Buddhism and atheism

Of all the major religions, Buddhism (as originally formulated) probably comes closest to atheism and being scientific. If someone, for whatever reason, cannot believe in god but feels uncomfortable with calling themselves an atheist and feels the need to be part of some well-established religious tradition, Buddhism probably meets that need best.

In is book The World’s Religions (p. 82-153) Huston Smith outlines the basic elements of Buddhist philosophy, as articulated by its founder Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in the region now known as Nepal around 563 BCE and lived for about eighty years. It is important to realize that the name Buddha is technically not that of a specific person but given to anyone who achieves enlightenment, and Siddhartha Gautama did not even claim to be the first one to do so. But over time ‘the Buddha’ has become known as the name of this particular Buddha, similar to the way ‘Jesus the Christ’ has now become simply Jesus Christ, the name of Jesus.

If we stick to Buddhist philosophy as originally expounded by Siddhartha Gautama, it has the following features:

1. It is a religion devoid of authority. He was rebelling against the Hindu caste system and the hereditary authority of the Brahmins and in doing so he expressed a bracing openness to the spirit of scientific inquiry, saying: “Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your beliefs, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. Be lamps unto yourselves.”

2. He preached a religion devoid of ritual, arguing that belief in the efficacy of rites and ceremonies was a hindrance to the growth of the human spirit.

3. He did not try to manufacture a cosmology to explain the universe, despite the entreaties of those around him to explain the cosmic mysteries, thus causing one of his disciples to complain: “Whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or not, whether the soul is the same as the body or whether the soul is one thing and the body another, whether a Buddha exists after death or does not exist after death – these things the Lord does not explain to me.” This reluctance to speculate on questions of scientific fact means that Buddhists are largely spared the embarrassment of having to choose between science and tedious religion-based alternative realities like the Christian creationists have to do with their 6,000 year-old Earth.

4. He rejected the authority of tradition, saying: “Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings.”

5. He preached improvement by self-effort, and to not depend on gods to achieve ones desired ends.

6. It is interesting that the Buddha rejected the supernatural and “condemned all forms of divination, soothsaying, and forecasting as low arts.” He did however think that the human mind was capable of what we now call ‘paranormal’ powers but condemned those who tried to use them to work miracles.

7. The Buddha favored an empirical and scientific attitude to knowledge. The ‘faith’ that is so admired in Christianity and is needed to sustain it (i.e., believing in things for which there is no evidence) is discouraged. He said that everyone must discover the truth by lived direct experience and not depend solely on even reasoning or arguments, because those too could mislead. He also believed strongly that every effect must have a cause.

8. Remarkable for its time, Buddhism was egalitarian when it came to women and also rejected the powerful hereditary caste system then in existence.

Perhaps the feature that most distinguishes Buddhist philosophy from that of other major religions is the denial of the existence of a ‘soul’, if by that we mean a spiritual substance that occupies and animates the body and retains its identity forever.

It is safe to say that the Buddha was an atheist, as far as believing in a personal god was concerned. But he also advocated some things that pose problems for the rational person. He was not, as might be expected from his other views, unequivocally opposed to the notion that nothing about a person survives bodily death. He retained a belief in the existing Hindu idea in reincarnation but thought that this was like the passing of a flame from candle to candle in that something continues even though we cannot speak of a perpetual and unique flame being handed on. His belief in causality was used to infer in favor of karma, that all effects must have causes, and that this meant that one’s life now must have been caused (in some sense) by past actions that could be traced back earlier than one’s birth. The idea of a free will idea was however retained.

These things are hard to fit into scientific and rational worldview and cause consistency problems.

Like other religions, as time went on Buddhism has splintered into three major factions (Mahayana, Hinayana/Theravada, Zen) each of which dominates particular countries. Sri Lanka, for instance, practices the Theravada form.

The irony is that like other religions, over time much of the Buddha’s teachings have become corrupted with influences from theistic religions so that he would find the present forms of religion unrecognizable. The Buddha himself is now widely worshipped as a god, legends of miracles surrounding his life and work and death have now sprouted, and the Buddhist philosophy he preached has been buried in a thicket of rites and traditions and priestly hierarchies. Rather than following his preaching of rejecting worldly entanglements, Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka, for example, eagerly seek political power and resources and government patronage. Gautama would be appalled by what is now being done in his name.

In other words, all the original distinguishing features of Buddhism that would have appealed to a rational person have now been overwhelmed by run-of-the-mill theistic ideas, which make it hard to distinguish from other religions. Such is the power of the desire of people to believe in a supernatural deity.

