To believe there is no rebirth and no law of moral causation is an evil mental act that will lead to confusion and anguish in this life and hellfire in the world to come. And you did not need to say or do anything to commit it. All I had to do was hold an incorrect opinion in the privacy of my own mind. Such “wrong view” is a thought crime, listed in the classical texts alongside murder, robbery, and rape. Indeed, it is often said to be the heaviest of all evil actions, since it establishes the viewpoint from which every other misdeed stems.

— Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, p. 45.


Buddhism, it is sometimes claimed, is a “non-creedal” religion: there is no sanctioned system of beliefs to which one must assent in order to be Buddhist.

The claim jostles awkwardly with certain assertions in the canon that many consider orthodox even today. Principal among these are the literal claims of rebirth and karmic causation.

Such claims are not immediately compelling, and the Buddha was not one for promoting beliefs based on blind faith. So why should we believe them? In the Apannaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 60. The link is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation; I use Ñāṇamoli/Bodhi), the Buddha gives an argument which he terms “incontrovertible” (4) for the acceptance of rebirth and karmic causation. However, interestingly, it is not an argument that directly bears on the truth of those views. Instead it is a prudential argument. In form it presages Pascal’s Wager for the existence of God by two millennia.

The Buddha’s Bet

The Buddha argues that those who reject rebirth (a position he refers to as “nihilism” since it implies the complete nonexistence of the self after death; cf. MN 76 para. 7) are more likely to behave badly and less likely to behave well, because they aren’t aware of the multi-lifetime dangers inherent in bad behavior, nor the multi-lifetime benefits of good. As he says,

… whether or not the word of those good [nihilistic] recluses and brahmins is true, let me assume that there is no other world: still this good person is here and now censured by the wise as an immoral person, one of wrong view who holds the doctrine of nihilism. But on the other hand, if there is another world, then this good person has made an unlucky throw on both counts: since he is censured by the wise here and now, and since on the dissolution of the body, after death, he will appear in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, even in hell. (9).

The Buddha then makes the same argument with regard to the effectiveness of karmic causation that he did with regard to rebirth: those who do not believe that actions bring moral recompense are more likely to behave badly and less likely to behave well. Hence they will be censured by the wise, and if they are wrong about karmic causation, they risk rebirth in hell.

In this lifetime, one who accepts such views (we will call the person a ‘materialist’ for purposes of concision) faces two potential routes to downfall. First, he or she is liable to behave recklessly, and second he or she will be “censured by the wise”.

However, the Buddha does not stop there. One might say, he lays his metaphysical cards on the table: in fact the materialist faces a third downfall: since literal rebirth actually does occur (8), since there actually is karmic causation (16), one who holds otherwise “has wrong view”. To repeat about “wrong view”:

[I]t is by reason of such [mental] conduct [of holding wrong view] not in accordance with the Dhamma, by reason of such unrighteous conduct that some beings here on the dissolution of the body, after death, reappear in states of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell. (MN 41 para. 10. Also see MN 46 para. 14).

Although many views we have may be factually incorrect, there are only a few that the Buddha calls “wrong view” in this sense. Among these are that there is no effective karmic causation and that there is no literal rebirth. Presumably the Buddha took such a harsh opinion because these “wrong views” condition wrong speech and action, and “right view”, the view that karmic causation is effective and that literal rebirth occurs, conditions us to right speech and right action, and therefore to the Eightfold Path.

Evaluating the Bet

There are several problems with the Buddha’s arguments on wrong views about rebirth and moral causation.

First, there is the problem that his argument shares with Pascal’s Wager.

Pascal presents his wager in the form of a dilemma: either one believes in God or one is an atheist. If one is an atheist and God exists, one goes to hell. If one is an atheist and God does not exist, one has a bit more ease on Sundays. If one is a believer and God exists, one goes to heaven. If one is a believer and God doesn’t exist, one wastes a bit of time on Sundays. The point is clear: a wagerer should choose to believe in God, since the payoffs are better.

Here is a small table illustrating potential payouts to clarify the bet. (Numbers are arbitrary, of course, but should at least give the flavor. Since heaven and hell are everlasting these are gauged as infinite payouts or deductions).

Pascal’s Wager
God Exists God Doesn’t Exist
Believer Heaven (+∞) Waste time (-10)
Atheist Hell (-∞) Don’t waste time (+10)

The problem is, this table doesn’t illustrate our only options. There are many different models for God. If we believe in God, which sort of God should we believe in? If we believe in Allah and Yahweh is the true God, we will go to hell anyway. If we believe in Zeus and Allah is the true God, the same. Further, why assume that the true God is one that humans have a name for? There are an infinity of possible Gods. Perhaps the one true God disdains creatures who apportion their beliefs by wagers of this type.

