The Atheist Foundation of Australia has taken it upon themselves to redefine the meaning of atheism thereby hijacking the atheist agenda in Australia in order to exclude those that don't fit their "unique" criteria. One of those groups that are excluded by the AFA is Buddhists. As a Buddhist I must respond to this distortion of atheism for their own agenda and show that the AFA is not in fact an atheist organisation according to the commonly accepted definition of the term atheism, that Buddhism is in fact atheist and that I am not alone in my analysis of Buddhism.
Firstly, I will look at definitions: The AFA's definition of atheism, the commonly held dictionary meaning of atheism and finally the definition of Buddhism (a much more difficult task). Secondly, I will examine how those definitions relate to each other, then finally I will conclude how Buddhism fits into these definitions.
AFA Definition of atheism
The AFA defines its version of atheism as:
"Atheism is the acceptance that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural."
And let's have a look at the AFA's explanation of this statement from a description of its "philosophy" on its "About Us" page:
"The Atheist Foundation of Australia recognises scientific method as the only rational means toward understanding reality. To question and critically examine all ideas, testing them in the light of experiment, leads to the discovery of facts.
As there is no scientific evidence for supernatural phenomena, atheists reject belief in 'God', gods and other supernatural beings. The universe, the world in which we live, and the evolution of life, are entirely natural occurrences.
No personality or mind can exist without the process of living matter to sustain it. We have only one life - here and now. All that remains after a person dies is the memory of their life and deeds in the minds of those who live.
Atheists reject superstition and prejudice along with the irrational fears they cause. We recognise the complexity and interdependence of life on this planet. As rational and ethical beings we accept the challenge of making a creative and responsible contribution to life."
Hmmm... stirring stuff indeed but now we are better equipped to analyse the AFA's definition of atheism. They state that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god or gods. That's funny because there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a hot red Ferrari parked outside my house this morning and yet, there it was. Personally observed by myself, and probably a number of others yet, certainly not a scientific observation so according to the AFA, this vehicle simply does not exist. Such a pity because it was such a picture of beauty. Perhaps this example falls into the category of "factually reliable evidence" or even the word "credible" in the AFA's definition can be used to cover the example I have just given. Certainly it is credible that a hot red Ferrari was parked outside my house this morning. It's not impossible (without getting into a philosophical discussion of whether anything in fact exists at all) and if I had taken a photo of it, that certainly would provide the "factually reliable evidence". So this event which initially looked like it was going to slip through the tight net that the AFA definition has thrown up is well and truly caught within their definition.
But as I sit here thinking about that hot red Ferrari, I can picture it in my mind, the tan leather, the shape of the engine which is viewable through the glass rear, I can hear the sound of the deep throaty engine... man, I'm even salivating!!! Yes, these mental images have produced a physical response in my body. But, mental images and thoughts cannot be measured by any known scientific instrumentation we have available today. And yet, I just thought those thoughts. Those thoughts resulted in a physiological response from my body. Those thoughts were as real to me as the actual viewing of the vehicle in question. I have no "credible scientific" or "factually reliable evidence" that I actually experienced these thoughts. I couldn't even tell an AFA member what exactly a thought is. But I know I have them, and I know what thoughts I have (some of the time - when I'm mindful of them) but I have not one single piece of evidence that I have had any particular thought. Has the AFA just defined my mind out of existence? Am "I" just a thought-less or a-thought creature? Does anyone else out there have thoughts? Could you please provide the AFA with credible scientific or factually reliable evidence that they have had a specified particular thought? Is there anybody out there? Does anyone in fact exist?
You see the problem with this definition. Unfortunately science continues to develop and improve and maybe one day it will be able to directly capture thoughts, however, today it cannot. Does that mean that thoughts don't exist? Of course not! Or at least I hope not - for my sanity more than anything else! In fact, the AFA's definition of atheism leaves itself wide open for exactly the same reasoning that Christians can use to justify their belief in god/christ - the gap in the AFA's definition is wide enough to drive a huge truck through (with god in the driver's seat).
This small example has shown that contrary to the AFA's recognition, scientific method is not "the only rational means toward understanding reality". I also find a curious and quite bewildering inclusion in the AFA's description of its philosophy. "No personality or mind can exist without the process of living matter to sustain it." This sentence seems to have just been inserted randomly and irrationally in otherwise logically flowing statements. It seems so insignificant a statement to make and yet it is made as if it has great meaning to the AFA's philosophy. Could it be that the forum discussions that I had trying to make the case for Buddhism as an atheist philosophy in which I discussed the mind and its independence of the material world has led to this line being included in the AFA philosophy? Could I be so vain to entertain such a thought? If this is indeed the case and the AFA plugs the gaps in its philosophy to cater for comments made by theist and atheists alike, then we have a modification of atheism to fill the gaps in a similar fashion to the Christian god being the god of the gaps. It was this statement that resulted in the moderators banishing me to the purgatory of the "Fantasy Island" part of the forums, never being able to post in any other part of the forums again. Still, at least they don't have the multi-level purgatorial system that Catholicism has but give them time, the Catholics have a 2,000 year head start!
Common Definition of Atheism
Now I think it's time to look at the commonly accepted definition of atheism that we would find in a dictionary. So as not to use a definition that cannot be agreed with by the AFA, I shall use the very same definition found in the AFA Publication: atheos: Without God Down Under:
'atheos', from the original Greek, 'a-theos', literally meaning:
'without god'. The prefix 'a' meaning 'without'; and not 'against'
that so many people claim.
