I’m an atheist. Buddhists are, pretty much by definition, atheists. Buddhism isn’t, however, about denying the existing of God. If buddhists spend their time denying anything, it’s the existence of a permanent and independent self that continually suffers. Why? Because when we can alter our mind to accept at an unconscious level that we are impermanent, interdependent on the rest of the universe, and that suffering is the result of ignorance and delusion, then what naturally arises is boundless compassion – compassion to help liberate everyone from suffering using the most skilful means available to our limited wisdom.
This doesn’t mean proselytising about Buddhism, or launching scathing attacks on the metaphysical beliefs of others. It means getting out there and helping others, either physically or mentally, to transform their suffering. It means guarding our senses, so that we succumb to neither clinging nor aversion to our sense impressions, views or other mental formations. This includes clinging to Buddhism itself as “the way” we should all think. I find it helps me suffer less, and encourages me to help others in ways far beyond what I could manage through the use of my conscious mind alone. I think this is the aim of most spiritual paths.
I’m concerned that atheism is being slowly hijacked by a militant form of sciencism. Sciencism is a particularly harmful development that has little to do with science. Science concerns itself with the important task of determining the nature of the physical universe. For example, science provides an excellent theory of evolution which has been proven through years of testing and application. If the science behind evolution was wrong, then the computer you are reading this article on would be a useless chunk of plastic and silicon because the quantum physics upon which microprocessors are based would also be wrong. It surely presents very difficult questions for creationists. And that’s where it should end, but it doesn’t.
Sciencism, under the banner of atheism, takes the science behind evolution and uses it to violently attack our Christian brothers and sisters whole worldview through ridicule and derision. I think this is very sad. It is true that fundamentalist beliefs have caused a great deal of suffering in our history, but modern atheism is equally in danger of becoming just another “ism” threatening to encourage persecution and intolerance as a result of its proponents’ craving attention and praise. Established religions have been accused of intolerance, but you can’t replace this with the intolerance of intolerance – it’s just another form of intolerance, and as such, can only lead to further suffering. A proselytising atheist is no more desirable than any evangelist. A fundamental atheist is no less dangerous than anyone else who has lost perspective.
Non-spiritual atheists wishing to avoid being branded with hypocrisy should perhaps stick to studying ethics and non-violence. These topics are worthy of study. When one studies ethics and non-violence and deeply contemplates them, then one will gain insights that are shared by spiritual practitioners the world over. But there is the problem, right there – the word spiritual.
We are spiritual beings. This doesn’t mean anything religious. It simply means that there are aspects to our human experience that transcend explanation by and certainly guidance from science alone. This aversion to our spiritual aspect is violent. It is to forcibly deny a part of ourselves which is valid and real. Perhaps this aversion is driven by a fear of becoming religious, but all we are really denying ourselves is compassion. Not the kind of compassion that loves his own family – even a murderer has that. The kind of compassion that comes from touching the deepest aspect of our humanity is boundless and non-discriminatory.
If you are an atheist then, sure, Christianity might not be for you – that’s understandable. Happiness does not depend upon God, but then it also does not depend upon being Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, or anything else. Peace on the other hand, essentially requires ethics. For true peace, however, ethics alone are insufficient. Peace can only prosper when our ethics manifest from the base of happiness and inclusive compassion, and not from mere tolerance and tongue biting. A macho self-denial of our own and other people’s suffering is violent and can only lead to unhappiness. The belief that we have the only “way” to attain happiness, is mistaken and if our “way” has no teachings to help people attain happiness then what metaphysical value does it have?