15. Why Has Buddhism Been Perceived as Atheistic?
Jens Schlieter [+]
University of Bern
Although there is no direct equivalent of “atheism” in pre-modern Asian languages, early and medieval Indian sources of the Hindu traditions declare Buddhism to be “non-theistic,” and, indeed, Buddhists themselves declared that God, or gods, are largely irrelevant if the aim is to reach final liberation from suffering. This harmonizes with the philosophical view of Buddhist scholars that reality, and even the reality of Gods, is illusionary and inaccessible. On the other hand, in various Buddhist traditions gods or other supernatural beings have significance. So, why has Buddhism been declared to be atheistic? The contribution will move on to look into the early European missionary sources that declared Buddhism to be a “cult of nothingness,” followed by some remarks on European philosophers’ comments of Buddhism as atheism. Finally, in the surge of Western empirical sciences, Buddhist converts and Asian Buddhist modernists themselves declared Buddhism to be atheism, or, at least, compatible with a scientific naturalism. The latest move are Western Buddhists that explicitly aim to transform Buddhism into a belief-free “Atheism” (e.g.,Steven Batchelor), which will subsequently be contrasted with less ambitious or confrontative projects of Eastern Buddhist modernists such as the current Dalai Lama.