Ask Richard: Is My Buddhism Suitable for an Atheist?

Hi Richard,

This column is a great idea. Thanks for taking it on.
The question is: am I missing something here? Am I ignoring some blind spot of my own?

The problem: I am both an atheist and a practicing Zen Buddhist. While it is true that some forms of Buddhism assert the existence of gods, demons and so forth—and no form of Buddhism explicitly denies the existence of any such—these woo-woo characteristics spring from the cultures in which those particular forms of Buddhism grew up, rather than from anything in Buddhist philosophy itself. The group to which I belong—a stripped-down American version of Korean Zen—is completely non-theistic. The main practice is meditation, and there is no supernatural component to any of it. I derive—or imagine I derive—tremendous psychological benefit from the practice, and have found it very useful in examining the underlying causes of unhealthy actions and emotions.

Yet periodically I hear non-theists denigrate Buddhism with exactly the same language they reserve for fundies and born-agains. I think this stems from the erroneous notion (propagated by fundies and born-agains and repeated unwittingly by the uninformed) that the Buddha is some kind of god (he is not), that Buddhists pray to Buddha the way Christians pray to Jesus (they do not), and that karma is some kind of cosmic bank account where one stores up brownie points for future rebirths (it is not).

The truth is that Buddhism is probably the world’s oldest humanist “religion.” The most important guiding principle for practice, supposedly articulated by the Buddha himself 2,500 years ago, is simply, “try this out—see if it works; if not, abandon it.” There is no element of faith in unseen forces, or acceptance of any tenet without evidence. Yet many of my fellow non-theists persist in their disparagement of Buddhism.

So what do you say? Do you think I’m just fooling myself? Or am I merely the unfortunate victim of other people’s ignorance?

Codswallop—The Perfect Fool

Dear Codswallop,

Long ago, I practiced Zen Buddhism for many years as a lay member of an urban Zen center. As in yours, the emphasis was on meditation, and basically any of those other beliefs were optional, being whatever each individual wanted to adopt or discard. There were some very down-to-earth folks there, and some space cadets as well. Whatever woo-woo that I subscribed to and eventually rejected was only the woo-woo that I had brought with me.

In every religion, even in very regulated sects, we see variation in what people focus on as essential and what they de-emphasize, disregard or dismiss as unessential. Each individual, though they may not admit it, does at least some “customizing” of their belief system, so that it better fits their personality. This is why there are thousands of sub-sects and sub-sub-sects.

The path you are walking is of your own creation and definition. You carry with you whatever baggage works for you, and as you journey, you may pick up a few new items, but probably you will discard more than you collect. Gautama taught that we each have a buddha, a person who is awake inside of us. More than inside, is us. So your Buddhism is based on your buddha, not on somebody else’s. You are the world’s leading authority on Codswallopism. If keeping your mind free of clutter is what you want to do, then just keep right on sweeping clutter away whenever it begins to collect. You sound like you’ve become quite good at that. The clutter in others’ minds is not your concern. They have their own paths on which to walk or stumble as they choose.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Chal

    Weird, I’ve never really heard any non-theists who have a problem with Buddhism.

  • http://anti-mattr.blogspot.com mathyoo

    I can’t say that I’m a practicing Zen Buddhist, but I do practice Zen meditation and have long been interested in the philosophy of Zen, and I feel that it’s perfectly compatible with atheism. Do a search for Zen atheism and you’ll find that there are others out there who think the same.

    The benefits of meditation have been scientifically documented. Check out this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/09/04/study-the-scientific-bene_n_123987.html (not that I’d put a lot of trust in the Huffington post for anything scientific, but the article does describe the study fairly well, and I would say the findings are legit)

  • Autumnal Harvest

    This is an interesting post, coming on the heels of the “Can a Christian Not Believe in Hell?” post. I’d define a Christian as someone who considers themselves a Christian, and a Buddhist as someone who considers themsevles a Buddhist.

