Thursday, March 16, 2006

Buddhism and Atheism

I got a tricky question in a recent email. I told my correspondent that I'd happily tell her what I think I know on the topic, but that I wasn't sure I could do it justice. I suggested that maybe I could put my answer here on FM and you guys could add your clarifications, and meanwhile she'd be able to lurk and watch the show. That way she and I might both find something out.

Here's her question:

"Is Atheism compatible with Buddhism? Can one be an Atheist AND a Buddhist? I ask this because my understanding tells me the answer is yes. However, another who is far more advanced in his practice than I am, told me I am mistaken."

My answer:

Absolutely, there's no contradiction between Buddhism and atheism. You're not mistaken. Buddhism has no God.

But like most Buddhist things, the answer more complex than that, and slippery, and possibly self-contradictory. I do not have it all figured out, but here's my understanding.

When people asked the Buddha about a Supreme Being, a Creator behind it all, he said, "Wrong question. The answer will not help you liberate yourselves from suffering. Skip it." So, early Buddhism is atheistic in the practical sense: God has nothing to do with anything. But it's agnostic in the literal sense: it has no doctrine concerning the subject. It doesn't know.

But you could sort of almost call it polytheistic, too, but ... not really. Like this: there are zillions of gods and demigods in Buddhism, early and late, local and universal, good and bad. They are venerated and supplicated just like any other religion's gods. So polytheism, right? Well, no, because they're no different than humans; in fact, they used to be humans. Humans can earn rebirth as gods; but gods have a lifespan and at the end of that, they can be reborn as humans. Or bugs. So in a practical sense, yes, you might call Buddhism polytheistic, but its gods aren't what we in the West mean by the word. Hmm.

Pantheistic? Well, yeah, it's sort of that, too. There's that "no self" thing: no single thing can be defined without reference to other things, and those have to be defined with reference to still other things ... and pretty soon, you can't define anything without defining it as everything. Thus, my car keys aren't really things, they're not even parts of everything, they're just one of the ways in which I percieve the one thing, which is everything, which is the Buddha Nature -- pantheism. Sort of. Not really, but close.

There are those who have ignored the Buddha's disclaimers that he was an enlightened man who was going to die and enter nirvana, that is, utter cessation. They have simply deified him and worship him as the supreme being, so you have a Buddhism that's essentially monotheist. Not precisely what the West means by monotheism, because of the different conception of "supreme being," but again, not so far off.

And some Buddhists have just appropriated one or more gods from Brahminism, including Brahma himself -- and so you're off and running with poly- or monotheism again....

Sigh. Difficult.

So as usual in Buddhism, simple questions aren't. But I think when pressed hard with the Western notion of God, most Buddhists would say, "No, we don't have one of those." (I can't swear it.) Certainly if you want to be an atheist Buddhist, you can, especially in Zen. And certainly if you want to believe in a god, or gods, or even God, and still be a Buddhist, you can, especially in Zen.

Local zendo is a million-dollar house loaned by a Zennie who's also a devout, orthodox, practicing Catholic. So hey, whatever.

39 Comments:

At March 16, 2006, Blogger Brad said...

Buddhism is not atheism.

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger rot-13 said...

Nor is it theism.

Which is why pat answers do so little good in Buddhism.

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger gniz said...

Brad the question was not, is Buddhism atheism-
The question was, can one be an Atheist and still be a Buddhist?
Your answer sounds like a "no" to that question....

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I think you can be whatever you want to call yourself but my understanding of an atheist is one who wholeheartedly believes that there is no God. A theist believes wholeheartedly that there is a God or many gods. So, they are invested in their beliefs, that is there beliefs define them to an extent. Buddha as you mentioned in the original post let the question of a God or gods drop. If we are are truly interdependent,beliefs in anything will eventually crumble.

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

i've heard buddhism called a non theistic religion simply because it doesn't worship a God.

the problem is that the word God doesn't have a fixed meaning. on some definitions of God buddhism is atheistic and on other definitons it is theistic etc etc.

first we have to define what we are actually talking about when we use the word God.
what does the word refer to?

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger grisom said...

Buddhism has very little in the way of creeds that you've got to believe in to qualify as "Buddhist", I'd say. I think you can be a Buddhist while holding pretty much any philosophy, as long as it allows you to meditate and keep the precepts.

On the other hand, I think an Atheist who takes up Buddhism for some length of time will probably form a somewhat different view of things after a while. Certainly none of the Buddhist monks I've ever read or met would call themselves an atheist.

