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Austin Cline

Buddhism and Atheism

By November 28, 2005

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Lots of people in the West misunderstand Buddhism, especially it's general lack of any divine figures. They don't realize that, for many, Buddhism is essentially an atheistic religion. People in the West are accustomed to religions all being theistic, so the idea of an atheistic religion is almost incomprehensible.

Cyrix writes about several myths about Buddhism, including:

3. Buddhist are Godless, aethists, and nihilistic

No we aren’t. Just because Buddhism teaches that there is no God or Gods, doesn’t mean that a Buddhist is directionless in life! True, we do not aspire to do good in this life so that we are qualified to spend our afterlife in a blissful Heaven, like what Christians, Muslims and the Jews believe. However, instead of that aim, all Buddhist should try to attain Nirvana, through understanding what causes their suffering in life.

And just because Buddhists do not believe in the concept of Heaven and Hell, that doesn’t mean that Buddhists do not believe in the existence of an afterlife. We do, we believe in the Karmic Law and reincarnation. To me personally, this Karmic Law can be regarded like one of the scientific laws of nature, such as the law of gravity, or the law of preservation of energy, etc.

The Karmic Law is a ‘cause and effect’ law in which determines what form of being one would be reborn into (ie happy person, suffering person, animals, deities, etc) based on the the accumulated karmic points of each person, not only in his this present life, but also based on all of this past lives. One accumulates good karma when one does a good deed, and a bad one when one does otherwise. So this is our system for the afterlife.

Cyrix is a bit confusing here because, in writing that “Buddhism teaches that there is no God or Gods,” he acknowledges that it isn’t a myth that Buddhists are godless atheists. The myth is that this necessarily means that they are nihilistic — a myth that exists generally about atheists, not just Buddhist atheists.

Cyrix also doesn’t mention the fact that some Buddhists are theists. Traditional Buddhism has taught that either there are no gods or, if there are, they aren’t worth bothering with — but people being people, gods have been added to Buddhist practice over the centuries. They aren’t creator gods like we find in Western religion, but they are gods nonetheless. Not all Buddhists are atheists, but there are quite a few.

 

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Comments
October 2, 2006 at 7:32 pm
(1) TJ says:

I’d like to point out that Christians don’t believe that doing good in this life can qualify you for heaven – nothing we can do can qualify us, that is why Jesus died for us – to save us from facing God’s judgement. It is Jesus who qualifies us for heaven if we trust in Him.

October 2, 2006 at 7:51 pm
(2) atheism says:

I’d like to point out that Christians don’t believe that doing good in this life can qualify you for heaven – nothing we can do can qualify us, that is why Jesus died for us – to save us from facing God’s judgement. It is Jesus who qualifies us for heaven if we trust in Him.

1. This isn’t relevant to this post.

2. It’s arrogant for you to assume that people here don’t already know what Christianity teaches.

August 29, 2011 at 7:54 pm
(3) Beliefin1God says:

“They aren’t creator gods like we find in Western religion, but they are gods nonetheless.”

Western religion?? Excuse you, but the three Abrahamic faiths Judaism, Christianity and Islam are Eastern in origin, not Western. These faiths are not soley confined to Western belief systems, these faiths are practiced by millions of people all over the world. Maybe you need to go back to school for additional learning?

August 29, 2011 at 8:33 pm
(4) Austin Cline says:

Western religion?? Excuse you, but the three Abrahamic faiths Judaism, Christianity and Islam are Eastern in origin, not Western.

Near East, yes.

Maybe you need to go back to school for additional learning?

No, because I already know from extensive education in religious scholarship that Judaism and Christianity are classified as “Western” religions in contrast to the “Eastern” religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, etc.

August 8, 2007 at 8:25 am
(5) Clay says:

This piece has a very Western slant- while many modern, Western practitioners of Buddhism eschew most of the supernatural aspects of Buddhism, the truth is that for most Buddhists in the world various deities and spirits occupy an important place in their day-to-day religious life. Likewise, most Buddhists probably do believe in Heaven and Hell- and while figurative interpretations of these concepts go back many years, so do more literal ones.

