Last week a friend of mine, a fellow Buddhist Ph.d. student, emailed me with a question. She wondered if I might explain how I find being a Buddhist and an Atheist to be compatible. She sent me a link to an old debate on reincarnation published by Tricycle between Stephen Bachelor, author of Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, and Robert Thurman, the Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Religious Studies at Columbia University.
Both are brilliant scholars of the highest rank, so if you are interested in some of the finer points of Buddhist philosophy, do have a read.
And then I read this short article by Stephen Schettini, Why I’m Not a Buddhist, from Buddhadharma’s website. It’s a very touching piece, and strikes at the heart of some of the anxiety ‘Buddhisty’ people feel over the label ‘Buddhist’ and the many psychological issues that may come with it (being in the ‘in-group’ and/or being excluded from another ‘in-group’ at the same time…).
And thirdly, just yesterday yet another article was posted, asking “Can you have faith, yet disbelieve the Buddha?” This one is by Bodhipaksa, my own first meditation teacher, the man to whom I owe a great deal of my own understanding and practice of mindfulness and metta meditation, not to mention a blog post/article (coming soon….) that I’ve been promising for a couple months now. There, with the aid of a cute cartoon that has been making the rounds lately, Bodhipaksa delicately explores questions of faith and rebirth in Buddhism.
The great thing about all of the above, for me, is the challenge made to my own current beliefs, practices, and understandings. It is precisely in grappling with these issues, often at first in theory, but ultimately always in ‘practice’ of some form or another, that I have found the the greatest sense of growth in my own life – most often by way of letting go of deeply, perhaps even unconsciously held assumptions about myself and the world.
And with that, I give you a slightly cleaned up version of my response to my friend about Buddhism and Atheism:
My atheism goes back to my pre-Buddhist days, to around the age of 12 or 13. I recall reading that some prominent scientist [Einstein, I believe] had rejected God at that age, so I figured I would too and see what happened.
It turned out to be not such a big deal.
My parents didn’t demand belief or church attendance after that age, and I grew up with a diverse group of friends where church or religion was pretty much never discussed. When I did hear talk of religion – primarily Christianity – I found it to be remarkably stupid and wondered how or why anyone would believe in such things as a God who might intervene in human affairs.
At around age 19, I dated a nice very Catholic girl and tried to ‘invite Jesus into my life’ for her. But that didn’t do anything for me so I gave it up. I returned to my atheism, and at times anti-theism – really believing that the best stance one could have was vocal opposition to theism in light of the centuries of harm it seems to be responsible for.
I started a campus freethinkers group at U-Montana where I studied philosophy, co-organized and hosted a major debate on the existence of God, and moved a bit toward the [kinder, gentler?] position that theists were just ignorant, so maybe a good education could make them better.
Around that time I started studying and practicing Buddhism – first as an academic interest alongside philosophy, and later as a personal interest because I thought meditation actually did me some good.
Interestingly, I found that my atheism didn’t influence my understanding of Buddhism as much as my practice of Buddhism helped ease the militancy of my atheism. For example I began to look for, and find, the good in theism, the good in traditions that I had previously held in my mind to be merely stupid and oppressive.
Can Buddhism work without rebirth?
Well, maybe for some people, yes. People who live rather pleasant lives can throw it out and ‘naturalize’ karma to meaning something like ‘if I’m a bad person, I create a character that makes me unhappy and people around me don’t like me, so karma just means the kind of person you are/become.’ But why then did the Buddha keep karma and rebirth in his teachings? He could have rejected them or given them this naturalistic nuance just like a number of other prominent ideas from his time.
The answer to me is that the Buddha wasn’t just offering a teaching on how to acquire pleasant states of mind or develop a good character so that people would like you and you would be successful. That might sound trite, but it does seem to be how a lot of contemporary Buddhists (particularly in the West) want to appropriate Buddhism. The Buddha’s teaching is a complete soteriology, based on a goal of nirvana, with karma and rebirth as essential mechanisms for ensuring the teachings, properly understood and applied, would lead to that goal.
So, philosophically speaking, I take rebirth and non-naturalized karma to be necessary factors of the Buddha’s system. I don’t think that believing in them is what the Buddha encouraged, but rather exploring them in your daily life until you see them. What it means to see rebirth and karma in your daily life might not match up with what you believe these terms refer to now.
There’s never a point at which you can say, ‘I don’t see them, I give up.’ Because your starting point is precisely that, not seeing. The Buddha taught a sort of empiricism – that we need to come to experience and understand for ourselves rather than merely accepting the words of others. But he also taught about things that we wouldn’t and couldn’t experience until we become fully awakened ourselves.
What separates the Buddha’s teaching’ as I know it here and mere skepticism or empiricism is the understanding of a system in which we start out deluded, we work to create better karma and to see more clearly, and ultimately we wake up and shed our delusions. Again, it’s not something to be ‘believed in’ (which seems to be a major tripping point for those steeped in Judeo-Christian traditions), but something to be understood and experienced for oneself.
So these days I lean more toward Thurman’s take – though it is interesting that he and Bachelor come together in the end. I haven’t read Stevenson’s work (20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation) , but I have heard from many sources that he’s not terribly convincing. And that is fine with me; I don’t think rebirth is something to be ‘proven’. Similarly, I don’t think God can be proved or meaningfully disproved. God plays a similar role in the theistic systems where we begin in a sinful state, do the right things or hold the right beliefs, and ultimately shed our sin in a heavenly place with Him. For me, that system is philosophically too cumbersome to even begin approaching, so I consider myself an atheist. The Buddhist system makes philosophical sense to me and the practices have improved my life, so I consider myself a Buddhist. And actually, I think Kant’s understanding of theism and ethics is fascinatingly closer to Buddhism than it is to most Western theistic soteriologies (hence the crazy ph.d. project that I should be working on right now!)…