General Question

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Although spiritual, should followers of Buddhism and Taoism be considered as Atheists because they typically do not believe in a God?

Asked by RealEyesRealizeRealLies (30946points) July 12th, 2009

Taoists have their ancestor spirits and immortals, Buddhists have their Bodhisattva’s and Bardo. Both speak to spiritualism, and both seem to directly conflict with hard materialism of Atheism.

But the fact remains, they don’t necessarily believe in a God of any kind. Does this notion alone qualify them as Atheist? In that light, is Atheism capable of embracing some forms of spiritualism as long as they don’t include an omnipotent deity?

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53 Answers

sinscriven's avatar

In my opinion, they are atheistic. The word atheist only means lack in belief of a God or some other supreme being and little else. That doesn’t exclude them from being spiritual in other ways.

Rsam's avatar

under technical definition i think the Therveda buddhists would qualify as Atheist. However, Mahayanian Buddhists (chinese mostly i think) do tend toward think of Buddha as a god—contrary to his teachings. And from what i remember about Taoism, it completely lacks gods of anykind. and as @sinscriven says, their atheism should been essentially nothing towards their spirituality or ability to be a religion.

However a small bone to pick with Buddhists: Even the theravedans are relying on what to me sounds like a somewhat nonsensical miracle type religious foundation. The moment of Nirvana under the Bodhi tree, to me, sounds just as unlikely and mythical as a virgin birth, or god coming out of a bush.

marinelife's avatar

I certainly would not presume to say that. Unless you narrowly define god as a being, which seems somewhat parochial of you. If you look at the Merriam Webster definition of
religion it includes:

”: the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”

Can anyone enlighten me as to what this obsession with what atheism is and who should be labeled an atheist or what atheists might or might not get upset about is all about on Fluther lately?

If you are not an atheist, why do you care? Shouldn’t you be focusing on something else?

Those that are atheists I suspect do not care.

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

They don’t worship a god but it could still be considered a religion. Even the Dalai Lama refers to Buddhism as a religion thought that might just be a translation thing. Buddhism tend to shun broad categorizations in general.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your opinion on what I should be thinking about.

BTW… I did not presume that… I asked a question about it so that I wouldn’t presume. As well, I did not “define” god in this prompt. To suggest otherwise is somewhat parochial.

In case you haven’t noticed, this “what is an Atheist” theme has been a hot topic of late. The reason of which is because some people are interested in the subject. Those who are not can either act as thought police or kindly move along.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


So are they Atheists or not? Can Atheism allow some forms of religious spiritualism?

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies If not believing in a god is the only requirement for atheism, then Buddhists could be considered atheists by dictionary terms. Buddhists do not believe in a god and are highly spiritual.

JLeslie's avatar

When I first joined Fluther I was excited to see so many atheists, and spirited debate about religion and God. I still enjoy the debate, but I find as time goes by what matters most to me is the idea that none of it should matter. I don’t care if someone believes in God or not, I don’t care what title or label we use for people’s beliefs, all I care about is that people are good, act with integrity, don’t hate, don’t judge others, live by the golden rule. I am pretty sure all atheists will agree, what I am not sure about is the theists, and that is the real debate; does belief in God trump everything? I am pretty sure technically people who practice these eastern religions mentioned are atheists, I also feel pretty sure they are accepting of other relgions, and believe there are many paths to goodness, although I know very little about eastern religions.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@sinscriven @The_Compassionate_Heretic @Thammuz

Let me get clear on this.

Are you telling me that an Atheist can accept the existence of spirits that dwell in an immaterial realm… but they cannot accept the existence of a god that dwells in an immaterial realm?

I thought Atheists based their stance upon purely the material realm… and would never acknowledge an immaterial realm of any sort.

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Then by your definition of the word atheism, you would probably not consider Buddhists to be atheists.

Thammuz's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Technically yes, generally no. Those who declare themselves atheists generally don’t believe all of that (i don’t, for one) but technically speaking buddhists do fall into that cathegory because they too lack belief in a god.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


Not until recently… It’s never even been a consideration until this recent line of questioning on the subject. I’m almost shocked to discover this.

I’m not convinced that the average “street Atheist” would typically befriend this notion.

