On atheism, the buddha, and the church

What does it mean to be religious? Atheistic? Agnostic? Probably totally different things to different people. But to take an entirely deluded approach and make my own generalizations, I would venture to say that those who are agnostic neither believe nor disbelieve but are non-religious; that those who are atheists believe science and religion are mutually exclusive and tend towards being irreligious; and that those who are religious identify with a particular belief system to such a degree that it can be nearly impossible to communicate or find mutually agreeable language with those in other traditions or systems of thought, causing divisiveness and giving religion a bad name.

Culturally I am a Christian, but for 20 years I have read about and for 10 years practiced Buddhism so that it is as much of, if not more an influence on the way that I view the world. Even though the Dalai Lama says we don’t need to (and perhaps shouldn’t) abandon the religious tradition we were born into, I can’t fully relate. I don’t believe in anything except that which is proven through the laboratory of the mind, e.g., loneliness feels like this, anger about X comes because of believing this idea about Y, or, jealousy is a direct result of desire. And the means to do that are found in the mind training of the Buddhist tradition. Although there is a contemplative practice in the Christian tradition as well, theism has never resonated for me so I haven’t remotely explored it. I could say “Lord Buddha” but I couldn’t as easily say “Jesus Christ is my savior”. Some theologies may say God is within us and in the relationships between people, and if God is awareness or similar to buddha-nature, that could work for me but what about the divinity and the redemption of Jesus? What is emphasized so often is the birth, death and resurrection instead of the teachings. I don’t know, but the idea of original purity is easier to swallow than original sin.

From the perspective of believing only that which is directly experienced though, the idea of rebirth or heaven or happiness are just as much concepts (and not reflections of reality) as is the statement that 1 + 1 = 2. I can’t understand why science and religion need be mutually exclusive, and I don’t think they serve the same end. I was raised to view the Bible as a good piece of literature, whose composition was influenced by politics and the culture of the time. While there may be more historical evidence that the Buddhist scriptures reflect the actual teachings of the “founder” of this tradition, they, like all other words are subject to and limited by the transcriber’s interpretations and by translations from long ago up until the current day. The language used in Buddhism has been easier for me to identify with than in Christian theology, but more importantly, rather than identify as a Buddhist I find it much easier to identify as a meditator. Some Buddhists would say the religion is meditation and others would say it’s got its own cosmology and metaphysical approach as with any belief system. There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say. And what a terrible, terribly saying it is. Again – words just pointing to something else.

All this babble comes down to the fact that what one thing is for one person is totally different for another. Even blue and green are seen differently by person A and person B. We use words as a matter of convenience. When people begin to claim that their particular words or beliefs are what’s true and that others are not, or when they become virulently against the way other people communicate their understanding of the world, then it’s dogma. And dogma is dogma is anger and hatred, whether it’s a rabid new atheist or a jihadist or a fundamentalist christian. So, quite frankly, it’s scary to identify with a religion as a progressive person.

On the other hand, I get creeped out by the term “spiritual but not religious”, or even if you drop the “but not religious” I still have this aversion to the word. I suppose because it’s so totally vague (as this silly cartoon attests). I will be interested to watch the ongoing project at American Public Media’s “Speaking of Faith” (SOF) on this trend – apparently as many as one-third of millenials do not identify with a religion and many of them would embrace the “spiritual but not religious” terminology. SOF references Robert Wright and his recently published book The Evolution of God, saying that the move toward spiritualism may be an attempt to reconcile religion with science. I simply don’t think it’s necessary. But here I am resisting saying I’m a Buddhist, because of all that’s wrapped up in that. Yet I’m deeply religious. Everything is shaped by that. Meditation is life for me. So where to go from here? How do you describe progressive religious folks in a more meaningful way?

A couple of weeks ago I went to church. I hadn’t done that for a while, save my cousin’s very traditional Episcopal wedding ceremony back in April, but I’d been meaning to hear my friend and dhamma sister (who’s also a priest) give a sermon for close to a decade and the opportunity presented itself since she just took over a local congregation. It was actually quite amazing to see how she was able to use scripture to support an argument for mindfulness and non-judging awareness.

