Buddhism dates back many years. While some people believe that Buddhism is an atheistic religion, others feel that, although gods are not seen as central to the creation of the universe, they are acknowledged as existing. As Buddhism can coexist with other traditional religions, the levels of atheism within the religion varies between members.
Buddhism is a religion to around 300 million people throughout the globe. The word was derived from 'budhi', which means 'to awaken' (Buddhanet). It originated roughly 2,500 years ago when Siddhartha Gotama, at the age of thirty-five, was enlightened. Siddhartha Gotama is now widely known as the Buddha (Buddhanet).
For many followers, Buddhism runs deeper than religion and exists as a philosophy of life. The Buddhist path includes the following aims: “to lead a moral life, to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and to develop wisdom and understanding” (Buddhanet).
Some Buddhists claim that they do not believe in a god. There are several reasons for this. Similarly to modern sociologists, the Buddha felt that religious ideas, and in particular the idea of a god, have originated from fear. The Buddha says: "Gripped by fear men go to the sacred mountains, sacred groves, sacred trees and shrines" (Dhammika). When humans were primitive, they lived in dangerous conditions. Fears of wild animals, injuries, and lack of food, were very real. Buddhists claim that on finding no means of appeasing such fears, man invented the idea of gods (Dhammika). The Buddha’s teachings were for people to attempt to understand their fears, to reduce their wants and to bravely accept what cannot be changed. The Buddha replaced fear, therefore, “not with irrational belief but with rational understanding” (Dhammika).
Another reason why the Buddha was atheistic is that, he claimed, there is no evidence to support the notion of a god. Therefore, according to this view, Buddhists withhold their judgement until real evidence is found (Dhammika).
The final major reason for the Buddha not believing in a god is that he felt that such a belief was unnecessary. Some people of other religions assert that the belief in a god is needed if the origin of the universe is to be explained. However, Buddhists feel that science has managed to explain the universe’s birth without having to incorporate the god-idea (Dhammika).
One of the key elements to Buddhism is the Eightfold Path. The Path defines the way to end suffering. It was derived by Siddhartha Gautama (nobel).
As the Path works as a cycle, rather than a chronological list of steps, the first and the last principle is Right View. Right View means to understand the world as it truly is and to be mindful of the Four Noble Truths. The second step is Right Intention, which concentrates on a person’s mental energy. It is this mental energy that controls the person’s actions (eight-fold)
Right Speech is the first time that a code of ethical behaviour is mentioned in the Eightfold Path. The significance of speech is obvious: “words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace” (nobel). The guidelines emphasise the importance of telling the truth, of speaking in a friendly and warm manner, and of speaking only when necessary. The second featured ethical principle is Right Action. This is concerned with actions involving the body. The code stipulates to act kindly and compassionately, to have respect for other people’s belongings, and that sexual relationships should be kept harmless to others.
The sixth principle is Right Effort, which is, essentially, a prerequisite of all the other principles. Without effort, Buddhists hold that nothing can be accomplished. Also, ill-advised effort can distract the mind and cause confusion.
The last two principles in the Path are Right Mindfulness, which is the mental ability to see things as they really are, and Right Concentration, which concerns the mental force which happens in natural consciousness. Right Concentration is defined as a mind state where all a person’s mental abilities are amalgamated and fixated onto one specific object (eightfold).
The Eightfold Path seems to suggest a responsible and harmless lifestyle, and is a central part of Buddhism. It is important to note that there is no mention of a god within the eightfold path, further confirming the atheist appearance of the religion.
However, there are arguments against Buddhism being an atheist religion. Alfred Bloom claims that it has been widespread in the recent western world to define Buddhism as atheistic because Buddhism does not rely on a creator god for the origin of the universe or to obtain an understanding of human life (Bloom).
Therefore, Bloom claims, Buddhists took on such a definition from Christians, so as to differentiate itself from Christianity. In drawing overwhelming diversities between the religions, both managed to create a solid border around their faith (Bloom).
However, Bloom questions this assertion that Buddhism is atheistic. In Buddhist legends, he claims, the Indian gods are an important feature. He says, “Brahma and Indra encourage the Buddha to share the truth of his enlightenment with all people. In later mythic depictions in Mahayana Sacred texts, the audiences attending the Buddha’s sermons include hordes of deities of every type who listen and affirm the Buddha’s message. In popular religion in every Asian country, the gods support Buddhism and provide for the worldly needs of the people for health, wealth and spiritual protection” (Bloom). Furthermore, he points out that the native Japanese gods were also perceived as forms of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. He claims that they were there to protect Japan, and that was even before Buddhism was properly acknowledged. In Japan, the vast majority of temples contained a shrine, which was devoted to a native god or Indian deity (Bloom). By drawing such comparisons, especially over the course of history, it is easy to see Bloom’s argument against Buddhism being an atheist religion.
Buddhist teachings stipulated that gods were great in aiding humans in their life on earth, but were not involved in achieving enlightenment or in development spiritually. In this way, Bloom claims, no degree of praying to gods will bring enlightenment. In fact, the gods must also endeavour to attain enlightenment (Bloom). Therefore, Buddhism considers a god as not being at the most advanced level of spirituality, unlike many other religions. People can only enter into Nirvana through partaking in Buddhist discipline.
Consequently, Bloom contests that Buddhism is not atheistic, at least not in the modern definition which was made in the West in response to the theistic religion of Christianity. Instead, Bloom says that Buddhism actually confirms various beliefs in gods as a way of improving life on earth. As the religion has become popular throughout Asia, it has managed to coexist with the numerous existing religious traditions.
In the contemporary world, Buddhism can exist alongside Westernised ideas of God. This is because it acknowledges that beliefs such as these can help people in their daily lives. However, as a Buddhist, Bloom claims that humans can only attain enlightenment when they understand the world as it really is (Bloom).
It appears that Buddhists vary in their views on whether or not Buddhism is atheistic. There are some followers of the religion who do not believe in God as, indeed, Siddhartha Gotama apparently did not. However, other Buddhists do believe in the existence of gods, although they do not perceive them as having created the universe or as them leading humans to enlightenment. The evidence suggests that Buddhism can exist comfortably alongside other religions around the world, and therefore whether a Buddhist believes in gods is dependent on the individual.
Buddhism’s central message seems to be of living a worthwhile and harmless life in order to achieve enlightenment. Due to its simplistic and neutral nature, therefore, it is arguable that its principles can be easily incorporated into other religions. As Buddhism grows in popularity around the globe, a follower can choose whether or not they believe in God, or gods, without affecting their Buddhist beliefs. Therefore, Buddhism cannot be truly defined as either atheistic or theistic.
“Buddhanet Basic Buddhism Guide.” Buddhanet. Web. 27 April. 2011.
Bloom, Alfred. “Buddhism and Atheism.” Shin Dharma Net. Web. 27 April. 2011.
Dhammika, V.S. “Do Buddhist believe in god?” Buddhanet. Web. 27 April. 2011.
“The Eight-Fold Path.” Buddhanet. Web. 21 April. 2011.http://www.buddhanet.net/e-
“The Nobel Eightfold Path.” The Big View. Web. 21 April. 2011.
“The Eightfold Path.” Access to Insight. Web. 21 April. 2011.