Buddhism from an Atheist POV ~ Guest Post via Brittany

Another in a series of Guest Posts from different spiritual paths (Check others here, here, here, here).  This one comes from Brittany, the authoress of the blog Small Dog, Big Stick (don’t ask) and takes an atheist viewpoint of Buddhist practice.  Feel free to engage and discuss her views with her.  Cheers ~ The Management.

I started my sophomore year in college as an agnostic who was mostly apathetic when it came to religion. During the second semester of that year, my roommate convinced me to take Philosophy 330: Religions of the East with her. I thought that it would be fun. I’ve always liked learning about religions, but when I got to a certain age, I just couldn’t find one with which I could agree.

However, with this class, I thought that maybe I could find a religion that suited me. I read reviews of the professor I would have from a few different “Grade my Professor” websites, and most of the people enjoyed his class, and some even said that they had converted to Buddhism after hearing his lectures on the religion.

While I did enjoy his class, find a religion to convert to I did not. In fact, it seemed to be the opposite. During the course of his class, I found that many religions were just a rehash of a different religion, yet everyone claimed to be the only true one.

While I don’t really remember all of the things talked about in the class, I definitely remember the lesson on Buddhism. My professor would be away at a conference, so a different professor (one who was actually a Buddhist) would be filling in.

Perhaps it was simply the change of teacher, but Buddhism really rubbed me the wrong way. I remember sitting in class thinking about how bad Buddhism seemed to be. I absolutely hated the idea that people must step away from impermanent things in order to reach enlightenment.

In my head, enlightenment was essentially a state devoid of emotion, and with humans being largely emotional beings, it just didn’t seem rational or pleasant. Furthermore, the concept of detaching oneself from impermanence seemed to contradict itself. If one spends so much time detaching oneself from impermanent objects, then wouldn’t a person become attached to detachment?

When I tried to ask the professor about that, he simply told me that Buddhism is like a boat, and the path to enlightenment is like a river. You stand on the banks of what your life currently is, and you use Buddhism to make it across the river to the banks of enlightenment. Once you’re there, you have no use for the boat.

That made sense, but it didn’t address my question. I tried to explain myself again, and he brushed me off. So ended the world of Buddhism for me. If a professor who had not only studied Buddhism for a number of years, but also was a Buddhist couldn’t answer my question, then perhaps there wasn’t an answer, and there was yet another hole in a religion.

I suppose that I could have asked my professor when he returned, but I was just so fed up with religion at the point that I don’t think I really wanted to have discussions on it, and by the end of the course, I was no longer an apathetic wishy-washy agnostic. I was a brand new atheist. Religion ceased to make any sense whatsoever, and if something doesn’t make sense, it must not be rational.

After some time had gone by, I took another philosophy class: Philosophy 206: Philosophy of Religion. It was set up as Naturalism versus Theism. If I had any doubts about my atheism prior to that class, they were blown out of me by that class. It’s not to say that my professor was an atheist and pandered to Naturalist arguments. On the contrary, I found that he was more in favor of theism despite labeling himself as an “evidentialist agnostic” (which is to say that one doesn’t believe or disbelieve in a deity, but that it is irrational to believe that a deity does exist).

But I digress; the point I am trying to make by bringing up this particular class is that there are different levels to atheists. Some atheists are more scientific; others are more philosophical (and some are fairly equal in philosophy and science). I’m more of a philosophical atheist.

Atheism works for me because it is just rational. The more I think about religion, the more I find that it is unlikely that there’s a deity or that one can reach some “enlightened” state of being.

However, as a humanist (which, some may be surprised to know, many atheists are), I try to respect religion, and for the most part, Buddhism doesn’t really bother me anymore. In fact, I actually was able to attend a talk by the Dalai Lama when he visited my college a few years back. Well, to be perfectly honest, I was rather angry because I felt like I was being forced to attend his talk by one of my Education professors. She was a Buddhist herself, and was able to get a grant to buy tickets to the Dalai Lama presentation for all the students. The Dalai Lama was there specifically as a religious speaker, and I didn’t like that I either had to go or I had to write a paper about some random topic.