    Codswallop, given that your form of Buddhism does not contain supernatural elements, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to be an atheist and a Buddhist. However, your letter essentially argues that atheists should understand that your non-supernatural form of Buddhism is the “real Buddhism” and that the supernatural stuff non-authentic. Buddhism is a conglomeration of cultural practices, and most (not all) of those practices include supernatural elements. Many of those who believe in karma do seem to regard it as a cosmic bank account, and while Buddha is not technically a god, for many he acts functionally equivalent to a god. I don’t see any basis, as an atheist, for considering their beliefs as any less (or more) authentically Buddhist than yours.

    The historical Buddha strikes me, as best I can guess, as having significant supernatural beliefs, but being agnostic to the existence of deities. But the beliefs of the historical Buddha are somewhat irrelevant to what what a Buddhist is today.

  • http://sapphicowl.blogspot.com sapphic owl

    I don’t think so much that there’s anything wrong with Codswallop saying that his non-supernatural form is more authentic than the forms infused w/cultural superstitions.

    Isn’t that the same thing we do when we’ve researched certain elements of the KJV of the Bible and question Christians on the historical accuracy of certain passages and the meanings of certain words in Hebrew and Aramaic compared to what we know them as today? We strip the book down to as much as a basic form as we know how given the research we’ve access to to authenticate and discredit it.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    I’d say that atheists criticize Buddhism for superstition for the same reason that they criticize Christians for Biblical Creationism. Not everyone is a Biblical Creationist, we know that. Not every Buddhist is superstitious either. We focus on criticizing the worst, because the worst is the most deserving of criticism. If a particular criticism of Buddhism does not apply to you, then there is no need to feel as if you are the object of that criticism.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Personally, I like Richard’s use of the term “Codswallopism”. That’s all that really matters. Codswallop practices a version of “Buddhism” which I find completely compatible with atheism. The larger non-theistic community should recognize that there are (must be by definition) different ways of practicing Buddhism. Some will smack of theism, some won’t.

  • Aj

    There is no element of faith in unseen forces, or acceptance of any tenet without evidence.

    lol

  • http://superstitionfree.blogspot.com Robert Madewell

    I have met a few buddhists in my time. They weren’t exactly what I call atheists, but they were not exactly theists either. Because of that, I usually consider Buddhism a deistic religion for the most part. However, like atheists, buddhists seem to come in lots of varieties.

  • anothermike

    When I went through the Army Reception Center in 1962 where you are issued equipment, get shots, etc., one of the many lines we waited in was the one where you declare your religion so they can stamp that information on your dogtags, just in case you get killed in combat. Since I didn’t have a religion but had been studying philosophy in college and reading Watts and Suzuki on Zen, I said “Buddhist” instead of “no religion”. The guy behind me in the line did the same. To our surprise, when they lined us up the next Saturday to explain where the various services were on Fort Ord, the only one off base was Buddhist. So on Sunday we decided that a free bus ride to Monterey was better than sitting around the barracks. We were the only non-Asians on the bus, and I thought we should go to the service instead of finding a place to drink beer. But my buddy prevailed and we hit the street. The Asian dudes did the same and for the next eight Sundays we all drank at The Tokyo Bar. None of them really practiced Buddhism, in fact, most claimed Christianity, more or less, and had been told by older relatives how to get these Sunday trips. Does this prove that there is a god?

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    Codswallop says “there is no supernatural component to any of it” but I need him to define that “no” more rigorously before I can believe this is any more than word games.

    So: No karma? No rebirth? That would seem to be a fairly radical departure from traditional Buddhism, both Mahayana and Theravada, particularly when Buddhists generally define the third noble truth in terms of escape from “the cycle of suffering”. So, have you radically departed from traditional Buddhism? Or is there something you’re not telling us about your beliefs with respect to karma and rebirth? Would you say rebirth is scientific Codswallop?