It obviously begs the question…

“What qualifies an Atheist to embrace an immaterial realm with spirits, yet reject an immaterial realm with a god”?

Yes, I am perplexed at this. @Thammuz qualifies the distinction on a technicality. Fine, but I just don’t think the typical Atheist (in title only) would embrace anything outside of the material realm. I also don’t think most Amero Buddhists and Taoists would consider themselves as Atheists.

A little embarrassing if I’m alone in this. I feel left out of the party.

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

Honestly, I think you might be making this more complicated than it needs to be.
If you’re interested in learning more about Buddhism, there is a great book called “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts I enjoyed.

Thammuz's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies “What qualifies an Atheist to embrace an immaterial realm with spirits, yet reject an immaterial realm with a god”? That’s a good question, actually, i guess it depends on why you became an atheist to begin with.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


I’m trying to deal with the complications, not make them.

The fact is, that Atheism can embrace some forms of religious spirituality, but not others. It’s not out of line to question the determining factors of doing so.

The typical street Atheist often enjoys holding Theists to the fire about the details of their beliefs. I find that they normally don’t enjoy being questioned about their own position.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


Yes, there seems to be a missing and much needed third designation… to completely separate Atheism from all forms of Spirituality. Agnostic doesn’t cover it…

The question of “why” someone becomes an Atheist is important… yet it does not address the technicality of the issue.

Thammuz's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies I define myself as a “scientific atheist”, because i need empirical evidence in order to accept any claim, god included. Then again not all atheists fall necessarily in that category. In that sense it’s the same problem when determining religious denominations, not everybody sees the core tenets to be the same as the next guy…

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


I believe that most Atheists would define themselves in the same way. You say “scientific”, I say “hard materialist”.

This premise would reject Buddhism and Taoism as Atheistic.

marinelife's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies “The typical street Atheist often enjoys holding Theists to the fire about the details of their beliefs. I find that they normally don’t enjoy being questioned about their own position.”

That statement puts the lie to you saying, disingenuously, “The reason of which is because some people are interested in the subject.” It is not, in fact, that you are interested. It is that you have a specific agenda and attempt to propagandize that agenda by posing disingenuous questions.

There is no such thing as a “typical street atheist.”

Atheists are not a group. Atheists do not share a common set of beliefs. You just don’t get it.

It is not about thought police here, except that in your mind, any beliefs other than your own are not defensible. Thus, you attack them.

At least you should have the courage to do that in a more open way.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar



I specifically used the term “typical street Atheist” to distinguish it from the “scientific Atheist” that @Thammuz referred to, clearly noting that “Atheists do not share a common set of beliefs”.

What don’t I “get”?

If you are going to insist upon what I should and should not be thinking about then you are the thought police. Would you please illustrate where I have “attacked” the Atheist?

You speak of “the lie” on me, and “in fact”, knowing my secret “agenda”, yet only prove my point about not enjoying being questioned about the Atheistic position. Are you a psychic? Can Atheists be psychic?

If you have the courage, then please answer the question at hand.

“What qualifies an Atheist to embrace an immaterial realm with spirits (and psychics), yet reject an immaterial realm with a god”?

What position have I attacked? Only the insecure consider questions to be attacks.

Harp's avatar

Saying that Buddhists are atheists would be over-reaching. Some Buddhists, perhaps the majority, also happen to be atheists; others believe in something that looks a lot like a god, though they wouldn’t use that term. It doesn’t break neatly along Mahayana/Theravada lines.

Classical Buddhist writings, the sutras, are choc-full of spirit beings, mostly characters from the Hindu pantheon, including Shakra, the “king of the gods” and many others described as gods. But these are never, ever presented as being relevant to Buddhist practice in any way. They’re treated simply as interesting characters in the vast cosmic pageant, powerful life forms that are themselves in need of awakening just as we are. Believing or not believing in them would have no consequences for a Buddhist practitioner. The process of spiritual awakening has nothing to do with any external entity.

A few flavors of Buddhism, most notably the Pure-Land sect, do see Buddha as something of a messianic figure, and in most Buddhist countries, many lay-people practice a form of folk Buddhism that involves petitioning powerful entities, a bit analogous to the way Catholics petition saints. Other sects, and especially the teachers among them, would completely dismiss these views as misguided. In the Zen sect, which is of the Mahayana, the boddhisatvas (often seen as god-like entities in folk Buddhism) aren’t understood to be separate beings at all, but as allegorical representations of our own spiritual qualities.