So: an Atheist can practice Buddhism, but she might not necessarily remain an Atheist if she kept it up. Karen said it right: atheism is a belief, and Buddhism teaches you not to take beliefs too seriously.

I agree with Dan about the word "God". Some people identify it with some mystical thing like "the Unborn" or "the universe" and say Buddhists believe in God. Some people identify it with some variation on "omnipotent being who puts you in hell if you don't do what he says", and say Buddhists don't believe in God. Some people identify it with both of those things, and I always get really confused trying to answer them as to whether I believe. "Uh... it depends..."

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger me said...

I also agree with Karen. Both atheism and theism are extremes - they are statements of fact that cannot be verified (and thus supported by no real evidence, only belief, ie the imagination). The only scientific way is to acknowledge this uncertainty and dismiss both claims as untestable.

As Brad quoted P. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” And Buddhism is all about seeing reality for what it is. Since the question of a god or gods cannot ever be answered it is outside the scope of both Buddhism and science.

Thus I'd agree that if one claimed to be an atheist one would be holding onto a belief for which there is no evidence.

So perhaps the answer is "Sure you can believe in whatever you want and claim to be Buddhist. All beginner Buddhists start out that way, no? But if you persist with Buddhism (zen, that is) you will find that your beliefs are incompatible with true understanding, incompatible with an honest view of reality."

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger me said...

In the evolution thread I quoted Voltaire: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

And rot-13 dismissed Voltaire as being absurd. But I disagree and this is relevant to this thread. Certainty implies 100% confidence in something. Not 99.99999% but 100%. I contend that there is nothing, if one is truly honest, that one can claim is 100% true.

Take anything, like the statement "I am alive" we might think this it 100% true, we may feel certain this is true, but philosophically and even scientifically we have to admit there are conditions and possible explanations for our observations that don't match our favorite explanation and we cannot rule these other explanations out. All we can do is apply the rule-of-thumb principal of parsimony (the simplest answer among many that explain the problem equally well is preferred).

I argue that we can only be certain of trivial things that are true by definition (as in math, 1+1=2). But reality is too complex to ever be really 100% certain of anything. To claim to be certain is to fill in the gap between 99% certainty and 100% with faith. That faith is belief, that belief is imagination, that imagination is not real. We make a cartoon version of reality in which things are black and white, good and bad, true and false, by filling in all the unknowns with imagination. (This is why certain politicians get elected...)

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

On Feb. 9 Gudo Nishijima wrote on his last Dogen Sangha blog entry: “Then how shall we think about God? As far as the modern scientific knowledge teaches us, it is said that the Universe is always expanding at every moment. If we accept the idea that the Universe is always expanding endlessly, it is very difficult for us to suppose the existence of another Universe other than this Universe at all. And in such situations, we have to think that God might exist inside the Universe. But in that case we can never permit that God is a part of the Universe. Because we should think that God is all, God is everywhere, God is almighty, and God is the Absolute.

Thinking like that I am afraid that God has been thought of as something much smaller than the actual fact. And I think that we should consider the Revolutionary Recovery of God sincerely. In such situations I thing that we should accept the idea that "God is the Universe, the Universe is God." God can never be smaller than the Universe, but at the same time God can never be bigger than the Unuverse. Therefore "God is the Universe, the Universe is God." And then the Fusion between God and the Universe is called Reality.”

He asked for questions and I asked him why is it necessary to have the idea of God, Why not just have the idea of the Universe? He responded that, “I think that the Universe is so great, so mystical, and so lovely, therefore I would like to maintain the name of God.”

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger me said...

oxeye. Gudo Nishijima uses logic, poorly, in the start of the quote you provide. He makes various IF.. THEN sorts of statements in which the conclusions are really not guaranteed to result from the premises.

Then he concludes with a redefinition of god (God=Universe, according to G. Nishijima). This is like creating a mathematic system in which you start out saying ok, let's have 1+1=2. Defining something allows it to be true only by definition. It is true within your defined system only (assuming you require internal consistency).

I've equated God with the universe plenty of times and many before have as well (eg Spinoza, J. Muir) so I know where Gudo is coming from. But aren't we, in doing so, sort of 'repackaging' God to be more appealing to theists entering Buddhism? Isn't it just a marketing ploy?

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger MikeDoe said...

Buddhism does not IMHO ask the question "Is there a god?" and it does not seek the answer. The not seeking and the not asking is the middle way on this question.

Atheism, Theism and Agnosticism are all defined in terms of the question being asked.

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger Michael said...

I'm able to find the answer I need when I look up at the stars on a cloudless winter night.

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger earDRUM said...