Going into a church doesn’t do much for me. I can appreciate the sacredness of the space, but usually that’s more in a context of silence and solitude than in ceremony, liturgy, or prayer. And even more so, because I don’t identify with the ritual, I feel like an outsider when I’m the only one left in the pew and everyone goes up for communion. I don’t partake in that ritual because it doesn’t mean anything to me. When I first got to Burma I remember wondering why the heck I had to bow three times when I went into the meditation hall or met with my teacher. Actually there was no having to do this, but there was the same discomfort that I felt in church initially if I didn’t bow (or chant for that matter) except there was also a curiosity. So I asked myself why are youbowing? Not why is everyone else bowing or what does it mean to them, but why is it that you are bowing? And the answer was pretty simple, as I’ve described before, I am bowing because it reminds me of the 45 years that the original teacher of this particualr meditation I practice dedicated himself to helping others discover for themselves, to inquire into ultimate reality, and to cultivate good qualities of mind so we can live more meaningfully. I bow because I respect him and all the teachers that have come after him and done the same, including my own. One buddha in a long line of buddhas. And it reminds me of my own commitment to learn about life through observing my own mind — the commitment I’ve made to living mindfully and to grow in wisdom for the benefit of all. And the ritual itself helps to focus one’s attention on the matter at hand, on what’s important here and now. I found that when I came back to the US and practiced at Forest Refuge, I didn’t continue to bow. It felt out of place in a more secular context. But then I was falling asleep during meditation – a problem I hadn’t really encountered before. I was falling asleep because there was no interest, because I’d forgotten why I was there, what I was doing. So I started to go through the same reflection before sitting, without physically bowing, but still remembering why. What if we took this care to observe our intention with every activity we engage in? That dissolves any distinction between sacred and profane.

So when a non-religious or irreligous person criticizes a religious person for being ritualistic or for being ignorant, I would caution them to consider how the other person is actually holding his or her practice. Whether it is that they believe something blindly or it’s that they have faith because of direct experience and witnessing the benefits in their own life. Because of questioning constantly: “what is this”, I learn. That is keeping an open-mind. I may have found a path that is supportive for me, but that doesn’t mean that other paths aren’t equally valid or better suited to others. There is one truth and it’s absolute, but all of humankind’s creations are relative and trapped by conventional reality so whether it’s via science or religion we must be willing to let our belief systems be malleable to new information, to be dynamic living things for them to have value in the end.

Some additional reading:

A Buddhist critique of new atheism and inquiry into “identity” (warning: harsh language used): The Reformed Buddhist | Identity and the New Atheistic Intellectual Superiority

While I certainly wouldn’t choose the same words or tone, there’s a very persuasive argument here on several counts. Close to my heart, Kyle says:

“And while I consider myself neither a believer nor an atheist, I do consider myself a religious person…”

And the article which “The Reformed Buddhist” above applauds: Josh Schrei, Huffington Post | A Little Matter of Science, Superiority, and Racism: New Atheism’s Dangerous Waters

“Unfortunately for atheists however, much of their position is based on the negation of other people’s belief, which tends to let them drift into the realm of claimed intellectual superiority and ridicule of believers fairly easily. And even more unfortunately, those atheists who do claim such superiority currently occupy the spotlight and shape the debate.”

An open inquiry into Stephen Batchelor’s brand of Buddhist atheism: Sweep the dust, Push the dirt | Can Buddhism be completely atheistic?

I haven’t read his new book but generally am worried about the move toward secularization; however, the four points of the Dhamma that Batchelor emphasizes are in my opinion enough to make a “Buddhist atheistic” approach very plausible.

A reasoned atheist questions a believer’s criticism of pluralism: John Shook, Center for Inquiry | Is Atheism as impotent as Steven Prothero thinks?

My comments: Like any progressive would, John Shook shows the value of questioning from whatever angle. He says:

Atheism represents the hope that religions could moderate their absolute certainties into fallible attitudes, and then into tolerant lifestances.”

An example of an empty stab at Buddhism: Friendly Atheist | Buddhism Isn’t More Enlightened Than Other Faiths

My comments: gross generalization here and no interest in what people’s intention might be or what Buddhist “prayer” might constitute.

A  couple of criticisms of “spiritual but not religious”: Aranamuss! | Spiritual but not religious and An American Atheist | “Spiritual?”

My comments: why is it so important to identify anyway? As Jiddu Krishnamurti said elsewhere (and the same could be said of atheists):

“When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”

Leave a comment


  1. I don’t want to do violence, but I tell people I’m studying Buddhism and applying it to my daily life. I come from a Catholic background and rather than upset people who still see Eastern religions as something foreign and different, I explain the philsophy of what I’ve learned.

    I feel I’m getting the message out better than if I was using the Dharma jargon from all three realms. (Don’t know enough anyway to sound convincing. Just know that meditation works for me under any name you want to give it and I hope to continue it the rest of my life with or without any working titles.)

    Thanks for your insight. I have nothing against saying that I am “spiritual, but not religious” to separate me from dogmatic persons who may easily be ( shudder) fundamentalists in disguise.

    michael j
    Conshohocken, PA USA

  2. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for reading and sharing your experience. Admittedly, it’s my own weakness that I have trouble fully identifying as Buddhist and that I resist the term spiritual even more so. Krishnamurti himself could be violent in the way he talked about things (i.e., he could be just as dogmatic as those he criticized), so I should have included that the same questioning should be given his statement.

