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Confession of an Atheist

Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor tells Sonal Srivastava why Buddhism is not a religion.
Why do you call yourself a Buddhist atheist?
In some sense, all Buddhists are atheists. In fact the title of my new book is Confession of a Buddhist Atheist because atheism has become an important topic in America and Europe. There are a number of people positing a rather militant atheism as a reaction against what they consider to be superstitious or fundamental religions.
This is creating a polarisation which we don’t need. It is putting people in opposition towards one another that is bound to be destructive. It is also ignoring the fact that you can have a fully realised life as an atheist. The idea that atheism is irreconcilable with religion is blatantly false.
Buddhists don’t believe in God but they are able to lead a life devoted to spiritual values and practices, ethics and morals without any recourse to the word god or anything remotely similar to the word god. In Buddhism, the core values are wisdom, compassion, tolerance, commitment to an ethical way of life and reflection on the meaning and purpose of life.
They don’t need to be underwritten by belief in a transcendent deity. What Buddha taught in the fifth century BC was a complete way of life, which most people consider to be spiritual or religious and yet without any God. One of the preachers of Buddhism rejected the pedantic ideas of atman and Brahmn. It’s not accidental that Buddha didn’t mention God, even though he quite deliberately presented something opposite to it.
By saying Buddhism is not a religion, aren’t you moving away from the traditional definition of religion?
Buddhism has certainly ended up as a religion. It’s got shrines and statues and chanting and all the stuff that goes with religion. So, yes Buddhism has certainly become a religion, but this was not the idea that Buddha had in mind. He was not particularly concerned with behaviours that were called religious. Try and imagine what it was to be around the Buddha, while he was alive. You wouldn’t think it is religious activity or overt religious behaviour at all.
Historically, you could say that about Christianity and perhaps other traditions too. Over time these spiritual, philosophical movements become embedded with religious institutions, where people are expected to have faith in a certain body of doctrines and teachings. They were expected to have reverence for certain historical characters and usually the gods get in again.
The Buddha effectively was slowly turned into a god. In later concepts of Buddhism, you get different deities such as Avalokiteshwara, rather divine figures very similar to the pantheon of Hindu gods. This is quite alien to anything that Buddha had thought.
You were trained to be a Buddhist monk; what was your experience?
In my own training as a monk, I started out as someone who was quite devout, and willing to accept how Tibetan Buddhism was presenting the teachings of Buddha. The more I studied the early writings of Buddhism in the Pali cannon, I realised that Buddhism had evolved.
Wherever the Buddhist teachings went, to Tibet or Japan, it adapted and mutated according to the circumstances in the host countries. This shows that Buddhism is not a fixed thing; it is constantly adapting to changing circumstances.
As Buddhism enters modernity, it has to come to terms with the views of natural science, modern philosophy, psychology, and with modern society. This is a great challenge for traditional Buddhism, as it hasn’t changed much in the last five or six centuries. All forms of Buddhism that we know are schools that started in the middle ages. Suddenly within a hundred years, these schools find themselves in modern-day America addressing the concerns of people who live in California.
In this dialogue, people begin to question certain Buddhist orthodox ideas that are taught in different schools and begin to look for ideas that have a resonance in contemporary issues. I wrote a book: Buddhism Without Beliefs in which I suggested that Buddhism as a system of thought is closer to modern agnosticism than it is to modern religion.
Sonal Srivastava

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