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Lisa Simpson is naturally skeptical and there was even the Season 9 episode Lisa the Skeptic, where she doesn't believe that a recently discovered fossil is that of an angel. However, in the Season 13 episode She of Little Faith, she becomes a Buddhist, having been Christian up to that point.

As a natural skeptic, why wouldn't she become an atheist instead of changing to a different religion? My question isn't so much about the events of the episode, but about Lisa's character generally.

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    I don't think there's an in-universe answer, it was simply written like that. A lot of things in The Simpsons are not natural. – Luciano Jul 15 at 8:58
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    You might be missing the fact that many Buddhists are atheists, and Buddhism is in many ways closer to the philosophy than a religion. – GendoIkari Jul 15 at 15:18
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    @GendoIkari - that's Hollywood Buddhism. Actual Buddhism is just a very dogmatic polytheistic religion, that does all the things other religions do. – Davor Jul 15 at 16:11
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    @Davor: that's Hollywood Buddhism. Actual Buddhism is just a very dogmatic polytheistic religion, that does all the things other religions do. My mother is an atheist buddhist. There are many, many buddhists all over the world who don't believe in any pantheon of gods. I've visited a buddhist temple near my home in California, and I never saw any trappings of polytheism. There's Tibetan buddhism, buddhism in India, Theravada buddhism, ... They're not all the same, and they don't all have a uniform dogma or pantheon. – Ben Crowell Jul 15 at 17:14
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    Not mentioned so far: The Simpsons is written primarily with an American audience in mind. Given the high religious belief in the USA (to the point that declaring oneself as openly atheist invites antagonism from many), the writers decided to take a less controversial route and appeal to the broadest audience. – Chris Melville Jul 15 at 22:22
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The out of universe explanation is they managed to snag Richard Gere [a rather famous Buddhist] for an episode.

In-universe, they can deal with Lisa'a permanent conversion to Buddhism more easily than atheism, by never really having to mention it again afterwards - though she does shout "Free Tibet" in a later episode.

From the linked Wikipedia page in the OP - She of Little Faith

Gere informs her that while Buddhism is about one finding inner peace, it is also about respecting the diversity of other religions based on love and compassion. Thus, Lisa is free to celebrate any holiday with her family, including Christmas. Lisa goes back home, falling asleep beside the Christmas tree and tells everyone that she will be celebrating Christmas with them and continue paying lip service to Christianity while practicing Buddhism for the rest of her life.

Unlike several other episodes in the series in which a character undergoes a change in their personality, Lisa has remained a Buddhist since this episode, much like her conversion to vegetarianism in Lisa the Vegetarian

The episode features actor Richard Gere as himself. Gere agreed to guest star under two conditions, the first being that Buddhism should be portrayed accurately, and his second and strongest request being that Lisa should say "Free Tibet" in the episode.

Buddhism, from the 'get out of jail free' card given to her by Gere, has a certain long-term ignorability. Atheism would have been a much more challenging structure to hang onto in subsequent episodes. Every time the family goes to church the topic will rear its head again. The writers would have to be constantly vigilant for potential plot continuity errors.

Out of universe, the 'mentor' to her decision would also have been considerably more controversial - who would you choose, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens? …Stephen Fry?
I'm sure there would have been much greater opposition to that from various religious communities.

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    To me, it would seem more logical that the writers decided on a Buddhism-based plot, and then brought the idea to Richard Gere to get him on board. It would seem odd to contact Gere about doing an episode, and for him to dictate that if they wanted him to guest star, Lisa must become a Buddhist. I can't back that up either way, but I'd think they got Gere because Lisa became a Buddhist, not that Lisa became a Buddhist because they got Gere. AFAIK, Gere doesn't insist on accurate portrayal of Buddhism in his roles that don't involve Buddhism in the first place. – Nuclear Wang Jul 15 at 15:50
  • @NuclearWang - I made no call as to which came first, chicken or egg. The wikipedia page explains how the plot was brought together. – taking a break Jul 15 at 16:01
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    Adding to that last paragraph, explicitly having a primary character become an atheist in an American show (not least one of the longest-running, most loved American shows) would arguably be ratings suicide. – Prometheus Jul 15 at 16:15
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    "In-universe, ..." - I would consider potential considerations about what's easier to deal with from a writing perspective to be out-of-universe too. What fits better with Lisa's personality would be in-universe. – NotThatGuy Jul 15 at 18:44
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    @CJDennis, a mentor isn't absolutely necessary, but as with anything else, it cuts through a lot of problems. It also avoids misunderstandings. Most other religions have mentors in for form of a pastor, priest, rabbi, mullah, witch, and more. Catholicism has a whole official hierarchy of "mentors". As Tetsujin said, getting Gere was a key factor, just like getting any Star would be. You don't think they'd make a whole episode around Robin Williams right now, do you? I'd think it was obvious they needed a confirmation of appearance before starting work on the episode at all. – computercarguy Jul 16 at 15:56
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As the top answer to this question indicates, Buddhism is quite compatible with Lisa's skeptical nature. The second-highest answer on that question has an interesting quote: "Remember that every buddhist text is advice, not doctrine." (it's a long answer, and worth reading) Lisa, who has a tendency to question everything, would feel right at home here. Whereas many Christian churches demand an adherence to what is in scripture (especially the one Rev. Lovejoy runs), it seems Buddhism gives a lot more permission for one to explore and find their own path.