    Now, you’ve refuted the suggestion that Buddhists pray to Buddha the way Christians pray to Jesus. This is one of the things that makes me suspect you of being disingenuous. I can appreciate that you may have rejected the practice of praying to Boddhisatvas yourself, but to seriously suggest that Buddhists never do … well, have you ever heard of Shin Buddhism? Have you ever heard of the nembutsu? Are you saying Shin Buddhists are not real Buddhists like you Codswallup?

    In truth I find this whole conversation kinda ironic, as Zen Buddhism was part of what got me back onto a spiritual path, part of what got me doubting my doubts. Non-religious? Ha!

  • Miko

    I’d recommend taking a look at Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism without Beliefs for more on nontheistic (and nonmetaphysical) Buddhism. (And if I recall correctly, the book was first recommended to me by Richard a year or so back. Thanks, Richard.)

    However, it’s not entirely wrong to say that (some) Buddhists venerate various Buddhas as gods, as some traditions most certainly do. On the other hand, these seem to be local traditions and there’s nothing I’ve seen in the Theravada (lit. “gray beard,” essentially meaning original) tradition requiring or suggesting this.

    Buddhism is distinct from most other religions in that it doesn’t inherently impose a system of control and ossified structure:

    If one, though reciting much of texts,
    Is not a doer thereof, a heedless person;
    That one, like a cowherd counting others’ cows,
    Is not a partaker in the noble path [i.e., Buddhism].

    If one, though reciting little of texts,
    Lives a life in accord with dhamma [i.e., Buddhist teachings/nature],

    That one, not grasping here, neither hereafter,
    Is a partaker of the noble path.

    Dhammapada, I.19ff

    So, if you want to be/call yourself a Buddhist and an atheist, I’d say neither Buddhists nor atheists have any grounds to complain.

  • Miko

    So: No karma? No rebirth? That would seem to be a fairly radical departure from traditional Buddhism,

    Most suttas in which reincarnation are discussed introduce the subject through Siddhartha receiving a question on the subject, and then giving an answer in the form “if reincarnation really exists, then ___. If reincarnation does not really exist, then ___.” I’d hardly say that historically (as opposed to in common practice) reincarnation is an important tenet of Buddhism. In fact, Buddhist monastic codes explicitly prohibit monks from talking about their personal views/experiences of reincarnation (although they may discuss it in the abstract).

    Karma is more integrated into the tradition, but since the word literally just means “action,” there’s again a question of historical meaning versus later interpretation, especially since the tradition survived only orally for hundreds of years.

    I can appreciate that you may have rejected the practice of praying to Boddhisatvas yourself, but to seriously suggest that Buddhists never do … well, have you ever heard of Shin Buddhism?

    Also on this subject, does calling oneself a ‘humanist’ suggest that Christians, etc. aren’t human?

  • http://thenaturalbuddhist.blogspot.com JohnFrost

    I consider myself an atheist and a Buddhist equally; my atheism defining what I dont’t believe, my Buddhism defining what I practice. My theist friends who see Buddhism as just another religion are always quite taken aback when I begin a sentence, “The Buddha, who may or may not have even existed, said…”

    My blog, which I post to very infrequently, is about my journey into naturalistic buddhism, if anybody interested in the subject would like to check it out.

  • Richard Wade

    Miko, I don’t think I can take credit for recommending Buddhism Without Beliefs to you. I’m not familiar with it, or I don’t remember it.

  • Aj

    I am now interested in what “karma” and the “deathless state” mean outside of their supernatural context. Anybody got any answers?

    Karma is more integrated into the tradition, but since the word literally just means “action,”…

    Jihad means struggle. To pray is to ask. Séance means a sitting. A sermon means a discussion. Holy means bringing health.

    Also on this subject, does calling oneself a ‘humanist’ suggest that Christians, etc. aren’t human?

    Does calling oneself a vegetarian mean that you are a vegetable? Does calling yourself a metrosexual mean you have sex on trains? Does calling yourself a cryptologist mean you study burial vaults? Does calling yourself an Archbishop mean you’re in charge of structural support?

