As educators begin to introduce a larger number of Buddhism classes into their curriculums, they run across an interesting problem. How should the religion be classified, as atheistic or agnostic? This concern affects both traditional classrooms as well as discussions happening at the best online colleges. Classes on world religions — particularly those with an emphasis on Eastern beliefs like Buddhism — are on the rise at many of the leading online accredited universities, as well as most of the top traditional schools. Teachers who lead lectures and facilitate student conversations on world religions must be increasingly aware of the Buddhist perspective to ideological classification.
The problem is that both terms, atheist and agnostic, are Western concepts created to define Western religions before Eastern philosophies were even understood. Now that Buddhism has a worldwide presence, researchers and teachers are trying to fit the religion into a Western framework, which leads to budding problems of definition. What area do Buddhists fit in, atheism or agnosticism? Which grouping would a Buddhist identity with when living in the Western world? And, perhaps more importantly, how should teachers portray the Buddhist faith to non-Buddhist students?
The Buddhist Concern
Buddhism, like other world religions, is home to many different divisions, literal “schools” of thought that focus on different aspects of the faith. Modern Buddhism has struggled to maintain its meaning in the face of many challenges. This has led some Buddhist believers to embrace the concept of atheism as a way to explain what the Buddha means to them. After all, Buddhism does not show any great interest in the gods and devils of the Hinduism that the Buddha left behind. It is far more concerned with leaving the cycle of heavens and hells behind, of liberation from the karma trap that cycle invites – much like atheism, in fact.
However, traditional Buddhists are quick to point out that these modern attempts at reconciling atheism and Buddhism are overzealous. Buddha never rejected the existence of gods or even a supreme god. But he did place himself outside their places within reality, and therefore above them in a positive, pro-generative way. This is one reason that those with Humanist sympathies often find themselves drawn to Buddhism, as gods are not denied or even supplanted. They still have their place, and even the worship of various Buddhas is frequently encouraged as a way to ultimately reach nirvana.
Outside the Boundaries
The argument between the new “Buddhist atheists” and the more traditional “Buddhist agnostics” is far from over. In many ways, it has only begun, and the results remain to be seen. Some favor going for a compromise of apatheism, an ambivalence toward gods that Buddha himself appears to have preferred. But in this case, professors and teachers should refrain from categorizing Buddhism too soon. To apply such Western definitions to the religion would be a mistake no matter which side you take. Buddhism by its nature rejects such definitions as a dangerous part of the karmic cycle itself. In Zen Buddhism, for example, this rejection becomes a key tenet, as much as is possible.
The only “right” way to portray Buddhism is to teach what the Buddha said, and how people have practiced those teachings down the ages. This holistic view will give the best definition of the faith, not a hasty conscription to atheism or agnosticism. Buddhism lies not between the two, but somewhere on the undefinable outside, just as the Buddha intended.
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