Pascal’s wager is an example of a fallacy called the “false dilemma”: there are an infinite number of options to choose from, not simply two, and so the proposed bet is not workable.

Buddha’s bet is substantially similar, although the arbitrary payouts will be slightly different. For example, neither Buddhist hell nor heaven is everlasting, so numbers will be finite.

Buddha’s Bet
Rebirth and Karmic Causation are Real “Nihilism” is True
Right belief Acts well, reborn well (+1000) Acts well, praised by the wise (+50)
Materialist Acts poorly, reborn in hell (-1000) Acts poorly, censured by the wise (-50)

It seems it’s best to have “right belief”, since the payouts are superior. But the Buddha’s bet has the same problem as Pascal’s: there are more than these two alternatives open to us. Why must we assume that the only alternative to materialist “nihilism” is this particular karmic picture? Perhaps karma works such that people who believe based on apportioning evidence scientifically are rewarded, and people who believe based on faith in a teacher are not. Or perhaps karma works in yet another way. (Or, for that matter, perhaps God exists, and he prefers materialists over believers in rebirth and karma). Since there are an unbounded number of live options to choose from, the bet is also not workable. True, the Buddha asserts that he has direct knowledge of the correct karmic formula, but lacking a method of verification, his argument thereon remains far from “incontrovertible”.

Second, what are we to make of the claim that such materialist views are “censured by the wise”? To start with, who count as “the wise”? They cannot simply be defined as people who agree with the Buddha, since that would make the argument viciously circular. Presumably he means by “the wise” those people for whom ethical conduct is paramount. This brings us to our next point.

Third, the meat of the Buddha’s argument turns on the claim that one who does not believe in rebirth and the law of moral causation is likely to become a moral reprobate. While this sort of view appears common sense to many religious believers, there is no reason to accept it as true. Atheists and materialists are no more likely to be moral delinquents than are believers in God or the supernatural. One does not need to accept theories about rebirth and karma in order to believe there are moral truths, much less to reason and behave morally.

And after all, morally correct reasoning and behavior is what the Buddha recommends. He recommends right speech and right action as pillars in the Eightfold Path. His assumption is that right view with respect to rebirth and karmic causation is essential to achieving that end, but it is not. One can speak rightly, act rightly, work rightly, put in right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration without believing in either rebirth or karmic causation.

Of course, one who speaks and acts rightly in such a manner is worthy of being praised, not censured, by the wise.

Lastly, apart from being unnecessary and scientifically intractable, notions of literal rebirth and karma may be a hindrance. Is it really true that one who does good with an eye to karmic reward is morally superior to one who does good simply because it gives benefit? Or is it rather the reverse? Is it really true that one who avoids evil due to its karmic consequence is morally superior to one who avoids evil because it causes harm to others? Or is the former, instead, acting out of selfish motives?

Assertions of certain justice may be useful to some as a goad, but they are not necessary for those who understand moral reasoning on its own terms. Indeed, if as seems clear, these “wrong views” have no significant negative conditioning on moral behavior, then by the Buddha’s own lights they should have no particular karmic consequences, and should fail to support the unhappy rebirth that he claims.

Wielding threats of hellfire against such “thought crimes” as these is neither agreeable nor beneficial. And since the Buddha’s path is one of liberation from conditioned rebirth anyhow, perhaps these aspects of “wrong view” serve no final purpose, and therefore deserve reconsideration and eventual abandonment.

No Comments

  1. Keren Dar on October 7, 2012 at 8:29 am

    This god thingy, I shake my head, shrug shoulders, profess I dont know.

    Is it a fear I am not dealing with that brings me back and back to this question?

    To believe or not to believe.

    On one had the secular grounded skeptic says;

    It does not matter, what matters is what you do.

    The imaginative witness to personal phenomena that has no explanation says;

    Okay so believe , then another dilema which one to believe?

    The Mystery…

    Science can be just as much of a stumbling block for to asertain and verify tests, what is going to be the final litmus test?

    We can say oh here is a new ruler, that now proves that everything up until now is no longer valid because we have this new ruler.(insert whatever your poison is for ruler; theorem, computer program, math formula blah blah)

    Then while surfing the net I came across a beautiful *sermon* by Buddhadasa Bhikku

    called No religion.

    May my last and only desire be to understand the Dhamma language.

    “When we meet together like this, I feel there is something
    which prevents us from understanding each other and this thing is
    simply the problem of language itself. You see, there are two kinds
    of language. One is the conventional language that ordinary people
    speak, what I call “people language.”