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I don’t think so much that there’s anything wrong with Codswallop saying that his non-supernatural form is more authentic than the forms infused w/cultural superstitions. . .Isn’t that the same thing we do when we’ve researched certain elements of the KJV of the Bible and question Christians on the historical accuracy of certain passages. . .

    Yes and no. I think it’s reasonable to challenge Christians on whether the text they’re using to justify their position really says what they claim it says, or on whether it matches up with what actually happened. But I don’t think it makes sense to use that to say “Christians are supposed to believe in X (e.g. Hell), so someone who doesn’t isn’t really being an authentic Christian.” For example, I think the text of Genesis 1-2 doesn’t even remotely support the idea that the authors of those texts believed in a doctrine of original sin; but I wouldn’t use that to claim that real Christians aren’t suppposed to believe in original sin. I’d say that, for whatever reason, many Christians believe original sin is an integral part of their religion, so that doctrine is part of much of Christianity (althought not part of other parts of Christianity).

    Similarly, most people who practice Buddhism believe in deities and/or the supernatural in a way that’s an integral part of that practice, those are beliefs and practices are also part of Buddhism. Non-theistic Buddhism is common, but non-theistic, non-supernatural Buddhism is a fairly small minority among Buddhist practice worldwide. That’s not to say that Codswallopism doesn’t fit comfortably into Buddhism—I agree with Codswallop that it does—just that I find it unreasonable (and a little disingenuous) to present it as representative of Buddhism.

  • http://www.aperfectfool.com Codswallop

    Weird, I’ve never really heard any non-theists who have a problem with Buddhism.

    You need to get out more. For years I have seen Buddhism lumped together with theism in the disparaging remarks of atheists. You aren’t paying attention. (See the next blockquoted comment.)

    Codswallop says “there is no supernatural component to any of it” but I need him to define that “no” more rigorously before I can believe this is any more than word games.

    You don’t know what “no” means? You must be a fun date. Are you clear on the word “is?”

    Seriously, you have mentioned two very different things. First, karma: it means actions have consequences. So when I make a snarky reply to your post, it habituates me to that behavior and increases the likelihood that I will make another one next time I’m in a similar situation. It also increases the likelihood that you will respond in kind. Lest anyone think this view trivializes the “cosmic bank account” view, remember that arguments, divorces and world wars are built of this same kind of cause-and-effect. We are to a very large extent a product of our habits, and we can choose to change those habits or reinforce them. Our choice affects those around us. That is karma. Karma is here and now. The fact that some cultures have turned it into a magical balance sheet for imagined future lives stems from the syncretic, myth-making powers of the human mind.

    Which brings me to rebirth. It’s bullshit. It’s unnecessary to Buddhism, a pre-existing artifact of (some) Asian cultures in which Buddhism later took root. Some people have chosen to understand it metaphorically or psychologically. I find it extraneous.

    That’s not to say that Codswallopism doesn’t fit comfortably into Buddhism—I agree with Codswallop that it does—just that I find it unreasonable (and a little disingenuous) to present it as representative of Buddhism.

    Because it’s a minority view, it is not representative? I think you mean “normative,” not “representative.” There is a huge difference.

  • peregrine

    I have occasionally identified as atheist or Buddhist, depending on my mood, for a good 4 or 5 years now. Most of the time, I suppose I have more in common with atheism. But I appreciate the Buddhist philosophy, and I’ve made an almost daily practice of meditation. Mostly mindfulness mediation, occasionally getting into some Metta, and lately I’ve been joining a Zazen group a couple times a week when I can.

    Philosophically, I’ve never had a problem with it. I find it both personally beneficial, and compatible with my secular non-theistic sensibilities, and I find that it allows me to enjoy a healthy level of spirituality without the supernatural trappings.

    Anyway, that’s how I frame it. YMMV.

  • panoramafly

    Thank you, Richard, for posting this. I do agree with you that everyone customizes their own belief (or non-belief) system. May I go even a step further and say that everyone “should”?

    I tend to think there are components to every form of religion that may be worth a look, and one can agree with parts of a philosophy without buying into all of it.