Eventually, I was coaxed into going by one of the Teacher’s Assistants, and I was glad that I went because I did learn some interesting things (including that the Dalai Lama and I share the same favorite color [green]). While I may not agree with his religious philosophy, I can appreciate his humanist philosophy; namely that it’s more important to teach love and tolerance than to teach what is right and what is wrong in religion.


13 thoughts on “Buddhism from an Atheist POV ~ Guest Post via Brittany

  1. Hmmm, one clunky professor who couldn’t provide some decent answers = rejection of Buddhism. Doesn’t seem like a well reasoned out argument to me.

    • To be fair, I experienced a similar situation with my first experience with Buddhism. I took a 300 level Buddhist philosophy class taught by a religions scholar who studied Hinduism.

      I hated the class (and its approach) and it turned me away from Buddhist practice for years. There was no “reasoning” involved. It is all about exposure and experience.

      It wasn’t for years later that my explorations moved past that “academic” approach to Buddhism.



    • It wasn’t so much about the question my professor couldn’t answer. It was more about Buddhism not making much sense to me, logically. Or, well, the idea of enlightenment, mostly. The philosophy of Buddhism makes a lot of sense, but the spiritual part really doesn’t.

      • For me, hands down, the best reference to understand the spiritual part of Buddhist practice is from Buddhanet.net


        It gives a very bare bones description of Buddhist spirituality that will help you understand it (of course you don’t have to buy into it). I will also have an intro published in a religious Journal next spring that may be a fun exploration of Buddhism.



        ps. Great Post!

  2. “He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.”
    ~Julian of Norwich

  3. What I’m about to say, I don’t say for the sake of trying to convert anyone. I’m a pluralist who believes in the possibility of awakening for all, no matter what path they choose. Also, even though I’m a Buddhist who considers myself to be a religious one (that is, I practice it as a religion, and not just a philosophy), I’m sympathetic to atheism. I don’t believe in an external god or gods in the same way traditional theists do, though I do resonate somewhat with the panentheism (i.e. God as “Ground of All Being,” as opposed to a separate, personified deity) of Christian theologians like Paul Tillich. I generally refer to myself as a “non-theist,” because the shrill brand of atheism promoted by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et. al. rubs me the wrong way. I walked away from the Christian faith more than a decade ago, and did so for many reasons, but I just can’t buy into their hyperbolic argument that theism is the single biggest threat to peace, justice, progress and rationality. The guest poster and I seem to be in agreement there. Her humanism is a good and worthwhile worldview, IMO.

    Bu I do take exception to Brittany’s characterization of the goals Buddhism. Her impression that “people must step away from impermanent things in order to reach enlightenment” or that “enlightenment was essentially a state devoid of emotion” is a common, but incorrect, assumption about Buddhist practice. I can certainly understand how she came to mischaracterize Buddhism that way, though. I used to see Buddhism the same way and, long before I came to adopt it as the path that made the most sense for me, I rejected it for exactly the same reasons Brittany describes here. When I was in my early-20s, I disdained Buddhism because I mistakenly understood it to be about cutting off all human emotion in favor of blissing out in some detached cosmic state. I had no interest in any form of spirituality that, as I saw it, required me to deny reality or my own humanity. Later, I began to understand that Buddhism doesn’t demand that we deny or reject reality or our own humanity at all. Rather, the Dharma beckons us to embrace the whole of life in its totality, with nothing left out. I can’t speak for the Theravada, with which I have little to no actual experience, but one of the central teachings of all Mahayana sects is that Nirvana is not separate from Samsara. We find enlightenment right here in the muck and mess of our daily lives, nourished by our headaches and heartaches, not hindered by them. That’s the meaning behind the symbol of the lotus – a beautiful and fragrant flower growing out of a fetid, muddy swamp.

    I’ve always liked this old Zen story. I think it illustrates this principle better than I can explain it:

    “A Zen master was officiating at the funeral of his oldest disciple. While he was giving the eulogy, he burst into tears and was unable to continue. Later, one of his youngest disciples was helping the master back to his room and blurted out: ‘You are a master who’s supposed to be beyond birth and death. Why are you crying?’ The master said, ‘He was my oldest and dearest disciple; if I don’t cry now, when am I supposed to?'”

