Questions and Speculations for Buddhism from Atheism

Greetings all,

Although I am very interested in Buddhism and very persuaded by the perspectives presented by Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist perspectives on Buddhavacana, ultimately I would classify myself as a “spiritual seeker” rather than a Buddhist or Agnostic. That being said I am persuaded and impressed by a number of religious traditions, Buddhism being a particularly close one, but also Anglican Christianity, and Atheism (which, in a Western & “New Atheism” context, I do consider a religion).

I would like to present a few questions to the participants of this forum, if they would like to be engaged by my questions, and I would like to ask them from what I consider to be an “Atheist” perspective, as I understand and am persuaded by the Atheist perspective, including secular humanism and metaphysical materialism as its prime tenets.

I decided to put this in “the Watercooler”, since it, in the end, is idle Internet chatter, and not inquiry ultimately designed to meet the ends of this forum as connected to its larger project, SuttaCentral. In light of this I felt the Watercooler was the only suitable choice to ask this question of the numerous diverse users who frequent this forum:

Why should anyone believe the Buddha, specifically when he says that there “is” something such as the “uncreated”?

Please treat this perspective, and any misconceptions that lie behind it, for what they are.


My personal perspective is that the Buddha taught a way of living and cultivating oneself that purportedly leads to the complete end of suffering. Whether or not it does lead to the complete end of suffering is something I cannot know for sure, but I do know from personal experience that following it so far has conduced to a continuing lessening of suffering. So, as long as it keeps leading to something that I experience as an improvement in my life, I am willing to keep following it and see where it goes. Of course, I might never find out.

There are different philosophical and philological interpretations available of what the Buddha meant by the deathless or the unconditioned. One can’t know for sure what these terms indicate until one reaches the goal oneself. Maybe one won’t even know for certain then, since it is by no means obvious that attaining the goal entails the ability to intellectually grasp the nature of the goal one has attained.

As I have tried to argue many times before, and as a former philosophy professor and active independent scholar of philosophy, I think it is quite a mistake to treat the Buddha’s path as primarily a “philosophy”. Liberating oneself from suffering is not the same thing as filling one’s mind with accumulated, conditioned structures of propositional knowledge and doctrines. The intellect is a useful, functional worldly system human beings possess, just as are their digestive systems . But believing one can think one’s way to the goal strikes me as just as misguided as thinking one can eat one’s way to the goal. No doubt the mind food is provisionally necessary to make progress, just as is the solid food one ingests. But ultimately, you need to get your intellect - which is based on a craving for intellectual order, control and systematization - out of the way of your potential for release, just as you need to get your craving for food, copulation, pleasant sensations and social esteem out of the way.

I think this perspective is clear enough from the deeper passages that occur in the suttas. Unfortunately, this has not prevented generations of intellectuals, scholars and various chatterboxes from turning the dhamma into a gigantic scholastic mountain of words, distinctions, taxonomies and arguments, maintained by elite specialists and providing them all with the resources for endlessly distracting dialectics to keep their obsessive minds and tongues busy when they should be cultivating the heart. :slight_smile:


First, I do not really know whether it should be part of my answer, so sorry if it shouldn’t, but ‘uncreated’ is not a very good rendering IMHO. ‘Non-created’, ‘free from being created’, ‘void of createdness’ work better for me, and these are markedly different terms with quite different implications. So,no for my reasons.

If you follow the Buddha, you can’t lose. If He’s correct, then you are on the right path and may ultimately attain Nibbana. If He was wrong and the Atheist position is correct, then yea, end of suffering after you die, no meditation required! Besides, if the death is the final end, then anything we do here is utterly pointless, so it doesn’t really matter whether we followed Him or not. But if there is even a tiny chance he was right, why not hedge our bets and listen to him? You don’t really lose much if He was wrong. You lose nothing.To me, this is the only religious tradition that helps us truly alleviate the fear of possible final death. Even if you firmly believe that death if the final annihilation, embracing or trying to embrace the anatta doctrine will help you realize that in some sense no-one dies and no-one lives, and the suffering of existence will not have much power over you anymore. There is suffering now, so what? You don’t suffer because there is no you, and this suffering will then just end one day.

Why should we follow the Buddha and no other religious traditions (apart from Atheism)? Because they have failed to provide me with a coherent and plausible account of what should be done and why. They tell stories, some of which are pretty exciting, some are boring, but most if not all of them inconsistent and with a fairly weak plot. The Buddha doesn’t try to tell only stories, one of His major points is that we should stop listening to all stories.

Another important factor for me is the brutality of the Dhamma. Many people think that the Atheism is a grim doctrine, but I think it is actually relatively optimistic, whereas the Buddhism paints a completely different picture: an immense ocean of suffering and nothing but suffering stretching into eternity on both ends with very slim chances to ever escape it. Adopt this teaching, breathe it in, soak yourself in it, and you will see how sober your view of the world will be. It is dark, it makes one anxious, but it is also very disillusioning.

Last but not least, His practical advice to both lay and monastic disciples is just great, be it meditation or ethical teaching, it improved me as a person and the quality of my life tremendously. My agnostic fiancée used to be a bit sarcastic about my devotion to the Buddhism (in almost all other regards I am usually far more sceptically minded), but after she had a few breathing meditation sessions, she read parts of the Anapanasati Sutta and seems to be interested in the meditational aspects of the Dhamma now. So, if it works so well, why not trust the Buddha’s other teachings? This is a fairly weak argument, I know, but it works just fine on the affective level.