So while atheism isn’t a requirement of Buddhism, neither is it an obstacle in any way.

Ivan's avatar

Yes, they are atheists in a broad sense. Atheism and religion/spirituality are not mutually exclusive.

Thanks for asking this, by the way.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


I knew I’d catch hell for this… that’s why I wanted you to ask it.

lloydbird's avatar

@Rsam I find it curious that ‘Buddhahood’ is espoused as something that is attainable by any practitioner, yet adherents tend to refer to the founder as “The Buddha”. I can’t help feeling that this just diminishes the excellent moral philosophy of the tradition to just another ‘personality cult’.

Harp's avatar

@lloydbird “The Buddha” was considered to be just one of a line of past and future humans who managed to completely break through all traces of delusive thinking. All of these are equally “the Buddha”.

“Buddhahood” isn’t something that’s acquired, because it’s what we already are without our doing anything at all. It’s only our delusive thinking that keeps us from seeing that which we are. All humans have the innate ability to break through that screen of delusion. It’s not terribly uncommon for people to get a glimpse of their buddha-nature through some break in their delusion, at which time they realize that there isn’t a speck of difference between what they are and what “the Buddha” was. But to completely and finally rid the mind of delusion is an almost unheard of feat, and that is what earns the title of “the Buddha”. Such a one is no different from us at all, but only such a one completely understands that.

There is a danger of setting up a personality cult around someone whom we see as being what we want to be. That’s why Buddhist teachers have gone to great lengths to emphasize that seeing the Buddha as something that we’re not is itself the problem. Zen history in particular is full of mocking references to the Buddha (calling him “old yellow-face”, for example). Here’s another well-known example from Chinese Zen:

“Once the chief cook of a temple on Mount Wutai was busy making lunch. Manjushri (one of the bodhisattvas) repeatedly appeared sitting above the rice pot. This chief cook, who later became a noted Zen master, finally hit Manjushri with his stirring spoon and drove him away, saying, “Even if old man Shakyamuni (another name for the Buddha) came, I would also hit him”

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


Basically the same message as Christ gave… “The Kingdom of Heaven is in you”

sap82's avatar

Let the atheist decide that one. I am sure they would have a shit fit though.

marinelife's avatar


Thought police= Those who believe that their way is the only true way and all others are wrong thinkers in need of correction. That would be you.

Disingenuous= Hiding an agenda for an action (or question) behind a false front. That would be you again.

“Basically the same message as Christ gave… “The Kingdom of Heaven is in you””
reveals your real agenda.

My agenda is that Fluther is supposed to be a question and answer site in which one asks questions that one wants to know the answer to. Your questions, all hovering around the same topic, are cloaked ways of promoting your own agenda.

As for insecurity, you really are a mass of projection. Those who are secure in their beliefs do not feel the need (or really the desire) to debate them.

My engaging with you here is all about what I consider an abuse of this site.

Harp's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Maybe, but I don’t think so. Luke 17:21, which you quoted, is ambiguous. The Greek prepostion entos that is sometimes translated “within” usually means “among” when applied to a plural object (in this case “you”). Since Jesus was addressing a group in this passage, it’s more likely that he was saying “the kingdom of heaven is among you”, which would seem to have a quite different meaning. This has come to be the more accepted translation.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


Why do you claim that I have an agenda by quoting a biblical scripture, but @Harp doesn’t have an agenda when quoting a Zen parable?

Thanks for attempting to police Fluther speak. Have faith in the mods.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


That’s very interesting. Does it not fit with other teachings about having the faith to move mountains and such? And other teachings about abandoning preference for this physical world?

Are not the teachings of Christ very similar to Zen?

JLeslie's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Realize that I have not read over this entire thread, but yor last question @Harp I think mant realigions have similar stories to communicate life lessons and good conduct, what is your point? Back to the original question, what does that have to do with Buddhists being atheists or not? If I agree with Jesus on a bunch of things in the bible, why is that significant to you even if I am an atheist?

marinelife's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Harp makes no secret of his viewpoint and has never fashioned questions simply to flog it.

I have great faith in the moderators.

