Introduction

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":

God

Pronunciation:/gɒd/
noun

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.
Prometheus, 1984.]

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.
Prometheus, 1980.]

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".

Buddhism

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:

Buddhism

Pronunciation:/ˈbʊdɪz(ə)m/
noun
[mass noun]
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.

Conclusion

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.


Regards,

Vangelis

Views: 69

Tags: Atheism, Australia, Buddhism

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Comment by DistroMan on October 26, 2010 at 6:06am
The cultural accretions that Buddhism has gathered over time as it spread have come to be what people see as Buddhism. Too much Hollywood has it being seen as very supernaturally oriented, which it isn't. Yes, there are sects of Buddhism that have gone away from the Buddha's intent, but isn't that exactly what is being done here with the meaning of atheism? :)
Comment by Vangelis Stamatopoulos on October 26, 2010 at 6:06am
DistroMan, that's exactly the point I am making. I was going to make more of the fracturing of atheism being akin to "religious sects" but I just alluded to it by likening Fantasy Island to purgatory. I didn't what to offend or attack them personally, only to show the irrationality of redefining a commonly understood term such as atheism.

I actually liked the AFA forums and enjoyed posting there but I won't post if I am muzzled for the sole reason that I am expressing a view that is not exactly in line with their "ideology" - which it is almost becoming. I needed to express my thoughts in an open and fair environment so that's why I decided to start this blog.
Comment by Vangelis Stamatopoulos on October 26, 2010 at 6:00am
Actually, an interesting point to note is that some of the posters did support me on AFA but not very "loudly". They tended to be a little more open and supportive in direct PMs to me. I suspect that there are still quite a few Buddhists at the AFA but they are not keen to speak up due to the consequences. That's also why I decided to take a stand against this as I saw it as unjust and I needed to represent the Buddhists that felt they couldn't speak out for whatever reason.

It did feel a bit like I was in the stoning scene in the Life of Brian with shouts of "stone him, stone him" echoing all around!
Comment by Vangelis Stamatopoulos on October 26, 2010 at 5:43am
Fred, I accept that I was very strong in my response on the AFA forums but only because my original thread had been summarily dismissed into the Fantasy Island section just because one of the posters started a chorus of "woo woo". He had little knowledge of atheism and none of Buddhism so I felt that my thread had been misjudged through ignorance. That is what I felt was most unjust. If they had put up a reasonable argument for their actions, again I would accept it and let it be. But by their own admission, the moderators had no reason to target me in that way.

Ultimately, what happened there is not what I am writing about here. This is a far more sinister and issue with the hijacking of the atheist agenda. Who anointed the leader of the AFA? Just because he started the organisation why is it that he should be allowed to set the agenda for the whole of Australia? Have all atheists been consulted? It is still a very small group and not very indicative of the views of the majority of atheists in Australia. There needs to be debate and there needs to be discussion of the issues.

You state:

"I am happy that AFA take back atheist to it proper definition that is consistent with what it really means before the academic philosophy guys tamper with it"

but the definition what never "tampered" with by the "philosophy" guys. The definition of atheism has remained the same from its inception. As I explain in my blog, its Greek derivation is very clear in its intent. It is the AFA that is "tampering" with the definition of the word for their own nefarious ends.
Comment by Vangelis Stamatopoulos on October 26, 2010 at 5:33am
Stephen, there is no reincarnation in Buddhism, only rebirth, but rebirth occurs moment to moment. Read Stephen Batchelor for a more detailed explanation. You can also read the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.

As for karma (or kamma), this is just mind habits. A great statement of kamma can be found in the Dhammapada (from the accesstoinsight.com translation by Buddharakkhita):

