It is frequently charged that those who don’t believe in god – nontheists, atheists, agnostics (at least of the stronger variety – ‘I don’t know if there’s a god, but I live as if there isn’t’) and antitheists – all ‘believe’ (have faith in) some weird entity we can call not-god. Weird, because clearly ridiculous. You can’t believe in a non-entity – that’s why many of us don’t believe in god; that is, lack faith that such exists: the term “god” does not appear to signify any entity to believe or have any faith in. So of course we’re not going to believe in ‘not-god’ either.
Does that mean we have no faith in anything? Well, that’s actually a technical philosophical question having to do with the definition of the term “faith.” However, I will set that aside for now, and accept a common language usage of the term. Some nontheists would argue that we have no faith at all (even in common language terms), especially scientists, but I feel that is unwarranted and unnecessary. True, I do not have faith that the sun will shine tomorrow, I know it will (if it doesn’t, I’ll be dead anyway, so what?). However, I do have faith that my friend will still be my friend tomorrow, barring unforeseeable circumstances. That’s because the common language usage of “faith” really has to do with severely contingent possibilities made probable through repeated experience. When most religionists are talking about faith – in these terms – they are really talking about repeated satisfactions of personal and social experience: i.e., they are repeatedly satisfied in their ‘religious’ experience, for instance through social rewards for attending church, feeling better after praying, etc. They have faith in their religion. Their religion then tells them what they need to know – and feel – about god.
Full disclosure: I am a Buddhist. This came about after I had tried pretty much the whole smorgasbord of mainstream religions. I will not discuss how it came about, as that involves confidences involving other people (repeated empirical experiences). I suppose most in the West would say I am a “philosophical Buddhist,” since I’m not a very good practitioner – and then they turn around and deny that there is anything such as a “philosophical Buddhist.” But having studied Buddhism deeply throughout the 1990s, I am perfectly content with whatever label one wants to attach to the particular relationship between my thinking here and Buddhism. (Having recently encountered the thought of Stephen Batchelor, “secular Buddhist” sounds pretty good to me right now.) But there are a couple of caveats that must be made here. First, I have found that most Americans, unfamiliar with Buddhism in its root or branches, believe that Buddhism is a form of special spiritual enlightenment, and that Buddhists must all be saints. This is simply laughable. Buddhists are human beings, living in a human world. Buddhists act impulsively and make mistakes. Buddhists get drunk, join armies, fornicate, get indigestion, work in factories, quarrel over trivial matters, act impulsively, visit therapists, go shopping, go home and raise families. The Eight Fold Path, and its various explications, suggest they shouldn’t do any of these things. But the Eight Fold Path can only be fully realized in a monastery or convent. Most Buddhists are not monks or nuns. We are thus confronted with the same hassles and choices as any one else in the contemporary world, and tend to act like anyone else might in the same situation.
Secondly, most Americans believe that Buddhism is a monolithic religion, much like any Western religion, in that the structures determined by its core faith gets duplicated with minor variation from sect to sect. (Compare, for clarity: In Christianity, this has meant, e.g., that the early insistence on community and communion, discoverable in the Epistles, has found variant expressions from church to church, from the institutional over-determination of Roman Catholicism, to the loose sharing of experience found among the Quakers.) There is some truth in this. There is a core faith in Buddhism, and this core faith has had to develop variations throughout a long history as it spread across many nations and through many different cultures.
However, the core faith in Buddhism is not a god, nor is it even a belief in the Buddha himself. (I personally believe there was such a man, but if it were proven there wasn’t, that would not effect my identification with Buddhism in the least.) The core faith of Buddhism, far simpler than that of any religion, is in the Four Noble Truths:
I. Life is suffering.
II. There is a cause for this suffering. (Loosely, the self and its desires.)
III. There is an end to that cause.
IV. The end to that cause is to be found in the Eight Fold Path:
1. Right understanding.
2. Right intention.
3. Right speech.
4. Right action.
5. Right livelihood.
6. Right effort.
7. Right mindfulness.
8. Right meditation.
The problem with such a simple core faith is that it is clearly open to widely variant, even conflicting interpretation. And, as it has spread across the East, adapting to differing cultures with differing religious and philosophical traditions, almost all such conflicting interpretations of this faith have been realized in one sect or another. The earliest form of Buddhism was distinctly non-theistic and devoid of myth. (On the question of any divine existence, judging on his response to questions of eternal life,the Buddha’s response would be, “The question is not one leading to edification.”) Then came a long period of confronting India’s dominant religion, Hinduism, and Buddhism developed a host of silly myths, some of which have been passed on through some Buddhist sects to this day. Then as they moved north into Tibet, influential Buddhists compromised with the native religion there, and consequently acquired a pantheon of minor pseudo deities, none of which one need believe in to be a Buddhist, even in Tibet. And possibly due to the arrival of Western monotheistic thought, there are a couple of Buddhist sects in the Far East that do avow a single divinity. But the main lines of both the major variants of Buddhism – the Theravada and the Mahayana – remain at the core of their practices and philosophies non-theistic. (As the Mahayana tradition moved East, its sects largely cleansed themselves of the Tibetan mythological baggage; probably because the Chinese philosophies, to which Buddhism had to adapt, are non-theistic and essentially pragmatic. Zen masters rarely make reference to the old myths, because they really distract from efforts to practice in the here-and-now.)
It may be remarked, by those who know Buddhism, that I am evading the issues of reincarnation and nirvana, which the Buddha himself may have presumed, and which remain faiths among mainstream Buddhist sects (giving those sects any claim to “spirituality”) . Well, I don’t buy the whole re-incarnation jazz anymore, but that really requires a different discussion. Here I am only addressing the question of theism. And the fact remains that Buddhism began non-theistically, and continues to develop so in most sects.
That is one of the reasons why, as a Buddhist, I know that, as a Buddhist, I do not need a god. Therefore it may be helpful to others to ask whether anyone needs a god.