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