1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

This shows how important the mind is in Buddhism. It is mentioned front and centre in the first and second verses of the Dhammapada. Act with an impure mind and you receive suffering in return. Act with a pure mind and you receive happiness in return. Scientific studies have also shown similar results but I will go into more detail about this in my next blog.
Comment by DistroMan on October 26, 2010 at 5:31am
As the word 'atheist' derives it's meaning from the word 'theist', then I do not think it fair that one group try to change that meaning to support their own views. The definition of 'not believing in a god or gods' is simple and to the point. If that is not held as a stable definition, then where does it end? Should group B be able to add 'non stamp collecting'? Should group C be able to add 'only if you live in Sweden'? It doesn't matter what people 'want' it to be. It is now and only ever should be 'not or non theist'. Cultural and personal accretion is a distortion and it is those distortions that cause most of the divides between people that would otherwise be on the same side of the fence. Are the AFA and other groups going to continue in this fashion till we have the equivalent amount of factions as religions have sects? It is an unnecessary complication to what should be a simple 'non belief'.
Comment by Vangelis Stamatopoulos on October 26, 2010 at 2:45am
Fred, It's quite simple actually. I am atheist. That is why I want to be part of an atheist group. The fact that I am Buddhist is irrelevant to the fact that I am atheist. And yes, I do take umbrage at being told I am not an atheist because I am. That is why I write - to explain the atheist nature of Buddhism from a position of knowledge, not one of ignorance.

As for the AFA, I will not post there until such time as I have the same online "rights" there as other fellow atheists. I refuse to post in the "Fantasy Island" section. Their artificial purgatory is created specifically to contain and control those that they don't agree with. It is a form of restriction of free speech and I refuse to be silenced as long as I can mount a logical, rational argument.

It was clear from my discussions there that the moderators were clearly out of their depth in arguing their case against Buddhism being atheist. They had to summon their leader, David Nicholls to be involved in the discussions and all he did was repeat the "company line" - sticking to the AFA definition like a drowning man clutching at straws.

This became clear to me when I was banished to their "Fantasy Island" at the admission of one of their moderators:

"It doesn't need to be religious and illogical to qualify a person for Islander status, just wildly skewed, and I am of the opinion that you have shown your particular bias."

So by their own admission, I have not been illogical in my discussions with them. I have not been "religious" in my discussions with them. My particular "crime" was that I was "wildly skewed" and for that "particular bias" I was "banished" to their purgatory. I interpret "wildly skewed" to mean that I disagreed with their interpretation of atheism. In fact, "skewed" is an accusation that I could easily throw back at them for having the temerity to try to redefine the English language in their own image.
Comment by Vangelis Stamatopoulos on October 25, 2010 at 3:35pm
Hi Fred, as far as I have been able to tell, the AFA seem to be alone in the world in trying to redefine atheism "in their image". Certainly atheist authors mention woo from time to time, however, none define atheism other than what it is: non-theism. As I was 7 years old in 1970, I am not sure when the AFA decided to redefine our English language. In fact, it seems only recently that they added the phrase about the mind in their philosophy section so it appears that their "view" of atheism keeps changing. I'll have to try to keep up better from now on!

As for the time it has taken me to write about it since my original discussions, I have a family and work life which has taken precedence as it should but last weekend, due to unforeseen circumstances and death I had more time on my hands to write my thoughts down.
Comment by Vangelis Stamatopoulos on October 25, 2010 at 6:38am
Well Fred, you need to read some Stephen Batchelor.
Comment by Vangelis Stamatopoulos on October 25, 2010 at 12:55am
Fred, I understand the impermanence of language and how it changes as there are many examples of this in today's language. However, if I so decide to call a chair a table then I would not be able to have a meaningful conversation with someone regarding kitchen furniture. Language is there as a communication medium. When it is distorted from the common usage for the reasons of excluding, in this case, groups that would otherwise fit within the definition, then these sorts of misunderstandings and conflicts will naturally arise.

AtheistNexus, for example is far more inclusive of its membership and regards atheism as not a "common" group of people, but a group of people from a wide-ranging background who share a common world-view of non-theism. My point is that in hijacking the word for its own purposes, the AFA alienate many in Australia that would otherwise consider themselves as atheist and in doing so fractures the Australian atheist community.

I'm arguing for a more inclusive, compassionate attitude to atheists from all backgrounds in Australia whose defining commonality is the denial of a creator-god being. Why should I be denied the status of atheist just because one small community in Australia has decided to re-define the word to exclude me?

PS, you are right in your evaluation of the disagreement of the AFA forum moderators with my statement that mind can exists without the physiological support. Theravada Buddhism has an intricate cosmological hierarchy of different planes of existence some of which are non-material existences. However, having read many of the Pali suttas, I didn't find anywhere where the Buddha talks about this cosmology. The bulk of the Buddha's lessons centre around the mind and its development.

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