  4. Humanism and Buddhism in practice are the same. Both embrace compassion and universal respect for all beings. The major difference is that Buddhism goes further. It goes beyond that meat of our bodies adn provides a transformative path to freedom from suffering.

    Overall it’s a very good post. I think most of us may have had bad experiences with college religion professors. I liked mine but he protrayed Buddhism as a religion of fanatics seeking extinction and destruction of self. Weird, huh? It’s all in how you spin it as that’s not an invalid interpretation of our Path it is an invalid commentary on the motivations for seeking a release from self. He was Catholic so the Four Noble Truths meant little to him.

    The only real glaring issue that I have with the post is that she misinterprets our Path as theist which it most certianly is not. If Buddhism were theist thee would be no debate in the West of its religious status.

    • I don’t believe I said that Buddhism was theistic. I’m well aware that it is not (well, I do believe there are some branches that are, but overall, it’s not).

      The only time I mentioned theism was during my second philosophy class, and that wasn’t meant to address Buddhism, but rather to address my atheism.

      I’m sorry if that wasn’t made clear. As I told Jack in my e-mail, I can sometimes be a bit scattered in my writing.

      • Thanks for for the clarification. My own writing can be scatter-brained. Luckily I blog with another person and he reads my posts before they go. I alos send themto my wife and she is a harsh editor, let me tell you.

        You mgiht try reading some books by Buddhists scholars such as Shenryu Suzuki or Phillip Capleau, Roshi. Another Good one is What Buddhists Bleieve by Ven. Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda. The last one you can find free on-line and I think you might have different ideas about Buddhism once you are done, it’s not what you seem to think it is.

  5. It’s funny how life goes. The American monk here tells me that he also took Intro to Eastern Religions in college and dropped it after three weeks. Found it boring and he had the nagging sense that the Buddhism section was being taught wrong, though he couldn’t explain why. Now, having been a Tibetan Buddhist monk for 17 years, he realizes that the professor didn’t move much beyond the first two of the Four Noble Truths, dwelling on suffering and its cause, desire born out of ignorance. It seemed morbid, whereas his understanding and experience now is that a Buddhist way of life is quite joyful.

    But, my dear Brittany, I would suggest, as others have, that your rejection of Buddhism comes after having been exposed to only the tiniest fraction of the teachings, perhaps through unskillful teachers. The Buddha’s teaching that we suffer needlessly through forming ego-based attachments to inherently unreliable phenomena is quite profound, as is the follow-up, that if we realize that what we call ‘ego’ is mere conceptual habit with no essential reality underlying it, we can definitely awaken to a pure state in which the experience of suffering is simply impossible. Great meditation masters have agreed with this through their own experience for 2600 years; perhaps it’s a point on which you might at least remain agnostic?

    And, really, buddhasbrewing is right. This piece definitely gives the sense that you equate “atheism” with “anti-religion.” The term, of course, specifically refers to the conscious rejection of the reality of an external deity that creates and manipulates phenomena (which includes both material reality and living beings). The Buddha, as you indicate elsewhere you understand, quite specifically and on a number of occasions also rejected this idea.

    There are a number of well-educated Buddhists around here, who also understand that Buddhism is not concerned with winning converts. If you open up a little, you might gain a better appreciation for the Buddhist way of life and the sanity of its goals.

    Finally, I’m happy to see that you’re thinking seriously about these matters; the very fact that so many are commenting and not clicking away means they’re taking you seriously, too.

  6. What do I know? Not much …

    To me religion seems like an expression of psychology. To me Siddhārtha Gautama or Buddha (who was not a Buddhist btw) really understood or become enlightened to human psychology. I think that we are all enlightened already we just need to become aware of it. It really is about awareness. Mindful awareness. And this can be refined almost infinately. The results of mindful awareness can be observed on a brain scan. It is about how the brain works and how to balance the brain. But is also about so much more than that … what we are not aware of right now.

    How can we be absolute, when we really do not know? I use to think that there was only energy (mass being a form), namely the physical world and then I realized that consciousness, ideas etc open up a new realm. Does consciousness sometime change the physical realm, react with it?