POST SCRIPT: The ‘disappeared’ phenomenon comes to the US

Six human rights groups have charged that the US government is responsible for 39 people ‘disappearing.’ These people are alleged to have, at least at one time, been held in secret custody. When coupled with the allegations of torture, we are witnessing the replication by this US government of some of the worst abuses of Latin American dictators.


  1. Thought Shaman says


    This can become a long post. So, I’m going to stick to the bare essentials.

    Buddhist metaphysics as expounded by Gautama is more appropriately “nontheistic.” I quoted the term as there is an ongoing debate on what constitutes nontheism raging on Wikipedia. The Buddha explicitly neither affirmed nor denied the presence of a supreme deity (although some scriptures may give a different opinion). However, he indicated that the answer to the question is irrelevant as it does not help enlightenment.

    FYI, typical usage in buddhist literature uses “The Buddha” to refer to Gautama/Siddhartha, while nonspecific usage refers to any Buddha.

    If you are hunting for a truly atheistic religion, that affirms “there is no perfect/supreme being” check out Jainism, which is probably the only extant atheistic religion in the world today.

  2. says

    From what little I know of Jainism, it seems to be an admirable religion/philosophy that is consistent with atheism and humanism. It semed to have formed the basis of Mohandas Gandhi’s philosophy and through him, influenced Martin Luther King Jr. too. But I don’t really know enough about it right now to write anything. Perhaps I will sometime in the future.

  3. Thought Shaman says


    What in your view constitutes religion? There are many definitions, and the word, while retaining some association to the notion of world view, has just about lost its meaning. So much so that even secular humanism is religion in the view of some people.

  4. Bill Webb says

    I’d have to say that religion involves the following at a minimum:

    *Interaction with a supernatural entity or entities;

    *For the purpose of influencing their behavior;

    *To gain some sort of reward;

    *Through ritual or prayer.

    There are also the concepts of an afterlife and salvation/condemnation, but these are not present in all religions.

  5. says

    Thought Shaman,

    Trying to find necessary and sufficient conditions to define anything always runs into gray areas and exceptions and other problems, so I try to avoid it, instead going for somewhat vaguer family resemblances.

    I tend to view as religions those belief structures that share some or all of the following characteristics:

    * Belief in god or other deities
    * Belief in an afterlife and heaven and hell and the like
    * Reverence or allegiance to any text as an authoritative source
    * Ritualized communal activities, such as prayer

    These are the things that came off the top of my head. More may strike me later.

  6. Vasantha says

    Hi Mano,

    Buddha’s attitude concerning personal God is expressed very clearly in Brahmajala Sutta, the first Sutta in Dhigha Nikaya, Pali tipitaka. This should not be confused with Brahmajala Sutra of Mahayana. He was equivocal in saying that the view which embraces a Personal God is one of the 62 unacceptable views prevailing in India at that time.

    He also in the same Sutta he says that the view which holds an Soul ( athman or atta in Pali) is also unacceptable.

    Jainism is older than Buddhism and does not accept a Personal God but accepts a soul or athman.

    Both religions are tolarant of otheres views and though during the Buddha’s life time there were debates, conversions and counter conversions the relation ships were civilised and cordial. Later in Indaia the two religions existed with out violant conflicts.

    Regarding the advice he gave his deciples not to speculate about questions such as ” Whether the world is eternal or not eternal, whether the world is finite or not,”, it must be noted that this advice was given to Bhikkshus whoes main function was to work towards emancipation. This remark should not be taken as a prohibition on every one to carry out such investigation. I suppose it is acceptable for, say, a Theoraticle Physicist to ponder over such questions.

  7. says


    I was not sufficiently clear in my writing. When I wrote about “This reluctance to speculate on questions of scientific fact. . .”, I was referring to the Buddha’s reluctance. Because he did not specify these things, they were not seized upon by his followers and made into rigid doctrines that would constrain future generations. Hence, as you point out, it frees up others to study these questions without feeling the need to conform to a dogma.

  8. Vasantha says


    You are absolutely correct. One might say that Buddha was very wise.

    The other aspect is time that would be wasted if Buddha and his bhikku followers started stuyding this issue. Evan if he managed to find answeres to such queries using his intelect which is supposed to be at the highest and unsurpassed, it would not been possible for his followers to experiance and be convinced of the veracity of such answeres since all the problems sited are outside the detection range of the senses. This would make the whole effort useless, as he did not want his deciples to accept any thing on mere authority, evan if it came from himself.