We all believe certain things.
I believe that my car is blue.
My friend believes that there is a god.
But neither of these things has anything to do with Buddhism, as far as I am concerned.

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger healthyscratch said...

As I understand it, many atheists would say they lack a belief in god.

Which is quite different from the belief there is no god.

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

how is it different healthy scratch? i'm not sure i can see it

 
At March 16, 2006, Blogger rot-13 said...

Healthyscratch, a lot of people have gotten their terminology mixed up in this area. To simply lack a belief in a god, that's agnosticism. Atheism is the firm belief that there's no god.

Most people who call themselves atheists are really agnostics. True atheism is a fairly shaky position, and actual atheists are relatively scarce.

BTW, Me, though Voltaire made his quip about certainty being absurd, he himself was absolutely certain that atheism was true. So yeah, I call him absurd.

I've heard he changed his mind shortly before his death, but I don't know if that's true. But I'm pretty sure immanent death can do funny things to a guy's philosophy....

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

a lot of people have gotten their terminology mixed up in this area. To simply lack a belief in a god, that's agnosticism. Atheism is the firm belief that there's no god.

Most people who call themselves atheists are really agnostics. True atheism is a fairly shaky position, and actual atheists are relatively scarce.


Healthyscratch is quite correct. 'Strong Atheists' believe that there is no God - 'Weak Atheists' simply lack a belief in God. Most atheists fall into the latter category. And most realise that the former position is unsuppostable and irrational.

Going back to the question, Buddhism is neither about the existence or otherwise of a God or anything else. Certainly there is no concept of a personal God in Buddhism and without evidence we must remain agnostic about that. Ultimately I think it goes deeper than agnosticism I think it is a realisation that the question is without real meaning.

I wrote a couple of in-depth posts on this topic for my blog:

The Face of God

The Face of God, Pt. 2

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

i'm still not sure i get the difference between lacking a belief that x and believing that not x.


'i don't believe in God'
'i believe that there is no God'

?

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger Bob J. said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger Bob J. said...

This was the subject of the latest or last blog by Brad's teacher, Gudo Nishijima. He said, in relevant part,"Thinking like that I am afraid that God has been thought of as something much smaller than the actual fact. And I think that we should consider the Revolutionary Recovery of God sincerely. In such situations I thing that we should accept the idea that 'God is the Universe, the Universe is God.' God can never be smaller than the Universe, but at the same time God can never be bigger than the Unuverse. Therefore "God is the Universe, the Universe is God." And then the Fusion between God and the Universe is called Reality.

And when we sitting in Zazen, we can sit in God, we can sit in the Universe, we can sit in act, and we can sit in Reality. Therefore we can sit in Reality."


Personally, I think that the concept of God is just another needless concept that gets in the way of our understanding of the universe, and of ourselves; the concept makes sense only if are talking about the universality of the law of cause and effect, or maybe the Buddha mind. But the concept is more frequently abused that used in any helpful way, and I think we would be better off without it.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger Siren said...

Nice posts, Justin, thanks.

I don't find there to be a problem living with the paradox that there both is and is not God. That probably sounds totally schizo, but all the beautiful stories from traditions that span the globe pretty much point to the moon.

I don't see a problem with the world being created in 6 days, or brought forth on the back of a turtle, or birthed by the Star Goddess, or whatever- and simultaneously- 13 billion years ago exploding in less than a trillion-trillionth of a second. How cool is that?.

In one of Justin's posts, he has this great little reminder:

Zen Master (to student): Do you know God?
Student: I don't know
ZM, Do you know Buddha?
Stu, I don't know
ZM, Do you hear the waterfall?
Stu, Yes
ZM, Just That.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger healthyscratch said...

justin - thanks, I was going to respond in a similar fashion. And that's not to say that rot-13 is incorrect, as many do not consider weak atheism as "true".

dan - the difference in my view is, if I believe in "x", then the burden of proof is on me to convince you of my belief. If I lack your belief in "x", then the burden of proof is on you to convince me. But lack of a belief should not imply a belief of the opposite.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger rot-13 said...

Dan,

I can say, "I don't really believe in the duck-billed platypus," without knowing much about animals. It's a sensible thing to say (whether it's true or not).

But to say, "There are no platypuses, period," I have to know every animal that does exist, and know that there are no platypuses among them. (Platypi?)

What I'm calling true atheism and Justin's calling strong atheism is the latter kind of statement; and, as he says, it's irrational.