I have not attempted to police anything. I am expressing my opinion that it is unfortunate that you keep co-opting the site to flog your hobbyhorse.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


Are you planning on ever joining this conversation? Please answer your accusations towards me.

What secret do I make of my viewpoint?

What don’t I “get”?

What position have I attacked?

“What qualifies an Atheist to embrace an immaterial realm with spirits, yet reject an immaterial realm with a god”?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


I see many comparisons that most Christians deny. I’m always curious if others see them as well, Atheist, Buddhist, or not.

Christ mysteriously disappeared for 13 years. I have a theory he went to Asia to either learn or teach. He also prevented the disciples from entering Asia with the Christian message, saying that it wasn’t their time yet.

Christianity was originally called “The Way”. Zen Buddhists teach about The Way.

Yes, it’s a stretch, but one that fascinates me to no end. If a Buddhist can be an Atheist, then could it be at all possible that a true Christian can also be an Atheist?

Crazy… I know. But Christ himself never claimed to be God. Only others said those things about him. I’m not sure if that doctrine is true to the original Christian Way.

marinelife's avatar

1. I have. You just don’t like what I say.

2. You do not disclose in the question that you consider yourself Christian and want to engage in debate with atheists.

3. “Those who are secure in their beliefs do not feel the need (or really the desire) to debate them.” Me in earlier post.

4. “Are you telling me that an Atheist can accept the existence of spirits that dwell in an immaterial realm… but they cannot accept the existence of a god that dwells in an immaterial realm?

I thought Atheists based their stance upon purely the material realm… and would never acknowledge an immaterial realm of any sort.”

5. No qualifications required.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


What makes you think that I’m a Christian? Christians certainly don’t think I’m a Christian. I’ve consistently denounced religion on this forum as much as anyone. Religion is EVIL.

If you don’t want to debate (or discuss), that’s fine… but why attack me instead?

Harp's avatar

“Are not the teachings of Christ very similar to Zen?”

I understand the temptation to draw that parallel. It’s certainly possible to cherry-pick a few quotes that would resonate strongly with a Zen practitioner. This most often would require reading them in a way that’s counter to Christian orthodoxy, however. And I think that, overall, it would be very difficult to reconcile Jesus’ overall message, as it’s presented in the canonical bible, with the message of Zen.

When I read Jesus teaching through my Zen glasses, what jumps out at me is how incessantly he refers back to “your heavenly Father”; the Father is the touchstone for his entire teaching. It all comes down to what the Father wants, period. Jesus may not have ever explicitly self-identified as God, but God is inextricable from his teaching. It also seems perfectly clear that he understands the Father to be a personal entity, and that he (Jesus) was to be the obligatory medium between humans and the Father. Sinful Man and the Father are hopelessly separated by a gulf that can only be bridged by Jesus.

This clashes head-on with the Zen insistence on non-duality. No gulf has ever existed anywhere but in our thoughts. The idea of a higher spiritual authority is nonsensical, since that would imply a separation that cannot exist. No rescue, no truth can come from outside, because there is no outside.

But then, there’s a great deal of controversy over what Jesus actually said. Many scholars doubt that the canonical gospels accurately represent Jesus words and deeds. If you take into account the Gnostic gospels, it’s possible to wring a bit more Zen flavor from Jesus’ teaching, but these are widely dismissed by mainstream Christianity.

CMaz's avatar

They are.

lloydbird's avatar

@Harp In (partial) response to your response to myself : Ref: ” ‘The Buddha’ was considered to be just one of a line of past and future humans who managed to completely break through all traces of delusive thinking. All of these are equally ‘The Buddha’. ”, were they each called ‘The Buddha’ or is the name particular to one?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


Yes I know it’s a stretch. I fully accept that mainstream Christianity is wrong about Jesus, missing his message entirely.

To combine the two teachings, I must admit to bending both of their mainstream acceptance. I would not consider this if I didn’t feel it applicable.

My studies of The Way often suggest sentient qualities to its nature (without coming right out and saying it). As well, my studies of the Judeo/Christian God suggest a resemblance to the non sentient notion of truth.

Seeing the essence of teaching as practically identical, except that one has been personified, the other being objectified. There is so much disregarded teaching in the bible about the image of, and the essence of. I don’t see Jesus as speaking of himself so much as speaking to the essence of “the way, the truth and the life” as a Buddha, and personifying The Way as the Father. Different medium, same message.

