Commentary: Are all Buddhists atheists?

Dec 2, 2016

In the comments on our Nov. 21 story, "Some, None or Done: A Zen Atheist," listeners discussed whether Buddhism is theistic or non-theistic. We asked  John Nelson, a scholar of religion who serves on The Spiritual Edge's academic advisory committee, to help us understand the issue:

"One of the most common assumptions about 'Buddhism' that persists in places without a long social history of Buddhist institutions is that it is optional for Buddhists to believe in deities. Since there is no such thing as 'Buddhism' in a singular, monolithic sense, we can find numerous examples in diverse cultural settings where a dizzying array of deities is valued, venerated, and absolutely central to religious practice. 

"The first bona fide Buddhist temple in North America was very much in this tradition. Dedicated to the Buddha of the True Pure Land (Amida Buddha), who was believed to be a deity promising salvation, the Buddhist Church of San Francisco was established in 1898 by Japanese immigrants living in the San Francisco area. 

"Both historically and in contemporary times, the key to understanding what deities are emphasized within a certain type of Buddhism depends on how this tradition gets domesticated and practiced locally, as well as what themes are emphasized (or marginalized) in the process of maintaining religious institutions and cultural identities.

"In a similar way, the title of the 'Zen Atheist' podcast juxtaposes two concepts that are simultaneously abstract yet also shaped decisively by social context. Just as there are many kinds of 'Buddhism,' so it is with the varieties of 'Zen.'

"In the podcast, Ms. Hernandez highlights a type of non-religious Zen that was created, packaged, and exported for Western audiences in the post-war period. Thanks (or perhaps 'due') to the interpretative and rhetorical skills of writers like Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, the 'Zen' that helps Ms. Hernandez slow down and appreciate the interdependencies of her life is a fairly modern creation, tailored for literate and well-educated individuals weary of the monotheisms and metanarratives promoting the superiority of Western civilization.

"The term 'atheist' (first used in 1571) embodies a range of attitudes opposing or disbelieving in a powerful and omniscient God characteristic of Christian, Judaic, and Islamic religious traditions in the West. We have seen in recent years through the publications of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris that some atheists may be as extreme and righteous in their beliefs (promoting rationalism supported by hard evidence) as religious fundamentalists are in their godtalk and holy scriptures.

"In this late modern period that privileges not only individualism but also pluralistic approaches to religious truth, we should not be surprised that venerable concepts like 'Zen' and 'atheism' are localized, privatized, and made relevant to specific lifestyle goals."

John Nelson is Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco, and directs the Master’s program in Asia Pacific Studies. Among his other publications, he is the author of Experimental Buddhism: Innovation and Activism in Contemporary Japan (2013).

What do you think? Send us a note at spiritualedgeradio@gmail.com.

Correction: The headline has been changed from "Are all Buddhists theists?" to better reflect the discussion. The email address has also been corrected.