Buddhism is an Atheist Religion

Buddhism is an atheist religion that does not rely on or need gods. Gods are not the cause of the samsaric system that is responsible for the cosmos. Nonetheless, Buddhist texts often talk of gods (just as the Old Testament does), although they are not the same kind of eternal being that Westerners expect. For this reason, many call Buddhism an atheist religion. There are no easy words to describe the nature of the supreme beings that inhabit Buddhist stories without using saying "gods", however, it is certainly untrue to say that Buddhism is formally theistic, therefore, it is best described as atheistic.

Supporting evidence:

  1. Book CoverChristmas Humphreys was President of the Buddhist Society, London, from its foundation in 1924 until its Silver Jubilee in 1954. On page 79 of his book Buddhism under the title "No God, No Soul" he writes "As between the theist and atheist positions, Buddhism is atheist".

  2. In a prominent book by one of the founders of academic religious studies, "The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James (1902) [Book Review], James says "there are systems of thought which the world usually calls religious, and yet which do not positively assume a God. Buddhism is in this case. Popularly, of course, the Buddha himself stands in place of a God; but in strictness the Buddhistic system is atheistic"1.

  3. Historian John William Draper (1881) says that Buddhism acknowledges that there is a supreme Power, but denies that there is a supreme Being"2. Ergo, Buddhism is religious, but not theistic.

  4. Tanebaum, Center for Interreligious Understanding, publish statistics on world religions and note that Buddhists can sometimes be double-counted because they are included as "religious" and "atheist"3. This only happens, of course, when we fail to realize that "non-religious" means non-religious, and "atheist" does not mean non-religious. So if you add "atheists" to "religious" stats, you will end up double-counting Buddhists.

  5. Karen Armstrong (1986) notes that Buddhists are as religious as other religionists, yet, are atheist4.

  6. "Contrary to what many Westerners think, traditional Buddhists do not worship Buddha as a god. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, never claimed to be a god. Therefore, most Buddhists are atheists" -- Guy Harrison in "50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God" (2008)5.

  7. André Droogers' essay Defining Religion: A Social Science Approach warns that too many definitions of religion are exclusively monotheistic and says that this causes a "problem" - if religion is defined purely in terms of theism "some forms of Buddhism would have to be excluded"6.

  8. Stephen Batchelor, a lifelong Buddhist who was also a monk for 13 years from 1972 to 1985, still teaches and talks on Buddhism. He says "when someone asks me if I believe in God, I have to answer that I have no idea what the question means" and "the Buddha likewise, and his followers, have never had use, or need for, a word which would be equivalent to the English word, God".7

Religion is complicated, and there is often a discrepancy between what the cultural followers of a religion do, and what the religion formally asserts. "Cultural Religion Versus Scholarly Religion" by Vexen Crabtree (2013) explains how it is normal for a religion to be officially one thing, but for the grassroots masses to have a variety of cultural beliefs and practices, sometimes making it hard to clearly define what a religion is. It happens that Buddhist texts often mention gods, and, some Buddhists themselves often worship various gods5.

  1. Book Cover"The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach" by Moojan Momen (1999) [Book Review]: The worship of deities has continued in many forms of Buddhism despite Western scholars thinking that, because of their texts, Buddhism was atheistic8. Note that Momen is a Bahá'í who therefore believes in a certain unity of all religions under a single god, therefore he comes from a slightly biased position.

  2. Edward Conze states in Buddhist Scriptures "that what are sometimes referred to as 'gods' in Buddhist texts are merely 'enlightened beings', and not what the West means by the word "god"9.

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By Vexen Crabtree 2003 Oct 12
(Last Modified: 2015 May 16)
Parent page: Buddhism

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References: (What's this?)

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Armstrong, Karen
(1986) The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West. Subtitled "Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West". Hardback. Published by Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd, London, UK.

BBC Radio
Belief. BBC Radio series hosted by Joan Bakewell.

Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. First published 2009.

Conze, Edward
(1959) Buddhist Scriptures. Published by Penguin Books.

Draper, John William. (1811-1882)
(1881) History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. 8th edition published by D. Appleston and Co, New York. Digital version accessed via Amazon.co.uk.

Droogers, André
(2011) Defining Religion: A Social Science Approach. This essay is chapter 14 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages 263-279).

Harrison, Guy P.
(2008) 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God. Published by Prometheus Books, New York, USA.

Hinnells, John R.. Currently professor of theology at Liverpool Hope University.
(1997, Ed.) The Penguin Dictionary of Religions. References to this book simply state the title of the entry used. First published 1984. Published by Penguin Books, London, UK

Humphreys, Christmas
(1954) Buddhism. Christmas was President of the Buddhist Society, London, from its foundation in 1924 until its Silver Jubilee.

James, William
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902, first Edition printed 1960. Quotes from fifth edition, 1971, Collins. [Book Review]

Ling, Trevor
(1997) Buddhism and the Mythology of Evil. Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. First published 1962 by George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Momen, Moojan
(1999) The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach. Published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. [Book Review]

Nukariya, Kaiten. Professor of Kei-O-Gi-Jiku University and of So-To-Shu Buddhist College, Tokyo.
(1913) Zen - The Religion of the Samurai. Subtitled "A study of Zen philosophy and discipline in China and Japan". Amazon digital edition. Produced by John B. Hare and proofread by Carrie R. Lorenz.


  1. James (1902) p50.^
  2. Draper (1881) p122. Added to this page on 2013 Nov 22.^
  3. Added to this page on 2013 Nov 22. Tanebaum, Center for Interreligious Understanding, "World Religions Fact Sheet", on https://www.tanenbaum.org, accessed 2013 Nov 10. Added to this page on 2013 Nov 22.^
  4. Armstrong (1986) p212. Added to this page on 2013 Nov 22.^
  5. Harrison (2008) chapter 10: "Believing in my god makes me happy". Added to this page on 2014 Aug 08.^
  6. Droogers (2011) p272. Added to this page on 2015 May 16.^
  7. BBC Radio, Belief (2013 Apr 05) episode Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rl3cf Added to this page on 2015 May 16.^
  8. Momen (1999) p53.^
  9. Conze (1959) p221^

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