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.