Justin, you said,

"Healthyscratch is quite correct. 'Strong Atheists' believe that there is no God - 'Weak Atheists' simply lack a belief in God. "

If I'm not mistaken, "strong" and "weak" atheism are relatively recent terms invented because so many agnostics erroneously called themselves atheists. But ahteism has had a clear meaning ever since the ancient Greeks, and it seems a shame to fiddle with it now.

But I don't really want to quibble about it, believe it or not, because I don't know which meaning my correspondent had in mind. Probably she meant what you're calling weak atheism and what I'm calling agnosticism -- but I'm not sure. She can jump in and clarify if she feels the need.

About the two articles on your own blog: That's some good writing. Clarity is hard to come by on a topic like this, and you've done well. I recommend that other FM readers go have a look.

I do think you go somewhat astray in your explanation of Christianity's notion of God. I have a guess at why, too, though I'm not sure of it.

Buddhists will take two opposites and say, "Neither this, nor that." The Old Testament will take opposites and say, "Both this, and that." These are just different ways of trying to get beyond the limits of language; but I think a huge portion of Buddhist/Christian confusion starts right there.

But that doesn't have to do with the question of atheism. Maybe we'll talk it over some other time, if you're willing.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger me said...

Let's keep the terminology correct -

lacking a belief in god + lacking a belief in no god = agnosticism

lacking a belief in god + believing that no god exists = atheism

I don't see any value in the 'weak and strong' distinction for atheism since this seems redundant with the terms we already have (weak atheism = agnosticism).

An interviewer asked Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan's wife), "Didn't [Sagan] want to believe?" She responded, "He didn't want to believe. He wanted to know."

And thanks rot-13 for the information on Voltaire. I know nothing about the man but I like that quote.

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
-- Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions p. 215

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger oxeye said...

The idea of god springs out of our deepest wishes and worst subconscious fears and as such will never go away even if all of history is erased. You can argue for the existance of a great being but the lack of proof seems to indicate that he would have no more knowledge of you than you have of him.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

I'm not really very interested in having a debate about semantics, and it's clear that the term 'atheist' is used differently by different people, however I will say that it use to include all people who lack belief in gods is not recent but is considered more precise. Among the general public and among Christians it is generally understood as someone who believes there is are no gods. However, among people who describe themselves as atheists and have sophisticated ideas about it, the wider definition is more widespread. For more details see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism

Dan said:
i'm still not sure i get the difference between lacking a belief that x and believing that not x.
'i don't believe in God'
'i believe that there is no God'


The latter is a belief about something - the former is just a lack of beliefs about it. Someone who lived in a culture without a concept of God would not believe in God without having a belief that 'there is no God'.

Rot-13 said:
Buddhists will take two opposites and say, "Neither this, nor that." The Old Testament will take opposites and say, "Both this, and that." These are just different ways of trying to get beyond the limits of language; but I think a huge portion of Buddhist/Christian confusion starts right there.

I don't think the Buddhist position is to say 'neither this nor that' about say the existence of the self. The Buddhist position is to dimantle all views without falling into the trap of taking on a view oneself, so:
Not 'this'
Not 'that'
Not 'this and that'
Nor 'neither this nor that'

'neither this nor that' is a view. Similarly :
"Not 'this'
Not 'that'
Not 'this and that'
Nor 'neither this nor that'" is not the Buddhist view either, but its an easy trap to fall into. (For more details check out Nagarjuna's 'Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way'.)

I don't see the Christian view of God being both anthropomorphic and transcendental as being equivalent or as subtle. Rather I think that while Buddhists tend to be mired in dualistic samsara most Christians have dug in and fortified dualistic samsara. That's not to say that there aren't visionaries.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

" The latter is a belief about something - the former is just a lack of beliefs about it. Someone who lived in a culture without a concept of God would not believe in God without having a belief that 'there is no God' "

nope, still don't get it. the member of that culture couldn't rightly called an atheist or agnostic. they're out of the picture. how does the difference cash out within our culture? actually i've just remembered there a good website called ask a philosopher.com for this kind of thing. i'll email them

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger rot-13 said...

Justin said,

"I don't think the Buddhist position is to say 'neither this nor that'...."

I simplified, of course -- on both the Buddhist and the Biblical sides of the equation -- because that's not really what we're discussing right now.

Nagarjuna did expand on the older "neither/nor" formula, and helped push the thinking beyond the older view. But not all Buddhism is Madhyamika, and Nagarjuna is just a sidetrack when the topic is atheism.

"I don't see the Christian view of God being both anthropomorphic and transcendental as being equivalent or as subtle."