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with identifying as one thing or another, whether in a religious context or elsewhere. It’s the way that we hold it – if it’s in opposition to “other”, then it is likely motivated by anger. If it’s understood in a narrow, conventional way, as if it defines who we actually are, then it’s delusion. The motivation could just as easily be one of greed, fear, etc.

    Perhaps the thing I most hoped to get across with this post was how important it is to reflect on the relativity of any of our truths or self identities. And to inquire into the benefit of a particular practice as opposed to just taking a teaching or system of thought on blind faith.

    With best wishes for your continued practice —


  3. EBE

     /  July 13, 2010

    Thanks for this interesting post. I read it carefully and felt total agreement in some parts, like I could write them myself. However, I do think that the separation to religious/ non-religious/ agnostic etc in the beginning is misleading. Buddhism is a religion, and the correct question is NOT about “God”; it is those hidden assumptions about world that makes the difference.
    Let me first note that I practice different meditations for about 10 years (and Vipasana for about 6 years). I’m not religious in the monotheistic strict sense, i.e.: I do not believe in some fundamental parts in the bible. I also think that the New Testament is not the ultimate truth. And I also think that these two books are a “must to read” for everyone. One’s hidden assumptions about the world makes the difference between contemplations about love and contemplations about “killing all those that disagree with ME”.
    In fact, Buddhism, as any other “ism” in the world, is a dogma. The Buddha was, probably, not a Buddhist at all. The Vinaya is a dogma, though one can provide great reasons for certain rules. The recent issue of women ordination in ajhan Chah lineage might be a simple example.
    I do not know an exact reference where the Buddha said that there is or there is no “God”. The question is WHAT is this meaning of “God” for someone? Is it the reflections of one’s most secret fears? Is it actually a reflection of the fragile “ME”? Then, it is not important in which “religion” one believes. May it be the science, monotheistic religions, or Buddhism. The result is suffering.
    Let’s have a look at the law of Kamma. For simplicity, let’s define it as: “good deeds provide ease and vice versa”. Buddhists believe that one cannot escape from fruits of bad deeds, that evil cannot provide happiness but only suffering. Moreover, very bad deeds may send one to hell. And it is always so. No bad deed can cause happiness. But if the world is impermanent, and even the devas are impermanent, and even the gods in the Indian cosmology are not eternal, what forces that law? Isn’t it a hidden assumption of permanence behind the impermanent world? The novelty in Buddhism is the fact that this force, which we must believe in (no ordinary people really know what happens after they die), is NOT PERSONAL. “No self” is reflected in the Buddhist “God”. And thanks God it has no self, since self usually finds enemies to kill.
    My current conclusion is that we are all religious. Our “God” is an image of our hidden beliefs and fears, as well as an image of our willingness to open to the mystery of the world. Spiritual people are religious as everybody else.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I prefaced my own comments about what it means to be atheistic, religious and agnostic with the disclaimer that I was making assumptions and generalizations – so they should not be taken too seriously.

    While I agree that the Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist, there is no doubt that because of human nature, beliefs slowly but surely move towards dogma. Very rarely do you find mutual questioning to be the norm whether it’s inter-faith dialogue or between believers and atheists. The line between an openness and acceptance of the “we are all religious” (because we are born, die and suffer) stance I think you are taking and what could be a misleading, glossing-over pluralism is very fine. Talking about this is all so tricky.

    As far as kamma or karma is concerned, I take a more literal, direct experiential reading of it to mean basic cause and effect. The hell that some may view in a metaphysical sense is this very life right here, right now, if we persist in our ignorance of the way things actually are. One suffers if one harms another because of conscience, because of mind.

    I agree, ultimately it comes down to semantics and what does a word like “God” or “awareness” or “mind” or whatever it might be mean? Different things to different people, of course. Depending on their particular conditioning and all sorts of things. Ultimately, all we can do is point. Whether science or religion is the system by which we do that.

    Thanks so much for reading and engaging in dialogue here. Please come back again.

    May your practice flourish and your wisdom deepen (as I wish for me, along with all sentient beings!).


  5. EBE

     /  July 14, 2010

    … “we are all religious” (because we are born, die and suffer) stance I think you are taking …

    I would prefer: we are born, die and suffer because “we are all religious”- religious in the sense that we reflect our fears on the ultimate reality (i.e God, Dhamma, Tao, you name it).

    Maybe crossing the river means just let go of these fears. Let me be more humble: may we all learn to live with these fears with a smile, without being driven by them (i.e. being in ahimsa state of mind). Sounds like heaven? May we all be humble enough not to get into conclusions so fast.



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