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Atheism, Buddhism, and Religion

Updated on November 22, 2011

During the latest Universal Congress of Esperanto, in Copenhagen last north hemisphere summer, I visited a meeting with Esperanto-speaking Atheists. The subject of the discussion was "Are Atheists Against Religion?"


The question may seem to be simple, but it reminds me about the school-teacher who said to his pupils: "You think this is a simple matter, don't you? Well, just wait until I have explained..."

The answer is depending on two definitions:

Exactly what is the meaning of "Atheist"?

Exactly what is the meaning of "religion"?

Anna Löwenstein, who was leading the meeting, proposed the simplest possible definition of "Atheist": an Atheist is someone who doesn't believe in God, quite simply.

Good and well, but that means that

1. "Atheist" is not a synonym of "Materialist"; it is quite possible to be a philosophical Idealist, or neither Materialist not Idealist, without believing in God;

2. "Atheist" is not a synonym of "Secularist"; it is quite possible to believe in a post-life, or in something beyond this universe, without believing in God;

3. "Atheist" is not a synonym of "free-thinker"; it is quite possible to think freely and still believe in God (Voltaire is an example), and on the other hand - to be perfectly honest - there are some Atheists who don't really think freely.

4. "Atheism" is not a synonym of "scientism"; it is quite possible to be superstitious without believing in God.

As to the meaning of the word "religion", many who criticize religion are criticizing - at least in Western culture - mainly Christianity and, nowadays, Islam. These two ways of life and thinking can be clearly defined as religions.

And perhaps only these two.

Already Judaism is different. I have some Facebook friends who are fervent Atheists but who are still regarding themselves as Jewish, as they belong to Jewish families. Nowadays, there are even openly Atheist rabbies.

The most famous example of an Atheist Jew is perhaps Albert Einstein.

And the Esperanto-speaking community has another evident example: Markus Samenhof, the father of the initiator of Esperanto LL Zamenhof, regarded himself as Jewish, but he didn't believe in the doctrines of Judaism, and he didn't practice its rites.

Actually: while ethnical religions, like Judaism and Hinduism, may be criticized for their ethnical exclusivity (and for some ritual laws that are quite immoral), it is difficult to criticize them for their theological dogmas; they hardly have any.

This has, in both Jewish and Indian philosophy, made it possible for widely different schools of thought and life to co-exist, generally without any bloodshed among their followers.

Ethnical religions are, as a rule, founded not so much on faith, as Christianity and Islam, as on rituals. This is true even for the first religion actually called "religion" - the Old Roman one ("religion" is a Latin word).

(And this gives me an opportunity to expose one of the basic myths of Christian propaganda: the assertion that the first Christians were persecuted for their beliefs.

That's not true. The Roman slave-owners didn't give a damn about what their slaves believed, and the Roman emperors didn't give a damn about what their subjects believed. They cared only about what these people did, and the first Christians did show less respect for the emperor than many others.

And if Nero persecuted the Christians in connection with the great fire in Rome - let's not introduce an anachronism. The Christians weren't yet a great or important movement. They were just one of a lot of funny sects, and a very new one, rather small and unknown; so they were the perfect scapegoats. The Christian dogmas didn't matter. It's doubtful whether those dogmas were even formulated yet, and it's even more doubtful that Nero had the sligtest idea about the Christian doctrines, or that he cared.

Actually, the first people to persecute Christians for their beliefs were other Christians, with slightly different dogmas. The idea that salvation is dependent on faith, not on conduct, was a Christian innovation.)

So the first religion that was called "religion" wasn't really a religion according to the usual definition today (just as the first political called a "democracy" - that of ancient Athens - definitely wasn't democratic according to present norms).

The problem will be especially complicated when the label "religion" is put on ways of life and thought, whose followers don't - or at least didn't to begin with - believe in God at all; whose tales may perhaps mention some sort of deities, but without demanding that one should base one's life on their possible existence.

As examples may be mentioned Taoism in China, Jainism in India, and Buddhism, with its origin also in India but whose followers have for many centuries lived mainly in other countries. Sometimes Confucianism have also been labelled a religion, but that may be less common today.

Indeed, Buddhism seems to be one of the main problems for those who want to criticize religion in general, perhaps because it's debatable whether Buddhism should be called a religion or something else.

Buddhism arose in an ancient environment, where one didn't make any distinction between religions, philosophies and political ideologies - the Sanskrit word "dharma" covers it all.

And I have noticed that many critics of religion mentions Buddhism very little, perhaps just to complete the list.

Just as ethnical religions, Buddhism is not founded on faith; but unlike them - at least in its basic form according to the oldest Buddhist texts - it isn't founded on rituals either. Besides, it doesn't care about ethnicism or ethnical identity. Actually, it doesn't care about identity at all.

This is, let me repeat, according to the oldest Buddhist texts - the Pali Tipitaka. Just a few centuries later, chronicles were written about the history of Ceylon/Sri Lanka, in the same language as the Tipitaka, in Pali, but with a quite different approach to ethnical matters.

There already was a conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils, and as the Sinhalese called themselves Buddhist and the Tamils didn't, Buddhism quite early became a tool by which one ethnic group could attack another.

To return to the oldest texts, however, they ascribe to the Buddha some characteristics not usually found among founders of religions. He is described as a man who actually welcomed criticism of himself and of his teaching, and who never let himself be provoked; i. e. with a personality closer to Socrates than to Jesus or Muhammad.

(Which, by the way, is one of the reasons why I think that he really existed. Literature is based on conflict, and I find it difficult to imagine that any author would create a character so dramaturgically useless...)

So there are some good reasons not to give the same label to Buddhism as to Christianity and Islam.

But what label should be chosen instead? Philosophy? That would be etymologically correct - "love of wisdom"; but in the present Western world, "philosophy" often is pure theory, cultivated by professors, who - unlike the philophers in ancient Greece and India - don't have to practice their own teachings.

Psychology? Actually, the central part of Buddhism is psychology, and the third part of the Tipataka - the Abhidhamma Pitaka - is essentially an analysis of the human mind. Thus, psychology is not something purely occidental, and not something quite new, as many western psychologists may believe.

But even "psychology" doesn't cover it all. Buddhist ethics is important too; it isn't unique to Buddhism, but it is the basis for the Buddhistic mental exercises and self-analysis.

Perhaps one could describe really existing Buddhism as a philosophical basis with a religious - or something similar - superstructure; but not all Buddhists care about that superstructure.

Of course, Buddhist tradition have gone through a lot of changes during the past milennia, and some later schools became extremely faith-based. It is even told that when a european Jesuit priest visited Japan some centuries ago, he wrote home that he came to late; the Lutheran heresy had already reached the country, with its doctrine of "sola fide" - faith only. (He was thinking of the "pure land" school.)

But such changes occur in all kinds of traditions, both religious and secular. Leninism, e. g., is not the same thing as Marxism.

Anyway, if one wants to criticize Buddhism, one can't do this in the same way as one usually criticizes Christianity and Islam, for the simple reason that the object of criticism is profoundly different.

To summarize: I think the question ""Are Atheists Against Religion?" is wrongly put, because it presupposes that "religion" is a concept. I don't think it is. "Religion" is just a label traditionally, but without any clear reason, glued to some ways of thought and life, but not to others. Of course an atheist is against any system of thought based on the God-idea; but not all "religions" are theistic.

A somewhat different version in Esperanto of this article was published in the magazine Ateismo, nr 13 (October 2011); it has not been previously published in English

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