Whereas religions like the Abrahamic ones center around the worship of a deity, Buddhism centers around the teachings of an ordinary person. The Buddha is held up, not as a god, but a very wise human teacher. Practitioners seek to emulate the Buddha and find inner peace. Given Lisa's angst and love of learning, it is entirely seemly that this would appeal to her.

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    To be fair, Judaism also teaches you to question everything. Just like with Buddhism, people usually don't, and it ends up about as dogmatic as any other religion. Not that this is a problem just for organised religion - plenty of people wear "science" as their religion; as much as this is incompatible with science-as-a-process, it's unfortunately very compatible with science-as-a-collection-of-knowledge. People like their beliefs, and it's hard to learn to give them up when the evidence says otherwise (indeed, Lisa in the Skeptic episode is not behaving rationally at all). – Luaan Jul 16 at 7:38
  • Actually, Buddhism doesn't teach you to question everything. The Buddha suggests that questions like "Who am I?" "Are we all a single entity?" etc. are not worth thinking about (notice he doesn't say that you're not allowed to do that. Just strategically, it isn't useful). He just emphasizes on questions that lead to the end of suffering. Everything else is not worthwhile. – Mooncrater Jul 16 at 7:45
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I'd argue that Lisa is an atheist.

Atheism is, in the broadest sense, an absence of belief in the existence of deities.[1][2][3][4] Less broadly, atheism is a rejection of the belief that any deities exist.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism

As Seth R mentions in his answer, Buddhism is based on the teachings of a human, rather than a deity or god. Buddha isn't a god, nor is Siddhartha Gautama. The fact is, Siddhartha isn't the only Buddha, as it's simply a description of the level of consciousness a person has achieved.

A Buddha is one who has attained Bodhi; and by Bodhi is meant wisdom, an ideal state of intellectual and ethical perfection which can be achieved by man through purely human means. The term Buddha literally means enlightened one, a knower.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1958/02/the-meaning-of-buddhism/306832

In fact, Buddhism doesn't exactly conform to everyone's idea of what a religion is.

Because Buddhism does not include the idea of worshipping a creator god, some people do not see it as a religion in the normal, Western sense.

https://thebuddhistcentre.com/buddhism

The same problem exists for atheism, since it specifically doesn't believe in any gods. I can't find the meme anymore, but I read one a couple weeks ago that states that atheism doesn't really exist as anything other as a way to describe a disbelief in gods to people who do believe in god(s).

The definition of religion is a controversial and complicated subject in religious studies with scholars failing to agree on any one definition. Oxford Dictionaries defines religion as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.[1] Others, such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith, have tried to correct a perceived Judeo-Christian and Western bias in the definition and study of religion. Thinkers such as Daniel Dubuisson[2] have doubted that the term religion has any meaning outside of western cultures, while others, such as Ernst Feil[3] even doubt that it has any specific, universal meaning even there.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition_of_religion

Heck, I've heard people say they don't believe in the religion of science, but I think I'm getting off topic here.

The fact that Lisa is "allowed" to give lip-service to other religions simply shows that people can disbelieve in a god(s) or faith while still wanting to spend time with their friends and family. Simply not arguing with people about their faith, or lack thereof, is simply a human trait to avoid confrontation when it's either not necessary or useless.

IMO, there's very little difference in many religions, including the god(s) they worship, just in the ways they worship the god(s). So really, there's no reason a person can't be multiple religions, except for the people who refuse to believe the god(s) are the same or that the only difference is in ceremonies. Buddhism really isn't so different from Judaism/Christianity/Catholicism/Islam. (And yes, Judaism, Christianity, Catholicism and Islam all worship the same god.)

Also, most holidays (even the religious ones) are more about coming together as a family and friends than anything else, anymore. Passing around gifts, good food, conversation, and generally good times is more about community than a specific deity. This fits well with Buddhism, Atheism, and a whole host of other religions.

What Lisa really needs is the same thing a lot of people need (and likely why there's an episode about it): that's a way of understanding that their beliefs or lack of belief in something is just as valid as anyone else, and that a disbelief in gods isn't demeaning nor does it mean that you have to argue with everyone about religion all the time. There really is a way to co-exist.

The only problem for that comes from religions that refuse to believe in facts or the rights of others, but that's far beyond the scope of this Question. I'll only say that Lisa being Buddhist is slightly more acceptable to Christians than her being an Atheist is because of their misconceptions that Buddha is a god and somehow believing in a god makes it more likely they can be converted back.