Furthermore, while some Buddhist scriptures do play down the importance of deity worship in the sense that most Westerners would be familiar, it’s not accurate to state that gods have been “added over the centuries” to Buddhism- some of the earlies Buddhist texts known include depictions of the Buddha interacting with the deities of the Vedic pantheon (Indra, for instance).

September 21, 2007 at 7:20 pm
(6) ray says:

“….It is Jesus who qualifies us for heaven if we trust in Him.” Wow, so we now don’t face gods judegement but from jesus instead. And we have to believe in him as well as god. So why hasn’t both suposed entities given us the uniequival proof that they exist. If they had given us the prrof it would be so easy therefore to accept that they exist. But then if they did supply the proof of their existence they would have some explaining to do. Like why is there disease, war, pain and even death…religion makes no sense!!!

September 30, 2007 at 8:45 am
(7) Katy says:

This article also fails to address that some Buddhists do not even believe in reincarnation but choose rebirth instead – which is a huge difference. Reincarnation implies an afterlife while rebirth does not.

April 26, 2009 at 10:49 pm
(8) Chris says:

While a great deal of Buddhists understand “rebirth” as reincarnation it is incorrect and a Hindu idea that the Buddha would not speak about. I am a former Buddhist monk of 10 plus years and a stone cold atheist, rebirth means changing as we are all learning and growing all of the time. You are no longer the person you were when you were 10 years old you have been “reborn” and rebirth takes place in every moment even after death you still “become”… Nothing is lost in the universe but everything is in a state of flux and always changing.

May 17, 2009 at 8:12 am
(9) vidya putra says:

the Buddha teach how to be happy, and happiness is universal – every human want to be happy, so atheistic or theistic is not important

June 27, 2009 at 5:23 am
(10) zfk says:

The idea that Buddhism doesn’t believe in gods, or heaven or hell, is just plain false. Look at the Pali Canon, the oldest record of the Buddha and the scriptural base of the Theravada. The Buddha taught that there were a series of heaven worlds and hell worlds in addition to our our own. Performing skillful or unskillful actions made it more likely that you would be born in one of those worlds. Also there is a passage in the Canon where Brahma himself speaks to the Buddha and tries to convince him that he is the supreme being who created the universe. But the Buddha has the power to see past lives and explains to Brahma that he was born into his current high station aeons ago due to karma and has just forgotten his own origin – he is still subject to the law of karma and will one day either achieve enlightenment or die and another will be reborn in his place.

Also, the Boddhisattva’s of mahayana often have godlike powers and are worshipped in a godlike way. Although they are not gods in the buddhist worldview, they certainly serve the functions of dieties in other religions.

I guess you could argue that these Buddhist ‘gods’ are not real gods because they aren’t totally absolute in every way like the judeo-chistian-islamic god, but I think that’s pretty weak.

June 27, 2009 at 7:22 am
(11) Austin Cline says:

The idea that Buddhism doesn’t believe in gods, or heaven or hell, is just plain false.

No one claims that no Buddhists anywhere believe in any gods. However, belief in gods isn’t required by Buddhism and quite a few Buddhists don’t bother believing in any gods.

August 8, 2009 at 5:12 pm
(12) Karina says:

I don’t like the fact that Buddhism “sold” itself or marketed itself in the U.S. as a religion, when in fact if you are godless, you are not technically a religion. It seems to be that Buddhism is a sect or philosophy which has no ambition in doing “good” in this society, and that to me is elitist, selfish and snobbish to say the least. If you’re going to spend hours and hours meditating, at least do good to your fellow man.

August 8, 2009 at 6:33 pm
(13) Austin Cline says:

I don’t like the fact that Buddhism “sold” itself or marketed itself in the U.S. as a religion, when in fact if you are godless, you are not technically a religion.  

There is nothing about being “godless” which “technically” excludes you from religion. Western religions are traditionally theistic, but religion per se does not absolutely require gods.

August 10, 2009 at 5:19 pm
(14) karina says:

Austin, that is your interpretation, but you cannot deny the fact that spending all that time for “you” alone, meditating, and not be concerned with your fellow man bothers many people. It is a very selfish attitufe. I guess the philosophy of many is that those of us who can, should help those who are not able or weak. A sect is an organization that is very closed, impermeable, secretive, and elitist.