The gulf between man and god is depictive of one who can’t see beyond the physical to attain Nirvana. Both are a choice of accepting Truth for what it is and not standing the flesh in front of it.

What are your thoughts about Jesus disappearing for 13 years. I suggest he went to Asia to either teach or learn. Why keep the disciples out of Asia insistently? Why call the original movement The Way?

Harp's avatar

@lloydbird Without dragging you into the very strange world of classical Buddhist cosmology, yes, Shakyamuni Buddha was supposedly the seventh recognized Buddha., and more are in the works (so to speak). These would all have been “the Buddha” of their time period.

It’s hard to take this seriously as historical fact (and to a Buddhist, that’s irrelevant anyway). But the essential point is that if you strip away delusion, Buddha is all there is; and even before you strip away delusion, Buddha is all there is. When it comes right down to it, calling a single person “the Buddha” is delusive, and that truth is nothing new or shocking to Buddhists. Most recognize the title as an honorific bestowed in recognition of very extraordinary insight into our singular common nature.

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies I’m not so sure that we can interpret the gap in the narrative of Jesus’ life as being an actual absence from the scene, though that does make for an intriguing hypothesis. Buddhism would have been not that far away at Jesus’ time period, having reached across most of central Asia.

Jesus’ comment about himself being “the Way, the truth and the light” is immediately followed by this statement: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That contrasts sharply with the Buddha’s last words. His closest disciple, Ananda, was frantic to see him dying and said, “You are leaving and I have not yet become enlightened. What about me? What will happen to me? The world will be absolutely dark for me—you were the light. And now you are going. Have compassion on us.’ Buddha opened his eyes and said, ’ Be a light unto yourself, Ananda, nobody can be a light for you.”

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


Sure, understood. Keep in mind that “Father” could be a personification. And, “except through me” could easily be interpreted as “like me”.

”...the light was given to them but men loved the darkness”

To be Christian (Christ like) is to become a light.

lazydaisy's avatar

People who make some sense…yes.

I certainly do not pretend to be an expert on either Taoism or Buddhism, but they both seem more logical by far than traditional Christian belielfs. To me anyway.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


Hey Bebee… You sure make sense to me…

lazydaisy's avatar


you make sense to me, too…....bebee

CMaz's avatar

Buddhism and Taoism is just an easy way out.

If it works for you and you sleep better at night. So be it.

wundayatta's avatar

The definition of religion is more than what can be found in a dictionary. It is so many different things to different people. The definition of God shares a similar multiplicity. Indeed, so, for that matter, can atheism be considered in that crowd.

I really don’t see what can be done with studying nomenclature. The only thing that makes sense to me, when discussing religion, is personal experience. Generalizations and attempts to reconcile philosophy are really just silly arguments if you don’t deal with personal experience first. Really, you have no idea what anyone is talking about without relating it to personal experience.

Until people are willing to do that first, these conversations, it seems to me, won’t get much done.

erniefernandez's avatar

Respectfully, I would like to suggest that question needs to be made more specific.

There are many different traditions in Buddhism with varying degrees of “religious” behavior.

Also, “God” is a word with a very great many of distinct definitions and understandings, and people tend to shift between them mid-sentence.

You should get much more specific. Depending on your tradition and your definition of God, the answer could be Yes or No.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


Sure, I understand. I’d hoped to encourage people to speak what they will on the subject in general. If you’re a late comer to this question, you must know that for two weeks prior, this forum was inundated with numerous questions about “what is an Atheist”? This thread was a continuation from that theme. It’s a topic of much debate and many considerations.

This question is only one consideration.

If I attempted to define God here, it may divert the essence of the premise at hand. And so, I leave it open to allow participants to bring their own God to the table.

The essence of this question is to determine if Atheism can embrace any form of spirituality whatsoever, or if it simply rejects a God concept alone.

erniefernandez's avatar

Sure, that’s fine. But as far as your question is concerned /as it is written/ and any response attempting to produce a conclusive answer, it would have to be more specific.

That’s all.

lloydbird's avatar

@erniefernandez Are you one of those ’ Religious Buddhists ’ ?

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