Reference: Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the
English Language, 2nd edition, 1960
The god concept is central to the definition so let's also examine the Oxford Dictionary definition of "god":
1 (in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being
2 (god)(in certain other religions) a superhuman being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity:a moon god the Hindu god Vishnu
* an image, animal, or other object worshipped as divine or symbolizing a god
* used as a conventional personification of fate: he dialled the number and, the gods relenting, got through at once
It's interesting to note that the dictionary definition of atheist does not mention the existence of any other being than "god". It does not mention unicorns, flying pink elephants or fairies and in fact these creature do not fit the definition of god unless they display "power over nature or human fortunes". Therefore, if I believe in unicorns, as long as I don't attribute god-like powers to them like having created the universe and all of creation or being omniscient or omnipresent, then I can still call myself an atheist. In fact, I am an atheist according to dictionary definitions by my mere rejection or non-blief in a creator-god being as the following authors also conclude:
The word "atheism," however, has in this contention to be construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of "atheist" in English is "someone who asserts there is no such being as God," I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively. I want the originally Greek prefix "a" to be read in the same way in "atheist" as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as "amoral," "atypical," and "asymmetrical." In this interpretation an atheist becomes: someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels "positive atheist" for the former and "negative atheist" for the latter.
[Antony G.N. Flew and Paul Edwards, God, Freedom, and Immortality p. 14.
If you look up "atheism" in the dictionary, you will probably find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly many people understand atheism in this way. Yet many atheists do not, and this is not what the term means if one considers it from the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek "a" means "without" or "not" and "theos" means "god." From this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God.
[Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, p. 463.
Temple University Press, 1990.]
When we examine the components of the word "atheism," we can see this distinction more clearly. The word is made up of "a-" and "-theism." Theism, we will all agree, is a belief in a God or gods. The prefix "a-" can mean "not" (or "no") or "without." If it means "not," then we have as an atheist someone who is not a theist (i.e., someone who does not have a belief in a God or gods). If it means "without," then an atheist is someone without theism, or without a belief in God.
[Gordon Stein (Ed.), An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, p. 3.
So it seems that the AFA's statement of atheism is incorrect and goes beyond the commonly accepted dictionary definitions as well as the understandings of many respected non-theistic authors around the world. By adding the words "or the supernatural" at the end of their statement of atheism, the AFA have changed the meaning of the original intent of the word thereby going against the rest of the world's understanding of the word. I can't help thinking this is not a little unlike the Orwellian Newspeak in which the authoritarian government seeks to control the people by controlling and redefining the language. Hence in the book, the Ministry of War becomes the Ministry of Peace, in the real world a nuclear missile is named "The Peacemaker" and in Australian atheism, atheism becomes "non-supernaturalism".
On to Buddhism! It is necessary to investigate Buddhism and what it means along with Buddhists and who they are to better understand how the atheist agenda has been distorted in Australia to exclude Buddhism and other non-theistic (ie atheistic) religions.
This is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about Buddhism:
a widespread Asian religion or philosophy, founded by Siddartha Gautama in NE India in the 5th century bc
Buddhism has no god, and gives a central role to the doctrine of karma. The ‘four noble truths’ of Buddhism state that all existence is suffering, that the cause of suffering is desire, that freedom from suffering is nirvana, and that this is attained through the ‘eightfold path’ of ethical conduct, wisdom, and mental discipline (including meditation). There are two major traditions, Theravada and Mahayana.
I would like to draw attention to one part of the description: "Buddhism has no god". Wow! I couldn't be more direct myself! Clearly as a "religion" with no god, Buddhism is atheistic - that is if we use the commonly accepted definition of atheism. The AFA, however, in its infinite wisdom, has redefined atheism to exclude Buddhism from that "inner circle" of supposedly hard-core atheists. But how hard-core can a religion be in denying the existence of a creator-god being? What did the Buddha have to say about the theistic concept of an everlasting creator-god being? Well, we don't need to search for long in the Buddhist suttas to find the answer to this question. In the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya (Long Discourses of the Buddha), the Buddha describes 63 wrong views and describes them as a delusion that arises in this world. One of those 63 views is the concept of an everlasting creator-god being. That is a strong atheistic statement. In fact, nowhere in any of the suttas is the Buddha recorded as advocating the worship or praying to any beings, including himself!
But surely the Buddha left someone in charge of "his" religion? Surely he left one of his disciples to carry on the Buddhist mantle, to aggressively grow and force a religious hierarchy on the people of the present and future times in order to control and subjugate them? Well, once again, let's look at the suttas to see what the Buddha had to say to this question. In the Mahaparinibbana sutta, the last days of the Buddha, his personal attendant Ananda asks him for final instructions for the order of monks and nuns. The Buddha's response is: "Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge." So his instructions were to rely only on yourself and to use the Dhamma (the way things are) as the refuge, seeking no other. He did not instruct them to pray to him or to gods, or to worship these or any other beings.
The definition of a Buddhist from the Princeton University wordnet website: Buddhist (one who follows the teachings of Buddha). Once again, we see the a Buddhist is not one who worships or prays to the Buddha or any other being but one that follows, or practices, the teachings of the Buddha. From the definition above, we know that the teachings of the Buddha are: Suffering, Cause of Suffering, Cessation of Suffering and the Path that Leads to the Cessation of Suffering. There are no gods, no worshiping, no praying.
So, in summary, the AFA, in seeking to be an exclusive atheist club has distorted the meaning of the word atheism to exclude non-theistic religions. In invoking scientific evidence to bolster its atheistic "definition", it opens up atheism to gaping holes that a Christian could drive a semi-trailer through.
No, based on the commonly accepted definition of atheism, it is sufficient to state that there is no god. It is sufficient to accept a person as an atheist for supporting the view that there is no god without having to delve further into their "beliefs". Therefore, I can proudly stand up and say, I am Buddhist, I am atheist.