some thoughts on the appeal of Buddhism for the atheistic Westerner


People need to believe in something.  In the absence of religion or religious commitment (and convictions) in the modern world, they often take up ideological commitments, at times quite passionately, even fanatically.  There does appear to be a need to believe something.

Some atheists in the West take to following Buddhism, or at least a watered down version of it.  It has been said that Buddhism is an atheistic religion, but I think it may be more accurate to say that Buddhism is agnostic as it seems not to take a stand one way or the other on the question of God’s existence.  As well, the atheistic position is itself a statement of faith.  When the atheistic proclaims (or asserts) there is no God, he/she is making a statement of faith.  We have previously noted on this blog that the atheist cannot appeal to science for support or “proof” of his statement.  Science is not competent to address the question of the existence of God and the spiritual realm of existence.

Last night, while perusing some paper files of personal notes from the 1990s, I came across some of my thoughts on the appeal of Buddhism for western atheists.  The following is drawn from those now old hand written notes which reflect my thinking of that time.

main thesis

Buddha (died circa 486 B.C.) said “Life is suffering.”  And, he was correct.  It is even suffering for animal life in this world.  Buddha rejected the Brahmanism of his day, and taught a method by which to escape the cycle of birth-death-rebirth to end the suffering for the individual.  It seems that Buddha was focused on escaping the body, or corporal life due to the suffering that is endured during such life.  (Interested readers can read up on the 4 noble truths and the eightfold path of Buddhism on their own.)  Buddhism does have a set of ethical principles and moral laws so to speak to guide or order one’s behavior while in this world.  See also the Dhammapada.  As well, Buddhism teaches compassion for all suffering beings, and a reverence for all sentient life.

Buddhism flourished for a time in India, especially once the emperor, Asoka (or Ashoka), converted to it in the 3rd century B.C.  But, a resurgent Brahmanism which developed into what we know today as Hinduism supplanted Buddhism in India over the centuries.  Today, Buddhism exists in 2 main forms.  Theravada, or more orthodox, austere and strict Buddhism is found in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), in Burma and Thailand.  Theravada (the way of the elders) is also known as Hinayana (lesser vehicle) Buddhism, and there is an emphasis on the monastic or ascetic life.  The later Mahayana Buddhism (“the greater vehicle”, open to all with less strict demands on the faithful) is found in Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan in various sects.  Lamaistic Buddhism found in Tibet is a form of Mahayana Buddhism influenced by unique Tibetan cultural factors and Tantra (Tantric ideas from India).  Chan (or Zen) Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism that was adapted to the conditions in China and influenced by native Taoist thinking during the Tang Dynasty (circa 619 – 917 A.D.).  Later, Chan Buddhism was brought to Japan by returning monks, and became known there as Zen.

From my notes of the 1990s now:

Buddhism has appeal for the atheistic Westerner who longs for solace and comforting thoughts to combat his anxiety about bodily death.  Buddhism tells him that his spiritual monad and karma continue in future life times.  Buddhism does not address the question of God’s existence.  Hence, the Westerner can retain his atheism and still be comforted about his inevitable bodily death.

analysis for today

We need now to give more context or more relevant analysis to these thoughts from years ago.  The atheist may find himself attracted to Buddhist teachings for the consolation these may give him about his personal and inevitable bodily death which approaches nearer with each passing day.  The atheist does not like to think that bodily death may mean permanent annihilation of personal consciousness.  But, there is more to Buddhism than its teaching that one’s karma continues on in future life times.  (There is actually some difference of opinion among Buddhists as to whether this means that one’s individual consciousness actually lives on after bodily death, but let’s assume that it does continue.)

Buddhism does have ethical precepts that must be followed.  2 of these are: not to kill (which may require a person to be vegetarian under a strict interpretation); and no illicit sex (which does mean that the normalization of fornication and adultery in the West of today is rejected and condemned by Buddhism).

