Not athiestic, polytheistic. I spent a year in Thailand while in the USAF and knew a LOT of Bhuddists. They burn incense to various gods, and have ornate little "spirit houses" outside their homes so the spirits will inhabit the beautiful little spirit houses and not their homes.
Since Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy, one can certainly incorporate the religion into other spiritual or religious practice. Hinduism, for example, just made the Buddha into an avatar of Vishnu (and hence a bona-fide Hindu god). Thai Buddhism is derived from this branch of the family tree. In China and Tibet it often was mixed with Taoism or various forms of spiritualism, giving rise to e.g. Zen and still other flavors. In a similar way, Quakerism is sufficiently broad that there actually exist atheistic Quakers and Buddhist Quakers. However, the words of Buddha himself, to the extent that one believes that e.g. the Pali Canons preserve them, do not teach of God or Gods, but rather the contrary:
To put it more literally, Buddha argued that believing in Gods is not useful. It is pointless. Even if they exist it is pointless, because they too are bound the the wheel and must seek enlightenment, and then, there is no evidence that they exist. To the spiritually enlightened in Hinduism and Buddhism alike, the gods are viewed as metaphors, as crutches to aid human understanding by personifying traits both desirable and undesirable. A perhaps better summary is here:
which also explains the minor differences between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, where Theravada is more abstract and less religious. Buddhist "devotion" should not be confused with theism, and Buddha explicitly stated that he was not a God and that the entire idea of God is a distraction from the path to Enlightenment. Of course, Jesus explicitly stated in the New Testament that he wasn't God as well, but look how well that worked.
People want to believe that the Universe is personal, not impersonal. They want to believe that there is a point to it all. They want to believe in cosmic/divine justice, because there ain't no justice here on Earth in any living being's actual life. They will invent Gods or deify innocent philosophers given half a chance, if that's the only way they can have them.
This is not clearly presented even by Buddhists. They often prefer to present Buddhism as "non-theistic" but not atheistic without recognizing that "non" is the literal meaning of the "a" in atheistic. They also often present atheists as people who assert that they can prove that there is no such thing as God. Neither of these is true. Atheists don't assert that there definitely is no God. They assert that there is no good reason to think that there is. On a really good day, a really famous atheist like David Hume might go so far as to logically prove that there never can be good reason to think that there is, any more than some finite observation can prove the existence of something infinite. Buddha asserted both that there is no good reason to believe in a God, and furthermore, that worrying or arguing about it is equally pointless, establishing himself as both an atheist and a reasoner who anticipated Hume's argument 2100 years earlier.
A Christian doesn't NEED a church. Any Christian can perform a baptism or communion. Christ himself said "whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there."
Depending, of course, on what kind of Christian you are. Christianity isn't a religion -- it is many. We could also go down a list of what Christ is supposed to have said -- For example: "Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them." In other words, Jesus preached in parables to deliberately confuse people so that they wouldn't understand him and thereby be converted, so that they could be damned. Thanks, Jesus!
Or "And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God." -- Kinda hard to interpret this in any other way but Jesus acknowledging that he is neither God, nor good. Unless he's doing parables again, trying to confuse us. Wily guy!
Or a verse or two later:
"Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me."
This one is particularly interesting. Jesus, we have to presume, is still alive, not yet crucified. The cross is not, in fact, a symbol of Christianity -- there is no such thing as Christianity, not yet. Jesus has, in fact, just overtly stated that he is not God (an appropriate thing for a good Jew to do, by the way). Yet he tells his listener to take up the cross, and follow him!
What cross? Can this possibly be an actual quote of Jesus? Of course not. His listener wouldn't have had any idea what Jesus was talking about. Even if you are enormously generous to the point of extreme gullibility, and insist that this is an example of offhand prophecy by Jesus instead of Mark putting words into Jesus' mouth fifty or sixty years later (by which time maybe the cross had become a symbol) or some nameless redactor even later, in the second or third century, this is right up their with:
Chosen One: But I don't understand. Who are the evil council?
Mushufasa: The answer you seek resides in the stars above.
Chosen One: I don't understand.