August 10, 2009 at 5:42 pm
(15) Austin Cline says:

Austin, that is your interpretation,

No, it’s not an “interpretation” at all, never mind “my” interpretation. Religions don’t need to have any gods anymore than they need to have just one god. Religions have varied greatly across time and cultures.

but you cannot deny the fact that spending all that time for “you” alone, meditating, and not be concerned with your fellow man bothers many people.  

I’m not surprised. Of course, there are similar traditions in other religions — Christian monastic orders, for example, have at times greatly emphasized silent meditation alone. Not all Christians thought highly of that, either, but it’s obviously not unique to Buddhism or even to eastern religions.

August 25, 2009 at 3:36 pm
(16) Vladimir says:

TJ, you must be a protestant. Not all the Christians deny usefulness of man’s efforts towards redemption. At least Orthodox Christianity doesn’t.

November 23, 2009 at 11:42 am
(17) TK401 says:

TJ that is a minority view in Christianity and Christendom.

The majority of Christians, indeed original Christianity believes that it is by one’s good deeds that one is judged, not all this “all by faith” stuff that was added around 15-16 centuries later in Germany, and taken to it’s ultimate expression in mid 20th century United States.

regards,

January 7, 2010 at 1:08 am
(18) Chris says:

I am a Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist Atheist. I do not believe in any gods, spirits, deities, ghosts, heaven, hell, reincarnation or otherwise. I am a former monk of 10 years and now a professor of Buddhist Studies and Eastern Philosophy in Thailand. While some Buddhists may still hold superstitions many are giving up these notions and tending to hold only the teachings for personal happiness, moral and ethical values.

April 25, 2010 at 10:37 pm
(19) Vic says:

A follower of the Dhamma, I do not believe in reincarnation. Rebirth is not the same as reincarnation. Tibetans believe in it and deities too, but most of us do not.

October 14, 2010 at 7:29 pm
(20) ugenxspls says:

I’d like to point out that Christians don’t believe that doing good in this life can qualify you for heaven – nothing we can do can qualify us, that is why Jesus died for us – to save us from facing God’s judgement. It is Jesus who qualifies us for heaven if we trust in Him.

1. This isn’t relevant to this post.

2. It’s arrogant for you to assume that people here don’t already know what Christianity teaches.

Atheism, Do not give us anti-religious a bad name by trying so hard to marginalize others. Your comments seem so angry.
On the other hand you have no comments for Austin even though he presumes to write to people who have no knowledge of the connections between atheism and Buddhism.
Equally you presume that everyone knows what Christianity teaches. Either way your hypocrisy is an embarrassment to us. We are not all angry, hypocritical, pseudo-intellectuals.

October 20, 2010 at 10:39 am
(21) Atheism Speaks says:

Any comment stating that Buddhism is not a religion, has absolutely no understanding of the belief system. And probably would never be able to fully grasp the ideal anyway if they believe religion must be based in the belief in the afterlife, soul(aka. – preservation of self). For that is exactly what Buddhism is not, it is not a way to preserve self, for most people it is a way to remove ‘self’ (anatta).

I have been an atheist for years and only recently began looking into Buddhism…

November 21, 2010 at 12:56 am
(22) eowyn says:

“TJ(1)
that is why Jesus died for us – to save us from facing God’s judgement. It is Jesus who qualifies us for heaven if we trust in Him.”

Why did Jesus have to die? He is God, for Valar’s sake! Why can’t he just dance and save us, instead?

February 4, 2011 at 5:44 am
(23) JapManc says:

