during the exams he could ask the teacher for the answers to the exam questions, he would never study and consequently would never learn. If an athlete knew that by merely asking for it the judge would give him the prize, he would never bother to train and develop his body. Simply giving people everything they ask for does not necessarily help them. In fact, it guarantees that they will remain weak, dependent and lazy.

The Buddha pointed us to Nirvana and told us what provisions we would need for the journey. As we proceed, we will learn from our experiences and our mistakes, developing strength, maturity and wisdom as we do. Consequently when we finish our journey we will be completely different persons from when we started. Because of the Buddha's skilful help we will be fully enlightened.

To say that the Buddha is dead and cannot help you is not only wrong it also implies that in contrast, Jesus is alive and can and does help you.

Let us look at these two assumptions. Christians claim that Jesus is alive but what evidence is there of this? They will say that the Bible proves that Jesus rose from the dead. Unfortunately statements written by a few people thousands of years ago don't prove anything. A statement in the Mahabharata (one of the Hindu holy books) says that a saint had a chariot which could fly. But does this prove that the ancient Indians invented the aeroplane? Of course it does not. The ancient Egyptian scriptures say that the god Khnum created everything out of clay which he shaped on a potters wheel. Does this prove that everything which exists is just mud? Of course it does not. A passage in the Old Testament says that a man named Balaam had a donkey which could talk. Is that conclusive proof that animals can speak? Of course it is not.

We cannot uncritically accept claims made in the Bible any more than we can uncritically accept claims made in other sacred books. When we examine Bible claims about Jesus' supposed resurrection we find very good reasons why we should not believe them. In fact, the Bible actually proves that Jesus is not alive. Just before he was crucified Jesus told his disciples that he would return before the last of them had died (Matt 10:23, Matt 16:28, Lk 21:32). That was 2000 years ago. Jesus has still not returned. Why? Obviously because he is dead.

The second assumption is that Jesus always responds when you pray to him. It is very easy to prove that this is not true. Christians die from sicknesses, suffer from misfortunes, have emotional problems, give in to temptations etc just as non-Christians do and despite the fact that they pray to Jesus for help. I have a friend who had been a devout Christian for many years. Gradually he began to doubt and he asked his pastor for help. The pastor instructed him to pray and even got members of the church to also pray for him. Yet despite all these prayers to Jesus for strength and guidance my friend's doubts increased and he eventually left the church. Later he became a Buddhist. If Jesus is really alive and ready to help why do Christians have just as many problems as non-Christians do? Why didn't Jesus answer my friend's prayers and help him to remain a Christian? Obviously because he is dead and cannot help.

In answer to this objection Christians will say that there are people who can testify that their prayers have been answered. If this is true, it is also true that there are Muslims, Taoists, Sikhs, Hindus, Shintos and devotees of Kuan Yin who can say the same thing.

Unlike Christianity, Buddhism is so pessimistic

According to Webster's Dictionary, pessimism is "the belief that evil in life outweighs the good". It is interesting that Christians accuse Buddhism of being pessimistic because the idea that evil is more pervasive than good is one of the central doctrines of Christianity. Two of their favourite Bible quotes are "All have sinned, all have fallen short of God's glory (Rom 3:10) and "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins (Jac 7:20). The doctrine of Original Sin teaches that all human beings are sinners, incapable of freeing themselves of sin, and that the evil in us is stronger than the good (Rom 7:14-24). Christians will say that while this is true, we can be free from sin if we accept Jesus. This may be so but it is still the case that Christians feel they need Jesus because their view of human nature is so utterly pessimistic.

Buddhism on the other hand has a very different, not to say more realistic, view of human nature. While fully recognizing mankind's potential for evil, Buddhism teaches that we can conquer evil and develop good through our own efforts.

Abandon evil! One can abandon evil! if it were impossible to abandon evil, I would not ask you to do so. But as it can be done, therefore I say, "Abandon evil!"

Cultivate the good! One can cultivate what is good! If it were impossible to cultivate the good I would not ask you to do so. But as it can be done, therefore I say, "Cultivate the good!" (Anguttara Nikaya, Bock of Ones).