Mushufasa: Of course you don't. I'm speaking in riddles. That's kind of the point, like a clue, so when you figure it out you'll say "Oh, that's what he meant! Stars above!"
So that later, the dude would go "Oh, so that's what he meant by take up the cross..."
A more sensible approach would be to just acknowledge that we have no real idea what Deliverer the Anointed Deliverer might have said, if he actually existed, because one can be pretty sure that a lot of what it is claimed that he said is overtly self-contradictory or obviously an (in this case an anachronistic) insertion.
Christianity itself isn't declining, but the various denominations are. The church I attend (a very large, rich church) is nondenominational. I think the reason for this is that many denominations have beliefs that aren't really backed up by scripture, such as the Mormons and Southern Baptists who think drinking is a sin, despite the fact that Jesus was a drinker.
They also tend to have beliefs that aren't really backed up by scientific inquiry or mere common sense, such as the belief that there was a world-spanning flood that covered Mount Everest to the tippy top (9000 meters up) in only 40 days of rain, while all of the species in the world that would have been killed in such an event were preserved pairwise in a wooden boat the size of a Wal-Mart ventilated through a window the size of a doormat. Oh, wait, Jesus himself believed in this: "But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be." Of course, none of this ever happened, and just maybe that is really why Christianity is in decline.
As to critical thinking, once God has shown himself to you, no amount of critical thinking is going to make you not believe. Elephants are pretty unbelievable untill you've gone to the zoo. If it weren't for people actually knowing God, religion would have died out centuries ago.
You will never find a hidden thing that you don't believe in.
It would be difficult to find a more succinct statement of anti-science in all of, er, Christendom. And it is one of the standard apologia, one that (of course) applies just as perfectly to belief in Shiva and Parvati and Ganesh, or the Trimurti, or Zeus and Athena, or Odin and Thor, or the Great Spirit, or Yahweh, or (goodness, how many "hidden" Gods are there that I have to believe in before I can find them?)...
My standard reply to this sort of nonsense is twofold. First, let's invite Jesus to show himself to me, like he promised he would do, when asked nicely. Usually I ask for Jesus to show up in my den where I'm typing this reply, would that do? OK, I just issued the invitation yet again, let's see if it works!
It should -- after all, we can carry out the following reasoning:
God/Jesus loves me (this I know, for the Bible tells me so... yes, I too sang this as part of my early indoctrination).
We do not wish to torture things we love in a fiery furnace for eternity. For example, I'm very fond of my dogs and I therefore do not douse them in gasoline and set them on fire, even though one or the other has chewed one of my books to pieces or pissed on my carpet. Nor have I tortured and killed any of my three sons (although there were days it was close, I admit:-). Usually I'm actually nice to the beings I love, although we all know that God is not, not if your standard of Godly "nice" means anything like what the word actually means.
Sadly, according to "the rules", Jesus/God is going to consign me to a fiery furnace for eternity because I do not -- in the very best of faith -- believe in him. This in spite of every unfair advantage given to Jesus early on -- raised a Christian, sang in the choir, grandson and uncle of Methodist ministers, a boy scout. Nor do I think much of the Bible. It is an inconsistent mess, utterly useless as a guide for ethical behavior and worse than useless as a standard of knowledge about the real world. In fact, I think the whole thing is a lot of mythical malarky designed from the beginning to separate fools from money (to create "rich churches") and political power, mixed in of course with some very sincere self-delusion, all inherited from dark, ignorant times. Now we know better, or should.
However, I'm an empiricist. Jesus can at any time -- like right now, for example -- save me from eternal damnation as we are both certain that -- if he exists at all -- he wishes to do (see above). All he has to do is what he did for Saul of Tarsus and "hundreds of others" -- appear in my den, change ordinary water into a couple of beers, and sit down and chat with me a while over a cold one. We can discuss ethics and the Bible and he can explain the bit about cursing the fig for not giving him figs out of season, or why he would actually appear with Moses when Moses ordered the murder of tens of thousands of women and children (the Midianite captives), excepting only the young female virgins in the lot, whom he gave to his soldiers as playtoys.