Well. I haven’t had much influence of Western new-age claptrap or any theistic beliefs, so this whole debate has been rather amusing.
In most if not all of Asian countries, people don’t really argue whether Buddhism is a religion or not, since it is quite an irrelevant question. It can be a religion if you are religious and can’t stop religiously believing in some bodhisattva or whatever philosophical fabrication that took place in Northern India some five centuries after the Buddha’s death (such as the Lotus Sutra). I personally don’t, but people believe in whatever they want to believe, and you can’t really do anything about it.
Then, is it a belief system? It can be. Although nowhere in the traditional scriptures tells you to “believe”, many do believe in various ideas, so it does, indeed, function as various systems of beliefs to many people. To me? Not really, since the Buddha himself didn’t tell me or anyone else to believe, so what’s the point? My grandmother in Tokyo chants the Heart Sutra five times a day in her Japanised Chinese, hoping for better afterlives. I don’t do that, because chanting is not the best form of meditation, and I don’t think a scripture has any supernatural power. There’s much better use of time and energy.
Then, am I a Buddhist? I am not sure, and it doesn’t matter. The Buddhist scriptures do not require me to put a tag saying “Buddhist” to myself. Whether Christians, Muslims or Atheists, people live according to Buddhist teachings more or less (such as the Five Precepts), and none of the so-called “Buddhist” is perfectly Buddhist, either. A Jew who doesn’t kill is better according to the Buddha’s teachings than a murderer who believes in Guanyin. The teachings just match a lot of what I see in this world, and that doesn’t require any belief. I just use my observation as a trained natural scientist. If you do evil stuff, you feel a lot of reactions to what you do. you are nice to others, they’ll be nice to you in return. You spit into a gale-force wind, the wind spits at you in return. Whether this chain of causes and effects last beyond my current life time remains to be seen, and apparently I haven’t reached that level of awareness (if that is what is required).

In short, whether it is a religion or not is just a reflection of who, how and what you are.

February 26, 2011 at 10:03 am
(24) shine says:

first lets get our definations right…
1) Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha (Pāli/Sanskrit “the awakened one”).
2) Atheism, in a broad sense, is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.
3) Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively-meaningful aspects of life. all the 3 definitions are taken from Wikipedia..
now having said that we need to realise that the first one is religion.. hence it cannot be classified with the context to the other two simple..Buddhism as far as my research goes is the living example of pantheist religions.. another definition here is Pantheism is the view that the Universe (Nature) and God are identical.[1] Pantheists thus do not believe in a personal, anthropomorphic or creator god.
we need to remember The Karmic Law like the law of attraction is not scientific.. its religious.. in its nature. (not supported by atheism or Nihilism .
besides non believes like atheism or Nihilism again will not support incarnation or resurrection.. they understand pure logic…
im an aisan not a westerner.. and trust me its not the matter of places who your are but what you read is what matters..

March 2, 2011 at 6:00 am
(25) Janaka says:

“we need to remember The Karmic Law like the law of attraction is not scientific.. its religious.. in its nature. (not supported by atheism or Nihilism” . (Shine February 26, 2011 at 10:03 am)

I believe what you meant by not scientific is that Karmic law is not empirically proven. In that sense it can be said it is not scientific, but it does not suggest that it is not true. In very simple sense Karma means action (may not be comprehensive enough). We get results according to our action. Think in that line on day to day activities. We give a donation we will be appreciated (ideally returns should not be expected) If we steal we go to prison. These could be over simplistic examples but that is the essence of the Karmic Law. Effects of Karmic Law do not necessarily come in an afterlife it is in work with in this life as well. Similarly if you realise the goals of the Buddhist teachings you will have the results within this life not in afterlife.

“.. and trust me its not the matter of places who your are but what you read is what matters..” (Shine February 26, 2011 at 10:03 am)

Not really, it is what you understand and realises is what matters either through reading experience or any other means

January 2, 2012 at 2:52 am
(26) John says:

Hey,

Thanks for the clarification in this area. I have been looking up many websites and yours spoke with great diction and was well researched.

I had one quick issue. When answering the point, “3. Buddhist are Godless, aethists, and nihilistic”, the first line read,
“No we aren’t. Just because Buddhism teaches that there is no God or Gods, doesn’t mean that a Buddhist is directionless in life!”

I can’t speak for Nihilists,but atheists are not directionless in life. These lines suggest that although Buddhists do not beleive in heaven, they have direction because they try and attain another form of cosmic bliss. I am an atheist and, although I have much respect for Buddhism, am not a Buddhist. However, I am a very directed, motivated, and happy human being as are many of my mentors and colleagues, without the goal of reaching any degree of paradise or ultimate enlightenment. The title, atheism simply suggests that we reject the notion of a God or Gods due to a lack of sufficient evidence or the presence of a credible source. There are many theories and explanations that have been credibly tested that give atheists tremendous purpose and direction (the Miller Urey Experiment, various principles of evolution, the value of empathy).

I might have read the statement out of context and if so I apologize. Again thank you for your scholarship and I hope to hear back.

-John

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