This assertion is a big deal to a lot of people. It goes back (at least) to one of the first American Buddhists– Henry Steel Olcott! Let’s explore!
Henry Steel Olcott
Back in the late 1800’s, Americans were already complaining about their problems with the word ‘religion’.
The word “religion” is most inappropriate to apply to Buddhism which is not a religion, but a moral philosophy. But, by common usage the word has been applied to all groups of people who profess a special moral doctrine, and is so employed by statisticians. The Sinhalese Buddhists have never yet had any conception of what Europeans imply in the etymological construction of the Latin root of this term. In their creed there is no such thing as a “binding” in the Christian sense—a submission to or merging of self in a Divine Being. Āgama is their vernacular word to express their relation to Buddhism and the BUDDHA. It is pure Samskrt, and means “approach, or coming”; and as “Buddha” is enlightenment, the compound word by which they indicate Buddhism—Buddhāgama—would be properly rendered as “an approach or coming to enlightenment,” or possibly as a following of the Doctrine of SĀKYAMUNI. The missionaries, finding Āgama ready to their hand, adopted it as the equivalent for “religion”; and Christianity is written by them Christianāgama, whereas it should be Christianibandhana, for bandhana is the etymological equivalent for “religion”. The name Vibhajja vāda—one who analyses—is another name given to a Buddhist, and Advayavādī is a third. With this explanation, I continue to employ under protest the familiar word when speaking of Buddhistic philosophy, for the convenience of the ordinary reader.
Defining Terms is Important
So, before we get too worked up about the question, we gotta be sure we’re on the same page.
What is religion? I bet you have some idea already. In order to take a position on this question, we have to know our own and other people’s assumptions about what is and is not religion.
So, let’s do what everyone does nowadays, let’s google it.
Here, we are presented with two choices.
a particular system of faith and worship.
a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.“consumerism is the new religion”.
Depending on how you feel, you can choose to think of religion as some “particular system of faith and worship” or as some pursuit that people take extremely seriously.
No final answer.
If you look at the right side of that image from the google search you’ll notice “there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion” — it looks like this is taken from wikipedia.
You might already see where I am going with this! Fortunately, it is not very complicated.
It’s all in your mind.
Why the big deal?
I’m guessing people make such a stink about Buddhism being something other than a religion, usually, because they’re in the process of distancing themselves from some Abrahamic religion.
They feel angry at ‘religion’ (or, at their own idea of what constitutes a religion) and want to be told that Buddhism is different. They come across someone that calls Buddhism a religion, feel threatened, and arguments are born.
Religion is a floppy word.
I have seen facebook arguments on this topic that seem to drag on forever. People get angry and fall into wrong speech. The community divides along the lines of ‘it is a religion’ and ‘it is not a religion’, but no one knows what anyone else thinks a religion is in the first place, because (usually) no one asks.
Divisive, Wrong, Speech
Divisive speech is a big deal in terms of Buddhism’s principle of Right Speech. We’re not supposed to engage in it. This topic in particular, seems to be a topic that wrong-speech thrives on.
Cut it off at the root! Just ask, ‘what do you mean?’ It is more simple than people realize.
If people are worried that you have called it a religion, you can say,
Dear friend, Buddhism is a religion. It is not an Abrahamic religion.
Then, there is the next thing. These same people who assert that Buddhism is not a religion often seem eager to divorce Buddhism from anything they think sounds weird. Anything that doesn’t fit neatly into their worldview becomes simple superstition, or cultural accretion. This is cultural arrogance. Personal arrogance. Arrogance (and ignorance) all around. It is the worst kind of cultural appropriation.
The argument is, again, not very complicated. We just point to the evidence.
The earliest texts often speak of a reality that deviates from the celebrated western ‘scientific’ worldview. There are all sorts of nonhuman beings all over the earliest teachings.
Rebirth is taken for granted (and, before you assert ‘Buddhism doesn’t teach soul, therefore there is no rebirth in Buddhism’, you would do well to remember that ‘soul’ isn’t necessary to rebirth).
When arrogant white people, like myself, come along and ‘fix’ the tradition by picking and choosing what is and isn’t real, Buddhism becomes boring, sterile, ‘scientific’, and useless.
People think they’re doing everyone a favor by presenting their sterile and sober (nonsuperstitious) Buddhism, but as they slice and dice and pick and choose, they throw out a lot of what was probably the Buddha’s original teaching.
A big problem with this effort is that early Buddhist texts are full of things that would sound weird to any ol’ western person you grabbed off the street today. Does that mean it is untrue? No. It often just means that western people aren’t skilled in, we don’t have knowledge of, these things.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don’t assume you know what is and is not real. Or, do. Go for it. See how it goes.