Jesus certainly can do this, right? I mean according to John, he created the Universe, the alpha and omega and all that, cured blindness with spit and mud, brought back dead people and came back from the dead himself. He did it for Saul, and hey, by his own admission Saul at the time was a rabid anti-Christian who actually hunted down Christians to hurt them while I'm a mere highly ethical, gentle, and kind apostate and am not even mean to my own niece, the minister when I think that her beliefs are a pile of crap that damages the world in countless ways. He did it for "hundreds of others" in Saul/Paul's time. What's good enough for Saul/Paul -- or for that matter, Thomas who didn't even believe that Jesus came back from the dead when he was supposedly standing in front of him (or so they say, although this sounds more than a bit odd to me, doesn't it sound odd to you?) -- is good enough for me. Jesus must want to do this, because I'm at least as deserving as Saul; because he loves me besides; because doesn't want me to burn, surely (the Mark quote above notwithstanding, let's go with the ideal Jesus-of-your-dreams not the Jesus of your nightmares who is also described effectively in the NT); and finally he must be able to do this or he's no deity and yet... ...for the umptieth time, he's a no-show. Why is that, one wonders? Too busy? Doesn't love me as much as he loved wicked old Saul, the Christian-persecutor? Is he even now chortling and stoking the fire because he gets a kick out of damning people to hell for disbelief alone?
Or, could it be, just maybe, because he doesn't, actually exist, and if he ever did exist he is dead and not at all divine?
Note well that you too can try this experiment in the privacy of your own home. Accept no substitutes! Not a "feeling of presence" that you could be making up in your own mind, ask for the real deal, physical manifestation. Too easy to fool yourself the other way, too easy by half (and more than enough to explain the ongoing persistence of religion).
As for finding a hidden thing one doesn't believe in -- we clearly have very different ideas about the objective nature of reality. I personally think that one finds real things when one looks for them -- or not! -- quite independent of whether or not one believes in them. For example, I think that the reason very few people find elves, fairies, or pink unicorns when they look for them is not because they lack belief in them, it is because they don't, really, exist. They might exist -- I'm open minded -- but I'm not about to believe in them in the absence of evidence because that is stupid. If you want me to believe in a pink unicorn, produce one! I'm easy to convince! The same is true of elephants -- your own example -- I didn't first believe in elephants and then find one, I actually first saw an elephant (and shortly afterwards, rode on one) and then had no difficulty at all believing in them "hidden" though they were by an entire world in between beforehand.
Also, why in the world is Jesus hidden? You do realize that this makes no sense! What useful purpose is served by hiding himself? What compassionate purpose is served by this? What loving purpose is served by this? You imply that Jesus is hidden, but if I believe I will find him, but why is he hidden so I have to believe first when everything else in the realm of my experience works the other way -- where we believe in it because we found it.
I'd strongly suggest that you get your cognitive priorities straight, with observation first, beliefs afterwards. It just works better that way.
In the meantime, science is the process that often leads to the discovery of many hidden things, quite independent of whether or not one has prior belief in them. Indeed, it is safe to say that understanding and belief are strictly posterior events compared to the observations and discovery, although at some point they entwine together with new understanding leading the way to new discovery, that in turn leads to new understanding. I strongly suggest that you reconsider the scientific worldview, and believe in things that can be observed and verified, rather than antique, inconsistent, unbelievable world-myths.
I, in turn, will continue to wait on Jesus. I mean it now, he has an open invitation. My door is always open to the son of god (not that it could ever be closed, right?). He can even strike me blind (like he did Saul) if he really thinks it necessary, although that seems like a bit of bad stage magic compared to (for example) overwhelming me with the logic and beauty of his perfect knowledge and perfect ethical sense. But in the meantime in the very best of faith I will no more believe in an invisible and unlikely Jesus than you believe in the equally invisible and unlikely Ganesh or either one of us believes in the absurdity of Zeus, or Krishna, or Cthulhu, or (fill in the blank with the God or Gods of your choice). After all, a typical atheist believes in just one God fewer than a typical theist, and for exactly the same reasons.