7
   

Buddhism and atheism

 
 
jeeprs
 
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 04:19 am
Since joining online forums, a little more than two years ago now, most of my debates have been in the area of philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, and religion vs. atheism.

I am quite a religious person, but not conventionally so. I have 'taken refuge' as a Buddhist. This is a public ceremony which signifies your intention to live a Buddhist life, to keep the precepts, and practise Buddhist meditation.

Now I suppose most people would think that makes me 'a believer'. That is, anyway, how most of us think of religious types. But Buddhist teaching is not really about believing, certainly not in the Christian sense. It is not 'believe and be saved'. The Buddhist path is very much one of self-reliance: you're responsible for your destiny. 'The life is the creation of the mind': and the quality of your intention, and the nature of your actions, determines what your life will be like.

The Buddha is not a God. He is an historical figure, whose life and teaching is well documented. Certainly in many of the traditions, the life of the Buddha has been embellished with very many symbolic and supernatural elements; but as preserved in the 'Pali Canon', the traditional scriptures of the South-East Asian 'Theravada' tradition, the Buddha's life is quite lacking in displays of supernatural powers or the performance of miracles. He lived as a monk, and taught for around 40 years, until into his eighties.

In any case, the most important aspect of Buddhist teaching, for me, has been the actual practise of sitting in meditation. This is a formal practise, which requires discipline and commitment, and the ability to sit quite still for half an hour or more, and carefully watch whatever arises in your mind and body. Of course, when stated like that, it sounds quite insignificant, but nevertheless over long periods of time, it really changes the understanding of your self. Meditation is supported by a commitment to the basic ethical principles of non-killing, right speech, and so on - 5 in all - and a commitment to understanding the principles. These are the 'three legs' of the teaching: Prajñā - wisdom; sila - morality; and samadhi - meditative concentration.

About atheism. Generally I am opposed to atheism on philosophical grounds. This does not mean I am trying to convert others, or think that atheists are bad people. Most of my family and friends are not the least religiously engaged. I am opposed to the kind of philosophical atheism which has become popular in recent years. Now in some respects this has nothing to do with the fact that I am Buddhist. Buddhists do not look to God for salvation, and don't believe in a Creator God. Nor do they have a creation myth equivalent to the Genesis story. So from a Buddhist perspective the whole creation-evolution debate is insignificant. It doesn't affect the facts of life much at all.

But on the other hand, Buddhist are not materialists, either. There is an implicit acceptance of the idea of 'Dharma', or universal moral law. This is obviously a religious concept, although it doesn't really have a counterpart in Biblical religion. It is not like 'God's law' because it is a feature of the Universe. It is just the way things work. There is also a general acceptance that this life is not the only life - there were lives before this one, and there will be lives after it. (This last point is not accepted by many Western Buddhists, actually. It is a matter of individual conscience, in my view.)

So I have an issue with atheism, not because it denies God, but because it denies any sense of an objective moral law, and insists that the only account of human life that has any ultimate validity is that provided by science. I am not anti-science, but I am very mindful of the limits of science when it comes to dealing with the very complex and subtle issues of human life. I am quite distrustful of those who wish to set up science as a source of moral authority, as distinct from a source of information and technology.

An essay on 'Buddhism and the God Idea' says that
Quote:
Buddhism has sometimes been called an atheistic teaching, either in an approving sense by freethinkers and rationalists, or in a derogatory sense by people of theistic persuasion. Only in one way can Buddhism be described as atheistic, namely, in so far as it denies the existence of an eternal, omnipotent God or godhead who is the creator and ordainer of the world. The word "atheism," however, like the word "godless," frequently carries a number of disparaging overtones or implications, which in no way apply to the Buddha's teaching.

Those who use the word "atheism" often associate it with a materialistic doctrine that knows nothing higher than this world of the senses and the slight happiness it can bestow. Buddhism is nothing of that sort. In this respect it agrees with the teachings of other religions, that true lasting happiness cannot be found in this world; nor, the Buddha adds, can it be found on any higher plane of existence, conceived as a heavenly or divine world, since all planes of existence are impermanent and thus incapable of giving lasting bliss. The spiritual values advocated by Buddhism are directed, not towards a new life in some higher world, but towards a state utterly transcending the world, namely, Nibbana. In making this statement, however, we must point out that Buddhist spiritual values do not draw an absolute separation between the beyond and the here and now. They have firm roots in the world itself for they aim at the highest realization in this present existence. Along with such spiritual aspirations, Buddhism encourages earnest endeavor to make this world a better place to live in.