    There is no road map or “how to” manual that fits every person’s lifestyle. I used to call myself a Christian even though I disagreed more than agreed with the traditional Christian thought. I wonder why it is so important to label and categorize ourselves?

    Is it not okay to simply be a searching and growing human being who wants to think logically and freely but still sees value in some religious teachings, including Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism, etc.? We can certainly choose to believe in the benefits of prayer/meditation without the supernatural component, and we can practice yoga for health without religiously following the teachings of a yogi.

    The world is not always black and white. Not everything fits into neat little rows and columns. Yet we constantly try to make it so and insist that our little square that we’ve constructed for ourselves should be the ideal for everyone. Or at least get others to agree that it’s a worthy square. Perhaps the greatest delusion lies in the lines that do not exist.

    Codswallop, if your form of buddhiatheism is working for you, as it sounds like it is, then bravo for you!

  • jemand

    I wouldn’t follow any ritualistic tradition that is old because every one I’ve researched has been used to keep women subservient and such ideas have drifted into the “holy texts”– even if they are explained away in a particular interpretation they are always there to be brought back by some dude who wants to be served and who is good at manipulation…

    So I won’t have anything to do with those. I do, however, sometimes call myself a discordian or pastafarian, recent parody religions that I’ll use if I’m in social company where declaring atheism would mean crucifixtion…

  • Thilina

    What you’re describing is zen meditation (Considering that the only similarity between what you described and Buddhism is the meditation). I grew up as Buddhist (practicing from age ~5-16) My entire family and the majority of my friends are Buddhist, and it is very different from the description in the post.

    “Buddha is some kind of god” – in some forms this is considered to be true. others not so much. And a few in between.(Doesn’t help that whenever he appears in western media he’s talking to jesus on a cloud)

    “Buddhists pray to Buddha the way Christians pray to Jesus” – Depending on the form practiced the target of the prayer is different. In the form i’m familiar with the prayer is sent to “Higher Beings” (that’s as best as i can translate – not quite gods in the western sense as they are included in re-incarnation cycle but they can affect the world more than humans as humans can affect the world more than ants).

    “and that karma is some kind of cosmic bank account where one stores up brownie points for future rebirths” – The majority of Buddhist think that’s true.

    You’re not fooling yourself and you’re not the victim of other people’s ignorance (no more than everyone else). There’s so many sects of buddhism through the world its impossible to make a single assumption that applies to everyone.

    And the reason most non-theists don’t go after buddhism is because its not as dangerous as some other religions. (at least that my reason).

  • http://thenaturalbuddhist.blogspot.com JohnFrost

    I’m surprised at the level of rancor in some of these posts, particularly Matt’s. Why are you so worked up?

    The way I understand it, Buddhism, at it’s core, is about a few simple things:

    Enlightenment–which means understanding that all things are impermanent and recognizing the interconnectedness of all things

    and Practice–which includes meditation, both sitting mediation and just a general practice of deep introspection to one’s own perspective, motives, actions, etc.

    Now, if Siddartha even existed, he taught those things some 400 or 600 years before anyone ever started writing down his lessons, so I think the likelihood of any of his actual teachings surviving are pretty slim. But as Buddhism was exported to different regions, it combined with the local religions and evolved, so that Buddhism in two neighboring countries looks very, very different.

    I say all that to build to this point: if you would call Mahayana and Theravada and Pure Land and all these different sects “Buddhism,” despite how different they are from one another, why, when Buddhism was exported to the West and combined with psychology and Western philosophy and became something very pragmatic and naturalistic, would you not call it Buddhism?

  • Autumnal Harvest

    JohnFrost, I’m not sure where you’re seeing a lot of rancor in these posts, or anyone getting “worked up.” Matt expresses some suspicion that Codswallopism is actually devoid of the supernatural. Other than that, it looks like most everyone thinks that Codswallopism is a form of Buddhism that’s consistent with atheism.

