Would a Buddhist Affirm that belief in God is a Delusion?

Last month a handful of great minds met in Cambridge, England, for a debate. The motion for this debate was, “This House Believes that God is not a Delusion.”  In the video shared below are some of the best arguments both for and against the belief in God:

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The result: Ayes: 243, Noes, 229: Abstentions: 129.

So, according to the students and others in Cambridge last month, God indeed, is not a Delusion. What do you think?

I have come across several reasons to think of God as a delusion. The first is the fact that believers in God seem very confused about God, or, at least, consistently unable to agree about what He (or, for fun, she) is like or wants humanity to do. I grew up in a nominally Catholic, though practically non-religious household, but I had numerous friends with varying degrees and types of faith in God. None of their claims ever seemed to make much sense, and certainly not the kind of sense that science did. So, around age 13, I formally – and privately – ditched “God.” However, one could say the same thing about quantum physics – even scientists disagree about how best to interpret it. Buddhists also find plenty to disagree about when discussing Buddhism.

Later, studying philosophy and the history of religion, another, somewhat deeper, problem arose: I don’t even know what the word “God means. Once, when I told a friend I was an atheist, she accused me of hubris for believing there was nothing “greater” in the world. I hadn’t thought of myself as denying that there was anything greater in the world. As an atheist in my youth, I was simply denying a belief in all of the various conceptions of God that had come to me. The problem emerges in defining “God” either too substantively and running the risk of simply projecting all of your wishes into Him (calling Him ‘Father’ and ‘All Loving,’ etc, smack of Freudian projection), and defining God too thinly, as some of the philosophers’ arguments below do, essentially considering God as a sort of mere logical necessity.

Buddhism might best be described as non-theistic in the Western sense, as it has no creator God. The Gods (devas) of Brahmanism (proto-Hinduism) do find their way into early Buddhism and have remained there ever since. Additionally, as Buddhism has moved around Asia it has tended to absorb the Gods of each new culture. However, the Gods are never central to Buddhist belief or practice and are, importantly, not to be taken as a refuge alongside the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Gods are, like us, trapped in samsara. Insofar as one might take a God for refuge, as those of Western monotheisms do, it seems that the Buddha might consider them deluded. However, it seems just as likely that the Buddha would skillfully use that belief in God to elucidate his own doctrine, as he did in the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13), where he taught two young brahmins, Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvāja, his practice as a means to ‘dwell with Brahma (God)’.

But that doesn’t rule out the possibility that what the young men thought of as dwelling with Brahma was delusional. In fact delusion (avijjā) is fundamental to human samsaric psychology – but that doesn’t help because it suggests that virtually all of our beliefs are delusional. So perhaps we can ease up no the God idea: maybe it does some good, and, as fellow Patheos blogger James Ford recently noted, Just a Little Reminder: We Are What We Do

In any case, Nyanaponika Thera sums up the traditional view well here. Ven Dhammika suggests fear is the root cause of belief in God. Meanwhile Lewis Richmond gives a good modern account of how Buddhists can believe in God, noting specifically the definition of God given by St. Anselm (below):  “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

Below are the three main arguments for belief in God used in the video and some links to Western philosophy on the topic in case you’d like to explore this more. Meanwhile, what do you think?

Do you think Buddhists should affirm that belief in God is a delusion?
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1) A moral Argument:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist
  2. At least one objective moral value exists.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

2) Ontological Argument

As the ‘greatest possible being’ God is by definition a necessary being. A necessary being is by definition a being that must exist if its existence is possible. Hence we argue:

  1. If it is possible that God exists, then God exists
  2. It is possible that God exists
  3. Therefore, God exists

To which Kant famously objected:

‘Being’ is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. … . By whatever and however many predicates we may think a thing … we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that the thing is. (Kant (1781/1929), A598/B626–A600/B628.) (see paper-pdf) below.

3) Cosmological Argument

The Leibnitzian cosmological argument builds upon the ‘principle of sufficient reason’:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or  in an external cause.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. Therefore the universe has an explanation of its existence.
  4. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

Further Reading for Western Philosophy and God:

Anselm’s Ontological Argument.

Leibniz’s Arguments for the Existence of God (notes, the first being the Cosmological argument).

Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

Kant’s Response to the Anselm’s Ontological Argument (and a longer paper defending Kant & clarifying aspects of this debate -.pdf-).

Kant’s Objections to All Previous Arguments for God’s Existence (notes on the CPR).

  • http://theendlessfurther.com David

    Good Post. Unfortunately, I don’t have an hour and 31 minutes to waste watching some guys debate a delusion, so I went ahead and voted yes. As far as the three arguments you present, I’ve never understood what the existence or non-existence of God has to do with morality. Who decreed that morality can’t stand on its own? In regards to the ontological and cosmological arguments, they both seem a bit nebulous to me, simply for the fact that we don’t know what, if anything, lies beyond the universe. It may be that our need for the universe to have an explanation of its existence is also delusional. As you well know, the Buddha supposedly was not too keen about such discussions. It was enough for him that we do exist and he didn’t seem to have a burning desire to understand why. He also accepted that suffering was intrinsic to existence, so the question was/is, what are we gonna do about that?

  • Justin Whitaker

    Great point, David. I think one could consider Buddhist understandings of karma as a ‘stand alone’ morality, easily (or at least conceivably) naturalized to remove need for rebirth. For Westerners though, for morality to be objective it needs some mechanism by which the good are rewarded and the bad punished. Morality is also special in that it seems to be what sets us apart from our ‘animal natures’ and at times our entire society; it can even lead us to sacrifice our own life for others. I think most people these days simply chuck out the idea of objective morality, but that raises its own issues…

    • http://theendlessfurther.com David

      I have to admit I am confused by what “objective morality” means. On one hand, it seems to refer to the idea that our sense of what is right and wrong evolves over time, which seems entirely reasonable to me. On the other hand, I’ve seen it posited where right and wrong are universally fixed, usually by God, and thus, the opposite of a subjectivist approach where right and wrong are somewhat relative.