  9. says

    I am now on my 4th book by the Dalai Lama (5th on Buddhism) and I have to say that I have found the Buddhist philosophy very compatible with my non-theistic views, even desirable and helpful, to the point that I am almost ready to call myself Buddhist. The Tibetan version I have been reading about places emphasis on compassion, the part of Christianity I felt was most important when I was a Christian, and it is comforting to me to see that these values can fit into a very rational system without theism.

    I have been practicing meditation for about 6 months now and have found this also very personally rewarding. In the beginning it was foreign and I didn’t feel I had any particular direction to pursue in meditation. Now that I’ve read some of the Dalai Lama stuff the meditation has been more productive.

    Good post Mano.

  10. dave says

    @ Aaron

    It’s a bit ironic that you say books by the Dali Lama fit in with your non-theistic view.

    Tibetan Buddhism is the most mystical of the Buddhist sects. For example, Avalokite?vara, the Buddha of Compassion, is a deity in Tibetan Buddhism.

    I have found that literature on Theravada Buddhism is more aligned with non-theism.

  11. Mary says

    Reading this post has reminded me why Buddhism is so appealing to me.
    I agree with all of your interpretations, especially that the buddhism of today has been dogmatized beyond recognition.
    I agree that Guatama was very rational, but I am curious as to the level of awareness/consciousness he obtained. How different was it from the rest of us? He seemed to have broken some sort of barrier. I am so intrigued by his answer when asked if he was a god or prophet or etc., he answered no, that he was just “awake”, seeming to refer that his level of consciousness was as different from ours, as our waking state is to our dream state.

    That’s my favorite quote of his (#1), and the most important teachings for me are of dogma. My favorite story he told on this is of the father and son who lived in a cabin in the woods. One day the father came home to find the cabin burned with the charred clothes of his son. In his despair and grief of believing his son was dead, he remained in solitude. One day his son, who had escaped the fire, knocked on the door and pleaded to be let in. The father, holding firm to the truth that his son was dead, told him to go away, assuming it was a prank. Day after day, the son returned, pleading to his father, yet each time the father refused. After time passed, the son never returned.
    Thanks for the post Mano.

  12. says

    Dave, that’s interesting. In the five books I’ve read there has been no mention of any deity-like beings, or anything that I might consider mystical except for that of karma/reincarnation. I haven’t really accepted the reincarnation stuff, but to me the essentials of Buddhism don’t need it as a foundation.

  13. Cindy says

    Weighing in on the Dali Lama, Tibetan Buddhism is among the more mystical Buddhist traditions historically. However, the Dali Lama himself is an educated man, with a pretty reasonable interpretation of a lot of things. And while I’m sure he accepts a lot of the mystical aspects, he doesn’t emphasize them in his books, or speeches. I heard him speak at Stanford, in which he talked about the Tibetan cosmology with some bizarre flat earth hierarchical geometry, and he laughed about how completely wrong they had been. While the pope sort of accepts evolution, it’s certainly not a laughing matter in Catholicism. Anyway, he continued to say that in their monasteries philosophy classes taught Buddhism, and physics classes taught quantum mechanics. He divided Buddhism into Buddhist science (which he said is pretty much eliminated) Buddhist philosophy (which is mostly what Mano was writing about) and Buddhist religion (hatching-matching-dispatching rituals and the like). And said people are free to mix and match.

    Overall, there are definitely aspects of Buddhism that are too supernatural for me as an atheist. For example, enlightenment is sort of a dualistic all or nothing thing with unrealistic attributes. But it’s by no means a necessary element. You can definitely view it as an asymptotic approach to a theoretical ideal. Here’s my unreferenced five second summary of Buddhism and why I like the Zen tradition. Gautama set up Theravada Buddhism with all of the basic elements, with a few notable things missing. Five hundred years later, there was a reform which made some very useful changes and added a lot of philosophical gems (like the Heart Sutra), but introduced a lot of extra junk (supernatural elements). Then Zen took it back out again, along with the remaining dualistic ideas in Therevada. Thus, I’m a Zen Buddhist Atheist, but only because unlike most forms of Christianity, you’re allowed to take what you like and leave what you don’t in Buddhism. There are no vows, recitations of believes, etc. Just a lot of sitting quietly.

  14. says

    In my humble opinion Buddhism is a science of psychology better and profounder than our ordinary official psychology, they already knewt more about 5000 years ago about humans than we do today.

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