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    Miko says, “…these seem to be local traditions and there’s nothing I’ve seen in the Theravada.” It is true there is nothing in Theravada. But there is plenty of prayers to Boddhisatvas in Mahayana, and Mahayana is the more popular overall.

    “…Buddhism is distinct from most other religions in that it doesn’t inherently impose a system of control and ossified structure” Nice opinion, but on what basis do you make it?

    “…In fact, Buddhist monastic codes explicitly prohibit monks from talking about their personal views/experiences of reincarnation” Well, tell that to the Dali Lama.

    Miko, just give me a simple yes or no.

    Do you believe in rebirth?
    Do you believe in karma?
    Do you think they’re scientific?

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    JohnFrost, no rancor, just skepticism. I thought Atheists were supposed to be open to that? Or are there only some things we’re allowed to be skeptical about?

  • http://thenaturalbuddhist.blogspot.com JohnFrost

    Well, perhaps rancor was a poor choice of words, but you certainly seem rather confrontational. Yes, of course you’re supposed to be skeptical. But you appear to have very little actual knowledge of Buddhism, and are rather going off of your impressions and the very misconceptions “Codswallop” was complaining about. So, instead of being so dismissive of his claims, maybe do some objective research of your own? Even if Cadswallop responds to all your questions, that’s still just hearsay.

    What I think Cadswallop was trying to explain, and I am too, is that, yes, the largest majority of Buddhists in the world are certainly theists (well, at least not naturalists), but that doesn’t speak to Buddhism itself. Buddhist philosophy is merged with whatever culture it finds itself in; so in lands with Hinduism or Shinto or whatever else, it does become supernatural. But Buddhism at its core is, by its very nature, agnostic; and in the West, it’s become much more naturalistic. This is every bit deserving of the name “Buddhism” as the supernatural versions back East.

    But don’t take my word for it… *cue Reading Rainbow music*

  • Autumnal Harvest

    John, I’m not sure whether your post is just directed at Matt, or at me too, but you raise some interesting issues, so I’ll go ahead and answer. The suggestion to read more is always a good one, but I have already read a number of books about Buddhism, including primary texts such as the Dhammapada, Lotus Sutra, and Platform Sutra, and I see no factually incorrect statements about Buddhism in Matt Stone’s posts.

    You and Codswallop keep conflating two entirely different questions: (1) Can a Buddhist be agnostic or atheist? and (2) Is Buddhism agnostic or or atheistic? Those are entirely different questions. You argue that a Buddhist can be an atheist, saying things like “This is every bit deserving of the name ‘Buddhism’ as the supernatural versions back East,” but I’m not sure who you’re arguing with, since I haven’t seen anyone in this thread who says that a Buddhist can’t be an atheist.

    But then you and Codswallop try to turn that into a claim that Buddhism is agnostic or atheist. That’s not tenable. Buddhism is an umberella term for a wide variety of movements, all of which (including Western Zen Buddhism) are products of their local culture, and the vast majority of which contain gods and or supernatural phenomena as an integral part of their beliefs and practices. When you claim that “Buddhism at its core is, by its very nature, agnostic,” or Codswallop claims that karma is some extraneous “bullshit” irrelevant to Buddhism, you’re not just claiming that a particularly naturalistic Western version of Zen Buddhism is “every bit of deserving of the name ‘Buddhism’” as the other kinds. You’re making a much stronger claim: that the Nichiren Buddhist who says that devotion to the Lotus Sutra is at the core of his beliefs, or the Tibetan (Gelug) Buddhist who says that her beliefs about the Dalai Lama’s past lives are central to her beliefs, are in fact totally wrong about what Buddhism is, and that their Buddhism is less deserving of the name ‘Buddhism’ than the version you’re promoting. This seems no different than Christians who tell me that their particular sect of Christianity is “really” Christianity, and that when I talk about “Christianity” I can only talk about their one tiny sect, and not of the beliefs and practices of the vast majority of Christians.