So in the God vs No God debate, us Buddhists occupy rather an odd position: we agree with the atheist side in some respects, and the religious side, on the other (although I think overall we are nearer to Christians than to Atheists). But henceforth, I think I will just stick to the middle way, and try to contribute perspectives from what I understand of the Buddhist teaching.
 
salima
 
  1  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 09:07 am
i remember when i was an atheist by my definition at that time, and i dont believe it is true that atheism denies any sense of an objective moral law. i also think that an atheist doesnt have to be a materialist/physicalist, though i might be wrong on that. i thought that atheism does not recognize a superior or supreme being to whom we are accountable to, and that we are accountable to our own selves. that leaves the existence of anything beyond the physical more or less an unimportant issue to that view of reality.

now the fact is, a person who wishes to be accountable (responsible) for all he does will be able to develop a very strict moral code, in fact it may be a lot more strict than the ones set forth in religious traditions. i spent a good number of decades there...and in many ways my sense of morality improved far beyond what had been impressed upon me having been exposed to Roman Catholicism as a child, which i rejected at the age of 12. having to look into your heart and look into your own eyes in the mirror at the truth of everything you do and its consequences can be a lot more inspiring than an attempt to placate a supreme being.

i think whatever it is that gives buddhists a moral code would be available to atheists as well...why not? they dont know buddha, but they could have come to the same realization of ethics.

edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 09:20 am
Despite the similarities, Buddhism is not the same as my atheism. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for one instance. I don't expect to be reborn over and over until I attain the enlightened state that halts the process.
dyslexia
 
  1  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 09:24 am
@edgarblythe,
edgarblythe wrote:

Despite the similarities, Buddhism is not the same as my atheism. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for one instance. I don't expect to be reborn over and over until I attain the enlightened state that halts the process.
I've bean reborn so many time, my mother slaps me.
edgarblythe
 
  1  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 11:14 am
@dyslexia,
dyslexia wrote:

edgarblythe wrote:

Despite the similarities, Buddhism is not the same as my atheism. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for one instance. I don't expect to be reborn over and over until I attain the enlightened state that halts the process.
I've bean reborn so many time, my mother slaps me.

I want to slap myself sometimes.
0 Replies
 
Finn dAbuzz
 
  1  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 03:27 pm
<<<one hand clapping>>>
0 Replies
 
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 04:15 pm
@salima,
Quote:
i think whatever it is that gives buddhists a moral code would be available to atheists as well...why not? they dont know buddha, but they could have come to the same realization of ethics.


Maybe. The way atheism is represented by its modern champions, though, ethics is very much a matter of individual judgement. There is no connection between ethics and the natural order, which is understood as basically 'blind'.
edgarblythe
 
  3  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 05:09 pm
There is no standard atheist. None can speak for the rest.
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 05:37 pm
@edgarblythe,
There is however a recognizable type of secular atheism that uses the same kinds of arguments and espouses very similar views. Typically it trumpets 'science over religion' and declares that 'faith is clinging to propositions for which there is no evidence'. I have seen, read and participated in many of these arguments and they are generally quite recognizable. Philosophical materialism - the idea that matter is the fundamental reality - is also a recognized philosophical school in both Western and Indian philosophy. There are also existentialist forms of atheism. But of course, I would not expect that an individual feels obliged to conform with any such views, these are simply the forms I am familiar with, and would regard as more typical.
dyslexia
 
  1  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 05:45 pm
@jeeprs,
yada yada yada.
edgarblythe
 
  3  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 05:52 pm
There are more complexities than that. Too many of you set up as us against them. Sure, we all (atheists) reject faith, but from there, it is every man for himself. I disagree with many atheists about certain things. But, what science proves cannot be dismissed out of sheer emotionalism. I am of the opinion that people have never lost all of the instincts that every animal is born with. We have reason, lessons learned in a lifetime and instinct. Jung asserted that human instinct expresses itself in the form of myths. Not in those words. Phillip Wylie put it that way. And the religious establishment tries to latch onto the myth process and make it all its own. Recognizing what it is negates a need for faith. In his book, An Essay on Morals, Wylie explains it fully. I don't have time or inclination to write his book on this forum, but if you ever become interested in it, it can be searched on Amazon.com.
0 Replies
 
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Sat 3 Jul, 2010 07:14 pm
@dyslexia,
You surprise me. I thought you would have said daya, ydaa, yaad.

