November 10, 2011

Buddhism: Religion for Atheists? ~ Andrew Furst

Photo: Show Biz Superstar

Offering a Silent Smile.

Our Sangha was recently visited by a very enthusiastic and inquisitive group. Among them was a very friendly woman who seemed excited to be there. She looked as though she had a flurry of questions, but she just didn’t know where to start.

To get things going, I asked her and the group the question, What is your religious background? The answer to this question is helpful and interesting to me. A person’s relationship to their root religious tradition can tell me a lot about how to best approach introducing the Dharma. The new woman volunteered that she was an atheist.

This is not an uncommon response. After all, my Sangha is held at the Unitarian Universalist church that my family attends. UU congregations are often made up of people from diverse religious backgrounds including atheists, agnostics, and humanists. Buddhism also seems to attract agnostics and atheists because it is often characterized as a philosophy rather than a religion.

My personal religious background is Christianity. But as early as my teens, I leaned strongly towards atheism. I was bewildered by the portrayal of a God who was apparently imminent in our lives but mysteriously absent from our experience. It was also not very difficult for an idealistic teen to reject a religious tradition that delivered the inquisition and Tammy Faye Baker.

Even today, I continue to believe that atheist thinkers like Jonathon Miller (producer of the Atheism Tapes), Colin McGinn, and even Richard Dawkins offer compelling questions and challenges to religious thinking that need to be considered by those who follow Christian theology (or for that matter, any theology).

Too often skepticism is met with circular arguments or the threat of eternal damnation on behalf of a vengeful Christian God. Much more could be accomplished with an acknowledgement that questions and doubts are a natural part of the journey towards a relationship with God. There are different types of doubt, some are critically important to the path.

The “Question”

So how does one introduce the Dharma to an atheist? The Buddha himself offered very little explanation when it came to the question, Does God Exist? When confronted with the question directly, he was said to have maintained a strict silence. To me, this is an attractive approach. Especially to my youthful self, as I was tilting away from Christianity. It set aside the questions that seemed to lead to absurdity and offered a rational approach to the questions, “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in?”

The Buddha offers a way for each of us to discern our true nature and our relationship with the world. We are tasked with looking deeply at what we call the self. To be fully immersed in the path is to examine every aspect of our being, including our prejudices and preconceptions.

Eventually we understand that the “I” we call “the self” cannot be found in our bodies, our minds, or our emotions. We are forced to grapple with the idea that the self we naturally identify with is something beyond our ability to conceptualize. We are left to contend with the paradox of the unseen seer. It is not trivial to note that the Abrahamic traditions portray an unseen being outside of time and space and identify it as God.

For this reason, I often make it a point to offer parallels to western mystic theology when talking about the Dharma and the experiences we have in meditation. On many levels I find echoes of the same ancient truths reverberating from all these traditions. If an atheist is willing to reject these traditions wholesale, then I want them to explore why and what affect this might have on their path.

Agreeing How to Disagree

While it is nice to recognize similarities, it is also true that Christianity and Buddhism have irreconcilable differences. The biggest difference is the Christian doctrine that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Interpreted literally, this is divisive. It prevents reconciliation between the faiths and has tended to serve as political fodder for conflict. But, perhaps from another perspective this is a good thing. No one way is the right way, since no two people walk the same path.

I share a strong sense of doubt with skeptics when it comes to fundamentalist and literal readings of scripture. But we part ways when there is an inclination to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Buddhist Sutras are filled with references to gods, demi-gods, and demons. But these deities are portrayed in ways completely different from an omniscient, omnipotent God. These gods are similar to the pagan gods ofGreeceandRome. They are born and can die, they are familiar to the Indian reader, and they experience the same follies as humankind.

These deities are symbols of the mundane and holy aspects of ourselves. They are a mythology passed down—a map of the human psyche—to future generations to aide them in their quest to make sense of this life. When we fail to see this, we get mired in the details and loose our way.

Are We On the Same Page?

When atheists and theist clash, they tend to do so on the framework of a fairly literal interpretation of scripture. From a Buddhist perspective, this approach is destined for a stalemate. If we are looking to prove or disprove something outside of our experience, we’re going to be at a loss.

For example, characterizing God as a first cause is seen as contradictory to the notion of a being which must be unmoving and omnipotent. The law of Karma treats all causes as an effect of a prior cause. Our experience overwhelmingly confirms this.

Similarly, characterizing God as a being that intervenes in nature also implies an impermanent quality that is contrary to the notion of an omnipotent and separate God. If he were to intervene, it would imply he changed his mind. If he changed his mind, presumably for the better, then this implies he was not initially perfect.

The argument by design and the problem of evil can also be viewed as missing the point. They all draw conclusions about something outside of our experience.

But the most important element missing from all of these arguments is life. The degree to which they are removed from the questions, “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in?” tells us how off track they are. Did our ancestors need to tell us the creation story? Yes, it is a way to answer those very fundamental questions. Did they offer an accurate timeline and sequence of events or did they tell us a story that offers insight into the human condition? Which approach will help you on the path?

Silent Reverence

There is a powerful wisdom in the silence of the Buddha on the matter of God. It can be attractive to skeptics and those struggling with their relationship to the world and to the divine. As I said earlier, it sets aside many of the problems that arise when, for some, Christian theology just does not compute.

The path of the Buddha offers a hint of the mystery based firmly on our own experience. We are led to see that life is the union of the world of impermanent things and an inconceivable, unchanging base of being. This is, as St. Francis ofAssisiput it, the process of “looking for what is looking.”

In the words of the 12th century theologian Alain of Lille:

“God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere”.

While I am careful to acknowledge the silence of the Buddha on the mystery, Alain of Lille’s words never fail to bring a smile of recognition to my lips.



Andrew Furst is a Meditation Teacher for Buddha Heart USA, a yogi, a backup guitarist for his two teenage boys, a lucky husband, a third dan, and a self employed software consultant. He’s generally forgetful and generally interested. He’s constantly trying to remind himself that he’s in union with the great divine, and willing to send reminders to anyone needing the same.

Click here to visit his website.


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