Thus, the Western atheist who thinks of himself as a Buddhist, and yet continues living hedonistically with no concern for the effects of his actions (karma) and how he impacts others by his behavior, is not an authentic Buddhist.  Such an atheist is deceiving himself.  At best, he is a partial or fractional Buddhist, but really he is a fraud and a hypocrite.

end of main thesis

a few thoughts on the contrast between Buddhists and Christians

When one studies the history of Buddhism in Asia, there seem not to be any religiously motivated wars in its history.  Yes, the Burmese invaded Thailand, and then later the Thais expelled the Burmese.  The Khmers of Cambodia fought with their neighbors during their expansion, and then during their decline.  But, these were wars fought not from religious motivations but for land and resources by competing ethnic groupings.  Whereas in the West, there have been many religious wars, notably the wars in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe during the Protestant Reformation (or Rebellion).  These intra-Christianity wars are separate and distinct from the various interreligious wars with Islam (Arabs, then later Turks) over the centuries.

The Buddhists (and, Hindus as well) are not burdened by this idea of a “Chosen People”.  Not surprisingly, they would be rather shocked to hear that “insulting Israel” is now considered tantamount to treason here in the US.  (One sees quite a stark contrast when comparing the passages found in the Talmud with the writings (scriptures and commentaries) of Buddhism.)  The fact that the Talmudic Ashkenazim who make up 90 per cent of the world’s Jews today are not descended from the ancient Israelites matters not to Christian Zionists in the US.   Are the Buddhists urging, inciting and/or waging wars around the world today?  The US is considered a Christian nation, or at least a nation historically informed by Christian values, by many people.  Sorry to say, this is not true in practice.  Bear in mind one of the Beatitudes, namely, “blessed are the peacemakers”.  The US fights directly and by proxy (as in Yemen today) wars that kill and maim hundreds of thousands of civilians, and impoverish millions more in the Middle East, and that are for the sole benefit of Israel and a few corrupt, despotic Arab regimes that are now allied with Zionist Israel.

But, now we have gone off topic.  But, let me quote G. K. Chesterton (died 1936) here for those who have despaired of Christianity.  It is not that the Christian principles (precepts) were found wanting, but that “Christianity was found difficult and left untried”.

The Pure Land sect (of Mahayana Buddhism), I seem to recall, has its devotion to the Amida Buddha, who effectively becomes a personal god for the sect’s adherents.  Prayers and mantras are recited to the Amida Buddha in the hope of being delivered into the western paradise after bodily death.  This sounds familiar to Christians, who seek a personal relationship with Jesus.

feature image

Our feature image was captured by my wife while she was touring Thailand in May, 2018.



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  1. Interesting piece, Larry. It’s actually quite debatable whether Buddhism is truly an atheistic religion. The Buddha remained quiet about it, but the concepts of reincarnation, nirvana and the like suggest some sort of spiritual reality which at the very least goes against the idea of there only being a material universe. Moreover, virtually every Buddhist country I’ve visited, it has merged considerably with local beliefs, incorporating their deities and the like. I wrote about this recently when I addressed whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion, you might be interested.

    1. Thanks David for your comment. I will try to get to your blog site and read your recent post.

      Yes, to be sure, local elements influence religions. This is true, for example, in Tibet where the earlier, local Bon religious practices (primitive and polytheistic) were incorporated into the Tibetan version of Buddhism.

      This is an interesting question about Buddhism being either a religion or a philosophy. Where does one end and the other begin? Can it be both a religion and a philosophy? In one of the books I read on Buddhism some years back, the Buddhist author considered Buddhism a philosophy, or a way of ordering one’s life, a way of life or way of living.

      1. “Where does one end and the other begin?” For Buddhism in particular, this couldn’t be further from the truth. My friend InfiniteWarrior also made the same point about Buddhism being a way of life, Thich Nhat Hanh understands Buddhism like this. Interestingly, many Hindus regard Hinduism as a way of life, a way of seeing the world, rather than a religion. Perhaps it comes from the fact that “religion” particularly as understood in the modern era, is a Western idea and possibly only suited to Western “religions”.

      2. ““Where does one end and the other begin?” For Buddhism in particular, this couldn’t be further from the truth”

        You lost me there.

      3. In relation to your statement on whether Buddhism is a religion or philosophy. I think with Buddhism in particular it is incredibly difficult to distinguish the religious and philosophical aspects of the worldview. I think you nailed it perfectly when you wrote “where does one end and the other begin”

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