Buddhism is one of the world’s oldest religions and dates all of the way back to the 6th century B.C.E., almost 600 years before the rise of Christianity. While Paganism and Judaism dominated the western world, Buddhism was silently taking over much of the Eastern hemisphere and is one of the most dominant religions in Asian countries to this day. Since Buddhists don’t necessarily pray to a God or gods, many people assume that all Buddhists are, by nature, atheists.
Although a large majority of Buddhists are atheists, Buddhism is not a form of atheism. Unlike most religions, Buddhism teaches personal enlightenment and encourages developing the higher self, not worshipping or praying to a God. However, this belief is not held by all Buddhists. Some still pray to their cultural deities and combine their Buddhist practice with their own personal forms of religion.
The Buddha himself believes that the idea of God was merely a “distraction” and that those who are seeking true enlightenment should not waste their time worrying about pleasing a deity. Instead, Buddha taught that practitioners should spend their time in self-reflection and breaking away their physical ties to the world. In today’s article, I’m going to do my best to examine the differences between atheism and Buddhism and what makes the two schools of thought different.
Buddhism And Atheism
Buddhism is one of the world’s oldest religions that’s still practiced to this day. Dating back to the 6th century B.C.E., it’s even older than Christianity (the world’s dominant religion by numbers). However, the atheist school of thought also began to become prevalent around the same time with Greek philosophers such as Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius.
Before we get too in-depth on the topic, I’d like to point out one of the more obvious differences between atheism and Buddhism. Namely, atheism is not a religion, while Buddhism is definitely a religion.
Although Buddhists don’t pray to a deity, they are still deeply spiritual individuals who believe that our bodies are vessels for life energy that is constantly reborn in a new form. While atheists don’t have temples, monks, or specially-defined practices, Buddhists do have a number of temples, monasteries, and traditions that define Buddhism as a religion, not just a school of thought.
Now that we’ve got some of the more basic differences out of the way, let’s take a few minutes to discuss both Buddhists’ and atheists’ different beliefs and idealogy.
What Do Buddhists Believe?
Buddhism originated from an enlightened individual named Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as “the Buddha.” Siddhartha taught that all humans could achieve enlightenment if they were willing to let go of their earthly ties and focus on living a moral life, accumulating wisdom, and meditating on their greater purpose by letting the ego go.
He taught that the one thing that held humans back was their attachment to their emotions, identity, and worldly possessions. Once a practitioner was willing to let all of these things go and instead focus on their spiritual development, they could begin the path to true enlightenment- a state that transcends this physical world.
In a way, Buddhists could be thought of as the first real Humanists. Humanists, like atheists, believe that the idea of God(s) is merely a distraction that takes away from the more important aspect of life- building up the human race through compassion, understanding, and education.
The primary difference between Buddhism and Humanism, though, is that Buddhism provides a path for enlightenment, whereas Humanism believes that enlightenment is unimportant. That’s a topic for another day, though. I just wanted to reference it since many atheists do identify with Humanism as a way to give a form of meaning and purpose to their life.
Do Buddhists Pray?
Although Buddhists don’t necessarily pray to a deity, they do pray. There are many different schools of Buddhism, and some emphasize prayer more than others. However, prayer is a prevalent form of mediation. In Eastern tradition, prayer is more often referred to as a “mantra,” which involves a recitation of certain words and phrases designed to shift the practitioner’s perspective and teach them gratitude.
While praying, meditating, and reciting mantras, Buddhists often sit facing a large statue of the Buddha. They don’t regard the Buddha as a “god” per-se, but they use the Buddha’s constant imagery to remind them that they are seeking something greater in life.
Do Buddhists Believe In An Afterlife?
While atheists are firmly against the idea of an afterlife in the traditional sense of the word, Buddhists believe that the universe is cyclical. Unlike atheists, who don’t believe in any form of the human soul, Buddhists believe that “life energy” inhabits every living creature.
When we die, they believe that this energy returns to the universe and comes back into another vessel (typically a human or animal). This cycle will repeat itself until every soul has reached enlightenment, which will presumably be for a long time.
What Do Atheists Believe?
As you can tell, Buddhism is a fairly spiritual religion, despite the lack of a strong belief in a god. Atheism, however, tends to be a lot less spiritual. Although some atheists still pray, meditate and believe in energy, ultimately, they believe that all of these things are meaningless.
Atheists traditionally believe that there is no afterlife and that reincarnation (which Buddhists believe) does not exist. The closest that most traditional atheists get to true spirituality is a belief in quantum string theory or humanism- a thought pattern that believes that mankind’s goal should be to uplift the human race as a whole.
Hopefully, I’ve done a good job at breaking down this complex and often-debated topic. My main aim with this article was to show you that many Buddhists are atheist by definition (they don’t believe in a deity), but that many textbook atheists also don’t take human spirituality as deep as the average Buddhist.