Trading Spaces

For some, the high level of spiritual openness has been a trend and is a mark of our current Western cultural landscape.  But for others, and understandably so, the tides of that openness seem to ebb and flow. The sense of spiritual openness is partly why in this article by Dr. Andrew Skilton, a Senior Research Fellow at Kings College in London asks the question, “Why is Buddhism so Hip?” Briefly, here are three thoughts that could summarize his article.


Established Religion is Old

Buddhism is hip because it offers a seemingly freer experience from what some have grown up with. Skilter uses words like “…passive and stuffy…” or that some people are looking for “…freedom from stifling conformity…”. (see: Further he says,  “…established religion has diminished as a source for authoritative guidance about how to live and what to live for…”. It means that some are seeing Buddhism as an alternative to the established religions they feel like are not allowing them live fully.

People are Thinking Differently

There are three things that seem to draw people to Buddhism says Skilter. First, “the absence of elaborate hierarchies or involvement in politics…”. Many in today’s culture are fighting for equality and thus established religions use of hierarchy and power no longer fits the bill. Second, “…people seek out a form of spirituality that is compatible with their non-religious beliefs…”. It would seem from this statement that those attracted to Buddhism for this reason are searching for ways to be at peace with themselves and the world. Third, Skilter says that the majority of familiar religions have a beginning and an end (“…a finite timeline…”) whereas Buddhism is “cyclical” and that some find that cyclical understanding of the world “more compatible” with the way they think.

I Don’t Need God

Part of many people’s experience in growing up in traditional religious settings is shame theology. Thus, for Skilter, it makes sense that people would turn to Buddhism because it is “not dependent on a deity”. Generally, we do not like feeling bad about ourselves and we certainly do not like being in a place where we can be judged or held accountable for our actions. In this, the author writes, “Buddhism offers seemingly practical ways of developing wisdom and compassion, free from guilt and obligation”. Furthermore, it seems that those attracted to Buddhism for this reason are soul searching to be a better version of themselves for themselves and for the world. Largely, it simply seems that those who are doing this soul searching “like the idea of being in control and taking responsibility for their lives that can come with this”.

In closing, it should be noted that those who are rejecting established or traditional religion in the West because it is old, or that people are thinking differently and do not need God, are exploring Buddhism in a rather “idealized light” without looking into its history.

What do you think? Are established religions losing their influence in today’s cultural landscape in the West because it is viewed as old, no longer fits our worldview, and because people do not need God?


4 thoughts on “Trading Spaces

  1. Great post and a great question! To borrow some thoughts from Prof Hexham’s course on Understanding World Religions and associated textbooks, Hexham devotes an entire chapter on the Western Buddhist Scholar Edward Conze. Conze was largely responsible for making Buddhism accessible to the Western culture.

    Whether in whole or part (I am unsure), Conze was engulfed with a deep desire to understand the horrors and brutalities of the 20th century. Conze became increasingly critical of those who supported the war – especially professing Christians.

    As a German, Conze, would find himself deeply rooted in a society that literally transformed before his very eyes – a change from an intellectual culture that was the envy of the world, to one that embraced the ideology of the Nazis. Hexham notes that Conze found himself in a critical crisis of faith until his Buddhist conversion in 1938.

    To varying degrees, perhaps each of us find ourselves locked in a part of this world that we seek to understand in the midst of horror and brutality. We are appalled by the reactions of individuals and groups who claim to represent a “higher order” but act in a manner more akin to that which we reject.

    Could it be, to some extent, that individuals seeking to find a sense of moral order in this crazy world, look to Buddhism as a “safe-haven”? Is it more bearable to believe that there is no God because to believe otherwise puts one’s self in a state of spiritual crisis? I can see how that would help.


    • Thanks Dave for your response! I appreciate your thinking here. First, I think to some degree you’re right regarding comment “…but act in a manner more akin to what we reject”. I also think that’s why in Christianity there’s been a push to be authentic and transparent about faith and not this dual sense in which we say one thing but do another. Second, I think Buddhism is “a safe-haven”, but only in the sense that it allows one to feel better about themselves and the world. Perhaps that is as you say, a search for moral order.

  2. Are established religions losing their influence in today’s cultural landscape in the West because it is viewed as old, no longer fits our worldview, and because people do not need God?
    What a great question!!!! I have an uncle who is a Buddhist and we have had many lovely conversations around this question. The one common thread I have found with my uncle and others is that Buddhism is not so much a faith, but a lifestyle. Everything they do, eat, move etc is tied to their ‘faith’. Much like Jews or Muslims, their faith is not separate from their life. I have really appreciated that distinction. In cultural faiths, like the ones mentioned above, life is interwoven with faith. Perhaps that is what is missing in Christianity? We see glimpses of it in the Amish or Dutch Christian Reformed, where culture plays a huge role in their faith and traditions, but where do we find that elsewhere?
    I think it is less about needing God and more around how do we weave our faith into everything we do with intentionality and purpose…however, I could be way off track!

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