Is Buddhism Atheist?

| May 22, 2017 | 4 Comments

Was the Buddha an atheist? Does one need to believe in God or gods to follow his system? This is a question with an interesting answer I think we can all learn from.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (4)

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  1. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Fine stuff as usual, Doug. I might, however, be a tad less kind to theism than you — I think Gotama thought belief in a personal god, thus theism, was a very serious impediment to understanding. (Quite different than belief in supernatural beings — except as teaching aids, these beings were about as relevent to Gotama’s teaching as unicorns. Wish I could recall were I read a quote from a Sri Lankan monk who said something like “Religion is too important to have anything to do with gods.”)

    Do you know the IMO excellent article by Richard Hayes, “Principled Atheism in the Buddhist Scholastic
    Tradition”? ( http://www.unm.edu/~rhayes/atheism.pdf )

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Michael and thanks for your kind comment. Yes, I relied on Richard’s excellent paper for some of my commentary on later Buddhism, and included it in the description notes on the YouTube channel. I meant to put those notes over here as well but must have had a senior moment.

      Theism was definitely one of the wrong views in the Brahmajāla, so was indeed an impediment to understanding for him. This makes some later developments in Buddhist “theology” all the more ironic I think, although as with all things it depends how one interprets the claims …

  2. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    “I think, although as with all things it [later Buddhist “theology”] depends how one interprets the claims …”.

    Of course, all religion gives believers a sense of escape from the uncertainty & contingency of life. This can mean belief in cosmic purpose, protector gods and saviors. Also, I think, it can often be satisfied by ritual, companionship, even just habit. I’ve told Unitarian friends, half seriously, that they are no more theists than I am, but still like going to church on Sunday. (I prefer what my father-in-law called “the Church of St. Mattress” on Sunday morning). The point is that we are apt to work these needs into our lives, even if it means a certain amount of incoherence in our beliefs. We can find clever ways to reconcile & interpret, to construct elaborate “theologies,” but in truth, these needs still operate on a much more visceral level, me thinks.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Yes I think that is very true, Michael. Religion is many things, some of it problematic such as beliefs in deities and strange causation, but much of it stems from the perfectly human desire to create community around some common purpose. This can be achieved by “ritual companionship” as you put it.

      I don’t see the UUs as really very different from a kind of secular religion, if we can fit our minds around such a concept!

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