Buddhism and Atheism

I’m Buddhist. Specifically, I’m an upashika in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. My religion is often described as “atheistic,” due to its disbelief in a creator deity or any overarching and eternal “Divine.”

I will flatly say that I hate this definition, because it only acknowledges a narrow definition of god: omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, and interventionist. Sounds familiar, right? That’s because it’s a very Western, Christianized definition of what a deity should be.

If one applies this same narrow definition of god to the deities of Buddhism (and they do exist…there are actually quite a lot of them!) they would all fail. In fact, so would the gods of Hinduism, and the Shinto kami. So would the Aesir and the Vanir, and countless others.

Most deities in polytheistic pantheons did not and still do not conform to the “template” of the monotheist G-D worshipped by Christians. Yet this view has somehow become the standard, even (perhaps especially?) amongst strident atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

4 thoughts on “Buddhism and Atheism

  1. I’ve seen that framing of Buddhism for quite sometime, even before I was aware of Dawkins, Harris and co. That’s the depiction it tends to get in books using the “world religions” frame. Maybe it’s possible to use mindfulness meditation in a way that does not rudely rip off Buddhism, but I wouldn’t get tips on it from those guys. If an atheist wants to respectfully learn from a religion, OK, fine there are ways to that- as a guest in that tradition, following its rules.

  2. I have found that most atheists have little to no knowledge of non-monotheistic religions at all. This is because their atheism is largely a reaction to monotheism, under which most of them are raised, and they see little reason to consider any other notion of Deity after that one. This is partly because they actually don’t need any Deities in their lives to find contentment (which is fair enough, in my view), but it is also because monotheism is still the norm in most countries where atheism develops today (which tells us something). And in this rather backward manner, atheists continue to exhibit a monotheistic bias even while believing they have purged themselves of such “superstition.”

  3. Yep. Every now and then they’ll talk about all the gods they don’t believe in, but even then it’s usually directed at monotheists, “Yahweh is just as silly as Zeus” sorta thing. I’d enjoy having conversations with atheists who have studied multiple religions seriously, anthropology and so forth.

  4. That’s what I’ve noticed about Atheists too, many of them haven’t gotten out of the Monotheistic/Abrahamic mindset.

    I would also argue that Yahweh doesn’t fit the bill of all knowing, all powerful, all loving and all good either. It’s right there in the Bible. He lies, he messes with people’s free will, he fears that his creation might over power him. Especially in the early parts of the Bible, Yahweh is a lot like a pagan god. A deity with limitations and faults.

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