January 22, 2009

In support of Non-Theism

Both Barbara O'Brien, in her blog writing as about.com's guide to Buddhism in Barbara's Buddhism Blog, and Philip Ryan, the primary writer of tricycle editors' blog, have written in support of UK [Manchester] Guardian columnist Ed Halliwell's post in support of non-theism.

What is non-theism? It is the Buddha's position on the whole, messy GOD question. And Buddha's position is what exactly? Writes Halliwell, "[T]hat dwelling on such a question [as whether or not God exists] is not conducive to the elimination of suffering, which was the sole purpose of his teaching."

A non-theist is not the same as an atheist. An atheist is defined as someone who denies the existence of god.

Writes Barbara,
For the most part, the Buddhist position on the God question is neither yes [theism] nor no [atheism]. Although some Buddhists consider themselves to be atheists, and some (sorta kinda) conceptualize the buddhas and bodhisattvas as godlike beings, the Buddha taught that belief in God is irrelevant [to his teachings or the dharma]. Believing in God or not believing in God will not help you realize enlightenment.
Further -- and I think Barbara is likely to agree with this -- traditional belief in God (i.e., as a Christian or Jew or Muslim) is not necessarily at odds with being Buddhist, though fitting Buddhism with other religions is always likely to have uncomfortable elements.

A "liberal" reading of the Bible (that is, seeing much of it as metaphorical and perhaps interpreting the New Testament such that Jesus is not uniquely the son of God, but a child of God as we all are supposed to be) can allow room for Buddhist practice.

I think that there certainly are believers in God who have realized enlightenment, or cosmic consciousness. Jesus, himself, being the prime example. His enlightenment is, perhaps, 'colored' by his belief in God, which causes no diminishment in the experience/achievement. Those Buddhists who have no belief system impacting their awakening experience/achieve enlightenment that is transparent.

Barbara writes that belief in God can be a upaya, a skillful means or method, for reaching enlightenment. I tend to disagree since upaya evokes the idea of intention. Most who are devoted to God will be enlightened without that being what they're after. An example here of that would be St. John of the Cross whose devout belief while being tortured by actors in the Inquisition resulted in mystical knowledge which brought him powerful insight. John of the Cross's "dark night of the soul" was unwanted, but triggered his profound awakening.

I like what Halliwell has to say about agnosticism in comparison to non-theism:
Non-theism may sound somewhat like agnosticism, and indeed contemporary Buddhist teachers such as Stephen Batchelor have adopted the agnostic label as a way of distancing themselves from those metaphysical elements of Buddhist tradition, such as rebirth and karma, that are not empirically demonstrable. However, whereas agnosticism tends to emphasise not-knowing, which results from and remains confined by the limitations of intellectual and philosophical inquiry, a non-theistic approach implies letting go of all concepts in order to go deeper into experience, creating the possibility that this might produce a more profound kind of understanding.
But ... I don't know that "letting go" of conceptions of God necessarily will (or even "might") produce a more-profound understanding. Jesus and John of the Cross did very well -- thank you very much -- as a profoundly enlightened Jew and Christian, respectively.

It is just, that for many, including a large number of Buddhists, being non-theist is the most comfortable and appropriate tag. We neither believe nor don't believe nor is ours a fitful orientation of doubt. We merely, meekly abstain.


Mumon said...

I missed this post, but it needs a correction:. An atheist is not defined by atheists, as someone who denies the existence of god. Atheists should have some authority to speak on the subject, since they're the one that are espousing views and observations.

Generally atheists say they lack belief in a deity. The statement "someone who denies the existence of god" indicates that they may, you know, really know there's a deity and they're just not admitting what "everyone" knows. And that surely is not a truthful representation of what atheists actually say about their views and observations.

Tom said...

Mumon. I hear you. I got the definition I used -- that is, "someone who denies the existence of god," here (see first google hit at princeton.edu).

Looking into the matter further, I see that wikipedia goes into the controversy regarding the word. Are you, then, a weak explicit atheist, using wikipedia's terminology?

Right now, I'm not sure what to do with the blogpost! I'll have to think about the matter, some.

Mumon said...


I'm a nontheist myself, for reasons you and the Guardian author point out. But I find merit with Dawkins' main argument: the idea of a monotheistic deity is hopelessly more complex than any invented creation, and therefore that much more improbable.

And from a scientific viewpoint, even the cause of the Big Bang can be bracketed and you can still make all kinds of nice science in quantum or astrophysics.

Having seen these discussions/debates ad nauseum on the 'net, I realize that it's easy to let a dominant narrative slip into one's use of language.