Considering Buddhism As A World Religion

By: Rev. David Astor Sensei

As a world religion, how are we to consider the question, “Is Buddhism an atheistic philosophy?”  

When we consider a pragmatic view of the problems of society, we generally do so from an intellectual and philosophical mindset, especially in the beginning. It becomes an exercise on how to make the ideals of a particular situation real. This does not have to be different when we come to consider religious experience and thought. From a pragmatic perspective, we can use the thoughts on the subject from the pragmatists John Stuart Mill, William James, and Richard Rorty as a guide as we also bring our Buddhist thought and practice into the consideration.

Richard Rorty as a 20th century pragmatist considered describing religious thought in terms of:

1 Placing aside talk about Truth and Reason, our only responsibility, philosophically and morally, is to our fellow human beings, not some “sublime dimension of being” or “ the starry heavens.”

2 This responsibility is “to make our beliefs cohere with one another, and to our fellow humans to make them cohere with one another.”

3 We examine our beliefs by how they are “habits of actions,” not on whether they represent the world.

4 What emerges is a utilitarian ethics of belief, which treats a belief as a habit of action.

5 Place into the context of the philosophy of religion, a utilitarian philosophy of religion must “also treat being religious as a habit of action.” 1

Any useful and positive thoughts on what it means to be a “religious individual” does not need to be different from secular or pragmatic understanding of other aspects of human moral and ethical conduct that is essential in cultivating a civilized society. Any religious practice (or spiritual), Buddhist or other, owes much of its moral obligation and responsibility to all sentient beings, not by strict observance of doctrine, scriptures, or legacy beliefs, but to intentional actions honed by serious practice of core humanist principles as guideposts. For Buddhists, these guides are first to be found in the Four Noble Truths and practiced using the guides of the Eightfold Path of behavior that promotes human flourishing, and the higher reasoning perspective of the Six Perfections (Refinements.) Whether you consider this a religious endeavor or not is really not all that important. What counts are the lessons found in the Three Pure Precepts – Do no harm, do only good, do good for others. Which is Buddhism’s equivalent to the “Golden Rule”.

I rarely speak of religion in anything other then general terms, and only as a word useful for establishing relationships or dialogue between various interfaith groups and Buddhism. However, in a more pragmatic spirit, religion as a subject might have some useful elements when we leave out the theistic overtones that can quickly move the discussion into the metaphysical realm of understanding beyond validating real world human experience. What is useful for me is to put aside any attempt to connect religious practices with various ancient definitions of transcendent realities which may have usefulness in terms of symbolism or metaphorical imaginings for modern man, but is better placed in the contemporary human spiritual dimension that honors the human drive to find awe in the possibilities beyond common knowing.   In other words, we move “religious action” toward a practice of mindfulness that with ritual intent becomes a tool for awakening to a broader view of universal realities with the help of 21st century science. In doing this we move the word “religion” to becoming a verb.

Any consideration of a religious practice with notions absent of an absolute first cause may seem to many to be incoherent. For these people, religion can’t escape being a metaphysical reality that deals with what is beyond the natural realm and belongs to a “grater power”. For them there is no spiritual-life without a “knowing” creator. When we step out of the shadows of establishing our spiritual practice on mystical ideals, we can open up to a greater possibility without the shackles that restrain us from a belief that requires faith alone, to a spiritual practice that can open up our unconditioned consciousness for experiencing the Universe as the “grand design” that continually reveals itself in our mind-awareness beyond language to express. Religion itself is a language that by its very nature imposes certain limits that are difficult to transcend to a “greater knowing.” Spirituality, however, is nothing less than the thoughtful realization of how we are in each moment when we confront our mindful thoughts in a space without distraction.  This expands the wonder we experience in our connective and interdepend relationship to all things. Religious practices are but one of the private pursuit after these experiences. Spirituality can be a component of Buddhism, as it is with all the world religions. How this spirit is considered and practiced is by its very nature different, but the difference between the human dimension of these various spiritual practices is yet another delusion. Religion has a close historic and intellectual relationship with traditional philosophy. There is a fine line really between philosophy and theology depending on one’s worldview. The critical difference of course is that of theistic certainties. While many atheists want to challenge and express limits to the dominance of religious practices, not all agnostics share the same opinion for pragmatic reasons. Pragmatically, religious practice still has some value as a private pursuit for seeking the “spirit within.” Religion is a useful word for how Buddhism works to achieve cultural authority especially in the West. But is not necessary either. It becomes a word of choice, nothing more. A Buddhist spiritual practice does not necessarily need to transcend this natural world of ours for the bigger picture. The Four Nobel Truths as the core principle from which all moral and ethical Buddhist understanding comes, is primarily critical for us to study ourselves in relationship to the unity of all other universal expressions. In this way we may awaken to the transcendent unity that is a singular reality. Yet, a sense of awe and wonder is also compatible with a naturalist, evolutionist view of human kind, and can take us beyond ourselves, no matter what we chose to call it.

As Dale Wright said in his thoughts called “Religion Resurrected” (source unknown to me), that when considering religion we need to consider the big picture. Religion is best defined as having to do with the very meaning of human life. That, for me, is also a good way to consider spirituality. Religion is the spiritual dimension of human culture and life. We can come to understand that religion in all its forms and practices is a man made construct. It is tightly interwoven into the various human world cultures. It has been the platform from which much of the notions of social justice is defined in terms of moral and ethical behaviors. It is the platform that Siddhartha, Jesus, Mohamed, Moses, and all the profits stood.

If we consider religion as “the great matter of life and death”, then how we choose to express this very human question of primary importance in a language that brings comfort and quite of mind, as well as a practice that follows the principles of avoiding doing harm and doing good for all, should fit as threads of the human fabric along with all the other threads of the religious garment that serves to protect the better natures of human development.

However, the challenge comes when religion conceived as the forced effort to believe in what is no longer believable creates stress points because there will be no room for change. In this age of science we have the tools for greater understanding of universal realities than did those that created the language that most religions still use to base their principles and theology on. Buddhism is not immune to this fact either. But as it encounters the West, the very core of Siddhartha’s understanding shines through old world limitations to see beyond the clouds, and supports, and often validates,  current scientific physics in remarkable ways. We must remember that religion is not just a practice, but a structure that can open our mind’s eye when we transcend the ordinary state of being to awakened transcendence. It is the spiritual element that, for me, energizes and supports this process and practice. 

Conflict between the premodern and the postmodern way of considering religion doesn’t need to be unsolvable. We only need to consider the sensibilities of the human spirit to point the way into our own inward journey toward an awakened experience that does not need language to express. And without specific words to use, we move beyond a religious vehicle to the other shore. A defined spiritual practice after all is a tool that can give the inner human spirit flight, but if we just use it as a crutch, it becomes like an anchor that keeps us stuck and slows us down by becoming a habit. And this habit can become another form of suffering. This is the point Dale Wright is making.


So, yes, Buddhism is classified as a world religion. It is philosophically pragmatic. As such it is pressed in “religious terms” as the spiritual or emotional attitude of one who recognizes the existence of universal powers beyond common understanding. Religion as a practice can be expressed in either a theology or a philosophy. As a theology it’s core is a theistic reality with god being central to it’s reality. As a philosophy it’s core is focused on the dimension of human culture and life but does not necessarily deny a transcendent reality, just that it is unknowing. Buddhism is not atheistic. It does not make the claim that there is not a transcendent element associated with universal creation, it just teaches that such a universal first cause is unknown. Thus, Buddhism would be better expressed as agnostic.

1 An Ethics For Today, Richard Rorty Columbia University Press pg. 46

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