I will look into the Wylie book.
0 Replies
 
failures art
 
  2  
Reply Mon 5 Jul, 2010 07:09 am
@jeeprs,
jeeprs wrote:
I am quite a religious person, but not conventionally so.


From my perspective, I can't see how you are so unconventional. Perhaps you view yourself as being radically different from other people of religion, but that unto itself does not make you unconventional. You may like chocolate over vanilla, but you're still eating ice cream.

A
R
T
Finn dAbuzz
 
  1  
Reply Mon 5 Jul, 2010 11:10 am
@jeeprs,
jeeprs wrote:

Quote:
i think whatever it is that gives buddhists a moral code would be available to atheists as well...why not? they dont know buddha, but they could have come to the same realization of ethics.


Maybe. The way atheism is represented by its modern champions, though, ethics is very much a matter of individual judgement. There is no connection between ethics and the natural order, which is understood as basically 'blind'.


I think the argument turns on the use of objective and subjective.

Clearly atheists can and do adhere to a moral code, and I suspect that quite a few of them would argue that it is objective in nature.

If one doesn't accept any possibility of an external guiding principle then there cannot be objective morality in the sense that it's framed outside of individual thought. The atheist believes that any concept of an external guiding principle or force is, in fact, entirely subjective as it only exists within the mind.

Their moral law (I believe they would argue) is based not on feelings and faith, but on the observable consequences of personal actions, and for this reason should be considered objective.

Of course the context of their ability to observe and conclude is entirely subjective, since they deny the external.

Niels Bohr is quoted as saying "The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may very well be another profound truth."

Follow any meaningful philosophical path of argument and you generally will arrive at a paradox. Paradoxes frustrate and intrigue us. In them we clearly recognize a Truth that is just beyond our reach.

Quote:
So I have an issue with atheism, not because it denies God, but because it denies any sense of an objective moral law, and insists that the only account of human life that has any ultimate validity is that provided by science.


We sometimes get too caught up in the use of "God," but it seems to me that your issue with atheism denying dharma is one and the same with someone else's issue with their denying God.

They deny the external and you accept it. That's certainly a reason to take issue with atheisim. It's also a reason for them to take issue with Buddhism.

Human science, of course, has it's limits because humans are limited. While science is often regarded as the most objective of human endeavors, we have seen time and time again that it is as subject to bias, prejudice and feelings as any other human endeavor.

Atheists may disagree, but while they may be insisting that the only account of human life that has any validity is that provided by science, (and I'm not sure that's the case for them), their actual position is that the only valid account of human life is that provided by human perception.
Finn dAbuzz
 
  1  
Reply Mon 5 Jul, 2010 11:17 am
@failures art,
failures art wrote:

jeeprs wrote:
I am quite a religious person, but not conventionally so.


From my perspective, I can't see how you are so unconventional. Perhaps you view yourself as being radically different from other people of religion, but that unto itself does not make you unconventional. You may like chocolate over vanilla, but you're still eating ice cream.

A
R
T


If jeeprs randomly walked into a home, a bar, an office, or church in America and explained his religious beliefs, I'm betting he would be considered unconventional.

Of course if he did the same thing in Nepal, Sri Lanka, or Tibet, he might be considered entirely conventional or simply ignorant or incorrect , but not unconventional.