    People language is used by the ordinary people who don’t
    understand Dhamma very well and by those worldly people who are so
    dense that they are blind to everything but material things. Then,
    there is the language which is spoken by those who understand reality
    (Dhamma), especially those who know and understand reality in the
    ultimate sense. This is another kind of language. Sometimes, when
    only a few words or even just a few syllables are uttered, the
    ordinary listener finds Dhamma language paradoxical, completely
    opposite to the language he speaks. We can call it “Dhamma language.”
    You always must take care to recognize which language is being spoken.

    People who are blind to the true reality (Dhamma) can speak only
    people language, the conventional language of ordinary people. On the
    other hand, people who have genuinely realized the ultimate truth
    (Dhamma) can speak either language. They can handle people language
    quite well and are also comfortable using Dhamma language, especially
    when speaking among those who know reality, who have already realized
    the truth (Dhamma). Amongst those with profound understanding, Dhamma
    language is used almost exclusively, unfortunately, ordinary people
    can’t understand a word. Dhamma language is understood only by those
    who are in the know. What is more, in Dhamma language it isn’t even
    necessary to make a sound. For example, a finger is pointed or an
    eyebrow raised and the ultimate meaning of reality is understood. So,
    please take interest in these two kinds of language–people
    language and Dhamma language.

    To illustrate the importance of language, let us consider the
    following example. Ordinary, ignorant worldly people are under the
    impression that there is this religion and that religion, and that
    these religions are different, so different that they’re opposed to
    each other. Such people speak of “Christianity,” “Islam,” “Buddhism,”
    “Hinduism,” “Sikhism,” and so on, and consider these religions to be
    different, separate, and incompatible. These people think and speak
    according to their personal feelings and thus turn the religions into
    enemies. Because of this mentality, there come to exist different
    religions which are hostilely opposed to each other.

    Those who have penetrated to the essential nature of religion
    will regard all religions as being the same. Although they may say
    there is Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Islam, or whatever, they will also
    say that all religions are inwardly the same. However, those who have
    penetrated to the highest understanding of Dhamma will feel that the
    thing called “religion” doesn’t exist after all. There is no
    Buddhism; there is no Christianity; there is no Islam. How can they
    be the same or in conflict when they don’t even exist? It just
    isn’t possible. Thus, the phrase “No religion!” is actually
    Dhamma language of the highest level. Whether it will be understood
    or not is something else, depending upon the listener, and has
    nothing to do with the truth or with religion.”

  2. Tom Alan on October 8, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    Are these bets really arguments in favor of beliefs? If I tell you I’ll give you a million dollars if you believe that you’re George Washington, you’ll say that, but you won’t believe it. It seems that what they’re talking about is not belief but action. I think Pascal was telling people to act on the assumption that the Christian God exists — follow all the rules of the Church and at least hope that its theology was true. I call that pragmatism. Another example: if you’ve just been poisoned and there’s a chance that the solution in a small bottle is the antidote. You don’t know it’s the antidote, but you operate on the assumption that it is.

    Do people benefit from believing in or hoping for rebirth? Some do. There are people who say they would be miserable as materialists. But that’s not everybody. There are people who say the opposite, they hope there is no afterlife.

    • Doug Smith on October 8, 2012 at 7:15 pm

      Hey Tom,

      In the case of Pascal, they are arguments in favor of belief, since his God rewarded one in the afterlife based on belief rather than action. Your example of the antidote is a similar case: assume you can only choose one antidote. (That is, you don’t get to drink two bottles, nor “believe” two contradictory things). Pascal tells you, “Take this bottle here, there’s a chance you’ll survive.” But with right vision one will see that he’s only holding up one of an infinite number of bottles, and in fact each bottle has its own salesman. Which one to choose? Pascal’s, because he was first in line? That’s hardly a reason.

      … and then it occurs to you, perhaps you were never poisoned at all. Perhaps these bottles are the poison. Who’s to say?

      • Tom Alan on October 8, 2012 at 8:43 pm

        The Wiki article “Pascal’s Wager” supports what I said.

        “It posits that there’s more to be gained from wagering on the existence of God than from atheism, and that a rational person should live as though God exists, even though the truth of the matter cannot actually be known.”

        Is the Wiki not accurate?

        • Doug Smith on October 9, 2012 at 4:14 am

          Well, not really. The issue for the Christian God is belief (that is, faith), not action. The problem is that one cannot merely will oneself to believe. But acting as if the faith were correct is one manner to bring yourself to belief that you didn’t already have.