It may be or it may not, but I didn't say it was. I was just pointing out a difference of approach, a different way of trying to speak about the many things that are beyond speech.

If you're going to speak about what can be intuited but never quite expressed, there are basically only two ways to go. You can point at things and say, "It's not that, but it's not really not-that," or you can point at things and go, "It's like that, but it's also like not-that." Buddhists go one route, Abrahamic traditions go the other.

I grant you that this is a drastic simplification. But we can't introduce Nagarjuna without bringing Aquinas in, and then there'll be no end to it.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger karen said...

This is a little off the subject. I was looking for blogs on mysticism and came across a recommendation for reading something interesting. PBS has a program called Religion and Ethics. Directed to the Viewers guide at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/resources/pdf/ViewersGuide2005.pdf
and began reading the piece on mysticism. A few very relevant comments about Buddhism and its mystical nature. Specifcally mentions the lack of belief in a personal God.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger Anatman said...

Dan, let me try to explain from personal perspective:

I do not have a belief in god, but I would not try to argue with a believer that there is no god.

I have seen no evidence for the existence of god, therefore I have no belief in god.

I have seen no evidence disproving the existence of god, therefore I have no belief that there is no god.

In my case, "belief" is not even an issue.

If I tell you that I ate Cheerios for breakfast, do you believe me? Would you wager a bet on it? I assume you would not wager on it.

You have no reason to believe me, nor do you have reason to disbelieve me. You have no evidence for either option.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger grisom said...

Dan: Another way of putting it: if you ask someone who believes there is no God "Is there a God?" they will answer with a firm "No." If you ask the same question of someone who lacks a belief in God they'll just say "I don't know." The lack of belief just means you have no strong opinion one way or the other.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger rot-13 said...

Or to put it in the linguistic terms:

Both words come from the Greek. The particle "a-" means "no" or "not."

The word "gnosis" means knowledge. Thus "a-gnostic" means someone who doesn't know. You can be agnostic about anything (I'm agnostic about tomorrow's weather), but in this context it means someone who doesn't know about the whole god thing.

The word "theos" means god. A "theist" believes in a god, and an "a-theist" believes there is no god. He doesn't claim not to know, he has a belief: no god.

Ancient word meanings aren't always helpful, but for what it's worth, there you go.

 
At March 17, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

You can't be too literal about questions like this. Atheism is a marker for a whole set of beliefs and the person who says they don't believe in God will likely have problems with images of the Buddha, chanting, prostrations, and similar matters. There are Zen teachers who downplay all this stuff and others who hew to a more traditional line.

I do think the person who holds on too rigidly to atheism will have difficulties in Zen. I think the "nothing" the atheist believes in is not nothing enough!

 
At March 18, 2006, Blogger grisom said...

...the person who says they don't believe in God will likely have problems with images of the Buddha, chanting, prostrations, and similar matters.

Yeah, at the temple I go to we've got a fair amount of that. I had enormous trouble with it at first, but eventually I decided I was being silly and just went with it.

 
At March 18, 2006, Blogger Dan said...

thanks guys, for some reason it didn't click at first.
it's the difference between agnosticism and atheism. but then what the hell is weak atheism? i was trying to see how lacking a belief could be a kind of atheism. that's what confused me.

 
At March 19, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weak_atheism

 
At March 19, 2006, Blogger Brad said...

(see above) That's why Buddhism is not atheism.

 
At March 20, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

The link I included describes weak atheism as a default position which includes everyone who is not a theist. By this interpretation 'atheist' literally means 'non-theist'. Some Buddhists believe in one or more gods, some disbelieve and some hold no belief either way. Therefore, some are theists, some are 'Strong Atheists' and some are 'Weak Atheists'/Agnostics.

Buddhism is not atheism, theism or agnosticism, nor is it a belief or disbelief in extraterrestrial beings, but one with any of these beliefs might be a Buddhist.

 
At March 21, 2006, Blogger rot-13 said...

... And that's about the size of it.

Thank you, folks. On my own behalf and my correspondent's, let me say I appreciate the thought you've put into your comments. She and I have both found some things out, and you guys have added clarity to our conversation. Also some further questions, but that's how it's supposed to go.

I think my friend knows how I can get wrapped up in speculation; and I know that the whole atheism thing looms before her and is not small. But she and I are both fortunate. We have the practice.

Speaking just for myself: I need the practice. It doesn't supply answers, but it does give perspective. It helps me give questions their due weight and no more, and to live at ease with the unknown.

For the sitting, my friend and I are responsible ourselves. But you guys have been very helpful with the other part, the grappling with weirdness. Thank you.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home