His use of the term is interesting though, and I think revealing.
0 Replies
 
xris
 
  1  
Reply Mon 5 Jul, 2010 12:21 pm
It begs the question is spirituality at odds with the atheist creed. Atheism has become a creed, a badge of respectful rebellion. I find myself siding with them on dogmatic issues and opposing them on their conceived certainties. Buddhism is OK if you dont take it too seriously, if you examine it too deeply it fails like all human concepts on matters of certainty. We are always expected to take the package deal, we dont appear to be able to pick and mix our belief system. So much of Buddhism I admire but its logic for our reality fails us dismally on so many occassions. I see its acceptance of fate, makes certain privileged individuals in the East ignore poverty that is staring them in the face. Killing is to be avoided but meat is eaten, so many discrepancies..I wonder. BUT if we all adopted Buddhism, it would be paradise on earth, of that im sure.
0 Replies
 
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Mon 5 Jul, 2010 03:49 pm
@Finn dAbuzz,
Quote:
Clearly atheists can and do adhere to a moral code, and I suspect that quite a few of them would argue that it is objective in nature.


Thankyou Finn, very perceptive critique. I think evangelicals would regard my outlook as more dangerous than outright atheism. In fact, the kind of understanding I am pursuing in has been suppressed in the Western world since the origin of the church (c.f. 'The Politics of Esctacy' by Leary). But as for the antireligious, they are so ignorant of what they are rejecting that it is all the same to them.

I wonder where an objective moral code can get a foothold, though. If you consider the development of philosophy since the enlightenment, I think the main tendencies are towards subjectivism or nihilism. Nietszche's 'Will to power" was subjecitivism on a grand scale, was it not? And most of the existentialists tended towards nhilism tempered by the heroic nature of the individual will whose role it was to defy the inherent meaningless of it all by dedication to merely human ends. (Glorious exceptions being the positive existentialism of Viktor Frankl and Erich Fromm. If more atheism was like that I would have no argument with atheism.)

I am sure most philosophically-inclined atheists basically believe in themselves, in ego. Not that there is anything wrong with self confidence and belief in yourself in a day-to-day sense, it is very much part of democratic liberalism. But in the long run, it can't be anything other than sorrowful, because the self has no real substance.

And there we are back at Buddhism again....

The fact is that in day to day life, it mostly just boils down to combinations of nihilism and egotism, somewhere between not really giving a f*** and 'looking after number 1'. That is life for most of us. Expressed in the pithy aphorism of well-known social philosopher, Bart Simpson - 'Whatever'
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Mon 5 Jul, 2010 08:50 pm
@failures art,
Quote:
From my perspective, I can't see how you are so unconventional. Perhaps you view yourself as being radically different from other people of religion, but that unto itself does not make you unconventional. You may like chocolate over vanilla, but you're still eating ice cream.


again, speaks volumes. I do understand why you say that, but the fact is, dharma ain't icecream. That is the whole problem with the 'cultural construction of religion' that the West has created. We have constructed the word a certain way, and given it particular meanings (much of it due to Protestantism). But there are completely different ways of understanding the meaning of the word. In fact, Buddhism might not even be 'religion'. Dharma is something for which there is no corresponding term in English, and no corresponding term in Western philosophy or religion. But the problem is that the pre-conceptions we bring to the table about religion, arising from the very negative religious views of the West, will often prevent us from really understanding or investigating the nature of dharma, which requires an experimental and experiential type of understanding, completely different from 'believe and be saved'.

one exception is Sam Harris. See what he says in The End of Faith. He understands the difference between Dharma and Religion. But I still don't care much for his overall attitude. I think we have to 'forgive' religion of its imagined sins before we can progress. Not joining it, and not rejecting it, but understanding it as it is, which is quite a difficult thing to do.
failures art
 
  1  
Reply Tue 6 Jul, 2010 07:52 am
@jeeprs,
Is it a supernatural belief? Yes.

Did you make it up? No.

A
R
T
jeeprs
 
  1  
Reply Tue 6 Jul, 2010 09:36 pm
@failures art,
what we are dealing with, Art, is a collision between the European and Eastern ideas of 'enlightenment'. These are wildly different types of phenomena. And in fact it is an interesting idea for an essay, so I might put pen to paper.
 

Related Topics

 
  1. Forums
  2. » Buddhism and atheism
Copyright © 2021 MadLab, LLC :: Terms of Service :: Privacy Policy :: Page generated in 0.03 seconds on 12/03/2021 at 09:54:55