Agnostic Religion . . . Atheist Philosophy

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There are some who view Buddhism as an agnostic religion, and some who view Buddhism as an atheistic philosophy. Agnosticism can play a vital role in Buddhist practice but not a central role. The concept of Buddhism as atheistic comes from a deep misunderstanding, or in some cases a complete misrepresentation of Buddhist philosophy.

Setting aside the question of an Ultimate Cause, a God that directs all phenomena that is how most people relate to agnosticism brings us to the more pragmatic view of this philosophy. Awareness, and acceptance of causal conditioning (dependent origination) subtracts the concept of an Ultimate Cause from any consideration. That the essential nature of things cannot be known has long been an ideal in Buddhist philosophy as no phenomena has an inherent existence, no essential nature to be known. In Buddhism this is not agnosticism . . . it is reality. What firmly grounds a Buddhist practice is that knowledge is gained through experience, and if something cannot be directly or indirectly experienced it is not knowledge, it is theory and speculation. In the Kalama Sutra the Buddha teaches: “When you know in yourselves: These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness, then you should practice and abide in them . . . “ (translation by Nanamoli Thera)

One lesson of this sutra is directed toward a common occurrence in the India of the Buddha’s time. There was a proliferation of religious teachers wandering the countryside extolling the virtues of their Truths and Practices, that they alone taught the True Way, the only way to their vision of salvation. In Western society, right this moment, folks are facing the same problem, and some of the teachers are Buddhist.

The Buddha offers a pragmatic solution through the realization and practice of experiential verification. He first made it clear that he disagreed with any religious or spiritual speaker, or scriptures that required unquestioning obedience or adherence to dogmatic principles. The “do what I say” school of religious leadership. Instead he said we should not take anyone’s word out of faith or habit (and he included his own Four Ennobling Truths and Three Pure Precepts) that their way is the only one that works. Each person should take the lessons learned from any teacher and apply it in the person’s “real world”. Through action and mindfulness practiced in each situation they must experience whether the doctrine works, or it doesn’t. The proof will come when actions are taken, not when words are taken at face value. This is agnostic thought and action.

“Agnosticism, in its deepest sense, is using experience and factual evidence to develop our theories about our world, including our daily lives. Most people most of the time, as social science research have shown conclusively, work the other way around; we already have theories about how things “should” work, and the experiences we have and evidence we encounter is forced to fit within the theory we already expect to see. If I think all clouds are rabbit images, guess what? I see rabbit images! “ Ven. Shi Yong Shiang (Dr. Jim Eubanks, Sensei)

In the Zen/Ch’an tradition agnosticism, realized or not, is a consideration in all aspects of practice. There are no dogmatic assertions or teachings that we use to pre-determine our actions; instead we recognize that the unique situation comes first and we use the guides of the Four Ennobling Truths and the companion Eightfold Path, along with the fact of the causal process of the Universe to create the foundation of our response. We practice looking at a situation and taking into account causal conditioning and then work to realize the most harmonious outcome we can attain. This is the core of a worldview more suited to the ever-changing world we actually inhabit.

Stephen Batchelor, in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs, advocates that a stronger current of agnosticism could have lasting positive effects on Buddhism in the West, as well as the more traditional schools. He writes, ” . . . it (agnosticism) will emphasize the freedom and responsibility to create a more awakened and compassionate society on this earth . . . a deep agnostic, secular culture founded on friendship and governed by collaboration.”

I have experienced that a streak of agnostic thinking benefits Buddhist practice and philosophy. It is up to the teacher to mentor and monitor the “freedom” that Batchelor speaks of, freedom rooted in the Buddhist principles of causality and impermanence, so that Buddhist philosophy in the West doesn’t lose sight of those principles. For example, while it is important that contemporary medical research is confirming much of the psycho-physical benefits of meditation it seems important, right now, that Buddhism doesn’t just become a vehicle for modern medicine. And, while dana, the act of making contributions to teacher and/or temple are a part of Buddhist practice, Buddhism shouldn’t become a “business” at the expense of its spiritual worth. These are examples where the responsibility part of Batchelor’s thought arises.

Agnosticism does not call for miring ourselves in asking “what might happen” or “but if I do that, what if”. This is procrastination, not agnosticism. Agnosticism still focuses on what we ARE experiencing, as opposed to procrastination which focuses on what we THINK might happen.

Agnosticism, often applied only to religious thinking, can be useful in approaching many of the secular situations we face day-to-day. Deciding in advance how a family member, a friend, or a co-worker will react will hamper our relationships. We will find ourselves making judgements that aren’t based on reality but on our own consciousness “fondling the future”. If we decide in advance that someone will say “no” to a request then we can justify avoiding asking the question. If we believe we know how someone will act in a situation, then we can justify avoiding the issue. This type of “pre-conception” can lead to internal disharmony and to external disharmony. We may “know” what someone’s response/action was in previous situations, but we have no way of “knowing” what will happen in future unique situations.

Agnosticism allows the opportunity to realize each situation we encounter differently. Agnosticism is applied as we gather information and decide how to respond or act. We strive to make the best decision possible, with positive intent so that an encompassing harmony can result. Pre-judging the outcomes of situations is a disposition or habit that applying the ideal of agnosticism will overcome.

It is interesting that some religious fundamentalist speakers will attack Buddhism for being atheist in thought and action while at the same time naming Buddhism a religion that worships idols. In some instances it seems that it isn’t atheism if one doesn’t believe in any god, it is atheism if one doesn’t believe in the APPROVED god.

An atheist is someone who denies or disbelieves that a supreme being or beings, a God or it’s avatars exist. Given this definition there are Buddhist traditions that do worship Siddhartha as a God of sorts, and recite mantras and dharanis meant to influence a variety of devas so that one’s actions and thoughts can be “blessed”. These Buddhists can hardly be defined as atheist. Those Buddhists whose practice recognizes Siddhartha as an exceptional human being, no more and no less, and who accept that the other supernatural beings mentioned in Buddhist texts are holdovers from the Hindu beliefs or meant to act as metaphors for human conditions aren’t atheists either. They don’t deny or disbelieve; they are agnostic.

Buddhism as a philosophy, and the Buddha in his teachings never denied or accepted the existence of god(s). The determination to believe, or not is left up to the individual and how they go about verifying the existence of a deity is a personal decision. We focus on the things that we know exist through experiential verification, and at the same time we do not deny existence of things because there is not proof of their existence.

Engaging agnosticism in Buddhist practice requires one to be mindful of when pre-conceived notions arise. Consider those notions part of your dispositions or habit energy and work to set them aside. Let your actions and reactions come as a result of experience rather than a construct of your consciousness. Keep an open mind and an open heart. What is proven today may be dis-proven tomorrow, and what is disproven today may be proven tomorrow.

Atheism you encounter will most likely come from outside the Buddhist community. This can lead to disconnection with people, and can cause you and others unsatisfactoriness. Should a committed atheist ask about the Buddha as a god you can respond that the Buddha was a philosopher that some Buddhist traditions revere as a deity as a result of their unique worldview. Some Buddhists however view Buddhism as a philosophy, and the Buddha as a respected human being.

Buddhists often get asked if the believe in God. A good response is “No, but how is that working out for you?”

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