    I just say this because it seems that you have an issue with enlightenment. It may not be what we think. 😉 Cheers. BTW your pic made me realize that I have an attachment to my being a man. lol

  7. I am sorry. In my previous post I was in a giddy impulsive mood. I will try and be more serious.

    On “Enlightenment”

    The word can mean different things: Full comprehension, a philosophic movement or a blessed state.

    In Buddhism I think that enlightenment refers to a state of consciousness; which in reference to ordinary consciousness could be called an altered state of consciousness.

    When each of us sees the same thing from a different perspective we interpret it differently.

    When a contemplative experiences such an altered state they are elated, usually having reached what they sought. When a person with a mental illness experiences such an altered state they are quite disturbed by it or possibly delusional. When someone takes drugs to experience such an altered state they are trippin’. I would imagine that how one reaches such a state would also affect other aspects of the brain and thus affect other brain activity and experiences such as anxiety (amygdala) or bliss (enkephalins activity).

    Here are some possible states that may lead to “Enlightenment”:

    Peak Experience
    Extra sensory perception
    Religious experience
    Out of body experience
    Ego Death
    Higher Consciousness

    You might be considered to have reached Enlightenment especially if you can bring on the more advanced beneficial states at will.

    Some of these states help to remove or alleviate other more negative states such as:

    Fear without a danger trigger

    Is there more to these altered states of consciousness other than brain wave and receiptor activity? Quite possibly and indeed probably; for we know so little. There are probably doors or portals of consciousness to wax poetic about it. Or maybe string or another theory will bring it from the mystical into the realm of science. Who knows and right now who cares, as just with what we have, here, right now, there is so much to work with and discover.

    We can use the psychological components to rebalance the Brain for example by using mediation to regulate anxiety or change how we relate to pain and thus be less afflicted by it.

    I have talked a lot. Too much. Experience is not found in the speaking of it. Tell me about how cinnamon tastes. Use words to tell me what it tastes like so that I too can experience the taste without ever putting cinnamon in my mouth or breathing it in.

    We need to go out and experience, moment by moment.

    Each one of us is on a personal journey. The experience is our own, so there is nothing wrong with making your own way and taking what you require from here and there. The Buddha I think said that everyone should question and come to their own understanding. I think that we should not just follow self professed “authority” as by what authority is that authority given?

    I imagine that I espouse a more Secular Buddhism as explained by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book “Coming to our Senses” or his other books. And yet I enjoy reading Thích Nhất Hạnh and more traditional Buddhists as well. I guess I just recoil from any “isms” with their rituals and in some cases dogma.

    There is a joke that I do not completely remember. It went something like this. God was walking with both his light and dark angels when an angle came rushing to him and excitedly said that he had discovered the ultimate philosophy/religion that would be essential to man’s well being, so the devil (Mara?) stepped forward and said “let me organize and institutionalize it”.

    Some may need to blend existentialism and secular humanism with agnostic or atheistic Buddhism or something else. What is wrong with that? I think that the key is not to become dogmatic and absolute. To always keep a childlike openness. The Buddha I think talked about a man shot by an arrow that needed to know everything about the arrow before having it removed. Do we really need to know everything, absolutely, before we can just be … and experience? And does the absolute even exist beyond being an illusion of our minds anyway? Would not constant change only provide infinitesimal snapshots of absolute only within a specific perspective or view anyway?

    Victor Frankl showed that humans needs a purpose and meaning in their lives. And the ultimate purpose is love which gives wonderful meaning to our lives. Pure unconditional love. Whether this is due to the divine or to fight off the existential void that is given rise to by our consciousness created by the way our brains function, what does it really matter? Maybe it all is the same, just different views from different perspectives and what each of us sees.

    In the end if nurturing our spirit or psyche is really only for our human psychological well being in this life time … what is wrong with that?

    All this speculation on the pre and after life is one issue that I have with traditional theistic Buddhism. Buddhism shows us how to dwell in the moment. The past is history and the future is a mystery. So why would I come up with an absolute about the pre and after life in this moment? I will deal with the after life when it arises. When thoughts of these things come up I will watch them, accept them for what they are and not become attached too tightly (absolutely) to them, for they too will surely change.

    Namaste – I honor your humanness

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