          • Tom Alan on October 9, 2012 at 6:16 am

            Can you provide a quotation from Pascal that shows this, that the Wiki article is wrong? If Pascal literally meant that an atheist can be made into a true believer through intimidation, then his understanding of the mind was as naive as that of the millionaire who thinks he can convince you that you are George Washington by offering you a bribe. I don’t think Pascal was that naive. It seems more likely that the Wiki article is correct. In any case, what I said about pragmatism still stands. There are situations in which the best course of action is to act on an assumption that is most likely incorrect.

          • Doug Smith on October 9, 2012 at 9:54 am

            Hi Tom,

            I’m giving you the standard reading of Pascal’s Wager. The view he took himself to be countering was atheism, not wrong action. He did not intend it as an act of intimidation, but rather an act of providing prudential reasons, just as the Buddha did with his above argument re. kamma and future lives.

            As for further quotes and information, you could look for instance at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which provides this quote:

            “You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you, and who now stake all their possessions. These are people who know the way which you would follow, and who are cured of an ill of which you would be cured. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. …

            “But to show you that this leads you there, it is this which will lessen the passions, which are your stumbling-blocks.”

            In other words, although it may not be immediately possible to convince yourself to have faith in God’s existence, Pascal’s wager should at least make you realize that it’s in your interest to have this faith, and so to do things in your life that will end up making you believe, such as “taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.”

            But this gets beyond what I was discussing in the above post, where I was simply asking whether the initial wager was a reasonable one.

          • mufi on October 9, 2012 at 11:48 am

            I recall from back in my Orthodox Jewish (OJ) period that a stock piece of advice from rabbis to lay people was to “fake it ’til ya make it.”

            Essentially, the theory seemed to be that, by going through the motions of daily religious life (particularly in the OJ way, which is quite demanding, let me tell you), one will eventually resolve any lingering doubts that one currently has about OJ doctrine.

            Some folks call this general approach “orthopraxy” (as opposed to “orthodoxy”), so as to stress the primacy of observance/practice over faith/belief. However, I don’t think that an orthopractic approach necessarily extends to speech (as in: oral/verbal fakery) or set up faith as an eventual goal of practice. All it requires is a certain kind of prudence – one that favors some, but not all, aspects of the religious life – whereas the “fake it ’til ya make it” approach seems more of a wholesale endorsement of that life, as is more similar to Pascal’s wager (as further delineated in Doug’s comment, which cites the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – a more reliable source than Wikipedia for philosophical matters).

            By the way, I suppose that one could characterize one’s Secular Buddhism as “orthopractic”, but I think it should depend on how closely affiliated one is with a particular Buddhist-religious tradition. For example, I don’t think that my current practice – which is fairly isolated and informal at this point – can fairly qualify as such.

  3. leebert on October 23, 2012 at 3:48 am

    This is an interesting post, since the belief in a reified perpetualist type of reincarnation is in of itself a spiritual materialism. Either this was apocrypha attributed to a real Gautama (if he existed) but canonical to the historical Buddha (which is a composite figure, no doubt) OR Gautama was playing fast and loose positing the “safe bet” against his own statements about what is functionally a metaphorical reincarnation of anatman/anatta (tablespoon of salt in the Ganges vs. in a cup).

    Inherent in the “safe bet” statement is an equivocation: If you don’t take the “safe bet,” then what happens? Hell realms? REALLY? But can’t one still follow the eight-fold, even the Vinaya & then not have succumbed to reifying notions & ideas, which in turn reify compositions (incl. Self).

    This is a clear self-contradiction in the original Canon as it was finally recorded by the time of the 4th Council.

    Now, excuse me if I never got that memo, but self-contradiction in a RELIGIOUS TEXT? WHO KNEW!?!?

    • leebert on October 23, 2012 at 4:34 am

      (continuing the thought)
      This is a common thread we find in religion, that there are multiple tiers or standards that descend down from the clerics onto the laity. The priesthood depends on keeping the standard-bearers neatly separated from the gnostics sitting it out in the back pews.

      And *this* is where the problems of hierarchy and abuses creep into religious institutions, because all the clerics have to do is find the thin wedge with which they can condemn the independent-minded (read: the squeaky wheels threatening the authorities) and drive the credulous part of the flock back into the corral.

      The thing is that upon the Dharma coming to the West, it has found an increasingly skeptical polity in whom it is finding a vibrant and growing hospitality. The early-adopters of Buddhism in the West have already tired of the same-old-same-old-time-religion that Christiandom has long inflicted upon us, and now we’re being asked to swallow hook-line-sinker more of the same from Buddhism?