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    I don't know that any Eastern religion truly conforms to what Westerners think of religion, except perhaps Hinduism. But I don't know that "Buddhism" as a whole is compatible with atheism, though some Buddhist schools certainly are. Is Lisa's Buddhist school ever mentioned? Do we just assume Tibetan? – Michael W. Jul 15 at 19:27
  • My understanding of Buddhism is that entities on the god spectrum exist, but are mostly ignored. So Buddhists can believe in the existence of Buddhist-only gods/supernatural god-like entities, while they don't worship any of them. If we try to apply the Christian ideal of a god onto Buddhism, that doesn't work. – CJ Dennis Jul 16 at 0:06
  • @CJDennis, no, there are no gods in the base Buddhism, but that is a common misconception. Individual sects might have created them, but they aren't in the core beliefs. bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/ataglance/glance.shtml There are divine beings and spirits, but not immortal gods. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_deities – computercarguy Jul 16 at 15:45
  • @computercarguy That just sounds like semantics. There are divine beings and spirits, but we choose not to call them gods, therefore Buddhism has no gods. I have no idea what the difference is between a divine being (which arguably the Christian god is), and a god. – CJ Dennis Jul 17 at 0:40
  • @CJDennis, the difference is immortality or the "always existing" nature of a god, especially in the sense of the Hebrew god. There's several definitions of "divine", but you have to consider the inaccurate nature of translation as well as culture when looking at this. You can't apply a Christian definition of "divine" to a different culture and vice versa. If you look at Christianity, Jesus would be considered a divine being, but not a god, by the Buddhist definition of divine since he was born and died. – computercarguy Jul 17 at 16:12
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Frame challenge:

Scepticism means "doubting" or "not being easily convinced", or (in the Philosophical sense) "the theory that certain knowledge is impossible" - not "disbelief" or "un-belief". The natural position for a Sceptic (in absence of evidence either way) is then, logically, agnosticism, not atheism.

In other words, on a sliding scale of 10 (completely religious, taking their holy text as literal truth with no allegory) to -10 (dogmatically atheist, rejecting any suggestions that there might be more to the universe than they know), a sceptic should be somewhere slightly either side of the 0 mark; while they should certainly question and doubt/investigate claims of proof in a god, they should also acknowledge that absence of proof is not proof of absence, and - as science quite frequently posits - sometimes the "real" answer is "we don't know", or "THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.".

Note that proof and disproof both require suitably defined questions (compare with the concept of "SMART targets"), as too much ambiguity leads either back to the "we can't provide a meaningful answer" or, worse, to "that isn't a meaningful question"

Buddhism, at least in some branches (including that which Lisa is portrayed as joining), does not contain "traditional" gods, does allow for higher-level existences, and includes a level of "doing good things is worthwhile", and "our actions carry weight beyond simply our own lives". On the "religiosity" scale, these types of Buddhism then sit at around a 1 or a 2 (well within sceptic range), while a more atheist-leaning agnosticism would sit around the -1 or -2 mark.

And, of course, from an out-of-universe perspective, showing the "smart sciency person" as not being an atheist allows them to subvert that particular trope, while also allowing them to portray a non-Christian religion, providing an element of diversity and (hopefully) providing minor education to some of their viewers (in the same way that Apu's Hindu beliefs were sometime shown)

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  • My definitions: scepticism - apportioning belief based on the reliability of the available evidence; reserving judgement until sufficient evidence is found. atheism - not being convinced that there is sufficient evidence for any god or gods (different from believing there is enough evidence to conclude that a god or gods don't exist - an anti-theist). agnostic - believing that it's not possible to conclude whether a god or gods exist. A sceptic should start at the null hypothesis (I don't believe because I've seen no evidence for the claim) but open to evaluate the evidence. – CJ Dennis Jul 16 at 14:06
  • What's a "traditional" god? Whose tradition? Is that a Christian god? – CJ Dennis Jul 16 at 14:08
  • Your -10 to 10 scale doesn't work, because someone can have partial belief that a god does and does not exist without experiencing cognitive dissonance as long as the sum of the strengths of the two beliefs does not exceed 10. E.g. they could be 5/10 that a god does exist and 5/10 that the same god does not exist. Both claims should start at 0 and require evidence to shift off that position. – CJ Dennis Jul 16 at 14:19
  • @CJDennis If they are "5/10" that a god does exist, and "5/10" that no god exists, that'd be "0/10". Your "personal" definition of atheism appears to be a classical definition of a form of "agnosticism", while your "anti-theism" matches the classical definition of "atheism". ("Atheism" meaning "without gods", while "antitheism" means "against gods"...) In other words, we essentially agree on the underlying theories/principles, you've just muddied the matters by using non-standard definitions of existing words, and adding your own word for an existing concept – Chronocidal Jul 16 at 15:56
  • What if they're 0/10 for god, 0/10 against god, and 10/10 undecided? What if they're 2/10 against god, 1/10 for god, and 7/10 undecided? Where do those fit on your scale? – CJ Dennis Jul 17 at 0:43

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