      I feel that because we have a higher intelligence and posses the ability to reason, unlike animals, we can grasp the notion of doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Folks can debate about what the “right thing” is, but the idea that we need to be rewarded for doing it, is something we need to lose.

      • Justin Whitaker

        “Folks can debate about what the “right thing” is, but the idea that we need to be rewarded for doing it, is something we need to lose.”
        How very Kantian of you!

        The problem for many is in determining what is “simply the right thing” to do and what is not. For Kant, our self-wrought rationality was the arbiter of right and wrong. But for others, especially in the West, it has always been God. As one of the brothers in “The Brothers Karamazof” exclaims “without God, everything is permitted!”

  • http://whereyoustop.blogspot.com/ Was Once

    If you are talking about our affirmations, I think it is best not to care what others believe. There is much work to be done personally to understand one’s own suffering on the path, that it doesn’t need one more philosophical argument to be entangled with to affirm one’s beliefs. In one respect it is like playing God!

    • Justin Whitaker

      Point taken. But in our paths, aren’t we certain to encounter others and isn’t it both wise and compassionate to attempt an understanding of other beings and their philosophies?

  • http://www.thenakedmonk.com Stephen Schettini

    No it’s not a delusion. It’s a belief.

    • Justin Whitaker

      But is it a right belief or a wrong belief? Or both? Or neither?

  • http://www.moralobjectivity.net Robert M Ellis

    Justin wrote “I don’t even know what the word “God“ means.” Have you considered the Jungian archetypal meaning? (See http://middlewayphilosophy.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/jung-and-the-meaning-of-god/). Personally I find God highly meaningful but do not believe in his “existence”, or indeed his non-existence. Getting cuaght up in the debate about God’s existence would be to miss the point about what God means. I think hard agnosticism is a far more powerful attitude for Buddhists to take than atheism, and it can be justified both by the Buddha’s critique of metaphysics and by the value of the Jungian alternative.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Very interesting – and thanks for the link, Robert.

    It’s curious to think of something as not existing but still meaningful. Or, perhaps more so, to find the question of its existence as contrary to the point of its meaning. Is it correct, then, that claims about the God for you are more in the emotional or aesthetic dimension of religion than the cognitive? I can see the appeal of Jung (and as a young man I read some of Sangharakshita’s works that drew explicitly from him), but while I feel this helps US to understand different systems of belief, I’m doubtful that many religious leaders/founders have ever been so agnostic.

    • http://www.moralobjectivity.net Robert M Ellis

      I have some hesitation in answering “yes” to your question, because of the assumptions that are liable to be loaded with the word “cognitive” (such as facts vs values). So I’d better say “no”. Rather I’d say that meaning has both cognitive and emotional elements which are not separable. I can appreciate the cognitive element of the meaning of God (i.e. the dictionary definition, further analysis etc) as well as the emotional, without giving my assent to a particular cognitive representation of God as “true” or existing (or, equally, not existing). Archetypes, anyway, are not just “emotional”: they are psychological functions represented by symbols. That archetypal function can be cognitively represented by God as a symbol, as well as what the archetypal function feels like.

      I think this point is particularly relevant to Buddhists, because there seems to be no difference between the archetypal function of God and of enlightenment, regardless of the theoretical differences. Buddhists “believing in” enlightenment or disbelieving in it seems to me just as unfortunate as believing or disbelieving in God. You’re right that religious leaders rarely adopt this approach – unless they’re Quakers, perhaps, or radical theologians like Niebuhr. Sangharakshita’s use of Jung is one of his most attractive features for me, but unfortunately it doesn’t stop him also believing in “The Transcendental”.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/americanbuddhist/ Justin Whitaker

        Thanks for the reply, Robert. I use those categories (developed by Ninian Smart) partly because they give a helpful set of lenses and partly because they seem to be broadly acceptable, at least in academia, and they tend to make sense to non-academics I work with as well. But yes, it’s always fair to say that something is not one or the other.

        I suppose my problem with Jung and archetypes continues to be that, as you say, “religious leaders rarely adopt this approach” (and I would add and hope you agree, that academics also rarely adopt it – I have heard that Luis O. Gómez is into Jung, but I’m not sure how much that has come up in papers/books/etc). That and, of course, the fact that I don’t find it particularly illuminating based on the small bits here and there that I have encountered. It’s helpful of course, just as postmodernism and post-colonialism are helpful, but I don’t see it as a good candidate for our primary lens. (Of course, as a Kantian, I readily admit that one of my favourite interpretive lenses is very low on most people’s lists…)

  • pilgrim

    Its like asking a Buddhist if the Sasquatch exists. Should we even care?

  • Justin Whitaker

    Care? Yes. Cling to the idea? No.

  • James L

    I have to agree with David in asking why does the belief or disbelief in God have to have anything to do with morality? You can raise a child with no teachings of God or any other Religious Deity and he will still have a fundimental knoweledge of right and wrong.
    As for non belief in God being considered non belief in a higher power that notion is ludicris, one can disbelieve in God yet have a firm belief in Karma and would any dare say Karma or Nature itself is not a higher power than ourselves?

  • Ashin Sopāka

    The belief in God is a wrong view (diṭṭhi), not delusion (moha, avijja).