    I’d be honestly curious to know how you think a non-Buddhist can see that your form of Buddhism is “true” Buddhism. So far the only explanation you and Codswallop have given is that the supernatural stuff is the product of local cultures, which doesn’t strike me as very convincing, given that all of Buddhism is the product of local cultures.

  • http://thenaturalbuddhist.blogspot.com JohnFrost

    Hmm, perhaps I am confusing the two questions. My apology.

    And, by suggesting that Buddhism, at its core, is agnostic, I didn’t mean to say that historically it has been agnostic; though I see how I wasn’t very clear on that. Obviously, Buddhism evolved in a very religion-centric world, so its early adherents certainly had a supernatural worldview. What I meant to say was that its central tenants–the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, etc.–say nothing about the supernatural, but are instead more a philosophical outlook and a self-help 8 step program, if you will.

    I don’t want to sound like I’m arguing the No True Scotsman fallacy here… certainly Buddhism has, historically, included a great deal of supernaturalism. All I mean to say is that, if you take away the supernatural bits Buddhism has traditionally been associated with, you’re still left with Buddhism. Try that with any other religion, and you’re left with… nothing, really.*

    *Wait, I just remembered Secular Judaism. Though, they still celebrate supernatural themed holidays, they just don’t believe them

  • http://mattstone.blogs.com Matt Stone

    It happens that I practiced Zen meditation for many years prior to becoming a Christian and have an intimate knowledge of Buddhism as an insider.

    Similar to Autumnal Harvest, I am suggesting you are conflating two entirely different questions: (1) Can a Buddhist be agnostic or atheist? and (2) Is Buddhism agnostic or atheistic? I agree with the former, but, like Autumnal Harvest, see the latter as untenable.

    I never bought into reincarnation either, when I practiced Zen, but I was aware that was pretty unusual for a Buddhist. I was checking whether you or Codswallup had the same awareness. As for karma, most Buddhists I have ever known have regarded karma as pretty intrinsic to the Buddhist path. I am not questioning the authenticity of this Buddhism you speak of here, but I am questioning its normativeness. Particularly since karmic teachings are found in multiple manifestations of Buddhism across many cultures. More modest claims that acknowledged this naturalistic Buddhism as an unusual stream of Buddhism would not have drawn comment from me.

  • JHSteinberg

    I have to admit I’m amused. It’s a common argument among atheists that one doesn’t have to attack some rareified form of Christianity that is known only to the gnostic monks and not reflective of what is actually practiced by 99.9% of Christians.

    Yet, I see repeatedly in this thread remarks to the effect of “well, yes, 99.9% of Buddhists have mystic beliefs, but that doesn’t speak to the philosophy of Buddhism.”

    That may be as factually true as the claim that most atheist arguments do not address the beliefs of random theologians, but the atheists are addressing Christianity-as-practiced-by-the-masses. I see nothing wrong with attacking Buddhism-as-practiced-by-the-masses.

    It’s funny how a question of “is Codswallop’s theologian-buddhism incompatible with atheism?” became “is buddhism incompatible with atheism?” Seems to me the answer is clear: no to the former, yes to the latter.

  • JW Frogen

    I am not against Zen Buddhism, indeed I have practiced it but then I am not an atheist.

    Traditional Zen Buddhism does imply there is a state that one is meant to be in, Enlightenment. This can not be scientifically proven and so it becomes a form of faith in a non scientific reason for being, supernatural.

    Other forms of Buddhism of course believe in unscientific forces or reasons for being such as Karma, rebirth, and once again Enlightenment.

    If the basic initial rejection of the atheist is that the concept of God or Deity must be rejected because there is no empirical proof then these Buddhist concepts must also be rejected or invalidate the initial premise of atheism.

    Indeed I would argue that belief in Enlightened is in it self a form of God belief. Buddhist Enlightenment is an improvable ultimate reason for being. Many deists hold the same definition for the term God.

    One can not be a Buddhist without rejecting the main premise of atheism or rendering atheism every bit as subjective, non scientific, a-rational as any religion that believes in God.


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