      Not bloody likely. It’s as wrong-headed to have let an Augustinian Pauliad run amok all over Jesus, and whoever the perps were in antiquity who rendered such ugly disfigurements upon the Dharma did only a slightly better job of covering their tracks.

      2.5 Millenia later & go figure, the collective conscious mind of *this generation* is increasingly calling BULL on theocracy, plutonomy & other vestiges of the old plantation, agrarian models. Although we’re tiring of rank individualism, we’re certainly not going to rush back into the suffocating embrace of old-time authoritarian hypocrisies.

      Baby & bathwater? No. Onward through the fog? You bet!

  4. ernie on October 27, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    Hi Doug, and thanks for the post.

    Thanissaro, in his introduction to the sutta, makes reference to the parallel with Pascal’s wager and categorises the argument as pragmatic (as opposed to empirical). Such pragmatic arguments are all that are available for the defence of doctrines that transcend our direct experience, and of course that doesn’t make them wrong. But if MN60 is to be presented as support for literal interpretations of the doctrines of karma and rebirth, then it faces problems beyond the weaknesses inherent in Pascal’s wager.

    Your post highlights some of those difficulties, and I would like to raise two more.

    The first arises because the audience for this sutta is described as brahman householders. These people are described in a way that indicates an open-minded and respectful attitude towards the Buddha and his teachings, but I would assume their beliefs involved karma based on rebirth of the atman. If that is true, surely we should treat this sutta as an introduction tailored for this particular audience, rather than an authoritative statement of the Buddha’s central doctrines.

    The second difficulty arises from the rather obscure way in which the particular ‘wrong views’ are described. The description is presented by Thanissaro in the following terms, under the heading ‘existence and non-existence’:

    “There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed. There is no fruit or result of good or bad actions. There is no this world, no next world, no mother, no father, no spontaneously reborn beings; no brahmans or contemplatives who, faring rightly and practicing rightly, proclaim this world and the next after having directly known and realized it for themselves.”

    Bodhi’s translation, under the heading ‘the doctrine of nihilism’, is very similar, but refers to ‘no other world’ rather than ‘no next world’.

    This form of words appears elsewhere (MN41, for example). Does it really carry the same meaning as ‘denial of karmic causation and rebirth’? It may well be the same, but it seems to me to be too important a question to be left unexplained. At the very least, such an analysis of the subtleties of the Pali would help me (and, I hope, others) to better understand what the term ‘rebirth’ really means.

    I do hope that someone here can help me.

    • Doug Smith on October 28, 2012 at 6:06 am

      The opening of MN 60, I think, does not imply any particular belief about rebirth on the part of the brahmin householders of Sālā. In para. 4 they say they haven’t found any particular teacher in whom they have faith. Each of the views that the Buddha puts across in this sutta were supported (as the Buddha says) by various recluses and brahmins, likely those who would have attempted to convince the householders of Sālā. So I think their viewpoint, at least in the sutta, is one of confusion.

      As for which view is intended by the term “nihilism”, I think the proper place to look is in MN 76, para. 7. There it’s pretty clear what’s at issue is the materialist view that there is no literal rebirth and no literal karmic causation. This is also wrong view 51 in the Brahmajāla Sutta, DN 1, 3.10.

    • Linda on October 28, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      Hi Ernie.

      I wrote a lengthy answer to your query but it is really too much for blog comments. If you want you can find and friend me on Facebook (you should be able to spot me via The Secular Buddhist fan page, or try the Skeptical Buddhist group) and I can send you what I wrote privately.

      Long-and-short though is that what my research shows is that the pair of pericopes that begin with “There is nothing given, offered, sacrificed” and “There is what is given, offered, sacrificed” are a denial (a negative) and a statement of common beliefs (a positive). In MN 117 there are three views: Wrong View (the negative), Right View With Taints (the positive), and the Supermundane Right View — which is the Buddha’s method. (You can read a blog post I did on this here: )

      So, yes, “There is nothing given…” which includes “…no fruit and result of good and bad actions…” is a denial of (at least the efficacy of) karmic causation and rebirth.

      This stuff is at the heart of the first paper I presented to Professor Gombrich — had juried and returned for me to provide more meat (I’ve got it in my queue to work on but it’s not top of my list).

      • ernie on October 31, 2012 at 7:19 pm

        Thanks very much Linda and Doug.

        That is helpful, and I am very grateful that you have taken the time to respond at length Linda. I just sent a Facebook friend request (look for Robert Wiles – long story but in short: Robert >> Bert >> Ernie!). I’m still a novice with Facebook, I hope it worked.

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