Whether one agrees with this belief or not, one could certainly not say that it is pessimistic.

Jesus teaches us to love but Buddhism encourages us to be cold and detached

This is not true. The Buddha says that we should develop a warm caring love towards all human beings.

Just as a mother would protect her only child even at the risk of her own life, even so one should cultivate unconditional ove to all beings (Sutta Nipata, verse 150).

In every sense love is as important in Buddhism as it is in Christianity and is emphasized just as much. There is however something which somewhat spoils Christians' practice of love. Their loud insistence that only they love, that the quality of their love is superior to that of others, and their constant disparagement of and scoffing at others' efforts to practise love makes them appear thoroughly invidious. So petty and jealous are some Christians that they cannot even praise or appreciate a quality as beautiful as love, unless it has 'Made by Jesus' written on it.

You claim that when we die we are reborn, but there is no proof of this

Before responding to this let us examine both the Christian and Buddhist afterlife theories. According to Christianity, God creates a new soul that becomes a human being which lives its life and then dies. After death the soul will go to eternal heaven if it believed in Jesus, or to eternal hell if it did not.

According to Buddhism, it is impossible to fathom the ultimate beginning of existence. Each being lives its life, dies and then is reborn into a new existence. This process of dying and being reborn is a natural one and can go on forever unless the being attains Nirvana. When a being does attain Nirvana their understanding, and consequently their behaviour, alters and this changes the process which causes rebirth. So instead of being reborn into a new existence the being attains Nirvana. Nirvana is not existence (to exist means to respond to stimuli, to grow and decay, to move in time and space, to experience oneself as a separate etc.) and it is not non-existence in that it is not annihilation. In other words each being's existence is beginningless and endless unless Nirvana is attained and until that time existence has no other purpose than to exist.

There is little evidence for either of these two theories. However, there are several logical and moral problems with the Christian theory which are absent from the Buddhist theory and which make the latter more acceptable. Christianity sees existence as having a beginning but no end whereas Buddhism sees it as cyclic. Nature offers no examples of processes which have a beginning but no end. Rather, all the natural processes we can observe are cyclic. The seasons go and return again next year. Rain falls, flows to the sea, evaporates, and forms clouds which again fall as rain. The body is made up of the elements we ingest as food; when we die the body breaks down and releases its elements into the soil, where they are absorbed by plants and animals which we again eat to build the body. The planets circle the sun and even the galaxy containing our solar system slowly revolves. The Buddhist theory of rebirth is in harmony with the cyclic processes we see throughout nature whereas the Christian theory is not.

Christians claim that God created us for a purpose - so we can believe in him, obey him and be saved. If this is so it is very difficult to explain why, each year, millions of foetuses naturally abort, and millions of babies are born dead or die within the first two years of their lives. Further, millions of people are born and live their whole lives with severe mental retardation, unable to think even the most simple thoughts. How do all these people fit into God's supposed plan? What purpose can God have in creating a new life and then letting it die even before it is born or soon after its birth? And what happens to all these beings? Do they go to heaven or hell? If God really created us with a plan in mind, that plan is certainly not very obvious. Also, as the majority of the world's people are non-Christian and as not even all Christians will be saved, this means that a good percentage of all the souls that God creates will go to hell. God's plan to save everyone seems to have gone terribly wrong. So although we can't prove either the Christian or the Buddhist afterlife theory, the Buddhist doctrine is more appealing and acceptable.

If we are really reborn, how do you explain the increase in the world's population?

When beings die they are reborn but they are not necessarily reborn as the same type of being. For example, a human could be reborn as a human, as an animal, or perhaps as a heaven being, according to its kamma. The fact that there is a dramatic increase in the world's human population indicates that more animals are being reborn as humans (there has been a corresponding drop in the number of animals due to extinctions etc.) and more humans are being reborn as humans. Why is this so? Just why more animals are being reborn as humans is difficult to say. But why more humans are being reborn as humans is undoubtedly due to an increasingly widespread knowledge of the Buddha's teachings. Even where the Dhamma is not widely known its capacity to be a subtle influence for good is powerful. All this can account for the increase in the human population.

Go to Beyond Belief: How to answer the Evangelists. Part 2
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